My early years on the lower east side of Detroit in the 1930s were a study in contrasts.
On one side of the scale was living on the grimy industrial side of Detroit where families timed their breakfast and supper meals by the intrusive work whistles of the Hudson Motor Car Co.
Streets were lined with long tedious rows of duplexes which fed labor to the factories. These dingy dwellings held small stingy windows and were perpetually too hot or too cold.
For balance, just a short walking distance away there was a large unspoiled, unfenced riparian and aquatic ecosystem in which young folks could play and learn.
Acres of willow bushes, grasses and bull rushes and giant weeping willows ready to explore and climb. Adjacent were miles of canals and rich, diverse shoreline along the still pristine Detroit River.
At home I mixed these environments. In our miniature, light-starved, back yard I grew zinnias, cosmos, and holly hocks irrigated by a series of little ditches. To water my garden, I buried a metal wash tub beneath the outside water faucet and used the overflow for a water source.
The tub also served as a summer home for aquatic animals I caught from marshy canals or the river. Our landlord didn’t approve of other kinds of pets.
One year I kept a mud puppy in it all summer. Mud puppies were local salamanders that never matured into air breathing adults.
They were carnivorous and ate just about anything small that moved. These big amphibians grew to 10-12 inches in length, had brown, slippery, frog-like skin and conspicuous red, feathery gills.
We didn’t know it at the time but the presence of these amphibians indicated that the waterways in the area were still clean and relatively unspoiled.
Most years rather than mud puppies I kept small local fish, yellow perch, rock bass, and bluegills, in my underground aquarium. They tamed easily. Long before the summer was over, each one had learned to take a wiggling worm from my fingers. Returning my “pets” to canal in the fall was difficult for me because each had assumed a personality.
Some of my observations were the same summer after summer. Perch were more aggressive than blue gills, and blue gills out fought the rock bass for food. I wondered if this was related to their frequency in the river.
Swimming and wading was required in this world to explore and find the fertile areas in the labyrinth of canals where we could capture bait for our river fishing adventures. Crawdads and minnows were the prizes we sought
Maturation into a river fisherman meant abandoning my cane pole and the acquisition of a solid steel fishing pole and reel, black braided fishing line and a cache of heavy lead weights. The latter were needed to anchor our bait near the bottom in the fast current of the river, where, if the bait and conditions were right you might even catch a walleye, northern pike or rarely a modest size musky not just the smaller common species.
Fishing the canals was different and offered different things to learn. Near Fox Creek there was a long narrow dock that we fished from regularly. We could lay on the weathered boards and watch the whole ecosystem unfold amid the lush, verdant waving plants. The yellow perch and sunfish were almost always visible as they searched for food.
The rock bass and occasional young walleye were much less likely to come out of the shadows. We found out that when our favorite fish were hiding in the vegetation that most often a large predator fish could be found lurking nearby.
Learning to love wild ecosystems and their diversity at such an early age determined the trajectory of my life. I became a professional biologist and in the 1970s joined Trout Unlimited to participate in its goals of protecting cold water fisheries.
If there is a young person in your family, join our chapter and learn about aquatic ecosystems through one of our many activities.
For more information about Collegiate Peaks Chapter and our events visit collegiatepeaksTU.org.
Rasmussen is a founding member and current Board Director of the Collegiate Peaks Chapter – TU.