Season Of The Fish

Fish are on the platter this week. And why not? This is, after all, the week leading up to Memorial Day weekend, thus the week that annually signals the end of MassWildlife’s spring trout-stocking program, which, quite by chance, I innocently happened upon while on my daily routine Tuesday morning, eager dogs porta-kenneled under my pickup’s cap, both rarin’ to romp through shin- and knee-high, rain-drenched hayfields and unseasonably dry floodplain marsh below.

On the way to my customary spot, yes indeed, there it was, insignia on the door, purring rectangular tank on the back, passing as I approached a stop sign — a stocking truck tooling down the road, likely headed for the Green River Swimming and Recreation Area. I figured I’d follow and shoot the breeze as well as check out the trout they were depositing into the river.

Not surprisingly, I recognized the driver and he recognized me. We have bumped into each other many times during pheasant season, when he also travels the stocking routes with the same trucks and ring-necked, feathered cargo. Riding shotgun was his brother, along for the ride. I shook hands with the passenger and watched as the driver, standing atop his truck’s bed with a long-handled net, scooped four netfuls of lively McLaughlin Hatchery rainbow trout out of his tank before handing it down to his brother, who hustled the fish to the river’s edge for release. I left after that fourth load, but they must have dumped a couple more after I left. I’d guess there were a dozen of the Belchertown fish, all in the 12- to 15-inch class, in each scoop. Nice fish. Fat, colorful and wiggly. The fellas’ day began along the Vermont border at East Colrain and they had worked their way down to Greenfield.

“We must have made 20 stops,” said the driver, looking at me, then his nodding brother.

The question is, how long will these stocked fish last? It’s been a strange May indeed, with little rain, and the dry weather has left rivers like the Green lower than normal but not nearly as low as their feeder streams, which are at summer levels. When the water’s high, stocked fish are quickly dispersed naturally throughout the stream. But with low water levels, these same trout are apt to stay put more and are thus easy to catch where dumped, and potentially quickly fished-out. So we’ll have to wait and see on that.

If the boys are back stocking next week, it’ll be with a load of surplus trout, which, if available, go out to selected waters for one last round before taking the summer off and returning for a final fling around the first of October. Relying on 35 years or tracking such things from this perch, it’s a rare year when a surplus is not available.

Trout are not the only fish Connecticut Valley folks have an interest in this time of year. There’s also the annual upstream migration of anadromous fish seeking freshwater spawning beds in the Connecticut and its larger tributaries. American shad spawn in the spring, Atlantic salmon in the fall. And, yes, the salmon are still coming, albeit slowly, several years after pulling the plug on the expensive Atlantic Salmon Restoration Program. After nearly a half-century of disappointing returns, politicians could no longer justify the cost. But still they come, a grand total of seven through Wednesday, four this week alone. These determined stragglers are captured, tagged, released and tracked for research.

As for shad, the river conditions have thus far been very good for migration, which is typically disrupted by rains that drop the water temperature and increase the flow, both factors that slow migration, especially when flooding and high-water events necessitate the closure of fish ladders and lifts. The first shad monitored this spring appeared on April 29, and the first email report from the Connecticut River Coordinator’s office arrived in my inbox on May 2. Since then, we have had just one quick overnight rain that impacted local rivers in a big way, and even that swell didn’t last long. Thus the shad have been coming like gangbusters for three weeks, with the number likely up to 300,000 by today.

Something interesting I discovered in recent reading was that Indians utilized anadromous sea lamprey for food. I must admit I was surprised, because I have never heard of anyone eating them. Plus, I thought they were pure trash and total undesirables in the big fish-migration picture. Not so. After reading of their importance to our First Nation, I Googled lamprey recipes and found many in use today. Apparently they were a welcome spring delicacy for local tribes situated in the spring at “Great Falls” in Montague and South Hadley. I must admit to never being fond of the thick, orange, snake-like creatures bumping my legs as they swam between my waders — or, worse still, shorts and Tevas — when shad fishing. Not only that, but there were always many gross, decomposing carcasses in the river this time of year, so they did not hold a high place in my Deerfield/Connecticut rivers fishing experience. The fact that many die after spawning is all the more reason to eat them, I guess. Leave it to the Indians to find a use rather than ignore a resource that visits their habitat annually.

One more little tidbit related to the subject of local anadromous fish, thanks to an email from a consistent reader/emailer. Curious about a new antenna he spotted on Sunderland Bridge, this Vietnam vet chimed in to say he thought it had something to do with fish monitoring. I doubted it but, sure enough, my correspondent’s suspicion was confirmed when I checked with Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle.

“The FERC relicensing studies (for hydro facilities on the Connecticut River) that agencies have requested are underway,” Sprankle wrote. “Those antennas will be tracking adult shad, sea lamprey and, in the fall, juvenile shad and American eel. The monitoring covers from Holyoke upstream to Bellows Falls, Vt. I will be doing my own monitoring downstream of Holyoke.

He says the two power companies involved will capture and release about 550 radio-tagged shad combined. As for sea lamprey, it’ll be about 150 and, “for fall fish I don’t have the numbers in my head at moment. So there are/will be very large numbers of radio-tagged fish loose and being monitored, both with dozens of stationary sites plus regular mobile tracking runs each week.”

So, no conspiracy enthusiasts, Big Brother ain’t watching. Well, at least not from Sunderland Bridge.

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