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The Fish Famine
by Dan Foley

The village of Cold Stream, Michigan, was located on the very northwestern tip of Michigan's lower peninsula. The village overlooked Cold Stream Bay, a bustling harbor off Lake Michigan which was home to several hundred fishing boats. Cold Stream's first settlers came from Norway in the late 1700's. Local legend has it that when the Norwegians first sailed into Cold Stream Bay, they looked at each other and said "Fishenkgladgen pluribus unum", which, loosely translated over the years, meant, "this looks like a pretty good place to catch some fish, why don't we stay for awhile"? So they did. The Norwegians established fishing as their staple industry, and this happy marriage with fishing continued for many years. Cold Stream received its finest recognition when it was named "Fishing Capital of Northern Michigan", according to Rod and Reel Magazine's 1970 Guide to America's Best Fishing Spots.

Everything completely changed right soon thereafter. That's when the fish famine hit the area. This story is about that event: The Cold Stream Fish Famine of 1971.

Boat captains always complain when they come back to port with their holds empty. There was a lot of complaining that spring of 1971. In fact, the whole village was a little on edge because everybody knew someone who spent their days plying the waters off and around Cold Stream Bay, and everybody had to hear those people gripe and moan about the poor fishing over the past several weeks. Larry's Coffee and Bait Shop, located right next to Cold Stream Marina, was the Gripe and Moan Headquarters that spring. Fishermen would gather before sunrise at Larry's to eat the $1.99 One-Egg, Toast, and Hash Brown Breakfast, complete with Unlimited Coffee and Even One To Go If You Don't Make Too Much Trouble Breakfast Special and speak in hopeful, yet cautious terms about what they hoped to accomplish that day. "Last year on this exact day we maxed out in exactly two and one-half hours", said Mabel Scroggins, half of the husband-wife fishing team of Mabel and Joe Scroggins. The Scroggins' sold their fish to the IGA Supermarkets downstate. For twenty three years, their daily ritual was the same: Wake up at 4:15 am, get to Larry's by 4:45, be on the boat by 5:45, and poles in the water by 6:00. They never missed a day, not even when Mabel gave birth to their three children onboard the boat, assisted by a midwife. Every day by 11:00 am they packed the fish in large coolers, cleaned up their gear, and drove the days' catch to the Cold Stream Bus Station for same-day transportation to Grand Rapids, where the Head Fish Buyer of the IGA Stores of Southern Michigan would pick it up and personally see that it was in the store that afternoon so he could put the "Today's Catch" sign up without lying.


It was that same Head Fish Buyer who had been on the phone with Joe Scroggins the previous afternoon. "If you and Mabel can't supply us with a decent amount of fish, I'm very sorry to say this, but we're going to have to sever our relationship". Joe tried to explain to the Head Fish Buyer that he and Mabel were trying their best, but that every other fisherman in town was experiencing the same drought. Joe ended up getting very frustrated and tried to remember that Norwegian cussword which described callous, ignorant Head Fish Buyers from downstate supermarkets. But he could not, and sadly said goodbye to the Head Fish Buyer.

Joe and Mabel were but two of the people who were affected by the fish famine of 1971. And some famine it was. For some reason still scientifically unexplained to the people of that area, the fish stopped biting that spring. Completely. Fisherman left Larry's each day, dropped their poles in the water, and nothing happened. Nothing. Nobody seemed too bothered about it the first five days or so, because everybody chalked it up to a short-term streak of bad luck. But as the days stretched on, the inhabitants of Cold Stream started to panic.

Prominent marine biologists from all over the United States were called in to monitor the situation. Many of them agreed that the fish disappeared due to complications from an earthquake which had erupted in Japan the previous month. The premise of this theory was that the earthquake had caused the earth to shift ever so slightly, and the ensuing trauma was too great for the fish. Dr. Hans Olerud, a biologist from Northern Michigan University, shared this view as well, as documented by a lecture he gave halfway through the famine at the monthly meeting of the Cold Stream Anglers Society which met at Larry's every third Monday of the month at 12 noon. He conducted a demonstration to illustrate the eartquake theory. Dr. Olerud brought with him a fish tank complete with four goldfishJavasite: Online Coffeehouse 108 S. Union, Traverse City, along with a paint-can shaker that you would find in a hardware store. He filled the tank with water, took the goldfish from a plastic bag, dropped them into the water, placed a cover over the tank, and clamped the tank to the paint can shaker. He then turned on the paint can shaker for a period of no more than one minute and six seconds, the same duration of the Japanese earthquake.

