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.

Fishing Season Is Here

In the old days, anglers would have been gearing up this week for the traditional April 15 opening day of trout-fishing season, which this year falls on Saturday. It would have been a big day for fathers and sons, grandfathers and grandsons, fishing buddies or just plain secretive, solitary anglers fishing from a boat or canoe or trout-hunting in hip boots and vest along some rattling, wooded, gravel-bed stream heading, eventually, for the Connecticut River.

“Yeah,” said an old buddy who just happened to call as I sat to compose this narrative Wednesday morning, “I remember opening day being a big deal when I was a kid. My father, my uncles, my neighbors, we all looked forward to fishing the brooks.”

Apparently, they weren’t alone. The Greenfield Recorder-Gazette obviously thought opening day was important, too, given its front-page coverage I bumped into a few years ago when researching a mid- or late-1950s death. The local paper sent a reporter and photographer Chuck Blake out touring the country roads talking to trout fishermen they ran into along the way. Quoted were people I knew from Whately and people or families I’d heard of in Bernardston, Shelburne and Charlemont. It was interesting that the article told the tale of how many trout these men had caught and how big they were; maybe even what bait they were using.

Nowadays, there’s no opening day, just year around fishing. Yes, the thrill is gone.

Myself, I can’t say for sure where my love of fishing was spawned. My dad didn’t fish, but my mother’s father, aunt, brothers and Nova Scotia relatives sure did. Perhaps that first pre-school trip to Cape Cod with Grandpa Keane planted the seed. Or maybe it was that trip a year later, to Nova Scotia, where my mother’s maternal Comeau family living in Comeauville on the upper Bay of Fundy had a long history in commercial fishing and other maritime enterprises. All that’s left of those long-ago vacations are a black and white photo of smiling 4-year-old me holding a stringer of Cape Cod “punkinseeds” and faded memories salt-cod-filets hanging to dry on wooden racks on a dock in the hot summer sun.

I must have been attracted to that subtle, tap-tap-tap nibble followed by a furious struggle after the hook was set, because I sure chased stream fishing with passion well into my 30s, typically arriving at the water’s edge before the first bird sang.

As difficult as it is to believe, it is a fact that I have not fished regularly for nearly 30 years. Which doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten how to softly deliver bait with a spinning rod and open-faced reel or hit the spot fly fishing with a roll-cast or double-haul. And I haven’t forgotten how to shoot line or play the loops when casting into tough winds. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m sure it would take a few minutes to get it down after the long layoff. But I’m sure I could and someday will be back to the stream when I find more leisure time, be it teaching my grandsons or just enjoying a rainy summer day astream. My equipment, likely in need of a little TLC, is stored away and waiting, including all the bamboo rods I snagged over the years in my auction, flea-market and yard-sale travels. I always kept my antennae alert for fishing equipment, particularly locally made bamboo rods. Oftentimes such items were peripheral discoveries while hunting down Griswold cast-iron cookware, Whately stoneware, decoys, paintings, Americana and you name it. In the process, I was fortunate enough to find a few collectible cane rods that I still cherish. Someday, if the heavens continue to smile upon me, I’ll introduce these classic bamboo rods to my grandsons, teach them to use and protect them with special attention and care. A few of them are truly local art forms by the likes of Marc Aroner and Sewell N. Dunton, the former a world-class Tonkin-cane rodmaker from Greenfield.

To teach kids to fish, it’s wise to start with spin-casting lessons in the yard. Hula-hoops are a great target to throw out on the grass. Teach the beginners to long-cast overhead, medium-cast sidearm and pinpoint pendulum-casts to hit delicate, protected stream locations with finesse, where overhanging hemlock roots or branches and submerged driftwood roots and tangles lurk along with big, hungry trout. Then take them where the fishing is easy, starting with simple ponds that hold many “pumpkinseeds.” There is not a better way to learn the basics of casting, detecting a nibble, setting the hook and playing the retrieve.

