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It’s a Dramatic Urban Scene: People and Big Fish on the Grand River

October 9, 1996

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) _ The journey home begins at the mouth of Lake Michigan in Grand Haven, then continues along towns with names like Eastmanville and Grandville.

Finally, after about 40 miles over several days, they arrive in Michigan’s second-largest city, passing under bridges and between boulders, hardly distracted by the chaotic pulse of downtown.

Then comes the chase.

For much of fall, these migrating trout and salmon are the targets of dozens of fishermen who wade shoulder-to-shoulder like sentries here at the Sixth Street Dam on the Grand River.

The fish are following the magical instinct of swimming upstream through the state’s longest river to reproduce at the spots where they once lived.

Some will make it past the dam with the help of a fish ladder. Some won’t. And that is what attracts legions of anglers _ even spectators _ to the ritual on the Grand.

``The only thing I can relate it to is catching a big tuna on the coast,″ says Tim Johnson, a North Carolina transplant.

There is nothing scenic about the setting, no deer pausing for a drink, no gliding herons, certainly no silence. The dam is a perpetual roar, and an interstate bridge a few hundred yards south carries 65,000 vehicles a day.

But if pastoral riches are what fishermen crave, they can go elsewhere. The big fish are here, and that’s the appeal.

``You get a lot of adrenalin going,″ says Keith Kramer, balancing himself on a rock in the river. ``The longer you fight them, the better it is. You tire them out.″

The fish _ brown trout, king salmon and steelhead _ range in age from 3 to 5 and can get as long as 30 inches and as heavy as 20 pounds.

Incredibly, some fish may swim the Grand River for 150 miles, from Lake Michigan all the way to Lansing.

``They go by sense of smell. The smell of the home stream is imprinted in them,″ explains Amy Hilt, a state fisheries biologist.

Though there are ladders and dams all the way up the river, she says, Grand Rapids’ Sixth Street Dam ``is the first one of any significant size.″

When the fish hit the dam, they often try to leap over it. Every few minutes, fish break the surface, slap the wall and fall back into the water.

The river is shallow, but cold and dangerously deceptive. Most fishermen wear waders from shoulder to toe and special boots with felt bottoms or small spikes. The rocks are slippery, and the swift current is unforgiving.

The fish do not willingly surrender. Hooking one is an accomplishment, followed by the tough task of pulling it from the water.

``They’re smarter than we are,″ says Roy Phillips, pausing for more line, another hook and fresh bait. ``They have the river, the current, the rocks. They utilize it all. We’re just amateurs in this game.″

The frustration shows. Curses can be heard over the noise of the dam, and lines get tangled because the fishermen are so close. A young angler struggling with a fish lost the battle, instinctively yanked the pole off the water and hooked something else: his neighbor’s hat.

Then there are the Huck Finn-types with no waders, no fancy rod, no sophistication.

With a cigarette behind his ear and sandals on his feet, Phet Sourivanh, 23, hopped from rock to rock trying to conquer a brown trout near shore. A sandal fell off. He twisted an ankle. A leg of his pants was soaked to the knee.

But he won. Now what?

``I’ll let my mom clean the fish,″ he says.

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