Nature’s Ways

Nature’s riddles and mysteries can at times really get your wheels spinning. Then again, when you stay active, probe the intricacies of place, and ponder all the possibilities, well, doesn’t such bewilderment keep life worth living?

A case in point is my recent avoidance of a nesting sanctuary along a Green-River floodplain bordered on the west by a slim wetland lip of alder, poplar, wild rose, cattail and much more. This strip of marsh terminates at a steep 20-foot escarpment, undercut in places, where large beech, hickory, maples and oaks reach south and east, forming a solid, narrow tree line framing the upper shelf. On that roadside terrace stand hayfields, a couple of  greenhouses and a small commercial vegetable garden, with a string of homes across the street .

I wrote recently of two close encounters I had with birds whose nests my dogs had disturbed, and vowed to skirt the area until the nestlings and fledglings became “upwardly mobile,” so to speak. I have learned that it isn’t long before these helpless little creatures can fly from danger and easily elude my alert gundogs as they romp toward damp, enticing  scents through tall grasses.

Since my last mention of this topic, I have not seen hide nor hair, not so much as a downy woodcock breast feather. They’re around. Of that, I’m confident. But we have not bumped into them since the day Lily flushed the hen, who tantalized her and Chub-Chub away from a vulnerable nest by flying low and teasingly slow. A few days later, maybe 100 yards south of this nest, another nest-disturbance occurred. Cubby was the joyous culprit this time, flushing a big, putt-putt-putting hen turkey, who, similar to her small timberdoodle neighbor, craftily drew the dog away from her nest with low, slow flight uncharacteristic of adult turkeys that are not protecting young.

Because I do not keep a daily journal, it’s difficult to pinpoint the day, but late last week, probably noontime Friday, truck in sight as I approached the final left turn of my daily mile-and-some walk, all hell broke loose in a place where similar commotion has presented itself in the past. I was first alerted  by a telltale “putt-putt-putt” and a whoosh of wings, and there she was: a hen turkey on the upper level, some 400 or 500 yards north of my first  encounter. Again, Chub-Chub had sniffed her out and — Oh, my! — was he fired up. His adrenaline only soared when five or six little ones subsequently took flight into the eastern tree line about 10 yards away. Chubby sprinted after the low-flying hen, heading toward a distant bend in the river and totally ignoring the little ones that had perched in an oak. The mother’s strategy had worked to perfection against a world-class flush-and-retriever, who my buddy Cooker claims has “a big pump,” meaning heart … and tireless endurance.

I called Chub-Chub and Lily off, walked 100 yards to the truck parked behind a greenhouse, boxed-up the dogs and returned home, certain I would get to know this family of birds much better in the weeks to come. But now, after consecutive sightings on Tuesday and Wednesday, I’m not so sure.

First, before noon Tuesday, nearing the end of our daily journey not 20 yards from my truck, Chubby flushed a putting hen out of the tall, dense hayfield and chased her to the back corner, where she disappeared over the tree line.

Hmmmm? Where were the little ones? Crouched, concealed and ready burst into flight from the deep hayfield? Dead? Then again, maybe we were dealing with a different hen? No way of knowing. Perplexing indeed.

Next morning, around 11 Wednesday, I arrived at my walking place and the farmer was working the field in his tractor, teddering windrows of hay he had cut the previous evening. I parked out of the way in a different location and took the dogs on an abbreviated romp in dry, breezy  summer  air. We looped the perimeter of the lower meadow and returned to the truck, where the dogs jumped into their porta-kennels. Well, truthfully, I helped geriatric lion-heart Lily, but don’t tell anyone. She’s not proud of it.

I fired-up the truck and followed a double-rutted trail down the edge of the scalped hayfield toward the road. Crossing a little rise with loose hay lying on the ground, shockingly, about 100 yards south of where Chubby had flushed that Tuesday hen, up came another, or maybe the same, less than 10 feet in front of my front right wheel. She must have been crouched  flat, hoping I’d pass without incident. No such luck. I would have run her over had she not flown.

The big bird flew the same path the previous day’s bird had flown — heading diagonally to the back corner near a friend’s riverside home.

Hmmm? Was it the  same hen I had seen the previous day? The same one I had seen the previous week with five or six little ones? A different, barren hen? You tell me. I have no answers.

Time will tell. I do hope those little ones I avoided for a week or two didn’t fall prey to something. I’m anxious  to meet them again. If not, oh well, that’s life.  Nature can be kind …  cruel and unforgiving, too.

 

*****

 

Sing farewell to the 2017 Connecticut River American shad run. It’s over. Now starts the fun.

Later this summer, millions of progeny will populate the river, providing a great food source for foraging predators that’ll take many but not nearly enough to devastate future runs. Again, Mother Nature doing what she does. No supervision required.

Water temperature at Holyoke reached 72 degrees this week. The run starts to slow down about 68, signaling that it’s time to establish spawning lairs, where immature fish that will return to the river as adults in two to five years are hatched.

This year’s run through Holyoke was No. 2 all-time. The 535,936 thus far counted passing the Barrett Fishway was surpassed only by 1992’s total of 721,000-plus. All said, the fellas had a great year of shad fishing. Unless I’m missing something, the future seems bright indeed on the shad front.

How about that! Finally, we’re concentrating on the anadromous fish run that matters and always has mattered  here in the valley. Shad should be the focus of recreational-fishing initiatives, not Atlantic salmon, the king of game fish which have been doomed since the Little Ice Age ended and the Industrial-Revolution began.

Most interesting is that there were always minority New England fisheries biologists who predicted the Connecticut River salmon-restoration program’s demise. As it turns out, they were right, which didn’t save them from being rudely drowned out by true-believer colleagues shouting them down at meetings.

“Silence!” true-believers  would roar as they slipped on their black, opaque blinders. “We don’t want to hear it.”

And hear it they didn’t for 50 pathetic years, when top dogs had the audacity to plead with the press to “Ignore the numbers because they don’t matter.”

Sounds good, but where did that get them?

The rest is history, nothing ventured, nothing gained the best justification.

In the meantime, 16 lonely salmon were counted in the river this year. That’s 11 more than last year, and probably about what we can expect until they stop coming entirely. Then again, maybe a new  wild salmon will magically appear for future anglers.

Yeah, right. Maybe.

Don’t hold your breath waiting. Salmon restoration in our fertile valley was doomed from the start. There were just too many factors pulling against it, as the captains of industry gave their heartfelt, public pledges to do everything in their power to make it happen. Everything, that is, except threaten the bottom line.

Anadromous Countdown

As the spectacular strawberry moon wanes in the midnight sky, the sweet scent of wild rose fills the meadow, pink weigelas are in full, fragrant bloom, and mock oranges are opening their buds to white blossoms, adding another subtle dimension of spring sweetness.

Yes, signs abound of a slow spring transitioning into summer, including a slowdown of anadromous-fish runs up the Connecticut River basin, to be expected this time of year. Numbers released on Tuesday morning, when the lift on Holyoke’s Barrett Fishway was closed due to high, turbulent river flow, indicate it has been a great year for the annual American shad run, and a surprising yet largely insignificant season for Atlantic-salmon migration.