Never ever even think of beginning with fly-casting. That more sophisticated skill can and should wait until after spin-casting is no longer a challenge. Get a kid started on 6-pound test, No. 8 bait-holder hooks and nightcrawlers cut in half and threaded up the hook shaft with just one loop for realistic presentation. Hooked like that, a crawler is able to contract and expand in the water and entice trout into striking. Start on small brook-trout streams where 8-inchers are big before moving to larger brooks, of which there are many locally, especially in the hilltowns. Once that becomes old hat and little challenge, a young angler will move on to something bigger, like the Sawmill or North rivers, then the Deerfield or Millers, where the stream is much wider and deeper, but the dynamics remain identical — same pools, same runs, same riffles, same eddies, same methods of fishing. Just a larger playing field. Not much different than moving to the 90-foot baseball diamond from Little League.

Then, of course, there’s always an introduction to lakes and ponds, where boats come in handy but are not necessary if you know what you’re doing. We used to nail nice trout from shore at places like Cranberry Pond and others I won’t name for a variety of reasons, using lures such as spoons and spinners. Later, thanks to old “Indian Al” Niemiec, a Chicopee commercial fly-tier, I was introduced to the bobber-and-fly method, which gets the shore-caster’s streamers out more than twice as far as you can cast even a heavy a lure. The reason is the added weight of a bobber filled or partially filled with water, according to the depth of the water you’re fishing. It works.

The best experience I recall with Indian Al was fishing from shore for landlocked salmon at ice-out on the Quabbin. We’d follow a feeder stream in and fish the outflow, where hungry salmon and lake trout were feeding in open water on smelts, and we’d nail one beautiful salmon after another in total, nirvanic privacy, the action heavenly indeed. Again, it took skill to determine the perfect depth at which the fish were feeding and manipulate enticing action on colorful streamers. Our favorite and most productive were “Al’s Magic” and “Mickey Fins,” attractor streamers colored bright red and gold. We also had luck with dull, drab “Joe’s Smelt” and “Muddlers.” I can’t imagine that these popular streamers have today disappeared from local bait-and-tackle shops.

Another pursuit young, developing local anglers chase as they increase their fishing expertise and grow bored with repetition is shad fishing. Again, I credit old friend “Indian Al” for turning me on to shad. I had tried fishing for the anadromous fish a few times with spinning gear and shad darts, which just didn’t float my boat, so to speak. Then Niemiec taught me how to catch them with fly tackle, sink-tip line and willow-leaf blades soldered to large brass hooks. What a freakin’ blast, catching three- to 10-pound migratory fish hand over fist on a 8- or 9-foot graphite rod. Nope, can’t say I did ever once fished for shad with one of my treasured bamboo rods. Too nervous about nicking the finsh while casting hardware into a crosswind. Tonkin cane rods are not made for shad fishing. Graphite works just fine, thank you.

Well, that’s about all I’ve got this week. As for what’s next, one never knows. But I must say that I have an idea my fishing days are not yet over. All I need is leisure time, which, hopefully, ain’t far down the road.

A Dark, Sunny Place

Spring is the season of hope and optimism, fertility and life, mating and nesting, buds and sprouts; also spontaneity, which unexpectedly seized me noontime Sunday.

It all begins Saturday night at 10, returning home from day two of “Writing Naturally,” a three-day environmental-writing workshop led by “Orion” magazine editor H. Emerson Blake. The circle discussions drew 16 kindred creative-writing spirits to the snowy, wooded, Rowe Conference Center mountain retreat.

Immediately greeting me following a long day that began at dimmest dawn are two long, thin piles of soft, wet snow — one deposited by a plow, extending some 60 feet across the foot of my driveway, the other nearly 40 feet long, dropped in front of the carriage sheds by our slate roof. A warm overnight forecast left flexibility for snow-blowing chores. No urgency. The piles would only shrink and soften in the next day’s sun.

In the backyard kennel, my two frisky English springer spaniels are likely restless. The workshop had forced cancellation of our daily, morning, riverside ramble they so anticipate and enjoy. They would have to wait. I’d visit them shortly, but first had to get inside to greet my wife and two grandsons, the boys so in need of our love and affection. Life has not been fair to the sweet, young, fatherless schoolboys, dealt by fate a heartbreaking hand.

