Michigan’s Magnet Man attracts river trash


These porcelain license plates were retrieved from the Grand River in Lansing, Michigan. Image: Tanner Torrez

By Vladislava Sukhanovskaya

Laptops, phones, keys, a drone, a picnic table, a meat slicer, axes, spoons, chairs, a horseshoe, guns and a 90-year-old condom are among the items Michigan’s Magnet Man has fished out of the state’s rivers.

Magnet fishing is popular throughout the Great Lake states, including communities in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Tanner Torrez has been magnet fishing and releasing videos about his catches since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. He has more than 353,000 followers on TikTok, YouTube and Instagram.

“The first thing I found was a screwdriver,” Torrez said. He fished it out of the Cass River in Caro, Michigan, where he used to live.

He was inspired by another magnet fisher and blogger, Daniel Bowen.

“He pulled a grenade out of the river,” Torrez said. “It was the first video I had ever seen of someone finding an explosive in a river before. It intrigued me and I had to try it out for myself.”

Torrez, a film student at Michigan State University, works as a videographer and social media manager at the Quello Center for Telecommunication Management and Law, a research center for communication, information and media policy.

He fishes with a magnet every weekend for 8 to 10 hours.

One of the oldest items Torrez fished out of the Detroit River is a tin containing an unused 90-year-old condom.

“I think that’s probably the weirdest thing I’ve pulled out of the river,” he said.

Tanner Torrez used a magnet to retrieve this 90-year-old condom from the Detroit River. Image: Tanner Torrez

The heaviest thing that he has found is a full-sized safe in the Rouge River in Delray, Michigan. It took seven people with magnets and hooks to pull it out.

“In that same area, we had found five guns,” Torrez said. “So we think the safe might have had stuff in it at one point.”

But after they pulled it out of the water, all they found inside was a little flower in a plastic bag.

Over the past three years Torrez has found around 15 safes that were empty or had a little bit of change inside.

Other common finds are bicycles and scooters.

“I’ve heard there’s a tradition of throwing things into the (the Red Cedar River) at Michigan State, which I find to be ridiculous,” Torrez said.

“There’s a pile at Michigan State that I’ve been working on that had over 30 scooters and 20 bicycles in it – just a pile in the middle of the river.”

Campus police pick the bikes up. The newer ones get refurbished and go to the bike shop.

The company that owns the discarded scooters picks them up.

The scooters’ batteries are particularly hazardous as they can leak. Danish researchers dumped batteries into the water for 18 months and found that the levels of nickel and copper were elevated in the water, even though the battery seal hadn’t broken.

Researchers noted that “rapid removal of batteries dumped by vandals into rivers and lakes from the surface waters is advised because no sealing can hold forever.”

Torrez often finds guns – 34 so far. If they are newer and functional, he calls the police.

“I have found multiple guns that were reported stolen. If a more serious crime takes place (the police) don’t usually give us many details on the gun.”

“Almost every weekend someone, either me or guys in my group, will find a gun,” he said.

Torrez’s magnet fishing group has four core members. His partner, known on YouTube as Scuba Sonia, has a YouTube channel about magnet fishing and underwater metal detecting.

They have pulled 250,000 pounds of metal trash – about the same weight as 60 cars – out of the riverways in about three years. A lot of it goes to recycling.

“When we go out with our group we will probably pull anywhere from 1,200 to 2,500 pounds worth of metal,” he said.

While cleaning the Detroit River in John D. Dingell Park in Ecorse, Michigan, the group “pulled 6 to 10 tons of garbage, trash and debris and 100,000 miles of fishing line,” said Jason Vanderwal, a friend of Torrez and a member of  Motor City Magnet Fishers.

To pick up non-metal trash, Vanderwal uses a grappling hook.

He once even pulled a fish out of a river.

“I got a fishing pole on one end and a live fish on the other end.”

He volunteers for Friends of the Rouge, based in Plymouth, Michigan, a nonprofit group  that cleans up the Rouge River.

Each year Vanderwal identifies a spot on a Rouge River to clean up. The first year he did it, magnet fishers from all over the country came to help.

“We had people from Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, Northern Michigan. They all came in to help clean up the river there and we pulled out probably 3,000 or 4,000 pounds just in a couple of hours. There were a total of four or five firearms pulled out of there. I pulled three or four safes.”

It is important to clean out rivers, especially from car and train parts with oil and grease that pollute the water, Vanderwal said. He dates car parts back to the ‘20s and ‘30s.

Big car and train parts cover the bottom and don’t allow vegetation to grow, Vanderwal said.

About 80% of magnet fishing is motivated by environmentalism, he said. The rest is treasure hunting.

“You never know what you’re gonna pull out. Up to today, I pulled out 53 bicycles and 62 firearms,” Vanderwal said.

Torrez and Vanderwal have retrieved trash from Michigan rivers in Lansing, Grand Rapids, Flint, Saginaw, Detroit, Battle Creek and Kalamazoo. Torrez also fishes for metal in  Pennsylvania and Indiana.

Michigan’s Magnet Man found this 1930 uranium glass reflector road sign in the Cass River in Caro, Michigan. Image: Tanner Torrez

He fished in Lake Erie, but he didn’t find a lot. The denser the population next to the water, the higher chances to find something, he said.

When they return to where they once fished, there is nothing left.

“All the trash is gone. I think it’s kind of dawned on us that hey, we’re kind of the reason that all of this trash is not in the waterways anymore.”

About 500 people in Michigan fish with magnets, Torrez said. Anyone can join the community during the annual waterway clean-up event that will take place this summer for a third time either in East Lansing or Detroit.

The family-friendly event raises money to provide Detroit kids with magnet fishing kits.

“We were only able to donate 35 magnet fishing kits the first year,” Torrez said. The next year they raised $3,500 and provided 50 magnet fishing kits.

“We also provided lunch to every single person that came as well as the homeless people in the park,” he said.

Magnets cost from $35 to $55 for the beginner models and $150 to $225 for more powerful ones.

The smaller magnets that weigh two to three pounds have a pull force from 300 pounds to 750 pounds. The more powerful magnets that weigh up to six pounds can pull out around 3,800 pounds.

A magnet capable of pulling 2,400 pounds finds something every throw, he said.

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