On Tuesday, the river temperature was still low for this time of year, lingering just under 65, which is a bit surprising given the hot days and warm nights for three or four days beginning over the weekend. The wild card in the formula is the water volume in the Connecticut, which is taking substantial runoff from heavy rains up and down the watershed. Once the river settles down, the water temperature should rapidly rise, with sunny days and warm nights forecast through today. Then it looks like extended wet, overcast weather is on the way, which could delay shad spawning if the river remains under 68 or so degrees.

There was no word from Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle by Wednesday evening, so it’s likely there was no change with continued shutdown of the Holyoke lift. When you have tracked these annual anadromous fish runs as long as I have, you learn to expect reliable patterns coming down the stretch. It’s all water-temperature driven. Once the river reaches shad-spawning temps, the shad run halts and the shad begin selecting spawning lairs, unaffected from that point forward by water-temperature-reducing rains.

So, take it to the bank: come hell or high water, the most-recent shad-passage numbers through Holyoke (505,580) do not figure to grow much. That said, 505,000-plus through that traditional counting station is a big number by recent standards; in fact, the highest total since 721,000-plus in 1992. That number is obviously out of reach, but it’s not out of the question that we’ll approach or even pass the other two top-three runs through Holyoke, 528,000-plus in 1983 and 523,000-plus in 1991. It probably won’t happen but definitely could with a heavy pulse of fish passage the day the gates open.

It seems overall that things are looking up in recent years on the shad front, and recreational anglers are the beneficiaries. Word has it that the fishing at Holyoke, Turners Falls and points in between has been awesome, and probably still is today at sites like Rock Dam in Montague City. That’ll all stop rapidly as soon as the spawning ritual begins. Shad running to upstream spawning lairs are likely to strike shiny, colorful attractant lures out of surly aggression, and have a lot of current-aided fight in them once the hook is set and the battle ensues. That’s what brings out anglers in droves.

Big shad weigh seven to 10 pounds. The average is probably more like three to five. Many folks ask if they’re good eating, and the answer is, yes, if you know how to prepare them. Boney and labor intensive to remove the scales, I have sampled smoked, canned shad as finger food that’s excellent with crackers or mixed into noodles and rice. Taste it and you’d think it’s salmon but is of a whitish-brown hue, not pink. The best I ever tasted was prepared by South Deerfield native Tony Plaza, a well-known high school basketball official from Hatfield, not to mention an avid fisherman in his day. I attended a couple of sportsmen’s functions at which his smoked shad laid out on a large platter was a hit on the hors d’oeuvres-table.

The shad counts through Turners Falls and Vernon, Vt., are not even worth reporting because they’re so dated. The last report through the Powertown was 28,500-plus on June 2. The last Vernon report showed 10,600-plus had passed, through May 26.

As for salmon, well, thus far 14 have been counted in the river system, almost three times last year’s figure of five. Eight of those fish were counted passing Holyoke. The rest were tracked on the Salmon (1) and Farmington (1) rivers in Connecticut and the Westfield River (4) here in the Pioneer Valley. One salmon has been monitored passing Turners Falls, and two have been seen passing Vernon.

The only other number that sticks out on Tuesday morning’s report is the lamprey eel count, which stood at a paltry 14,793, less than half of last year’s average total of 36,914. Not that anyone fishing the river misses the orange-colored eels swimming between their waders, but there was a day when many more migrated up the river. The modern-era record is 97,000-plus in 1998. The 42-year mean is 33,540.

Nesting Season

Sunday morning, after 8, sunny sky, still air. I’m driving between fields to a fork in the road south of my Greenfield Meadows home. There, in a calm, waist-high hayfield, stands a thin, healthy, mature doe, tail slowly twitching from side to side as she feeds toward the woods less than 100 yards west.

It’s an unusual sighting for that time of day. Deer typically reserve such open-field foraging for nighttime, enveloped in darkness, shiny eyes the only hint of their presence to passersby. I pass that field many times daily and rarely catch a deer feeding in broad daylight. So, yes, this blatant variable suggests to me that the deer may have fawns concealed nearby and is out replenishing nutrition to build her milk supply.

Don’t let May and early June’s April-like weather fool you. The smell of clover and wildflowers is in the air. It’s nesting season. I’ve been on the lookout lately during my daily mindful meanderings with the dogs, the animals so picturesque and graceful as they bound through tall hayfields due to be harvested whenever they dry. Which reminds me. Six-year-old Chub-Chub — my male English springer spaniel, registered as Old Tavern Farm’s Rabble Rouser — has his first litter on the ground. Yes, five beautiful white and liver pups of aristocratic field-trial pedigree will be 3 weeks old Friday, secure in their kitchen whelping pen with nursing mother Cinda in Florence.

Last week, I wrote about spry, geriatric Lily flushing a woodcock hen from her marshy nest. Days before, the same 13-year-old bitch I had written off a year ago was lagging behind as she always does, scouring the meadows for scent when I gave her a whistle. She soon appeared, racing gleefully around the one-acre, upper Christmas-tree farm’s northeast corner some 50 yards east of me. Maybe 50 feet shy of me, she stopped on a dime, lifted her head into the breeze and lunged into the edge before I could react. She dug her head into the brush and I heard the telltale sound of a distressed baby robin, which she killed instantly, intending to devour it.

“Leave it,” I ordered.

Lily just stood there looking at me, a few feathers protruding from one side of her mouth, the bird beyond saving. She dropped it and I picked the wet, limp creature up, snapping off its head in case it had not expired, and tossing it over the escarpment edge. I was not happy but accepted what had unfolded before my eyes as an unfortunate act of nature that prematurely ends many young critters’ lives. I called off the dogs and proceeded along our daily path. I regretting the death of that young bird, which, to be honest, I poignantly thought about several times over the next few days.

Days later, at an adjacent site along the lower level I call “Sunken Meadow” — in fact, on the very day after my tale of Lily’s woodcock flush hit the street — I was turning the corner 50 yards south of that woodcock nest when the silence was broken by sudden commotion. I heard a sharp “Putt, putt, putt,” a rustling of brush and whooshing wings. Chub-Chub had flushed a hen turkey from her nest some 20 feet to my right. The big bird flew low toward the same oak knoll along the swampy tree line that the woodcock had fled to. Chubby, in aggressive pursuit, saw the turkey glide gracefully into the largest red oak on the knoll, rooted on its western tip. The bird perched maybe 30 feet high as Chubby raced through perimeter cattails to the base of the tree, tail wagging, looking up. I whistled him back and he raced straight to the flush site, circling it, ears alert. I called him off.

Ever since, I have skirted that wet corner to avoid further conflict. Why disturb a fledgling nest? I’d hate to encounter the need to save a pathetic little nestling retrieved by Chubby or Lily. Once I know that the little ones are out of their nest, off and running and able to fly, I don’t give them a second thought.

Actually, I’ve been hoping to pop a doe out of her brushy nest one of these days. I know the dogs will be interested but will not harm little spotted fawns. No, they’d just perk up their ears, excitedly wag their tails and attempt to play with the little critters much in the manner fawns play with each other — prancing and hopping and running in snappy, little, light-footed circles. I know I’ll soon be running into river ducklings and goslings, turtles and snakes and frogs along the edges, probably even dead little rabbits and baby birds killed by my cat, Kiki, around the yard. I can’t say I enjoy the sight of what’s left of those pathetic little bunnies and birdies, but I guess I’m hardened to death, accepting it as a distressing inevitability.