I greet the boys harboring internal thoughts of deuces: two workshops; two vulnerable grandsons; two annoying spring snow piles; two forlorn dogs awaiting attention; and the two of us to help teach the boys life’s lessons. Although even a sucker knows the probability of winning with deuces is slim, sometimes you just have to play them and hope the heavens are smiling.

Next morning, I awaken to a bright low sun softly illuminating my bedroom through light-colored curtains, sleeping cat Kiki cuddled to my belly. I pet her. She rolls over, affectionately exposing her underbelly. I lightly scratch her chest and massage her shoulders and armpits. She purrs. I roll to the right, stand to greet the new day and walk to the bathroom door, where my bathrobe hangs from a brass hook. The smell of fresh coffee is inviting.

I walk into the kitchen and Joey is standing at the counter preparing breakfast for the kids, slicing fruit as she awaits the toaster’s whistle and pop. The boys are playing video games. Jordie, wearing headphones and looking like a character out of “The Jetson’s,” is into his Xbox mode on the dining-room TV. Arie, curled snugly on his side in a La-Z-Boy, is focused on his mini-iPad in the adjacent parlor. Eight thirty-six on the Eli Terry shelf clock pleading for its daily winding. As I had been leaning at midnight, I was now certain, facing the mid-afternoon start to a new workweek, that I would not be attending the workshop’s final half-day. I had absorbed enough over the first two days, and felt an overpowering responsibility to the kids, due to depart in just a few hours. Then I’d tackle the looming snow-removal chores under bright, endless blue skies that displayed not a wisp of a cloud anywhere.

I flick on a Sunday TV news program for background noise in Arie’s parlor and try to catch up on his recent adventures. Time flies. In no time, it’s 11:30 and my wife and grandsons are rolling down the driveway toward Vermont.

Having seen them off, I return inside, dress for my walk with the dogs, grab my keys, and retrieve from under the sink an aerosol can of silicone lubricant to leave out in the hot sun for later application to the snow-blower. I fire-up the truck and back it out alongside the old, stone, moss- and lichen-blotched stockyard hitching post. There, I open the truck’s cap, tailgate and porta-kennels and walk back to the dogs, kenneled along Hinsdale Brook, roaring like a dangerous Nor’easter wind. Anxious Lily barks impatiently as she always does. Stoic Chubby stands tall and straight, on full alert, ears perked, tail wagging enthusiastically. They know it’s time to eat, take a short ride and race willy-nilly around familiar riverside meadows. Maybe on this fine day they’d even take a springtime dip in the milky, swollen Green River down by the big old apple tree slightly overreaching the west bank, some roots exposed by erosion.

Less than an hour later, we’re back home, refreshed and fulfilled. I re-kennel the dogs and empty what’s left from a plastic gallon jug into their water bowl before returning out front to the carriage sheds. There, I lube the snow-blower chute and blades, start the tractor and leave it on low idle as I return inside to refill the jug. Task complete, I return out to the tractor, take a seat, disengage the emergency brake, open the throttle, engage the snow-blower and break through the carriage-shed pile. More than a half-hour later, it and the slushy pile at the foot of the driveway are wet shadows on the road and driveway; that and random pale-white blotches on greening grass.

I park between the carriage sheds and flagpole, use a battered old broom to partially clean wet snow from the snow-blower’s chute and blades, and leave the machine out in the hot sun to melt away what’s left. Time to return inside to shower and start thinking about the start of a new workweek. I pass through the bright, sunny, rectangular west parlor into my warm, sunny bedroom, bed tidy, cat elsewhere. The bright, warm rays pull my attention out the two double-hung windows and I instantly focus on the wall between them, where a narrow, 11-drawer spice chest is screwed head-high. Centered atop this little punkin’-pine chest, which I first remember on a thin, paneled wall between doors in spinster great-aunt Gladys’ kitchen, are two small, capped, metal urns decorated with geometrical designs. Colored gold and silver, they hold my sons’ ashes.

Another deuce had been dealt, casting a melancholy hue over a bright, warm place following a weird, unseasonable storm.

Mesmerized briefly in poignant mental meanderings, I promptly sat at the kitchen table and composed this spontaneous response to that.

Work could wait.

