Mr. Calvin "Rusty" Gates Jr.
Class of 1973
Career Pathway: Natural Resources & Agri-science
Calvin “Rusty” Gates Jr. was nominated by Cheryl (Bourrie) Millikin.
Rusty was 15 in 1970 when his family moved to Grayling, where his parents -- Calvin Gates Sr. and Mary -- started Gates AuSable Lodge on the Mainstream of the AuSable River on Stephan Bridge Road. He graduated from Grayling High School in 1973. His father, Cal Sr. had been a high school music teacher, and at GHS, Rusty played trombone in the band. He won the John Philip Sousa award his senior year and continued to play the trombone throughout the years with the Riverland Dixie Band.
But his passion for fly fishing occupied most of his time. He began tying flies professionally and guiding at age 17. At first Gates' flies were sold in the corner of the restaurant at the lodge, but soon demand was great enough that the Gates family added a full-service fly shop to the lodge. The lodge came to be a gathering spot for thousands of anglers during fly fishing season. After Cal Sr. died in 1983, Rusty – known as “Gator” to his friends – took over the fly shop end of the business. He married Julie McCredie, another GHS graduate, in 1988, and the two of them began buying Gates AuSable Lodge from Mary in 1990.
Over his lifetime, Rusty Gates became a top-flight fly fisherman, fishing guide and fly tier. Dave Spratt wrote for the Detroit News that he “developed a number of fly patterns that became standards” – including the Rusty Spinner and the SRB (Secret Rubber Bug) – “and (he) introduced scores of people to the world of fly fishing. But it was his tireless defense of his beloved AuSable River that changed the way many Michiganians see their natural resources.”
That defense came primarily through Anglers of the AuSable, a grassroots organization that originated in the summer of 1986. Initially, Rusty worked to oppose those who wanted to rescind the DNR’s “catch and release” fishing policy on the upper section of the Au Sable’s Main Branch, popularly known as the “holy waters.” The policy specified that all trout, regardless of size, must be returned to the water unharmed. His efforts to organize fly fishers to oppose the anti-catch-and-release groups during that summer were quite successful. In September of 1986, he and five other sympathizers decided to found a group made up of of fly fishers and conservationists that would promote and support the long term well-being of the Au Sable River watershed. With that, Anglers of the AuSable was born, with its mission to preserve, protect and enhance the AuSable River ecosystem for future generations of fly fishers. Mr. Gates served as its president from its inception until 2009. After beginning with a dozen or so members in January of 1987, Anglers quickly grew to over 800 members from 21 states and four countries. And in November 1988, the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the catch and release regulations for the Mainstream, which was a huge victory for the organization.
Throughout the years and through the Anglers, Mr. Gates “led numerous battles – many of them successful – against oil and gas drillers and other potential polluters . . . that he believed would have spoiled the river and its banks,” wrote Eric Sharp, outdoor writer for the Detroit Free Press, in a tribute to Rusty.
In 2003, Dave Spratt wrote: “Gates, as president of the Anglers of the AuSable, challenged a U.S. Forest Service lease that would have allowed exploratory drilling for gas below the famed Mason Tract section of the South Branch of the AuSable River. With the odds stacked against them, the Anglers prevailed in their case, forever altering how the business of gas and oil exploration would be conducted in the fragile areas of Michigan.”
Sadly, though, on December 19, 2009, at age 54, Calvin "Rusty" Gates Jr. lost a battle against lung cancer at his home on the banks of the AuSable River. His life was memorialized on opening day of trout season in 2010 with a service held under a tent on the shore of the AuSable River’s “holy waters” that was attended by nearly 1,500 people from all over the United States.
“He was the initiator of river conservation and the protector of the river,” said John Wylie, an Anglers of the AuSable board member and one of the speakers at the service. “ . . . The efforts he started with the Anglers will continue.”
Dave Smethurst, of the Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited, said that Rusty Gates “understood the scientific and legal issues as well as the scientists and lawyers even though his formal education ended with high school.”
Also at the service, Eric Sharp said he remembered Rusty from decades ago when “Gates first made his start as the voice and conscience of the AuSable River, not just the AuSable but the whole river system. That voice is still heard 40 years later and probably will be for years to come.”
Tom Rosenbauer, winner of the 2001 National Outdoor Book Award and marketing director for the Orvis Company, said, "Of all the strong conservationists in our world, Rusty was one of the toughest. He was tireless, and he was like a missile in his precision and deadly accuracy. Yet he never, ever wanted credit for anything – just for the various groups he worked with, especially the Anglers of the Au Sable."
And Anne Woiwode, president of Michigan Sierra Club, said, "While Rusty will mainly be remembered for his role in protecting the Au Sable, he changed forever the way we look at and work to protect our water resources and wildlife. We owe it to Rusty to carry on his work and make sure children in every generation to come will be able to share the wonder and joy in Michigan's wild places that are his legacy."
Mr. Gates received many environmental awards throughout the years. One of them was the coveted Fly Rod and Reel Magazine "Angler of the Year" award in 1995 for his conservation and cultural contributions to the sport of fly fishing.
He was also a member of the Headwaters Land Conservancy, Federation of Fly Fishermen and the Lovells Historical Society. Three of his siblings – Tom, Jody and Janelle – graduated from GHS, as did his stepchildren, Misty (Burden) Wilson and Chris Burden.