Boy, 9, spearheading effort to return Arctic grayling to Michigan's streams

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Royal Oak — To understand how a 9-year-old boy became a champion of a fish that hasn’t been in Michigan for 85 years, we should first tell you about the love between the boy and his grandfather.

When Declan O’Reilly was born, his granddad didn’t buy him a teddy bear but a stuffed fish. When Declan visits grandpa Sherm Shultz at his cabin in Grayling, they fish on the Au Sable River.

Declan O'Reilly, 9, talks at his home in Royal Oak on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021 about the display he created to take to the Royal Oak Farmers Market to try and raise donations and awareness of the Arctic grayling and efforts to return it to Michigan. On his ninth birthday in October, instead of presents, he asked for donations for the grayling project. He raised $1,400.

The fish-crazed grandfather will next teach the fish-crazed grandson the four-count rhythm of fly fishing.

When Declan learned this summer about an effort to bring the Arctic grayling back to Michigan, he wanted to help.

He raised money, spread awareness, formed a club and is working with the state Department of Natural Resources. On Monday, the DNR held a program about the species for his class at Keller Elementary School.

“I like that they’re thin,” he said. “I like their dots. They’re like a rainbow trout.”

Shultz said he’s proud of his grandson.

“A lot of work has been done,” he said. “It really captured his attention.”

When not campaigning for the Arctic grayling, Declan enjoys gym, video games and fencing.

Fencing?

“I have no idea where it came from,” said his mom, Laura Shultz. “It’s the most random thing I’ve heard.”

But Declan is giving up the epee for a basketball. He created a form of the game that, the more points you score, the bigger fish you win. He calls it Fish Ball.

Children are known for their passing fancies but, in Declan’s case, all things merge into one, and a fish runs through it.

He has four goldfish, Big, Zebra, Pumpkin and Fuli (named for a cartoon character), and the late, beloved Dot. He dressed as a bluegill several Halloweens ago.

While others frolicked at childish PAW Patrol parties, he celebrated his fifth birthday with a sensible fish theme.

He likes to watch “Monster Fish” and “Chasing Monsters,” wildlife documentary TV shows. During a family visit to the Toledo Zoo & Aquarium last year, he identified the arapaima, a torpedo-shaped fish from the Amazon, before his family had a chance to read the exhibit sign.

“I bet you’re the only 8-year-old watching extreme fishing shows,” Laura told himat the time.

Declan allows that he’s only the second-best angler in the family. His grandpop beats him in their frequent competitions although the youngster said he won one time.

“I felt happy because every time I never win,” he said.

The Arctic grayling joined this love story in the summertime.

Declan and his family were visiting the Oden Fish Hatchery near Petoskey, a family tradition started by Sherm Shultz. During the July visit, Declan was drawn to a sticker that showed a slender fish with a humongous dorsal fin.

Written across the sticker was “Michigan Arctic Grayling Initiative” and the website for the DNR.

Declan and Laura looked it up and learned the freshwater species, which can grow up to 30 inches, once was the king of northern Michigan. The city of Grayling is named after it.

The Thymallus arcticus thrived in the cold streams until its numbers began to drop in the mid-1800s. By 1936, it was gone. Causes of death: overfishing, loss of habitat and being gobbled up by brown trout.

The DNR and Little River Band of Ottawa Indians announced a project to bring the species back in 2016. Three years later, eggs from Alaska, where grayling are prevalent, were transferred to Michigan. Researchers hope the fish will inhabit the state’s waters by 2025.

“It would be fun to fish for them,” said Declan, with grandpa in tow, of course.

In the meantime, however, bills have to be paid.

Declan began raising money for the initiative on his ninth birthday in October. Instead of presents, he asked for donations for the grayling project. He raised $1,400.

When Laura told the DNR about the windfall, a light bulb went off in the agency’s head.

The DNR invited Declan to visit its six fish hatcheries, including behind-the-scenes spots.

Declan O’Reilly and his grandfather, Sherm Shultz, catch fish on KP Lake near Grayling in July. Declan became interested in fishing because during family visits to Sherman’s cabin up north his granddad frequently takes him fishing. Declan began raising money for the Michigan Arctic Grayling Initiative on his ninth birthday in October. Instead of presents, he asked for donations for the grayling project. He raised $1,400.

Laura joked about being relieved when Declan wasn’t interested in playing for a sports travel team, which would have involved a lot of driving, only to prepare to ferry him to aquatic nurseries all over Michigan.

The DNR also made its top fish production guy available to Declan. Ed Eisch, a biologist who runs all six hatcheries, was going to give a Zoom presentation to Declan’s fledgling Arctic grayling club.

But the club has just four members, said Laura. Why not shoot bigger? With her help, Eisch gave the talk to Declan’s entire class on Monday.

At the session, many hands shot into the air during the question period.

Among the queries from the 17 students: How do the fish tell the difference between its eggs and gravel? What type of bugs do they like most? (Mayflies but they will eat just about anything floating on water, said Eisch.)

Another question was what could be done to return the Arctic grayling to Michigan, which Eisch had just spent 30 minutes explaining.

Eisch said he was impressed with Declan’s effort.

“The best thing we can do is make people aware,” he said. “There are a whole lot of individuals like Declan who are fundraising.”

But the pint-size ambassador for the Arctic grayling isn’t done yet.

He’s selling T-shirts and other items with a grayling logo designed by his uncle. The uncle, artist Matt Shultz, is donating his share of the proceeds to the fish initiative. The items may be purchased at teepublic.com/user/arcticgraylingclub.

As for the club, its first meeting was on Nov. 14. Declan and his three buddies, clad in the grayling T-shirts, watched a PowerPoint presentation of different fish in Michigan. They wrote the names of the dozen species and later took a quiz.

Laura worried about the youths taking it seriously but they were properly earnest. The Goldfish crackers helped.

Declan plans to introduce more fish at the next meeting.

In fact, the DNR put his family in touch with Sturgeon For Tomorrow, a group fighting to rehabilitate the lake sturgeon. Declan is already thinking about having the organization talk to his class.

First Arctic grayling, then lake sturgeon. After that, who knows? It’s a vast state and our young fisher king is just getting started.

fdonnelly@detroitnews.com

(313) 223-4186

Twitter: @prima_donnelly