Although spring’s a time of birth and life and optimism, even nesting season is laced with death and destruction, natural and manmade. There’s nothing anyone can do to stop it? Not a thing. Sad but true.

That’s life.

 

Showtime At Sunken Meadow

It was a gray, wet, low-pressure Tuesday afternoon, about 4 o’clock, and I was wearing light, fast-drying athletic shorts and Classic-Clog Crocs, running the dogs through saturated, waist-high grass.

Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s tick season; and, yes, I have been finding the annoying little buggers lately. Saturday, I even medicated the dogs for the second time this spring. Still, I don’t live in fear of ticks, which I don’t recall ever hearing a word about as a free-range South Deerfield kid. So, I refuse to allow them get in the way of healthy daily exercise for me or my pets. If I find one crawling up my arm, my leg, my face, my neck or wherever, I just kill them, sometimes teasing my nervous wife that the poor critter walking up my arm or across my hand appears cold before I stroll into the dining room to flick it into the hot woodstove. End of story.

Then again, when not fortunate enough to detect one before it digs in and establishes residence — rare for me — I just rip  it free and live with the ugly red mark that remains for weeks, confident the tick wasn’t imbedded for the required 72-hour Lyme disease-incubation period. Knock on wood. It’s always worked for me without a bout  with the potentially debilitating disease.

Enough of that little tick digression, though. I didn’t sit down to write about ticks. I’d rather recount an interesting sighting that made my day soon after swiping my debit card for $712 and change for Tacoma service at  Greenfield Toyota. Needing fresh air and exercise after a dry-docked day indoors, I returned home, put on my knee brace and went out back for the dogs, both of whom were anxious  to ramble.

Down in the bottomland meadow, I passed and evaluated a couple of patches of four-foot ostrich ferns that were, a month or so back, tiny, tender, salubrious-green fiddlehead tendrils … yum. I turned the corner and looked up to the 20-foot escarpment lip, where my friend and I harvested five pounds of beautiful, snow-white oyster mushrooms Friday … yum, yum. I had spotted them growing along a horizontal, red-oak deadfall limb on my walk and knew they were fresh. They had not been there the previous day and had emerged overnight in the rain. When I got home, I phoned my buddy to ask him if oysters came out in the spring. “Yes,” he said, “Absolutely.” In fact, he had visited a couple of his favorite spots that very morning and come up empty. I was willing to share.

I hopped in the truck to pick him up and drive to the site, where the two of us made quick work of harvesting chores, cutting them off at the base with a knife and carrying them back to the truck in two plastic shopping bags. Oh, how I yearned for a package of venison chops to fry in bacon fat and complement them. No such luck. I cut the mushroom into long strips, sautéed them in avocado oil with onions and garlic, and “settled” for sirloin hamburgers with the wild mushrooms, onions and garlic smothered in sharp cheddar cheese. Superb. Venison would have been better. Oh well, deer-hunting is too much work for this old man, who has many other interests to occupy his time.

Ooops. There I go again. This time a mushroom digression. Damn it! Back to my Tuesday ramble with the dogs …

I continued following my path through high, dense grass, passed a couple of wild apple trees that recently lost their white blossoms and took a sharp right around a staghorn-sumac corner toward a small young poplar stand that juts out a short distance into the field. Just three short years ago a small patch of cattails stood there in six inches of beaver backwater. It’s amazing how fast those infant poplars took over. Today, there’s no trace of cattails, just a clump of 3-year-old poplars about 12 feet high. Small, random poplars have begun to appear out among the Christmas trees, which will soon be overtaken if the plot’s neglected.

Approaching these poplars along a narrow, densely vegetated alder swamp bordered by sumacs, Chub-Chub got a noseful of something that revved him up. He noticeably picked up the pace and went into those showy hops of his to elevate his noose over the cover. “Find it!” I said three or four times in an excited tone and, trust me, he knows the drill. In his prime, Chub-Chub was off in a powerful athletic pursuit.

Suddenly Old Mother Lily, 13 and apparently fully recovered from a couple of mini-strokes last year, darted around the sumac corner, well aware of what “Find it!” means. I didn’t know she heard me before she appeared in her excited, hunting gait, nose high, tail joyously  wagging. She was anxious to join the chase and immediately detected the same scent that jacked up Chub-Chub. An old pro, Lily raced forward, stopped on a dime, turned into the breeze and slid quickly through the infant poplars on a straight line into the tangle behind them. In seconds, out came the most colorful, beautiful, long-beaked woodcock hen, slowly and silently flying straight at me. She angled to the right  head-high within five feet of my face and Chubby, 20 yards out in the Christmas trees, caught the flight and took off after her.

As a man who’s seen many woodcock flushes over the years, I have never seen an easier target. Standing right there in my spot, I had an absolute sucker shot, not the typical scenario. Woodcocks typically burst out of a covert in erratic flight, like feathered knuckleballs, presenting difficult targets for novice, impatient wing-shooters. Because woodcocks are scarce compared to my younger days, I no longer kill them. When I did, I knew enough to be patient, waiting for the flush to peak and level off after reaching the apex of its 45-degree ascension. Then, the erratic flight smoothes out into a relatively flat, straightaway shot at a gentlemen’s trap range.

When Lily re-entered the field, the bird and Chub-Chub were out of sight, the dog bounding through tall green cover full speed ahead toward a forested marsh on the meadow’s southern perimeter. Into the trees he thrashed, and out of a dried-up beaver pond flushed that woodcock hen, angling across the open field and hooking left into a slim marsh halfway back to where Lily had flushed her. I knew from her slow and low initial flight that she was tantalizing the dogs to chase her and  pull them away from her ground nest. So I called off the dogs, headed toward the Green River and back to the truck.

Once we were out of earshot, I’m sure that wild wetland game bird returned to her nestlings. By August in the hayfield above, Chub-Chub will be flushing the young timberdoodles  daily, one by one, every last one of them flying back to the treeline overlooking the lower meadow where they were hatched. I saw it happen many times last year and expect a replay with this local brood.

It’s these little things that keep me ticking. The wonders of nature. They brighten my days and lift my wild spirits.

 

*****

 

I took two friends this week to a place where the finest, cold, clean, wooded, native brook trout stream I know runs through a steep, deep, ravine. There,  I often  watched in boyhood amazement as fall squaretails, some very large, accumulated in a settling pool before jumping up the step falls alongside an old sawmill footprint to upstream spawning grounds. Maybe I have been there too early or too late, but I have been to that spot in recent autumns — sometimes shotgun in hand hunting partridge and woodcock while scouting for deer — and  the squaretails have not been there. I wonder what the status of our native trout population there is these days? Has acid rain taken its toll? Are the summer fingerlings still there for the taking  in cool, hard rains? How about the big boys we used to catch in the impoundments, using  Thomas buoyant spoons, Mepps spinners and artificial Mayfly spinners or duns and  Wooly Buggers? Getting in there to assess  the brookie status sounds like a great retirement project, one well worth exploring and writing about. I do hope they’re still there, but suspect it ain’t what it used to be. And guess what else? The good days I remember were probably better when the sawmill was operating, better still before our ancestors  arrived to displace the true and tawny North Americans.