While the shaking was occurring, he said, "as you can see, I'm simulating the Japanese earthquake". After the simulated earthquake, the goldfish looked like they were in need of serious medical attention. Their eyes were wide open and they were sprawled out at the bottom of the tank, listless as can be. "These fish are in a state of shock--so are the fish in Cold Stream Harbor. Even though we did not feel the earthquake ourselves, the fish felt it because the quake emanated from the core of the earth. They were shaken around quite a bit. I am quite convinced that they were negatively impacted by the trauma of that quake. I mean, do you think you would want to eat a rubber worm after having felt the effects of a Japanese earthquake? I think not", said Dr. Olerud.


After Dr. Olerud left the room at the monthly meeting of the Cold Stream Anglers Society, Joe Scroggins stood up and said, "Dr. Olerud's a smart man. But being book smart does not necessarily make you fish smart"! That seemed to be the consensus among the populace of Cold Stream towards the earthquake theory.

What the residents of Cold Stream did not know was that a steelhead trout named Earl was the reason for the fish drought of 1971. Of course, you could not blame them. None of them had ever met Earl before. And how Suttons Bay Bookstore--616-271-3923could reasonable, thinking human beings ever contemplate--let alone offer the theory up for public discussion--that a steelhead trout named Earl was the catalyst for the worst fish drought in years? It's understandable that no one figured this out.

But he was the reason. And here's why.

Earl the steelhead trout was cruising through the waters off the north end of Cold Stream Bay early one evening. He was en route to eat dinner at a friend's house on the other side of the bay, very near the opening to Lake Michigan. Earl had a reputation--by fish standards, anyway--for being a fairly intelligent trout. All of the other fish looked to him for leadership in times of trouble, as was the case on one occasion twenty years previous when the northern pike, which had always been located out in the middle of Lake Michigan, wanted to take over the steelhead's territory in Cold Stream Bay. It was Earl who went to the leader of the northern pike and sat down and ironed out their differences. They agreed that the pike could visit during the day but not sleep there overnight. These negotiations had taken hours and hours. The steelheads and the northern pike had never gotten along, so Earl was hailed as a hero who had saved his fish friends from a nasty confrontation with their enemies. Now in his later years, Earl was considered to be an elder statesman. Something of a diplomat; a true thinker.

He had traveled the route to his friends' house many times before, so he was day dreaming a bit, thinking about the large dinner of minnows and sea bugs he would be feasting on in less than an hour. That day-dreaming was interrupted when he felt something slightly scrape against him just below the fin. He quickly looked to the right and realized he had bumped into a floating, fat worm. Not wanting to spoil his dinner, he declined to eat it. And the scrape only hurt for a few seconds and did not pierce the skin, so he kept on moving.

But something caused him to stop a few minutes later. For years he had noticed that many of his fish friends never came back after they went looking for food. They would say, "boy, Earl, I'm hungry. I could go for a juicy worm right now. I'm gonna go for a quick bite. I'll meet you back here later". And many of them would never return. Having not done studies on fish longevity, Earl had figured that they moved somewhere else or had just simply not come back for whatever reason.


Fish were sometimes like that. They tended to be independent, and Earl had long thought that fish were independent to a fault. I mean, you could at least tell some of your close friends if you were planning on taking off for parts unknown never to come back again. That's only common courtesy. And that's probably where the term "cold fish" (as in, "she's a cold fish") had come from.

He had heard rumors that fish sometimes met their maker right after eating worms and such, but that did not make sense because worms tasted good. So did minnows for that matter. The only reason he could think of a fish dying after eating a worm or minnow was maybe if they got a hold of something that was spoiled or rotten. He had always been perplexed as to why his fellow fish disappeared after they went looking for food.

Earl's curiosity got the better of him, so he turned himself around and swam back to the floating worm. He wondered why he had felt that scrape when he bumped into it. He sniffed it, poked it with his fin, and looked that worm up and down. Right about then he noticed that the worm was attached to a hook-shaped piece of metal which had a sharp, upturned point at the end. And a string was attached to the top end of the hook. Earl followed that string straight up toward the surface of the water, broke the surface, and felt the cool evening breeze hit his face as he peered around. What he saw next shocked him: the string which was connected to the hook was connected to a pole which was connected to a man sitting in a boat! And the man was furiously reeling in the hook, in an obvious attempt to snag Earl or some other poor fish!

Then the realization hit him: If a fish were to get hungry and eat that worm, they would also bite into a mouthful of sharp metal! And furthermore, if a fish bit into that sharp metal and it hooked them, the man at the other end of the line would reel them in and make them their dinner that night! These humans had bad intentions!

Earl dove back below the surface and raced to his friends' house. He said, "there's no time to eat, we have to spread the word! Those humans spend their days and nights trying to catch us for dinner! That's why everybody disappears after they go looking for food". The friend did not believe him, so Earl grabbed his buddy and they bolted back to the worm attached to the sharp hook. "Look at this worm. It looks normal, almost succulent. But there's a hook underneath it. If you ate that, you'd be a goner!" Earl then took his buddy to the surface for a look at the man with the fishing pole in his hand. His friend then understood.


