Michael Freeman sits behind a long blue display case at his store, Michael T's, a nondescript building on the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Van Dyke Street. Nowhere does it say "Michael T's." Customers just know. And if he didn't put out two large wooden signs that proclaim, in giant red letters, "LIVE BAIT," the business would be all but invisible to passers-by.
The display case looks like it may once have contained items of great worth, such as precious gems or electronic devices. Now, it holds lures, hooks, spinners and other items that have great value to the thousands of men, women, boys and girls who regularly fish the Detroit River.
Rods and reels engulf Freeman. Fishing has been very good to him. After assisting the store's previous owner for nearly 20 years, he took over the business three years ago and makes a good living selling minnows, worms and other smelly little creatures that squirm and wiggle. He's so busy that he says he has no time to pursue a hobby he knows he would enjoy: fishing.
"I haven't fished in four years, but I would like to find some time and get out there," sighs Freeman, 60. Problem is, the best time for him to drop a line, early to mid-June, is his busiest time of the year. That's because of the annual occurrence one seasoned Detroit angler, Robert Slaughter, refers to as "God's gift ": the running of the white bass, better known by locals as silver bass.
"Everybody can catch these fish," raves Slaughter, 57, who began fishing the Detroit River when he was 11. "I mean, you could catch 100 if you wanted to and had the patience, right from the banks. It's just a nice-sized, good-tasting, easy-to-clean fish.
"I catch some, I keep some and I give some away, "Slaughter says." I clean some for people who aren't able to and give them the fish. It's a nice feeling. There's just something about being on the water. Especially the Detroit River, man."
Our city's most magnificent natural resource is host to a cultural phenomenon that is generations old, immensely popular and, for some, a way of life. Anyone who thinks of fishing as a summer diversion best performed on the end of a dock at some lavish lakeside cottage up north had better shift their focus to Belle Isle, Chene Park, a quiet strip behind the downtown U.S. post office or any of dozens of urban locations along the Detroit River.
Detroiter George Barclay, who jokes that he's been fishing since he was a 7-month-old, says Chene Park, where one can listen to a summer series concert and occasionally fire up a grill-undoubtedly is his favorite fishing spot.
"We go there to relax and kill time," says Barclay, 24, a nightclub security guard who recently snagged 70 silver bass in one week. "We gave out a whole bunch of fish. They fried them up right then and there. "Nevertheless, most of the fishermen interviewed for this story said they had no favorite spot. "Depends on the weather and the currents," one explains.
In Wayne County alone, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, more than 84,000 people purchased fishing licenses last year. And while Michigan ranks third in the nation in the number of registered watercraft per capita, in the Motor City, many fishermen prefer to drive down by the riverside and drop their lines from dry land.
Michael T's is one of nearly a dozen small bait and tackle shops that dot Jefferson Avenue parallel to the Detroit River, and the fact that all of them are prosperous while other downtown businesses struggle is a testament to the popularity of fishing in Detroit. Moe's Bait Shop near Alter Road, arguably the best known of the group, this year opened a second location, Big Moe's Bait Shop, on Jefferson between Belle Isle and the William G. Milliken State Park and Harbor.
Owner Jim "Moe" Mogielski says the new store's name essentially is a tribute to his father, who began the operation 20 years ago.
"When my dad opened up the shop, everybody called me 'Little Moe' and he was 'Big Moe,'" he explains. His father's first venture, Mogielski says, was a liquor store near Belle Isle. He let a friend sell bait from a cooler in the back; ultimately the bait became so profitable that he bounced the booze.
Detroiters fish for a multitude of reasons. Some have to fish to survive. For others, it's a festive pastime. It's not unusual to see the occasional van or SUV backed up to the river's edge, doors open and music playing low, while a picnic lunch is being set out. It can be the congeniality. Longtime buddies gather to swap fish stories, play cards and maybe even share an adult beverage or two.
One veteran fishing group, the Detroit River Rats, has members who go to the river virtually every day. Although he doesn't get to go at all because he's open for business by 4 a.m. and doesn't close until dusk, Freeman suggests another explanation for fishing's appeal.