 

*****

 

The Connecticut River shad count has already surpassed last year’s respectable total with more to come. How do I know  the numbers will grow? Because water temperature is still below 65 and  should remain fairly stable with rainy weather and cool nights forecast for the rest of the week. The run typically stops when water temperatures approach  70, which triggers spawning ritual and lair establishment. The river total through Tuesday was 416,108. Last year’ total was 392,057.

Record-Breaking Shad Surge

With turkey season in the rearview, irises bloom, Memorial Day looms and woodstoves limp to the finish line, burning just hot enough to kill the chill as hayfields, soon to harbor newborn fawns, whine for their first cut.

Overall, it’s been a cool May, one that’s apparently excellent  for American shad migrating up the Connecticut River Basin for their annual spring spawning run.

Recent numbers indicate that conditions have never been better for optimal shad runs. On three consecutive days, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, incredible single-day totals passed the Barrett Fishway on the Holyoke Dam. A record-shattering 76,554 were lifted Friday, followed by an all-time second-best 58,544 Saturday. The Thursday record of 55,078 sure didn’t last long. Combined, a total of 190,186 shad passed Holyoke in three days. Amazing! No other three-day run has ever approached it. The fishing in Holyoke has been superb, and should be great here in Franklin County by now, too. So, fellas, clearly it’s time to act now, before it’s too late.

According to rounded-off figures supplied by Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle, the previous best single-day shad run through Holyoke occurred on May 12 last year, when 54,000 were counted. No. 2 all-time was 53,000 on June 14, 1983, a long time ago. The record shows that there have been no other single-day runs reaching 50,000 since counting commenced 50 years ago, in 1967. There are, however, 17 additional daily counts in the 40,000s on record, including Tuesday’s run of 43,455.

Last week’s record runs likely resulted from heavy river flow that has kept the water temperature in the low 60s Fahrenheit, necessitating frequent shutdowns of the Holyoke fish passageways. Such delays temporarily halt migration, accumulating big numbers of fish awaiting  a lift past  Holyoke to upstream spawning lairs. When the river settled down and the lift opened late last week – Bingo! – the shad came like gangbusters, and they’re  still coming in big numbers. In an email from Sprankle that arrived just prior to deadline Wednesday, he reported the aforementioned Tuesday run and a Monday run of  31,481. An incomplete Wednesday total hinted  an approximate 50 percent decrease from the previous day.

Sprankle’s Friday and Monday reports could not hide his enthusiasm. A mid-afternoon Friday email, written after a revealing telephone conversation with the Holyoke fishway supervisor, reported that crews there were “observing the same high passage counts (as Thursday).” The report also noted that “the tailrace and the spillway lift entrances were experiencing ‘full buckets,’ with hopper buckets cycling as fast as they can (every 15 minutes).”

Regarding water temperature, perhaps the key factor in shad and salmon passage, Sprankle reported that a favorable “long-range weather forecast would suggest prime fish-passage conditions for the next week.” So, it’s safe to assume that last year’s run through Holyoke (385,930) is well within reach. Through Tuesday, the number transported upstream there stood at 333,614.

Monday’s report also showed a mere 281 shad had passed Turners Falls and an insignificant two of those fish had made it past Vernon, Vt., and neither of those numbers had changed on Wednesday’s report. Although unreported, those numbers have by now surely increased dramatically. Pressed for time, Sprankle apparently was unable to get new upriver numbers Wednesday. Take it to the bank: for those so inclined, it’s high time to hike down to Rock Dam or other favorite Franklin County shad-fishing sites.

The long-term average for annual shad passage through Holyoke since 1976 is 310,000, with highs of 721,000 in 1992, 528,000 in 1983 and 523,000 in 1991. So we’re already ahead of the 40-year mean this spring.

*****

As for Atlantic salmon, well, 6 stragglers have thus far been reported in the Connecticut River Basin. However, Sprankle reported that “a few more have been lifted, with some being picked up for swim tests at Conte Lab in Turners Falls, including one there now.” Several other salmon have been tagged and released, according to his report. One of those fish passed the Turners Falls Gatehouse Ladder Sunday. Additional salmon may yet appear before this year’s counting stops around the Fourth of July. Although I suppose it’s true that every salmon still matters, the future for this regal game fish in our Connecticut Valley is bleak indeed. Sad but true. And with Cheetos the Clown guarding the national-environmental-policy henhouse these days, the end could arrive sooner than later. Oh my! Can you believe the mess Boob-Tube Nation has gotten itself into?
*****

There’s nothing else really worth reporting about anadromous-fish passage this spring in the Happiest of Valleys but, for the record, here’s what the numbers look like thus far: alewife 86, blueback herring 533, American eel 13, sea lamprey 3,622, striped bass 16, gizzard shad 517 and white sucker 2,002. Question: Where have all the bluebacks gone? Not so long ago, the river swarmed with hundreds of thousands of these small, robust migrants annually. Now, four figures is worthy of celebration.

Tempting Fate

Ominous swords of Damocles have leaned out over my daily path for years — first three, then two, now one; same species, same size, same menacing presence. Yet there we were last Dec. 1, my friend and I, with the help of an aluminum, 24-foot extension ladder, harvesting five pounds of late oyster mushrooms from what is today the last man standing.

I’m speaking of three mature poplar trees with deeply furrowed bark, all of them once standing in solemn, simultaneous silence along the perimeter of a familiar Green River floodplain, all of them girdled around the base by beavers and condemned to slow, tedious death. I knew from the beginning they were doomed to tumble, and have indeed entertained daily caution on my approach. Obviously, if  any of those trees twisted and fell as  I passed, I would  likely  be erased from this planet. But why, I ponder daily while  accelerating  out of harm’s way, would such a tree fall on me? What have I done to deserve such a cruel, random fate? Plus, I guess, I’ve  always tempted the fates and lived to tell about it.

I am reminded of those three threatening amigos when traveling to Montague’s Bookmill or taking the back way to Sunderland and Amherst. On my way down the hill from Poet’s Seat Tower to the Montague City bridge, I pass the flowered, white-cross memorial at the big roadside maple down by the old Kells Farm. There, many moons ago, for reasons beyond human comprehension, that tree decided to shed a muscular overhanging limb onto a passing car, instantly killing the unfortunate, unsuspecting young lady driver. The site to me symbolizes that random tragedy can strike you down from the heavens at any moment. What did that young woman ever do to deserve such a sudden exit? Not a thing. Purely a wrong-place, wrong-time phenomenon. The kind no one chooses or even suspects.

But, let us not digress. Back to my personal conundrum, one that flicks my cranial wheels a whirl daily, and has done so for some 10 years. It all started with a burgeoning beaver colony that eventually passed and left the three ominous, outward-leaning, softwood threats. Two of them, about 10 feet apart at the base and more than a foot wide, leaned out of a marshy backwater over my perimeter path as it neared the lower, southwest corner of a Christmas-tree farm. The other, girdled more recently, was along the riverbank in the opposite northeast corner. I knew that sooner or later, all three would fall out into the tree farm. The question was when and by what force of nature?

Then, maybe five years ago, during a windy, overnight, summer rainstorm, down came one of the big twins in the southwest corner. The deadfall destroyed Christmas trees and necessitated clean-up chores by a hired hand with whom I often spoke. That tree’s partner, girdled shallower, still stands, bark and limbs dropping to the turf now and again. Sooner or later, it too will fall, hopefully when I’m away.