Lunchtime On Boondocks Pond

As MassWildlife’s Western District stocking crews deposit netfuls of large, fresh and frisky trout along the upper Deerfield River this week, diehards are still ice-fishing at secluded upland ponds nearby. Well, at least I think there’s still enough ice left up there.

“I hope so,” growled my buddy Killer, still a hard-charger at 72, when I called Wednesday morning to double check. “I’m getting ready as we speak. The boys will be here at 11 with a couple dozen shiners.”

Even back a couple of weeks ago I was surprised to learn the ice was still safe at a place not that far from home which my dad affectionately calls the boondocks. There was good reason for my skepticism. On a March 4 trip to Bridgewater State University for a Northeastern Anthropological Association conference, a man could have taken his motor boat or canoe for a spin on any of the lakes and ponds we passed on Route 2 east of Orange/Athol. Yes indeed, open water in central and eastern Massachusetts and 16 inches of ice still covering western Franklin County ponds … a month later. Maybe that’s why they call it God’s country, huh?

Anyway, this week’s fishing tale goes back to midweek last, when the Ole Killer called to chat as he so often does after 3 p.m. He had a good yarn to spin that day, having just returned from a well-known pond not far from the southern Vermont border. He, his geriatric friend and the Killer’s 20-something grandson were there ice-fishing for perch and largemouth bass, which had been hitting pretty good after a long, dormant winter. Just the previous week, the trio had pulled a nice 19-inch bass and a tasty 12-inch yellow perch through the ice. That and many pickerel, which Killer and crew aren’t fond of, even though he does savor the liver and roe, which he calls health food. Leave it up to the Killer to make use even of undesirables.

“What good are they, otherwise?” reasons the Killer. “I open them up and they’re full of small perch. Plus they eat our shiners, which aren’t cheap. When we catch them, the legal ones don’t go back into the pond.”

Which reminded him of another matter troubling him about this pond located not far from one of the old line of French and Indian War forts positioned as guard posts along Massachusetts’ northern border from Northfield to eastern New York State. Yep, after a spontaneous, informative pond-side conversation with a ranger, the Killer was all stirred up about trout-stocking at the pond.

“I spoke to him, nice guy, for quite a while and he told me they stock the pond with brook trout,” he said. “The problem is that the pond is shallow and warm, never gets deeper than 10 or 12 feet, and the trout can’t make it through the summer. That’s why I’ve never caught a trout ice-fishing. Not one in decades. Why the hell would they stock trout in a pond that can’t support them?”

Hmmmm? Good point, Killer. But let’s not go there now. Back to the tale at hand. Why stir up the fellas?

Anyway, back the hilltown tale, it seems that last week, after boring holes with a power auger and setting up, the boys were answering their tip-ups’ flags and pulling many a pickerel through the ice, the legal ones of which were lying around on the ice for future attention. When Killer for no particular reason looked up into the sky, he noticed a speck of a soaring bird of prey high, high above. Shielding his eyes from a blinding sun in a bright blue sky to get a better look through cool, midday mountain air, he could clearly see a white tail and head.

“Hey boys,” he yelled, pointing up, “look at that bald eagle circling way up there. I bethca he can see our pickerel.”

He soon realized that the eagle was slowly descending closer and closer to the playing field, and he focused on the decent. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before the majestic bird had dropped to a height not far above the treetops overreaching the shoreline, eventually landing in a big pine tree across the way. Apparently, this bird knew the drill in the Berkshires and was more than willing to wait for tasty leftovers after the boys’ departed.

Well, a gnarly old poker player and trapper, to boot, Ole Killer can indeed be a patient man, but not in this case, especially with young legs in the party. Curious, he decided it was time for action, so he called out to his grandson:

“Hey, Kid (he calls most everyone Kid, even family), “why don’t you pick up a few of those pickerel and walk out a hundred yards or more toward that eagle? When you get out there far enough, throw the fish as far as you can and we’ll see what happens.”

The kid saluted and marched to the friendly order, picking up a few pickerel and lugging them out to the middle of the pond through deep, heavy, slushy snow, to a spot far away from his fishing buddies. There he threw the fish, one at a time, out toward the alert eagle, which stood its ground on a sturdy limb t’other side of the pond. Mission accomplished, the “kid” walked back to where he started, watching and waiting.