Over the next several months Earl spread the word to every fish in Cold Stream Bay through any means he could. He organized a fish union, whose members make posters that read: Those Fishermen Have Been Hoodwinking Us, Ever Notice How Nobody Comes Home After a Satisfying Meal? and Just Say No To Fisherman. Earl even got high-tech about it. He posted computer messages on FISHWEB, the information superhighway for fish, which told the whole story about the humans attempt to conquer fishkind. And he set up an elaborate fax network to zip out position papers to interested parties at a moment's notice.

Earl's message started to gain momentum, and in the process, he saved many fish lives. Everytime he made a speech, thousands and thousands of fish would show up to listen to the anti-fishermen message. Earl would end every speech by saying, "MAKE THE FISHERMEN MAD: DON'T BITE THEIR WORMS"! And all of the fish would go wild and shout, "Earl, Earl, Earl, Earl, Earl".........

These speeches were filled with emotion. Earl often invited other fish up to relay how they had lost loved ones to a rubber worm. "I told him not to go for it--that rubber lure looked too good to be true. And it was", said the spouse of a now-defunct fish, as she broke down in tears.

Another fish explained how he had lost his best friend on a bet. "Bill and I were swimmin' around the bay one night having a great time--we'd been out drinkin' all night. And you know how after you've hoisted a few brews you start to get hungry? Well, we had the munchies. So Bill sees this piece of meat floating a few feet below the surface and bets me ten bucks that its safe to eat. I told him not to do it--I was sure there was a hook attached to it. I said, 'Bill, remember what Earl said. If you're hungry, let's dive down to the bottom and feast on some nice plankton. Well, that was the last time I saw Bill. I loved him, man!.........." And all of the fish would scream in anger and sadness.

Soon, the fish in Cold Stream Bay would have nothing to do with the fishermen and their attempts to woo them. Not one fish was caught in the bay for months on end. Due to the efforts of Earl the steelhead trout, Cold Stream Bay ceased to live up to its top billing as the "Fishing Capital of Northern Michigan". And all of this had a major effect on Cold Stream. Larry's Coffee and Bait shop changed its name to Larry's Coffee Shop ("featuring the finest in 100% Columbian Coffee, including Capuccino with Skim Milk"). Larry even opened up a tanning booth in the spot where he used to store his worms in a large refrigerator. Joe and Mabel, growing tired of hearing the complaints of the Head Fish Buyer from the downstate IGA supermarket chain, closed down their fishing business. They retired to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where--fortunately for them--the fish there had never heard of Earl the steelhead trout.

And what about Earl? Well, the campaign had an effect on him as well. For his efforts, Earl was named "Fish of The Year", by the Fish Chamber of Commerce, and he was invited to almost every social gathering in Cold Stream Bay right after he published his memoirs. But his body and mind began to fail him. He was already considered a senior citizen during the excitement of the successful anti-fishermen effort, almost 75 years old in human terms. Ten years later, right after his 85th birthday, he began to grow a little senile. His family noticed that he was not as sharp as he used to be, and it was common for his friends to find him wandering around in the bay looking dazed and confused, not sure how to get back home.

Earl died shortly thereafter. He was swimming alone one day and again bumped into a large, fat worm. He was hungry, so he figured this was as good a time as any to get a bite. He bit into that worm and felt a sharp, painful jerk in his gills. In seconds, he was screaming through the water, being pulled by a force he could not fight. Earl was scooped up by a net, and he found himself looking at a bearded fisherman as he was taken off the hook. The fisherman threw Earl into an ice chest, and that is how Earl the steelhead trout spent his last few minutes of life. In his old age, he had forgotten the message he himself had espoused to his fellow fish: Don't eat the worms.

That's the story of the Cold Stream Fish Famine of 1971.

Way back in 1996 we wrote that:
Dan Foley lives in Dayton, Ohio. He's 31 years old, married, with a 1.5 year old daughter, Margaret. Dan works as an Assistant Treasurer for Montgomery County, and says: "I'm probably the only Assistant Treasurer who can't balance his own checkbook."

Dan's daughter is probably close to driving by now and we're guessing he can balance his checkbook. We write this because the fact that Dan joked he couldn't balance his checkbook was used against him in a political contest for Montgomery County commissioner (which he won). See this article and ask yourself if there is a point where the American people say "enough of this". Here's hoping!

Links From This Article
NMJ Fiction: Golden Bones NMJ Fiction: The Fish Famine
NMJ Fiction: The House at the End of the Road NMJ Fiction: Cyberball

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