Noontime Tuesday, I’m running a little late due to phone calls and emails discussing an interesting Friday Northampton Meadows archaeological excavation I visited. I’m walking the first leg of my daily ramble with the dogs under cloudy skies, through a lush, shin-high hayfield, the dogs bouncing and looping out in front, heads high in search of scent. Approaching a manure pile and parked farm equipment behind a roadside greenhouse, I notice a young woman sauntering out greet us. I stop to exchange pleasantries and introduce her to Lily and Chub-Chub before wading into a spontaneous political discussion about the sad state of national affairs. Her youth, long black hair, tattooed left shoulder, warm brown eyes and Vermont smile told me she was cool. So, why not engage in brief political/philosophical discourse before parting ways? I am quite familiar with and friendly to Vermonters’ refreshing state of mind. You gotta love it. Why couldn’t Hillary have just stepped aside for Bernie? He would have won.

Our meandering conversation over, and I walk away, take a short path into the upper Christmas trees, circle them and take a deer run through a thin slice of woods between fields, stepping over three strands of grounded barbed-wire. I break into the open and follow the tree-lined upper escarpment edge a couple hundred yards before dropping down into the lower river meadow where poplar danger looms.

I get to the big, girdled poplar in the southwest corner and pass it without incident before swinging east to the riverbank and following a small, rectangular, riverside woodlot, the floor colored green with a deep ostrich-fern shag carpet. About halfway to the northeast corner, near a Christmas tree stripped of its branches last fall by an antlered buck, I notice something out of sorts. The beaver-girdled poplar there has fallen to the ground among Christmas trees, blocking a farm road hugging the edge.

No lie, just the previous day I had stopped and looked into the woods at that familiar tree, examining the trunk all the way to the crown before moving on. Next day, there it is on the ground, broken and battered. I thought it would be the last to go. Not so. Two down. One to go. I do hope that lone wolf soon crashes down to eliminate potential danger.

In fact, I wouldn’t mind being there to see, hear and hopefully not feel the crash.

Open The Gate

A day late and a dollar short, it’s time to include me in the chorus of support for Paul Luippold’s plea to reopen the old, padlocked boat-access just downstream from Stillwater Bridge.

Luippold’s written complaint — dated May 1 and addressed to two local news companies, a chief of police and two state politicians — arrived in my inbox last week when I was preoccupied with the death of my father. A day or two later, the story hit local television news and created quite a local stir, with public support showing up in many different forms.

At issue is a padlocked gate denying access to an easy, popular boat-launch site for canoeists, boaters, kayakers and rafters that existed long before my day. I myself often used the site when I lived in my hometown of South Deerfield. I’d typically arrive before first light with my 14-foot, fiberglass Old Town canoe secured to the top of my vehicle, often with black-Lab companion Sugarloaf Saro Jane sitting anxiously in the passenger’s seat. I’d quickly untie the canoe, take it down, load it up with equipment and paddle upstream to start fishing Johnson’s Hole before the birds started singing. After a few hours, I’d paddle back to the car, picking my spots to stop and fish along the way back.

Many other boaters and rafters then used the sight as a boat launch and parking area, though not nearly as many as in recent years. Historically, the site was used primarily by anglers, and I honestly can’t recall people ever jumping off Stillwater Bridge as they have in recent years. Then again, there was no need to daredevil dive off Stillwater Bridge. Halifax (Vt.) Gorge was open to the public and drew an overflow crowd from many states on hot summer weekends.

Luippold blames sportsmen’s loss of Stillwater access to an unfortunate incident involving an intoxicated, naked, out-of-state man who drove his car off the road and crashed into a backwater there last August. Soon after that publicized incident, Luippold says the town repaired the damage and installed a locked gate to deny public access around the clock. Why, he asks, can’t the gate at least be opened days and closed at night?

Although there is another lesser-used launching site just upstream from the bridge — one that I myself occasionally used over the years when unable to park at my preferred site — Luippold complains that it’s a young-man’s launch, too dangerous for the elderly and/or disabled. Although I can’t say I’ve inspected that path in recent years, I do remember it as steep and potentially treacherous in wet weather many anglers prefer for fishing. So, yes, using it could place determined old geezers and/or disabled folks in jeopardy of personal harm.

There must be a way to solve this issue by re-establishing at least partial access to the popular boat-launch as Luippold proposes. Although even that is far too controlled for my personal taste and would definitely interfere with devoted anglers who prefer to fish early and late, partial access is better than none.

*****

For the record: I guess I was a little inaccurate in last week’s tribute to my late dad when I said Greenfield High School played in the elite AA Conference against the biggest teams western Massachusetts had to offer — teams such as Holyoke, Wesfield, Chicopee and the Springfield schools.

Well, I ran into “Duke of Sports” Mike Cadran out running near my home and he informed me that there were no leagues in my dad’s day. All the high schools played independent schedules, and Greenfield’s Carl “Ump” Nichols always scheduled the biggest, baddest WMass schools, plus annual foes from eastern and central Mass., and even New York State. The best record among the schools playing a “large-school schedule” was crowned WMass champ, no tourneys, no divisions, no votes or coaches’ or newspaper polls. He said leagues like the AA Conference came into being in the 1950s.

I would not question Cadran. I have for many years witnessed and admired his enthusiasm for local-sports history as he punishes himself in the microfilm room. On the other hand, my description of the schedule Greenfield played, and the school’s WMass titles in my dad’s day (1944 through 1946) were generally accurate in a big picture/contemporary context.

Cadran didn’t blink when I told him I have over the years heard many of my dad’s contemporaries sing praise of his basketball prowess. Plus, I told him, I once witnessed him put on a memorable, impromptu shooting exhibition at Nook Burniske’s old Silver Street, Greenfield home. I think it was the only time I ever saw him shoot a basketball, and he couldn’t miss.

That didn’t surprise Cadran, who informed me that, “Greenfield only lost one game his senior year … to Waltham.”

*****

On the other hand: Old pal Roger “Hezekiah” Ward of Buckland chimed in to defend my reference a few weeks back to April 15th being the traditional opening day of Massachusetts trout season.

A reader and neighbor took exception to the misinformation, stating that I should have remembered opening day always opened on the third Saturday in April, not April 15, and I accepted his correction.
Although I don’t intend to embark on an intense research mission to get to the bottom of this trivial controversy, Ward, a generation older than my friendly critic, wrote to support my original assertion:

“You were right on the money with April 15 being opening day for trout fishing in Massachusetts. I remember when I was a kid, trout was April 15 and pheasant was October 20, unless the 20th came on Sunday.”

That behind us, “Heze” (pronounced Hezzie) launched into his memories of the 1959 Deerfield River Reclamation Project, a rotenone poisoning of the river to rid it of trash fish in the name of trout management:

“What stands out is the very small amount of trout that showed up in the southern section down here (Buckland). I’m not sure about the northern section. The river had a lot of things going against it, not only was it one of the largest open air sewers in New England, there were also many industrial contaminants emptying into it. On State Street in Buckland, there were five gas stations, four of which did mechanical work, and guess where the byproduct ended up? The Federal clean water act really helped the river. The river is now a good put-and-take trout waterway. As far as being a good natural trout river, forget it. The water gets way to warm in the summer. If it was a good river for trout, huge trout would survive and you’d be catching 5- and 10-pounders, considering the size they are stocking.”
So there you have — a little dose of hilltown wisdom from a credible old-timer and astute observer.

