On Jan. 4, 2021, Michigan Judge Daniel Pulter denied a wetlands permit that Canadian mining company Aquila Resources needed in order to move forward on an open-pit sulfide mine along the Menominee River. The Menominee forms the border between Northeast Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It was a huge victory for several groups of people that worked tirelessly for more than a year to stop this mine from ruining a river that, frankly, not many people had ever heard of. But the Menominee’s plight—and lack of being a major fishing destination—raised some questions that many anglers would have a hard time answering, and that interested us here at MeatEater.
If your home water was facing a threat that could destroy it forever, how far would you go to save it? Would you being willing to expose a tremendous fishery that isn’t on the radar of many anglers if it meant protecting that fishery? Or would you keep it to yourself—refusing to burn your spot—and risk losing it all? This was the decision facing fly shop owner and outfitter Tim Landwehr when we met up with him in the summer of 2020 to film an episode of our fishing series, “Das Boat.”
Landwehr had spent years growing his business and reputation around the Menominee. By modifying dry fly techniques learned while guiding out West, he and his crew were able to develop a smallmouth program that married a trout fishing approach with an arsenal of bass bugs, and the Menominee gave them an abundance of trophy-class bronzebacks to feed. Landwehr and his guides were content to keep this scene relatively quiet, somewhat of an “if you know, you know” fishery. But when the mine entered the picture, Landwehr realized he needed more people to know.
“Sadly, permitting for the mine moved quickly and the mining company did this for the most part out of the public eye,” Landwehr said. “Fighting a mine like this takes an army of soldiers that all care. We couldn’t fight it with money like giant companies can, but we sure as hell could fight it with a never-ending love for the resource. We as a guide crew decided a few years ago that in order to protect the place we love we needed to show people how amazing it is”
In “Das Boat,” we touched on the poor track records of open-pit mines, and how this one had the potential to not only poison the Menominee and kill its wild smallmouths, but also impact countless other species in Lake Michigan just 15 miles downstream of its proposed location. We also captured lots of Menominee bass up to 20 inches, gently sipping balsa bugs and poppers in skinny water. It’s fair to say Landwehr was nervous prior to the episode’s release, but once it aired, something amazing happened.
“More than $8,000 in donations came in. They came in from all over the United States and we even got a $20 donation from Australia,” Dale Burie, president of the Coalition to SAVE the Menominee River, told us. “That helped us pay for the legal counsel that led to Judge Pulter’s decision to deny the mining company a wetlands permit.”
Spirits were high following the ruling, but according to Burie, while the permit denial delivered a blow to the mining company, it was far from enough to knock them down for good. Aquila filed for a State of Michigan Tribunal Review, which will occur this March. Burie says this three-member committee has the power to reverse Judge Pulter’s decision, allowing Aquila to obtain a wetlands permit. The Coalition to SAVE the Menominee River and its legal staff are prepared to take this case to circuit court should a reversal occur.
In the meantime, Landwehr and his crew at Tight Lines Fly Fishing Company in De Pere, Wisconsin, are bent on keeping up awareness about the Menominee and its smallmouth fishery. Fortunately, MeatEater is able to help spread that awareness beyond the “Das Boat” audience. After our visit to the Menominee, a mountain of high-quality “fish porn” got left on the cutting room floor. We were able to reframe the plight of the Menominee from a focused, angling perspective and dive into a broader discussion about spot burning. It’s a problem almost every angler has dealt with in some form or another, but our film, “A Soul Cleansing Spot Burn,” proposes that in the right circumstances, it can also be a solution.
“A Soul Cleansing Spot Burn” will be featured in the 2021 Fly Fishing Film Tour. Tickets are available now, and this virtual event will be streaming live March 10 through April 4. We also urge anyone interested in more information about efforts to save the Menominee River to visit jointherivercoalition.org.