Out See Go: Exploring the lower Black River

By Chris Engle, outdoor contributor

As far as names go, “Black River” is a pretty common one in Michigan. Between the two peninsulas there are seven Black Rivers and I’ve fished three – one in Oscoda for brook trout and salmon, one along US-2 in Mackinac County where I missed a trout under a low bridge, and one here with its roots in Otsego County.

Our Black River may be just one of many but it is undeniably special.

The Black is one of five Northern Michigan trout streams that originate in Otsego County and radiate like sun rays in all directions: The AuSable flows to Oscoda, the Manistee to the town of Manistee on Lake Michigan, the Pigeon ends up in Mullet Lake and the Sturgeon speeds to Burt Lake.

This time of year, the Black stands apart from all the rest because its lower stretch, between the dam and Black Lake, is home to giants.

Spring is spawning season for lake sturgeon that live in Black Lake and the river is where they go to make it happen. Their trip upstream lends a unique opportunity to spot the massive fish – adults top 100 pounds – from the river’s high banks.

Personally I’ve held a few small sturgeon captured during netting surveys with the DNR Fisheries crews but I’ve only seen the adults in pictures. So on a rainy morning last week I set off to the lower Black River with my daughter and a friend to see at least one.

I’ll say right off the bat that our trip netted no fish but the search took us deep into Pacific Northwest kind of territory where a heavy mist dripped off the trees and the river cascaded over low bedrock ledges in places. A giant sturgeon, or perhaps even Sasquatch, could have been lurking around the next bend.

The base of the dam.

The base of the dam.

Our tour started at Tower-Kleber Dam northwest of Onaway and the nearby sturgeon hatchery where staff collect eggs and sperm from adult fish to hatch and raise young sturgeon for stocking efforts. I’ve toured the facility before and you can too during public tours once or twice a year.

The entrance to the sturgeon hatchery by Tower-Kleber Dam on the Black River.

The entrance to the sturgeon hatchery by Tower-Kleber Dam on the Black River.

We found some geese and a couple wood ducks at the north end of Tower Pond, a large impoundment of the Black River behind the dam. I got a photo of the geese but the woodies flew off before I got close enough with the camera.

Geese wade flooded grass at the north end of Tower Pond.

Geese wade flooded grass at the north end of Tower Pond.

Downstream of the dam we found a small but energetic tributary of the Black. Still loaded from snowmelt and the day’s rain, the river was gushing through culverts and over exposed bedrock, a rare sight in Northern Michigan unless you’re near the Lake Huron coastline. Paige, who is picking up my habit of throwing rocks at the water, tossed a couple stones into the rapids.

Paige smiles after tossing a couple stones into the white water of a Black River tributary.

Paige smiles after tossing a couple stones into the white water of a Black River tributary.

We drove deeper into the woods and down washed-out dirt roads that were cratered and rutted by recent timber activity. We checked each two track that shot off in the direction of the river to see if it would get us there. None did.

Another route took us through a forest high above the river and we could just barely make out the river valley below through all the trees. Without a GPS we could only guess where we were in relation to the road atlas splayed on my lap. We stopped a few times at forks in the road so I could scratch arrows into the wet sand with my hiking boots – “bread crumbs,” as Mike called them, to help us find our way out of the labyrinth.

One of the landscapes we came across was a sprawling plantation of jack pines.

One of the landscapes we came across was a sprawling plantation of jack pines.

Our last shot at getting close enough to the river for a look at the fish was halted by a massive puddle three car-lengths long and of unknown depth. I decided not to take the chance of trying to cross it.

No, thanks.

No, thanks.

It was a nice drive through some country we hadn’t seen before but, were I to do it again, I’d probably check with Sturgeon for Tomorrow first to ask for directions.

If you’re not busy this spring, Sturgeon for Tomorrow is looking for people to volunteer with the Sturgeon Guard, a minuteman sort of group standing watch over the fish as they make the trip upstream.

If you just feel like getting lost for half a day, the Black River is a beautiful place to do it.

Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman, columnist and stay-at-home dad in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.