Sing Praise For His Yankee Ways

My dad’s sun set last Thursday morning. A glorious setting it was, peacefully ending the life of a man three days short of 89.

He had a good life, a dream death. How can you beat it? After maybe a half-hour in the yard digging up dandelions, he must have been tired. Job complete, he neatly placed his plastic pailful of dandelions on the shed floor — digging tool sticking skyward, rubber glove atop the weeds — walked up four steps into the kitchen, moved through it and the dining room and across the street-side living room to his favorite chair in the northeast corner. There, he dozed off to his final breath. There were no signs of trauma when my mother discovered him. Eyes closed, his heart stopped beating, with arteries clogged beyond repair.

No hospital, no nursing home, no emergency surgeries, ICUs, or feeding and breathing tubes. He died in his own home, seated where he most liked to sit, where he had sat in February to watch the New England Patriots and Tom Brady erase the Atlanta Falcons’ late-third-quarter, 25-point lead for a 34-28 overtime Super Bowl win.
“How’d you like that game?” I asked when he answered my phone call from work moments after Pats running back James White took Brady’s pitchout 2 yards into the end zone for the winning touchdown.

“I had to take a nitro,” he chuckled, seemingly humored by it. He was totally resigned to the fact that he needed the ubiquitous stimulant used to ward off early signs of a heart attack or what he called “tightness.” He had grown accustomed to popping nitros since learning seven months before his death that his major heart artery known as the “widow-maker” was more than 99 percent plugged. After that diagnosis, he continued to drive a car, go out for coffee, poke around at home and exercise in the YMCA pool a few times a week, relying on capillaries surrounding the clogged artery to keep his heart functioning.

Dad’s old Greenfield High School teammates and opponents, South Deerfield chums, poker buddies and surveying colleagues all had their stories to tell about the man they most often called Sandy. I took pride in their tales, many laced with admiration, others humor. I’m sure my three siblings all have their favorite memories and anecdotes as well, but I can only speak for myself and share the stories that in my mind define the man.

Let me start with his rich New England pedigree, the roots of which could dig no deeper for a man of European colonial ancestry. His mother and father were Mayflower descendants with lines into the Bradford, Alden, Chilton, Howland and other seminal Plymouth Colony families. I taught him about those “Yankee” roots, which are overwhelmingly comprised of the “Connecticut Valley” strain, that is families who settled Hartford in 1636 with Connecticut Colony founder Rev. Thomas Hooker. Those same families soon migrated upriver to establish the towns of Northampton, Hadley, Deerfield and Northfield. Mixed into his genepool are a few Huguenots and random early families of Windsor, Wethersfield and coastal Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay Colony towns that found their way to the valley during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Although I say he knew nothing about his genealogy before I researched it in the 1990s, he may have been dumb like a fox, because I can vividly recall him kidding old George “Moose” Bell, his neighbor and poker foe, while comparing their Yankee roots.

“Hey, Swamp Yankee,” he’d tease.

“You’re the Swamp Yankee,” irked Bell would snort, cuss and grunt.

“Oh no,” my dad would chortle, his pale, warm blue eyes glinting mischievous glee. “You’re mistaken. I’m a White-Birch Yankee. You’re a Swamp Yankee.”

It was all in good small-town New England fun. My dad was always ribbing someone and having great fun doing it. Also, he had a nickname for everyone, including most of the youth-baseball players he coached and taught to play with dignity — win, lose or draw. Truth be told, though, those teams rarely lost.

Perhaps it was Dad’s austere “Calvinist” ancestry that produced such a humble soul, a man totally unwilling to accept praise or boast about his accomplishments, especially those on the playing field or basketball court. He wouldn’t hesitate to praise friends, neighbors, old teammates and opponents, telling you this guy was rugged, that guy was a hulluva pitcher or hitter, or that your newfound friend’s father was quite a ballplayer in his day. But dare to ask him if the stories people told about him as a ballplayer were true and you could expect at most a self-deprecating remark or nervous chuckle. On most such occasions, he’d just ignore the question as though he never heard it. Just his modest way.

One bit of praise I’ll never forget occurred when my former softball teammate and current Greenfield High School athletic director Mike Kuchieski called me in a last-minute panic to ask if I’d umpire behind the plate an American Legion Baseball game he was coaching at Vets Field in Greenfield. Though I had no experience or credentials, I was no stranger to a baseball diamond and agreed to give it a whirl. Well, it just so happened Stan Benjamin was at the ballpark that evening. Standing along the pregame backstop, the tall, dignified Houston Astros super scout had coached my dad at Greenfield High School during the glory days of Fred Wallner and Coach Carl “Ump” Nichols. He spotted me passing and turned to speak.

“Hello young fella,” he said. “How’s your dad doing?”

“Oh, he’s still plugging along just fine,” I answered, adding that my father always spoke highly of him as a tough but fair coach.

Benjamin flashed a warm grin, thought for a moment and quipped, “Well, I’m not sure exactly how to put this, but your dad was almost impossible to catch on and off the field. He was an elusive little devil. Tell him I said hello.”

The twinkle in his eyes glowed of genuine fondness and respect.

The irony is that had my dad not gotten himself into a little jam at Deerfield High School coming down the stretch of his freshman year, Benjamin would probably have never met him. Back then, not only did Greenfield play in WMass’ premier AA Conference against the biggest schools from Springfield, Westfield, Chicopee and Holyoke. The Greenies were recognized as “The Little Engine That Could” and most often did beat the valley’s behemoths, not to mention the likes of Fitchburg and other faraway powers. Deerfield High played in a lesser league of smaller schools.

What’s funny is that in my 63 years on this planet, Dad never smoked, but that’s precisely what got him into path-altering trouble as a peach-fuzz teen. Just weeks before summer vacation, spring fever in the air, Deerfield Principal Hiram Batty caught him and a couple friends smoking during school hours outside a little convenience store bordering school property along its northeast corner. The stern disciplinarian decided to teach my dad a harsh lesson by suspending him for the rest of the semester and making him repeat his freshman year.

Honestly, until a few months ago, I never knew the details of this infamous North Main Street smoking incident, only what I had heard from some of my dad’s friends, few if any of whom are still alive today. Then, on an impromptu, between-errands, winter-afternoon visit at my dad’s home, the subject came up. Finally, notepad in tow, I got it from the horse’s mouth.

“Who was it that pulled you out of Deerfield, anyway? Your mother?” I asked, knowing her to be fully capable 0f fiery, outspoken responses, especially in defense of her baby boy with sweet, seductive blue eyes.

“No,” he responded, sitting comfortably in the chair where he would meet his maker, “my mother wasn’t there. It was just me, my father and the principal in his office. I’ve never told you this, but my father told him he could stick his school up his ass and we walked out.”

That was surprising news. I remember my grandfather well and would characterize him as quiet or taciturn, a lot like my dad, never one to say much. And the rest is history: his WMass championships at Greenfield and athletic scholarships to Jesse Lee Academy, Syracuse University and Arnold College, where he settled in, graduated and not only played football but excelled as a fleet, shifty running back on a good team stocked with future NFL players, including hs late friend and New York Giants Hall of Famer Andy Robustelli. For the record, my dad was a lefty, except for writing. Back in his day, schools forced lefthanders to write with their right hand. Can you imagine mandating that today? Stupid.

