Traveling on the backroads through increasingly wild landscapes- no cell service, no towering buildings, and only the occasional passerby. The border between Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Wisconsin is formed by the Menominee River, one of the many systems that eventually dump into the Great Lakes. Folks around here know what car you drive, what your drink of choice is, and your grandma’s birthday.
We became quite fond of the area after spending time on the water with some of the best from the midwest, Tim and Nate up at Tight Lines Fly Fishing Co. and everyone’s buddy, Adam Greuel.
Born & Raised in the Land of ‘Ope’
Musician, angler, and proud Wisconsin-ite Adam Greuel, from the bluegrass band Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, is no stranger to the Menominee. Heck, the river even inspired a beautiful impromptu love song while we were out on the water. When he’s not busy bringing joy sonically, he’s exploring rivers, small streams, and just about anywhere Google Maps shows there might be a chance of fishing. Russel Pedersen- who plays fiddle, banjo, and vocals for the band- was also able to make it out for the day before the two headed to Washington Island to headline Sol Grass Music Fest.
Horseshoes and Hand Grenades is a self-described “progressive high-energy string band from WI with roots in old-time, folk and bluegrass”. They recently celebrated a decade of making music together, most of which has been inspired by the simplicities of good ol’ Midwestern living. Fly fishing and the Menominee have inspired tunes such as River Rat, Wisconsin Water, Northbound, and Rivers High.
Fishing isn’t just what they do, it’s who they are. It’s ingrained in the music they produce, the way they schedule their entire year, and even the cars they drive. The whole band is rallied behind one thing: smallmouth bass.
Bassin’ was Slow, Spirits were High
There’s not much that brings midwesterners together quite like a casserole… or smallmouth bass. Nobody knows this better than Tight Lines Fly Fishing Co. owner Tim Landwehr and Sage Elite Pro Nate Sipple. When it comes to smallmouth we couldn’t think of any better people to lead you in the right direction… we will have to get back to you on their casseroles though. Just like Adam and Russel, fishing the Menominee is more than a hobby or even an obsession, it’s a way of life that’s deeply ingrained into every part of who they are.
For over twenty years, anglers from all over have made the trek to the Menominee River to experience the legendary topwater bite. Year after year, anglers return for the slowed-down lifestyle, valued friendships that have been created, and pound-for-pound best fighting fish out there.
We didn’t float all 116 miles of the Menominee, but one day on the river was enough to want to keep coming back. Our trusty guide, Nate Sipple, helped us navigate the post-storm waters as we all worked to get the bass to bite. The new Sage R8 Core was the perfect tool for the job.
We were able to deliver countless casts to every undercut bank, waiting for the topwater explosion. This led us to switch popper sizes and colors throughout the day and even tried to poke some fun at pike. As they say, it’s not always easy but it’s always good.
“People have to be aware about it if they’re going to care.”
About halfway through the day, the crew paused at an island before some of the most gorgeous braids. Nate instructed us that we were floating through the area where the proposed Back Forty Mine would be operating. This is why, in 2017 and 2020, the conservation coalition American Rivers named the Menominee one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers.
The Back Forty mine is a proposed open-pit metallic sulfide mine that would be located on the banks of the Menominee River. The mine would spread over 865 acres across the Menominee watershed and be a mere 150 feet from the river bank. It targets the gold, zinc, and copper deposits in sulfide-ore rocks that formed from past volcanic activity. To access these deposits, a 750-feet deep pit would be dug to remove any rock and soil covering the sulfide ore. The company would mine the ore through cyclical blasting and drilling. But it doesn’t stop there. The company plans to extract the metals on-site. This extraction process uses cyanide to extract metals from sulfur. In a mining case study on its website, nonprofit SOS Blue Waters describes that “… regular mining is like mining the chocolate chips out of a cookie, while sulfide mining is like mining the sugar out of a cookie.”
When sulfide minerals are exposed to air or water, sulfuric acid is created. This suspected musculoskeletal and respiratory toxicant is a highly corrosive material that is an active component in battery acid and drain cleaner. These minerals are what would be sitting just 150 feet away from the Menominee River.
As stated in a 2016 research paper by the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, “uncontrolled acid generation from AMD [acid mine drainage] results in an ecosystem with high levels of metals, dissolved solids, sulfates, and acidity. A mine draining acid water can devastate rivers, streams, and aquatic life for many years.”
Look no further than the 2015 Colorado Gold King Mine spill for an example of the fate that lies ahead for the Menominee. The mine, abandoned since 1923, released millions of gallons of acid mine drainage into the Animas River. It devastated the nearby farmland of the Navajo Nation and turned the entire river orange from contamination.
A Changed Community
The Menominee is home to an abundance of classic freshwater species such as small and largemouth bass, walleye, northern pike, muskie, perch, and lake sturgeon. The bounty of fish has led to loyal anglers coming back year after year to enjoy peace, serenity, and bar-none fishing with cherished friends. Tim, Nate, and the whole Tight Lines crew rely on this fishery for their living and the local community relies on them as a premier local business. Horseshoes and Hand Grenades and an uncanny amount of other artists derive inspiration from the unique landscapes that span the 116 miles of river and across the Menominee region. This water is not just a location, but a way of life and a lifeline to an entire community. All of this is threatened by the mine, which would ultimately hurt more than it is claiming to help.
The question is not if it will contaminate the precious freshwater, but when and to what extent. To read more about the Back Forty mine, click here. To make your voice heard, sign here and share on social media.
A huge thanks to Tim, Nate, and the whole Tight Lines Fly Fishing Co. crew for showing us nothing short of a good time. And a special thank you to Sage Fly Fishing for enabling us to get out on the water and cast those primo R8 CORE rods in primo smallie water.