Michigan’s Outdoor Jewel – Beaver Island

By Linda Gallagher

Story originally appeared in the Michigan-Out-Of-Door magazine.

It’s fairly safe to say that there are few places left in the state of Michigan where strangers are not only greeted with a friendly wave, a smile and a tip of the hat, but invited to join a community get together, where anglers are not only given tips to good fishing areas, but encouraged to keep an occasional limit, where hunters are not only welcome, but a cause for celebration.

But there are still a few places left like that, including a small spit of land 32 miles northwest of Charlevoix in the middle of Lake Michigan that early Odawa fishermen knew as the land of the beavers, and later Irish settlers described as the Emerald Isle-Beaver Island.

13 miles long and six miles wide, more than one third of Beaver Island is state land with an abundance of game, a network of two track trails through a mature canopy forest intertwined with dark and mysterious cedar swamps, remote Lake Michigan beaches crowned with several historical Great Lakes lighthouses, and seven inland lakes, several of which offer public access.

Garden, High, Gull, and Hog Island, all now uninhabited, as well as the smaller Whiskey Island, Trout Island, Hat Island, and privately owned Squaw’s Island, make up the remainder of what is known as the Beaver Archipelago off the northern end of Beaver Island.

Sheltered from the hubbub of the modern world by the deep, cold waters of Lake Michigan which requires planning and a bit of effort to traverse, particularly during the winter months, as well as a primarily seasonal economy, Beaver Island’s only metropolis, the village of St. James, remains today much as in the 1800’s, when the archipelago’s main industries centered around commercial fishing and logging.

Visitors to St. James will find few tourist trap amenities, but all of the modern creature comforts, including a wide variety of accomodations, two seasonal township campgrounds, car rentals, fishing charters and guides, island tours, grocery stores, gift shops, a full service harbor and marina, a former Mormon print shop converted to a public museum recalling the days of “King” James Strang, and the eatery that everyone seems to gravitate to at day’s end for good company and sensational whitefish dinners-the legendary Shamrock Bar.

With the exception of the whitetailed deer and wild turkeys introduced to the island in the 20th century, along with the salmon and brown trout in the waters of Lake Michigan, recreational opportunities on the Emerald Isle are also much like what the first inhabitants must have found many years ago.

The advent of a Beaver Island spring offers the sportsman a variety of activities, including morel mushroom hunting, fishing for excellent numbers of perch and bluegill on expansive Lake Geneserath or one of the island’s smaller lakes, or wild turkey hunting, a fairly new opportunity rapidly gaining in popularity with both residents and visitors to the island.

Introduced to the island in 1992 by now retired MI DNR wildlife biologist Doug Whitcomb, who trapped and transplanted 25 birds to the island from the Wolverine area, the success of Beaver Island’s wild turkey program is largely due to the annual efforts of the members of the Beaver Island Wildlife Club, an MUCC affiliate, which each year conducts a supplementary feed program to ensure flock survival through the island’s cold and snowy winters.

Today, an expanding flock of more than 400 wild turkeys provides one of the best hunting opportunities on the island, according to DNR wildlife biologist Brian Mastenbrook. “Wild turkeys can be found all over the island, on both private and state lands, and can be hunted during both spring and available fall seasons for anyone with a Michigan turkey hunting license good for Area J,” Mastenbrook said.

A simple bobber rig tipped with an earthworm can be very productive during the summer months for largemouth bass on Barney’s Lake or Font Lake, which also has produced a number of Master Angler bluegills in recent years, or on primitive and wild Fox Lake, also known for its trophy sized northern pike. All three lakes are easily accessed with canoes or kayaks; casting from shore is possible as well.

Hoping to establish a reliable future walleye fishery on Lake Geneserath, members of the Beaver Island Wildlife Club have undertaken another project, successfully nurturing and releasing 11,000 walleye fingerlings last year from the club’s new walleye pond. Plans are in the works to raise and release more walleye this year, said club president Jeff Powers. “A survey we conducted on the lake last year in cooperation with the MI DNR left us with no doubt there is plenty of forage for young walleye, so we’re hoping we’re on the right track,” he said.

Also hopeful is Dr. Jim Gillingham, research professor for Central Michigan University’s biological field station on Beaver Island, for the recovery of once world-class populations of smallmouth bass in the coves and bays surrounding Beaver and its out islands thought to have been devastated by cormorants. Recent indications of a five year study conducted by Gillingham and his students on the subject have shown fewer cormorants and more bass. “We can only hope that the imbalance between predator and prey is leveling off somewhat,” said Gillingham, who has enjoyed the island’s fishing for many years.

Sportsmen and women will also find excellent offshore action for salmon, brown trout and lake trout in the summer months, good opportunities for a fall bounty of waterfowl and small game, including a recovering population of snowshoe hares thought to have been devastated by disease, and a very high population of coyotes.

But perhaps most promising for the sportsman visiting the Beaver Island archipelago are the island’s whitetailed deer.

Never native to the Beavers, the first whitetails were brought to the islands by enterprising sportsmen in the early 1900’s. Primarily an agricultural island flanked by many miles of over-timbered forest, Beaver’s deer populations struggled for many years.

All of that began to change in the 1970’s, when regrowth of aspen, oak, and beech prime for the island’s populations of ruffed grouse and whitetailed deer coincided with a growing tourism industry, which resulted in additional second home development along the shore lines, less farming, and changing attitudes towards wildlife management and habitat improvement.

Deer populations rocketed over the next three decades-almost dangerously so. In recent years, generous numbers of antlerless licenses and an increased interest in deer hunting on the island has tempered numbers-but only slightly.

“There’s still a very large population of deer on Beaver Island, as well as Garden Island,” said Mastenbrook. “With the maturity of the second growth forests in recent years and the decrease in farming, the deer population of the Beaver Islands is well over the carrying capacity of the area-if numbers on the island aren’t lowered significantly, and soon, starvation could well become a factor-in some areas, during harder winters, it already is.”

Friendly, helpful, and fiercely proud of their island home, the year around residents of Beaver Island very much appreciate the assets of their northern home, yet fully recognize the issues they’re facing in the future.

Despite the effort required to reach Beaver Island, possibly only via car ferry or airplane, resident islanders worry how to keep their island the wild and pristine place that it is in the face of a modern civilization hurtling into the future.

But for now, Beaver Island is still a place where strangers are greeted with a friendly wave, smiles and a tip of the hat, where anglers are given tips for good fishing, and the arrival of hunters is cause for celebration.