It’s Been A Wild Spring Thus Far On Shad Front

An unusual spring it is, a peculiar winter it was in the Happy Valley, where haywire harbingers seem to be the rule.

Take, for instance the lilacs now sweetening local neighborhoods. Do they not typically bloom a little later, when mornings are warm enough to allow the pleasant fragrance to enter homes through screen doors and windows? Not this year, when we must adjust by picking bouquets and placing them in tabletop or countertop vases to introduce that sweet, welcome spring aroma indoors.

But that’s not all which is not quite hunky-dory this spring. How about bridal wreath, whose white flagrant flowers typically appear for Memorial Day and the first week of June? This year, hints of the delicate white blossoms started to appear over the weekend, a couple of weeks earlier than usual, and are now maturing toward their full-bloom splendor.

So what about the annual Connecticut River shad run, which far outproduces the other spring anadromous fish migrations for species such as Atlantic salmon, alewife, blueback herring, striped bass and Atlantic sturgeon? Plus, throw in endangered shortnose sturgeon, which were at one time anadromous but now seem to be landlocked between, say, Springfield and Turners Falls, with preferred ancient spawning grounds around Rock Dam in Montague City. Well, all of these migrators seem to be running strong and a little early. It promises to be a somewhat drawn out run ruled by water temperature that’s still five to 10 degrees below the peak 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit, which may soon arrive and may not. All depends on the weather. Heavy spring rains bring flooding and water-temperature drops, but we have yet to experience an event close to that, which, if this spring is like others, can’t be far away.

Now, mind you, despite the fact that no one’s quite bold enough to call what we’re experiencing this week and late last week the peak — with water temperatures at Thompsonville, Conn., under 60 degrees Wednesday — what appears to be an all-time single-day record shad run of 54,000 through Holyoke did occur last Thursday, a day when Rock Dam anglers were enjoying consistent action fishing the classic migration channel there. Not surprisingly, on that productive day the river temp had climbed to just over 60, peaking Saturday at 61-plus. That slight rise in temperature produced runs of 36,687 on May 11 and 54,006 on May 12, when Holyoke water registered at a low 55 degrees.

“I went through records back to 1976,” wrote Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle, “and could find no single-day run over 50k.”

By this week, with river temps again dipping below 60, the Monday and Tuesday runs through Holyoke were 14,242 and 7,531. If clear sunny days and warm nights stabilize for the rest of this week, expect another surge and, yes, now’s definitely the time to fish Franklin County, where the fish passageways are tardy in reporting numbers. Thus far, not a word about how many shad have passed Turners Falls’ three fish passageways, a fact that seemed to rankle Sprankle some. But he sounded confident that he’ll finally have some numbers by the weekend.

“Having a delay in fish counts is fairly typical for many facilities that do not staff live counting humans,” he wrote Wednesday morning. “That being said, this year the delay in fish counts from Turners Falls as well as Vernon facilities is becoming a noticeable concern to many people.”

He pointed out that for Turners Falls’ fishways, the Federal license contains Article 38, which notes the licensee “shall file with FERC an annual report detailing operation of the facilities, problems in design or operation, and listing the number, by species, of all fish passed upstream.”

So, despite the fact that the license language does not specify timing for counts at Turners Falls, Sprankle says, “it is obvious that fishery managers, anglers and the public have an expectation that fish counts will be timely — in the sense that once thousands of say shad have passed Holyoke, there will be regular updates at Turners and at the next project.” He added that he does intend to address this issue at the June Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission meetings in an effort to better understand what caused the delays, and what the options are to produce timely reports in advance of next year.

Sprankle praised conscientious Greenfield Community College for its role in providing Powertown numbers over the years, writing: “The Vernon fish ladder’s counting operation is the responsibility of Vermont and New Hampshire. This year they decided to contract the review of the digital imaging (files) to Greenfield Community College, which has been doing that task for Turners Falls for many years — and doing a good job. It is of course most imperative that a good job is done and counts are considered accurate — which has always been the case with the GCC crew. In the past, the delay in counts from TF (and Vernon) has not been so protracted as this year.”

Thus far, a total of 232,445 shad have been counted in the river system, the lion’s share (230,626) passing Holyoke. It would seem we’re well on our way to another big year rivaling last year’s total of 416,355 in the river and 412,656 through Holyoke.

Meanwhile, not an Atlantic salmon has yet appeared anywhere in the valley, which seems curious given river conditions that should be about perfect for the king of North Atlantic game fish. On a more encouraging note, a new season record was established Monday when the 17th shortnose sturgeon was hoisted over the Holyoke dam by Barrett Fishlift.


During a pleasant midday visit to Rock Dam last Thursday with Dr. Peter A. Thomas — an anthropologist/archaeologist/historian/author who has devoted much professional energy and intellectual investment to the Turners Falls area’s indigenous past, not to mention its geology — we had the opportunity to watch what some might view as an uncomfortable relationship between recreational and commercial users of the swift channel overflowing the falls.

With a line of three or four anglers waded out into the river angling for shad, two large blue oval rafts wearing a commercial whitewater company’s name on their sides kept shooting the rapid over and over again, blowing right through the key fishing zone without apparent concern about being inappropriate. The rafters would squirt through the short, “yee-ha,” rapid, swing their vessels into a calm backwater and maneuver them to the base of mid-Rock Dam, where they’d haul the rafts over the rocks and into the impoundment above. There, they’d paddle diagonally upstream 50 or more yards before again riding the current over the swollen falls and repeating the process to their hearts’ content.

To their credit, the anglers never showed a discernible scowl or voiced dissatisfaction with the potentially annoying, obtrusive activity, but at least one observer — yes, one who leans heavily in favor of pure recreational use over commercial use of a public resource for private gain — found the commercial whitewater folks to be, perhaps unwittingly, rude and oblivious to proper etiquette, though not in any way confrontational.

This is not the first time these eyes have been exposed to this type of behavior by whitewater people passing through a place where anglers are working a stream in peace and tranquility. With flyrod in hand, I have witnessed the same thing on the lower Deerfield River between Bardwells Ferry and Stillwater, and on the Catch-and Release area known in the local vernacular as The No-Kill above Hoosac Tunnel. In none of these spots did the whitewater people give any hint that they respected the presence of anglers. In fact, I would call their behavior loud, intrusive, disruptive and maybe even obnoxious — ignoring the possibility that they may be disruptive to others who had established position before they arrived.

It was once again clear to me that commercial whitewater enthusiasts and recreational fishermen are incompatible bedfellows with many opportunities for conflict. Of course, that’s just one man’s opinion that has widespread support among critics, including an unnamed activist who fought hard for trout fishermen on the Deerfield River many moons ago during the contentious FERC relicensing process around 1990.

“They’re using Mother Nature as an amusement park,” he scoffed.

Well stated. Hey, maybe there’s nothing wrong with whitewater activity when the time is right. But when fishermen are already lined up before the rafts and paying customers arrive, maybe they ought to at the very least extend the courtesy to ask if it’s OK or maybe find another place to rollick.

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