I think my dad knew his days were numbered and wanted me to know why he had left his neighborhood school in favor of Greenfield. I didn’t ask why he was setting the record straight. He didn’t ask me why I was taking notes. He knew he was talking to a storyteller, and I think we both knew that I’d find a way to end the whispers and record for posterity his Deerfield demise.

Ultimately, he returned as a young adult to his hometown, where he worked for a prosperous, respected land-surveying company, raised a family and died. Totally comfortable in his skin, he had no regrets, no lingering animosity and no respect for Mr. Batty.

Why be resentful? As usual — be it on the poker or pool table, the football field, baseball diamond or basketball court — my father prevailed  with class and dignity.

It’s the  Yankee way.

Fiddleheads And Feedback

Turkey season is underway as skunk cabbage brightens marshy floors with splotches of salubrious green, fiddleheads are sprouting – providing harvesters a tight window in which to pick the springtime culinary delight – and feedback about the 1959 Deerfield River reclamation project discussed here last week was, not surprisingly, considerable.

It’s difficult to say exactly what’s happening in the turkey woods, judging from a couple of random opening-day reports. A farmer working Monday morning says he heard a shot from out behind Greenfield Community College somewhere at about 6:30. Then there was the hunter who visited a popular Shelburne haunt late only to find many opening-day participants still hunting after 10:30 a.m., suggesting slow going during the opening hours of opening day. Oh well, that was only Day 1 of a 24-day season. And then came the rains to further complicate first-week matters.

The skunk cabbage will attract foraging bears to swamps, seeking their favorite spring delicacy following winter hibernation and fasting. So, yes, some fiddlehead hunters will undoubtedly bump into bears here and there, given that the two wild plants populate the same wet terrain, high and low. It’s nothing to be overly concerned about, though. Bears don’t hold their ground when folks by chance bump into them. They’d rather just flee to another patch of skunk cabbage where they can feed in total privacy. There’s more than enough for everyone. No need for fights fueled by greed.

I can’t imagine fiddlehead-picking will last much longer than an additional week. I have monitored one spot for about three weeks and on Tuesday and Wednesday picked hefty plastic bagsful on my daily walk with the dogs. The ones I have been monitoring for three weeks were cropped tight to the ground and tough to pick, although I knew some would sprout following Monday’s overnight rain. On the other hand, less than 300 yards north, at an adjacent spot where I once bumped into a lady from Denny’s Pantry (famous for its fiddlehead soup) out on a secretive harvesting mission, I found many primo clumps that were easy picking, among them, ferns a foot tall and taller that had already gone by. That’s the way it goes with fiddleheads: here today, gone tomorrow, especially following nourishing spring rains. Once the tight, little, brown clumps finally sprout into rich, green, tasty fiddleheads, they quickly become knee-high, soon to be waist-high, ostrich ferns.

But enough of the segue. Back to the 1959 Deerfield River reclamation-project and the feedback I fielded from folks who remembered well the rotenone-poisoning and dead, stinking fish.

The first to chime in was Rod Bamboux, who wrote, “I remember well the ‘cleansing’ of the Deerfield mentioned in (your) column. At the time I was at DA, fishing the Deerfield on a regular basis and living in (South Deerfield). One thing stands out in my memory of the rotenone use was not only the dead fish, but I think that people were told that rotenone had no effect upon people and the fish could be eaten. Better check that one out to make sure.”

Indeed. It is believed that human exposure to rotenone can produce Parkinson’s Disease-like symptoms.

The next comment came from Eric Giebel, who wrote, “Ahhh, memories. The reclamation of the Deerfield River. I was 26 years old. Late summer of 1959. Four of us were skinny dipping after dark near The Bars in Deerfield. Belly-up fish were floating by.”

Swimming was not uncommon in the Deerfield back then, even though raw sewage and industrial waste was flowing into the river from many sources. That was clear from the next correspondent to throw in his recollections, that is one Fred Bourassa, who grew up in Shelburne Falls.

“Having grown up on the river, I was 10 going on 11 at the time (of the reclamation),” Bourassa wrote. “Yes there were a lot of trout in the river, but also lots of trash fish – suckers, eels and the like. This river was so toxic. Every home on the river emptied its waste into the river. Kendell Mills would empty all its chemical waste into the North River, which emptied into the Deerfield. The smell was horrid. It should be noted that eating trout was not recommended at the time.”

Denis Dassatti of Buckland, a little older than Bourassa, concurred.

“Oh yeah,” he said, “there was definitely raw sewage flowing into the river at Shelburne Falls. I can remember watching it come out of pipes, toilet paper and all. It didn’t seem to keep fishermen away.”

Retired Greenfield High School teacher Peter Conway, who called Monday night to talk about this and that, said it was no different on the Deerfield River tributary he grew up on, that being the Green River over near the Greenfield Dunkin Donuts and the overarching railroad trestle.

“There were three pipes across the river from me emptying raw sewage directly into the river from River Street homes,” he said. “We used to catch huge suckers around the outflows. They just hung in there and grew very large. The river was an open sewer back then, but we used to fish it and catch trout and other fish.”

But, returning to the Deerfield River reclamation project, the next respondent was old friend and Sunderland native Chris Hubbard, who reached out by email:

“I was standing on Bardwell’s Ferry bridge when all those dead, white-belly suckers (trash fish) went floating by! It was a sight to behold. In 1959, I would have been 10 years old. I remember it being a big event at the time. … I’m sure The Recorder must have covered the ‘fish story.’”

Yes, Hub, probably so. Maybe I’ll go through the microfilm when I get a chance.

Next up was another old friend, Myron Becker of Wendell, with whom I’ve hunted pheasants, not to mention sparred about long-term Millers River PCB and heavy-metal pollution from industrial effluent. Becker, 73, actually assisted with the Deerfield reclamation project as a teen, so he had valuable hands-on insight.

“I was involved in the project as a volunteer helper from the Massachusetts Outdoors Fish & Game Summer Camp at Bearstown State Forest, which I attended for two summers, including 1959.

“All I remember was thousands of big suckers with a few small smallmouth bass mixed in. There might’ve been some trout. We had to net and pile the ‘trash’ fish for disposal. The Rotenone was sprayed in from ‘Indian cans.’

“Times have changed.”

Yes, Brother, you can say that again.

 

*****

 

Speaking of old friends, Millers River Fishermen’s Association founder Peter Mallett reached out by email to request publicity for his club’s annual “Kids Stocking” program. The first event will be held Saturday at 11 a.m. at the Orange Treatment Plant off Route 2A in Orange. The next will occur at the same time the next day, Sunday, at the State Wildlife Management Area, off Route 2 in Erving Center. In the future, at 11 a.m. on May 13, the Kids Stocking will resume at Alan Rich Park on Main St. in Athol. The club’s “Kids Stocking” initiative will give youngsters a chance to assists with the stocking of 11- and 12-inch trout before trying to catch what they’re just released into the river.