“I can’t believe I didn’t bring my cell phone that day,” said the old Killer. “I always bring it with me but didn’t that day. It has a camera that often comes in handy. Although far away, I know I could have gotten something if I had my camera.”

Oh well, camera or no camera, what unfolded was a spectacle to behold. The big, beautiful, opportunistic eagle stood tall, cocked its head, stretched its wings and took flight, gliding gracefully down toward its free, waiter-furnished meal. Killer’s maneuver had worked to perfection.

“It was amazing to watch,” he recalled. “That bird never landed. It just glided, reached down with its legs and picked one of those pickerel up with its talons in one fell swoop. It might have scraped the ice a little, not much, before flying back to a tree, landing and eating it. The bird repeated the process two more times, staying just out of harm’s way too eat as we kept an eye on it and our tips.”

That spectacle, combined with pickerel livers and roe and fresh filet of bass and perch had made Killer’s day, and he was proud of a good deed done for a bird that symbolizes American freedom.

“I do hope we didn’t do anything illegal,” ever-careful Killer wondered aloud.

No, no, very doubtful. After all, I’ve known and hunted with Ole Killer for many years, and often make time to effusively praise his solemn commitment to following game laws to the letter.

Yes sir, the man’s as clean as the mountain air he so often breathes, the spring oozing from that high, shaded, mossy ledge on the cold north face of the ridge.

Beech Blowback

One never knows when a topic tossed into the city square for public discussion will attract interest and spur feedback like last week’s subject — beech trees — did.

Who knows why? It just did.

Among the folks of both genders chiming in were a card-carrying historian/archaeologist, a couple of foresters — one a photographer and poet on the side — a fiery conservation activist, and a couple of longtime hilltown readers, both natives who grew up around and explored woods containing big old beech trees and distinctive, elephant-skinned beech groves suitable for framed display on canvas.

The first comment came from historian/archaeologist friend Peter A. Thomas, who was at the time putting the finishing touches on his late 98-year-old father’s tasteful memorial service I attended Saturday at the closed congregational church of my South Deerfield ancestors. Addressing what I had written about my association of beech trees with upland landscapes, he said he too thought of  beeches as  uplands trees because he  often encountered them brightening high, lonely Vermont ridges during his days as head of the archaeology department at the University of Vermont.  However, he said, late Yale forest ecologist  Tom Siccama — who earned a doctorate from UVM in 1967 and taught in Yale’s prestigious School of Forestry & Environmental Studies for 40 years — had, during extensive deed research of ancient Green Mountain State parcels, discovered many beech trees noted as markers in lowland boundary descriptions. So, beeches are not upland trees in the historical narrative.

Although I could not find the specific report Thomas referred to, likely Siccama’s UVM dissertation, I was able to pull up more than enough online Siccama references to beech trees to accept my friend’s recollection as  fact. Not only that, but the online journey gave me a handle on the postglacial distribution and abundance of beech trees in the Northeastern archaeological record. Beeches first appear in the North American pollen records  24,000 years ago in the Southeast before creeping north all the way to the Great Lakes and Quebec as early as 7,000 years ago. By 1800, beech trees were as ubiquitous and common in the Northeastern forests as they are today.

The local ubiquity of beech trees is clear when reading email commentary by female readers Muriel Antes of Conway and Johanna Pratt of Ashfield, both of whom grew up around and held special reverence for them as youths. Antes, who grew up in Heath, remembers the woods of her farm “blessed with” beech groves, where she annually gathered tasty beechnuts.

“Any nuts that weren’t eaten on my way to the kitchen were incorporated by my mother into cakes and cookies,” she wrote.

As for Pratt, who cited three special beech trees in woods she deer-hunts and identified the beech as one of her “beloved trees,” she wrote that a salient memory takes her back to a chair-lift ride with her dad many years ago on an unnamed New Hampshire ski resort.

“It seems like 100 years ago that he pointed out a tall beech tree as we glided by and said, ‘See that bear tree?’” she wrote. “There were clear bear-claw hieroglyphics right up the side of that big beech tree. The scars displayed a crescent pattern where the bear had climbed the tree to harvest beechnuts, the front-paw marks distinct from the rear paws. Since then, I always search for bear-claw marks on beeches when hunting.”

