West Michigan TU … Those Early Years
by Dick Nelson
Courtesy of MICHIGAN TROUT, Vol. 12, No. 1, March 1992 Edition
Dick Nelson has been involved in Trout Unlimited from almost its inception. As a founding member of one of the nation’s earliest TU chapters, the West Michigan Chapter, based in Grand Rapids, Nelson is its official historian. The article, most of which is reprinted here, is of interest to all Michigan TUers, for it speaks of a time and people who influenced TU’s direction far beyond the meeting tables of WMTU.
WMTU was a pretty informal but effective group in those early 1960s. Trout Unlimited had just been organized in 1959 on the banks of the AuSable, as we all know. Local resident Corny Schrems was one of those organizers and immediately went about recruiting for the cause here in West Michigan. Among those recruits was Mr. C.R. (Bob) Evenson. More than anyone else, these two men were responsible for TU getting a foothold in this part of the state.
In those days, the national office of TU was in Saginaw, and the bulk of TU strength was in eastern and southeastern Michigan. The only trout stream that existed in the eyes of east Michiganders was the AuSable. It was only through the foresight and efforts of Mr. Evenson and Mr. Schrems that a TU chapter was to eventually become a reality in this part of the state. At the weekly Rotary Club meeting, these two men began to extend their influence regarding TU’s cause to some of the other trout anglers in town with table talk. It was here that Blake Forslund began to receive an earful every week at lunch about this newly recognized need for managing trout for the sake of the trout rather than the trout fisherman. In response to a remark by Mr. Forslund that something ought to be done, Mr. Evenson told him, “Don’t just talk about it, Forslund, do something about it.” That incident may very well be considered the beginning of WMTU.
About the same time, 1961, I was working as a bank teller and waiting on Mr. Forslund almost every day as he did his company banking. We became aware of our mutual interest in trout fishing, and one day when we were discussing organizing a trout-fishing group, he mentioned that he knew a couple of men involved with a new Trout Unlimited club and he’d do some investigation. From Mr. Schrems, he obtained a list of people living in West Michigan who had paid their $10 dues and joined this Trout Unlimited organization. With this list of names in hand, Mr. Forslund and I sent out invitations to attend a meeting of a new West Michigan Trout Unlimited chapter in the banquet room at Scotties, at that time a first-rate restaurant. This first chapter meeting we held in the late winter of 1962, probably March. We featured as our speaker at this initial meeting Dr. Albert Hazzard. I believe Dr. Hazzard was then a fisheries specialist on the staff of the University of Michigan. I remember his talk included the results of studies done to determine the effect, if any, on the mortality of fly-caught trout, and how fly-caught trout had a so-much-better chance to survive if released. This was very interesting and startling news in those days. We had a turnout at that first chapter meeting of about 120 members.
During the early to mid-1960s, Mr. Forslund continued to meet almost weekly for lunch at the Schnitzelbank Restaurant with a group of activists concerned with the environment in general and trout fishery specifically. This group included Mr. Schrems, Mr. Evenson, Dr. Willard Wolfe, Hilary Snell, and others. I suppose we could consider this group an informal board of directors.
A group of four or five WMTUers would attend the state council meetings in Lansing and attempt to protect the interests of West Michigan against the onslaught of east Michigan influence. During this period, the state legislature had decided to allow up to about 40 miles of Michigan trout streams to be designated for “artificial lures or flies only.” Thirty-six miles had been allocated to the AuSable. But this WMTU group, primarily Mr. Schrems, was successful in having the remaining four miles allocated to the Little Manistee.
The meetings that continued at the Schnitzelbank Restaurant had a most important result that I suspect most current West Michigan residents don’t know of. The West Michigan Environmental Action Council grew out of this group, with tremendous support from Mr. Evenson. Mrs. Joan Wolfe was the chair of this new WMEAC and was eventually appointed to serve on the Natural Resources Commission.
The energy, persistence, influence, and financial support of the early organizers were the forces which provided the momentum to get WMTU off and running. During these early days, Mr. Forslund and I acted as an informal set of chapter officers: he, president; myself, secretary-treasurer. We intended to hold a chapter meeting at least once a year. In addition to Dr. Hazzard, other speakers we had in those early years included Casey Westell (President, TU National), Howard Tanner (when he had just been appointed State Department of Natural Resources Director), Wayne Tody (Dr. Tanner’s Fish Division chief), and Ralph MacMullan (the agency’s director prior to Dr. Tanner). Although they did not play a highly visible role in the activities of the fledgling West Michigan chapter, Mr. Schrems and Mr. Evenson were the primary financial supporters helping to get the new chapter on the move. We must not forget the foresight and, at that time, the unusual philosophy, of Mr. Evenson as he encouraged Mr. Forslund to “not worry about preserving the trout. Just worry about preserving the water, and the trout will take care of themselves.”