"It's the relaxation, the peace, the solitude that you get, "he says." The peace of mind. You know, the water has a calming effect. Most people, with their problems, they go to the water to figure them out. That's what's going on. Plus, the fish teach you patience. "
There was a time when many people thought fish taken from the Detroit River were unsafe to eat, and that perception still lingers in some circles. Dr. John Hartig, manager of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, says health advisories still exist for certain species and sizes of fish-large walleye, for example-but "overall, things have gotten much better.
"This was one of the most polluted rivers in North America in the 1960s," Hartig says. "The Rouge River caught on fire-remember that? And now, 40 years after the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, there has been a substantial cleanup of the Detroit River. We've had a 70 percent decline in mercury contamination. For the first time since 1916, we have whitefish reproducing in the Detroit River. Now, it's one of the single most remarkable ecological recovery stories in North America."
Hartig, who has spent most of his life working on the Detroit River, is also enthused about the increased access to the waterway.
"Oh, my gosh, this is like a dream for people like me," he says. "To think this used to be nothing but cement silos, big piles of dolomite, stones, fences. We had this wonderful river, and people had no access to it. But to see what's taken place, to see what's going on at Uniroyal with a $40 million cleanup there-what we have is so cool."
Slaughter remembers how he first became entranced by the river's siren song.
"I'm an inner-city kid, grew up in the Brewster projects, and the way I originally started was with some older guys out of the neighborhood who let me hang out with them and just sit along the banks. Throw your line in the water, tryin' to catch something and bring it home. It turns into a great hobby."
Increased access to the river, combined with the desire to lure young people to the sport the way Slaughter was, led to the creation of the Rivertown Detroit Kids Fishing Fest, held for the third year in a row in June at Milliken State Park-the first urban state park in Michigan. The four-hour event, which cast off at an early 8 a.m. on a Saturday, still attracted more than 300 parents, grandparents, guardians, Big Brothers and their children, some as young as 3, to experience the tranquil thrill that occurs when hook touches water.
Chip Rohde, president of the Rivertown Detroit Association, the all-volunteer neighborhood improvement coalition, conceived the event; like Slaughter, Rohde began fishing when he was a child.
"I approached the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy with the idea of doing a fishing event on the riverfront for the kids of Detroit," Rohde says. "We needed their help in staffing to get this thing launched. They thought it was a fabulous idea.
"Honestly, we need to help the children of Detroit find things to do other than hit the streets. Many of them I've talked to have said, 'I don't know how to fish.' Well, no problem. Come on down; we'll teach you! If we can, one-by-one, help kids find other activities, maybe when opportunities come up that tempt them to do something different, they'll remember fishing with dad or mom or the grandparents. That was my focus."
For the kids fishing festival, licenses and individual registration forms were not required. "We don't require the kids to register," Rohde notes. "Why do we register the fishermen? You want to fish? Go fish!"
As Michigan Department of Natural Resources volunteers taught aspiring little anglers how to cast their lines toward brightly colored plastic fish, more experienced fishermen, like Detroiter Rodney Gholston, took on the instruction themselves. Gholston's 3-year-old grandson, Benny, was among the multitude of kids lining the river's edge, gleefully holding a child's Spider-Man rod and reel with a line he felt compelled to pull from the water every few seconds to inspect.
"You got to wait for the fish to bite it," Gholston counseled patiently. "Let it sit down there until the fish get on it. I'll let you know."
He turned away from his grandson.
"He's been asking to go fishing for the longest time, ever since I got him that pole, so we finally made it," he explains.
Benny looked up from his costumed superhero. "I'm gonna catch a big one!" he exclaimed.
Patrick Endres, a Michigan DNR State Park Explorer Program guide stationed at Milliken, began a weekly fishing program Sunday afternoons near Rivard Plaza, buoyed by the response to the festival.
"I had a parent come up to me and say, 'I remember when they used to have fishing derbies on Belle Isle, and I'm so happy for something like this,'" Endres says. "I thought, 'That's great.'
"I've got my fishing license, so I'm excited to start (the weekly program). Ever since I learned to tie knots and fix some basic fishing lines, I've been like, 'All right, now I have to fish.'"