Look for such sign she and others should, because bear-claw marks on beeches are as common as the smooth gray-barked trees they find their way to. Why? Well, I haven’t researched it but would guess it’s because beechnut meat soon dries into a tiny seed after falling to the ground, so it behooves bears to climb trees to forage this nut when the ripe smell fills the forest air. A friend speculated that perhaps the bear scratches are territorial like deer scrapes on the ground during rutting season. While I wouldn’t dismiss that possibility, it seems more likely that it’s the fruit that draws bears to beeches.

Before Pratt signed off, she shared one last interesting tidbit on beeches.

“Speaking of hunting,” she wrote, “I sometimes amuse myself on stand by biting the small, furled bud from a beech sapling. I like chewing them.”

So, I guess that habit plus Antes’ previous mention of beechnut-enhanced cookies and cakes answers the question of yet another random, unfamiliar Springfield correspondent, Ms. Maure Briggs-Carrington, who reached out with the question, “Are beechnuts edible for humans.” Yes, indeed, Maure. Just ask Antes and Pratt. Plus, anthropological records will tell you beechnuts were among the nuts gathered annually by Native American’s, joining white-oak acorns, chestnuts, butternuts, walnuts, hickories and hazel nuts.

The first forester to reach out was South Deerfield’s Michael Mauri, who sent a tiny book with a long, narrow, color photograph of a high Williamsburg beech grove folded in half to make a front and back cover. Inside  was this little poem. I do hope I’m not violating copyright laws:

 

black bear
the one who—is like us, the one who—
bends small trees in the forest

 

Accompanying the little booklet was a short note to say we had met once in the Montague Book Mill parking lot, where we looked at the topo map of a favorite ridge of mine named Walnut, where, incidentally, there are beech and hickories as well, not to mention an amazing balanced rock and ancient sacred landscape. He didn’t know the glacial erratic. Maybe someday we’ll take a hike and ponder the possibilities. Perhaps we’ll even hike a bit farther south along the spine to a seven-trunked shagbark hickory tree, the likes of which I have never seen anywhere else. I’m sure a poem could be written about this high, lonesome anomaly, which could even be a non-conformist in the mold of  Perez Bardwell, the 18th century hardscrabble rebel who lived below.

The other forester who came this way did so indirectly, through a local political gadfly with a deadly stinger.  This source called last week, then emailed me a recent state Department of Conservation and Recreation-proposal laying out a logging project targeted for the 280-acre Garnet Hill section of Peru State Forest. The initiative is aimed at ridding the plot of red pine scale and beech bark disease by aggressive logging and subsequent controlled forest-regeneration projects, including “chemical control of beech … to ensure other desirable native species can emerge after the harvest.”

Although it’s too late to delve into this complicated issue this week, it’s never too early to share the critical assessment of Michael J. Kellett, executive director of “Restore: The North Woods.”  Founded in 1992 and headquartered in Hallowell, Maine, with a Massachusetts office in Concord, this conservation group’s goal is “to go beyond endless damage control to begin restoring the health of entire landscapes.”

Kellett has reviewed the proposed Peru State Forest logging plan and gives it a disgusted thumbs-down.

“What a disgrace,” he writes. “… This is a plan aimed solely at cutting down as many big trees as possible before they lose their commercial value.

“The so-called forest insect and disease threats are vastly overblown. They will kill some trees, but that is something that happens in all natural forests. Logging will do nothing to mitigate or stop insects and disease, and it will probably make them worse.

“… Nothing short of a full ban on logging will save these state forest lands from liquidation.”

Touche!

Obviously, policy wonks will come forward attempting to destroy this man’s credibility by calling him a tree-hugging kook or worse. But a wise observer doesn’t dismiss such criticism out of hand. No. A sage listens and probes and researches and learns, and maybe, just maybe, discovers that what has been said is legit, not wild, radical-extremist blabber.

Stay tuned. What’s happening in Peru is lurking in a state forest near you. They call it forest-management policy.