During the years from 1962 until 1967, Mr. Forslund and I continued to serve as president and secretary-treasurer, with the help of the group from the Tuesday noon meetings, who continued its activities at the state and national level. On June 13, 1967, the results of our first mail ballot election of a board of directors were complete, our first attempt to get somewhat formal and organized. Our initial elected board included Mr. Schrems, Mr. Evenson, Claire Cartier, Jack Chaille, George White, Maurie Houseman, plus the following officers: president, Blake Forslund; vice president, Hilary Snell; secretary-treasurer, Dick Nelson; membership chairman, Gary Skinner. An attempt was made to establish rotating terms, but the expiration of terms was never closely followed.
In February 1969, Hilary Snell was elected president, and one of his primary concerns was to enlarge the board of directors and activate more members. We also never had any funds available for projects in those days. Everything we tried had to be self-supporting. In addition to the work by our chapter representatives at the state and national levels, our first big chapter project was probably the introduction of fly-tying classes about 1966-67. At that time, there were no fly shops in the area. Nobody was offering classes. We rented a big room at the downtown YMCA and had a tremendous turnout. We charged just enough for the series of four classes to cover the cost. These fly-tying classes were organized by Carl Richards and Doug Swisher. Additional instructors were Dr. William Simpson, Willard Wolfe, Joe Rink, Freeman Haskins, and others. It was at these sessions in the late 1960s that Swisher and Richards began showing us a portfolio of close-up color photos of mayflies they had established as part of the manuscript for a new angling book they were working on. They also handed out to all students a series of mimeographed sheets of handwritten and drawn emergence schedules and fly patterns with instructions on how to tie and fish them. In 1971, we found all of this information published in a new book, “Selective Trout.”
In addition to the fly-tying classes, our chapter began to offer fly-casting and fly-fishing classes and demonstrations. Mr. Schrems took a very active interest in this activity, along with Carl Richards and Doug Swisher. We used facilities at the YMCA, the Grand Valley State fieldhouse, the East Grand Rapids Recreation Department, and anywhere else we could find room. Each year, we continued to have at least one membership meeting. Speakers, in addition to those mentioned earlier, included local fish biologists; state Fish Division people, like Jack Bails; and our own Hilary Snell (who, after serving as president of WMTU, served as TU state council chairman and was appointed to the state’s Natural Resources Commission). We also had big-name authors like Art Flick, Ernie Schwiebert Lefty Kreh, Lee Wulff, Ed Zern, and Ben East.
There was never any attempt to consider our annual banquet as a fundraiser until the early 1970s. At that time, one of the directors, Terry Moran, took the responsibility for organizing the annual banquet and, for the first time, we solicited raffle and door prizes from tackle dealers and manufacturers. This changed the complexion of our chapter activities. For the first time, we began to accumulate some funds in our treasury. Up to this point, our goal had been to break even with our annual banquet activities.
Our board meetings in the late 1960s and early 1970s were held in a number of different locations, including the board room at Union Bank (now NBD), the law offices of Warner, Norcross & Judd in the Old Kent Building, and the Potter Distributing Company lunch room. I remember one board meeting in about 1974 in the Union Bank board room when we were visited by a new man in town, Dick Pobst, and his son Sam. They informed the board members that they wished to open a new Orvis Shop in the Grand Rapids area and were seeking our input as to proper location. Mr. Pobst mentioned they were considering a location near the banks of the Thornapple River in Ada. I believe our consensus was that the best location for him to consider should be downtown Grand Rapids, that the Ada location was too far away from the action, and was the worst possible site to establish a fly shop. Goes to show you what we knew about it.
In 1972, board member and attorney Terry Moran suggested it was about time we got a little more formal as a chapter and prepare some articles of incorporation. On March 23, 1972, articles for West Michigan Trout Unlimited, Inc., were filed, with the incorporators being Bruce Fairbanks, Terry Moran, and Dick Nelson. The net asset statement filed at that time showed a balance of $614.02. It’s interesting to note that, in 1984, the same statement showed a balance of $85,978.96. Terry Moran served as chapter president from 1974-76. During this administration, we established the C.R. Evenson Environmental Award and the Cornelius M. Schrems Outstanding Angler Award. These awards have been presented by our chapter each year since, when a worthy recipient can be determined. During that era of the mid-1970s, our chapter continued to lead the way toward resource protection, quality fish management, education, recreation, stream improvement, and numerous other activities here in West Michigan, as well as on the state level. How many members remember that during 1976-78, the state council could not afford to publish Michigan Trout, so each chapter volunteered to publish an issue or two. Gerry Holwerda served as editor for our chapter’s issue, which was by far the best.
As we moved into the late 1970s and 1980s, WMTU was able to exert considerable influence at the state and local levels. In 1984, for example, we won the state council’s Michigan Chapter of the Year award. For a change, there was money in the bank, and these funds were, and still are, continually used for a multitude of projects.