Mallett promised that the club has much more up its sleeve this year: “We’ll be stocking the river with 14- to 20-inch rainbows and brookies. Plus, I can’t say where or when, but some of these fish will be five pounds.”

 

*****

 

Last call: The Barrett Fishway on the Holyoke dam opened Monday and had lifted 114 American shad through Tuesday, so, yes, the annual migratory run is on. Last year was a good one by recent standards, with a total of 392,057 passing Holyoke.
The first report from Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle arrived by email Wednesday and showed the shad count thus far at places other than Holyoke to be 80 through the fish passageway on the Rainbow Dam on Connecticut’s Farmington River and 33 past West Springfield’s DSI Dam on the Westfield River.

It’s a little early to start shad fishing, but not too early to get your fishing tackle ready. The run usually peaks in mid to late May and tails off in early June, once the river temperatures climb to 68 degrees Fahrenheit.

Correction And Reclamation

A mishmash of fishing stuff this week, beginning with a little correction from last week, when I incorrectly noted the old “April 15” opening day of the Massachusetts trout-fishing season.

It seems that the father of a colleague I call “Big Boiczyk” thought a “clarification”  was in order. He looked forward to opening day as we all did back in the day. Not only that, but he would have had a special reason for attaching  importance to the big day. The pre-Interstate 91  eastern boundary of his expansive Greenfield Meadows farm was the Green River, always a good trout-fishing stream.

“My father says you should have known better,” his son told me Monday at work. “Opening day was the third Saturday in April, not April 15,”

He was right. I should have remembered that opening day always fell on Saturday before year-round fishing was, according to retired wildlife biologist Jim Cardoza’s online MassWildlife history, adopted in 1974-75.

I think I was confusing our opening day with Vermont’s, which it seems to me used to be April 15 back when I traveled annually to the Northeast Kingdom to fish opening day of the Willoughby River rainbow steelhead trout run. I have fond  memories of fishing and carousing up there in the Seventies, when we’d bunk in at an old ramshackle country inn named, if my memory serves me, the Osborne Inn in Orleans, Vt. That establishment must be long gone by now, because I could not find  a word about it anywhere online. You know you’re getting old when Internet searches like that come up empty; that and the fact that you played for or against and hunted and fished with coaches who now have fields and gyms named after them. Oh well, can’t hold back Father Time.

But enough of that. Let’s move on to another fishing-related topic, brought to my attention by a 72-year-old buddy who checked in last week to taunt me with his latest foot-free retirement adventures. He has by now moved on from ice-fishing at Pelham Lake  to angling for big browns in the upper Deerfield River known for them. It seems that he and a chum of the same vintage have enjoyed success, if cell-phone photos can be trusted. But he was not calling about brown trout. He wanted to address another issue that happened to pop into his consciousness while fishing. It was a subject he figured would pique my interest: a state fisheries-management initiative that to the best of his recollection was called “reclaiming the Deerfield River.”

My buddy said he recalled the program as a poisoning  that resulted in thousands of stinking,  belly-up  fish passing through downtown Shelburne Falls in the river back when he was a kid. He wasn’t certain precisely when the river had been poisoned to remove “trash fish,” but thought it was probably in the late Fifties or early Sixties. When he brought the subject up to his buddy at riverside, the man recalled absolutely nothing. Even worse, his fishing buddy, he sensed, harbored suspicion of a tall tale. Right then and there, he decided to throw it in my lap as soon as he  got home. He wanted to see what I could come up with.

When queried on the phone, I admitted having no personal recollection of this Deerfield River program, and I told him I couldn’t  recall ever reading anything about it, either. Perplexed, I promised to fire off emails to sources who might know something and, if  fruitless, I’d perform a few online keyword searches to see what I could dig up.

My first move was a quick email to Andrew Fisk, executive director of the Connecticut River Watershed Council (CRWC), a smart man committed to protecting the Connecticut and its tributaries. Maybe he’d know something off the top of his head or have easy access to digital files he could share. No such luck, just a rapid, friendly response saying, “I’m not surprised to hear about such a story, but I don’t know any specifics about this being done in the Deerfield. It would take a bit of time to find anything in our archives, but you are welcome to take a gander.”

Although I knew a future visit to CRWC’s Bank Row office in Greenfield might develop, I opted first for a quick buzz around the Internet. The search immediately, on the first screen, brought up the 1990 Franklin County Planning Department’s “Deerfield River Comprehensive Management Plan.” On page 38 under a subhead “Fisheries,” it was revealed that, “In 1959, the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Game reclaimed the river, killing the fish population with rotenone to kill off fish competing with trout. Trout were then restocked to establish a ‘native population.’ A 1972 report assessing results of the program (13 years later) revealed that the river’s fish structure had remained the same.”

When I relayed the message to my buddy, he felt vindicated and said, “Yep, sounds about right. I would have been 15 at the time. That works.”

On the other hand, no wonder I had no recollection of the project. In 1959, I was 6.

Anyway, a few days later, I got a call about another topic from Russell Dodge of Buckland, who’s pushing 80 and served in the National Guard with my friend and initial reclamation source. Great. Quite by coincidence, I had the perfect source to query about 1959 Deerfield River happenings. Did he remember the reclamation project?

“Yes, I sure do,” he said. “They killed a lot of big fish, trout included, and there were many old-timers around the Falls who questioned what the state was doing. Later, they restocked the river with trout that had buttons attached to them for research. The state put cans up along the river for fishermen to put the buttons in. I remember my father having quite a few of those buttons that I don’t believe ever found their way to the streamside cans.”

Dodge said he vaguely remembered the name of the state fisheries official in charge of the program but couldn’t for the life of him remember his name. He said he’d call a friend who’d remember and get back to me, which he did after dark. The state official was Lewis C. Schlotterbeck, who oversaw Massachusetts rotenone reclamation projects, primarily focused on lakes and ponds, for the state Division of Fisheries and Game in the Fifties and Sixties. Rotenone was a natural toxin approved as a management agent in 1952.

According to Cardoza’s online MassWildlife history, under a heading of 1959-60: “A stream reclamation project is now underway and 75,000 pounds (37.5 tons) of trash fish were removed from 40 miles of the Deerfield River, which was restocked immediately with fingerling and adult trout.”

No mention is made of how many perfectly healthy Deerfield River trout, large and small, fell victim to the rotenone, used in many states at the time for similar fish-management projects. According to online descriptions, “Rotenone is an odorless, colorless, poison used as a broad-spectrum insecticide, piscicide (fish) and pesticide.”

“That was a long time ago,” defended MassWildlife information and education director Marion Larson, “and we have not used it for many years. When we were using it, it was in widespread use. Times have changed.”

Yes indeed, they sure have. Just think of the potential impact that 1959 poisoning of the Deerfield had on the different “native” fish gene pools, such as brook trout and smallmouth bass, not to mention aquatic insects, reptiles, birds of prey and predators that may have eaten the poisoned fish. Then draw a comparison to current conservation rules and regulations, which forbid anglers from using lead sinkers and waterfowlers from shooting lead shot while the Wetland Protection Act is firmly in place to protect ecosystems and all the life within.

I wonder what would happen to a Bay State landowner who decided to “reclaim” his private pond by dumping rotenone into it and starting over with stocked fish?  I can’t say for sure but have an idea that, if caught or reported, he’d have a big problem on his hands – one that may well lead to economic ruin.

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