Rock Dam Ramble

Approaching noon on a sunny Fourth of July morning — a dry, refreshing northwesterly breeze perfect for hiking — and we’re crossing Gen. Pierce Bridge from Bingville to Montague City for a quick Rock Dam tour. Having never visited the site, a dear old pal from South Deerfield had called the night before suggesting a trip to the natural basalt dike and recreational haven that crosses the Connecticut River from its steep eastern bank to forested Smead Island, separated from the Greenfield shore only by a slim, shallow channel.

Looking upstream as we drive over the bridge, three or four wading anglers are enjoying the holiday, presumably not fishing for American shad, which stopped running a couple of weeks ago. By then, the daytime river temps had stabilized in the mid-70s Fahrenheit, signaling the end of shad fishing and the beginning of shad spawning, when the fish stop migrating upstream to establish permanent lairs.

Headed north toward Avenue A, we take a left over the iron bridge and into the Patch, referred to by smart-asses as the capital of Turners Falls. A left t’other side the bridge leads us to a paved road following the canal to Cabot Station, not far from where we park to walk a well-worn footpath to the river’s edge just below the narrow Rock Dam waterfall. Surprisingly, a moderate power-generating flow is obscuring the slim eight- to 10-foot drop another friend had observed just last week under lower-flow conditions. Luck of the draw in the world of power-producing rivers. Unfortunately, we arrived at the wrong time to see the narrow waterfall that at low volumes funnels the entire downstream flow over it. But fall or no fall, the entire flow was still being pulled through a 15-foot gap in the natural stone dike, and the flooded waterfall didn’t detract from the site’s beauty or mystique.

We walk quite a way downstream over the baked stone stream bed, inspecting rocks for ancient artifacts, old river-rounded bricks and familiar red Connecticut Valley sandstones among the mixed cobbles and flat skimming stones we used to skip across the water as kids. Then we double back toward the outcropping of ledge, 10 or 12 feet tall, framing the Montague side of the waterfall, which on this day appears more like a chute of flume for chartreuse- and hot-pink-clad kayakers.

Before jumping a shallow, two-foot-wide, rust-colored spring stream trickling out of the Montague bank to pick up a worn path over exposed roots and around knobby trees to the top of the ledges, we encounter a thin, gray-bearded, middle-aged man with two boys making their way down the hill with fishing rods in hand.

“You guys are fishing, too, huh?” I asked. “We saw three or four fishermen from the bridge and wondered what they were fishing for. Not shad, I assume.”

“No, shad-fishing ended a couple of weeks ago,” he answered. “Mostly bass this time of year. That’s probably what those guys downstream are fishing for.”

He turns slightly, facing upstream at Rock Dam, head lifted, nose into the breeze and says, “Can’t you detect that fishy smell. It’s dead shad. A lot of them die after spawning. When it smells like that down here, you know shad-fishing is over.”

The current, the white frothy water surging through the waterfall gap, and the gravel streambed has the feel of a trout stream like the Deerfield or Green River, not so far away. So I ask if trout are ever caught there.

“No, trout are a long-shot here,” he quickly resplied. “Maybe even a miracle.”

Not so, interjected my friend, a couple of years younger than me. His family farm borders the Connecticut’s western bank above Sunderland Bridge, and he had some veteran river wisdom to share.

“Trout use the Connecticut River more than most people think,” he said in a friendly manner. “Especially brook trout. That’s how they get into all the little unstocked brooks between here and Hatfield.”

It’s true. The Connecitcut works as a superhighway for trout of all kinds seeking suitable habitat with cold summer water. A classic example occurred many years ago when, fishing for shad from a motorboat below Sunderland Bridge with late friend Walter T. Kostanski Jr., and son Richard, I got a strike on my own willow-leaf lure and was quite surprised to discover a pretty 14-inch rainbow trout from one of the local hatcheries. Who knows where it came from? It could have been an escapee from the state hatcheries in Sunderland or Montague or, then again, it could well have come indirectly from either hatchery after getting stocking into the Deerfield, Green or Sawmill rivers upstream from our fishing location.

Something else about these small Connecticut River tributaries like Clapp Brook in Deerfield or Sugarloaf Brook in Deerfield/Whately. Early settlers used to catch shad and salmon around the mouths of such small streams when the water was high in the spring. There are written accounts of 18th century fishing hauls being made from the mouth of Sugarloaf Brook, which empties into the Connnecticut River at Herlihy Park in Whately.

Take it to the bank: an angler could still take shad there when the water’s right, usually during high-water big-river events that chase fish up smaller tributaries for temporary refuge from the wild main stem. So, yes, in these days of put-and-take trout fishing, a creative man can find trout where they ain’t stocked. Nice trout. No secret when I was a boy, and still true today. Not only that but, the liquid migratory superhighway known as the Connecticut River also delivers anadromous fish into those same small streams where most anglers would not dream of catching them.

Enough!

And to think that this entire narrative was inspired by a quick, simple holiday trip to Rock Dam — that magical ancient landmark that can really stir your creative juices, like a fiddle in a spring-floor ballroom. And, mind you, I didn’t even bite for that initial urge to approach the site from an altogether different angle — that of deep-history and indigenous lore, always more alluring and, better still, invigoratingly mysterious.

*************

Sticking to spring Connecticut River anadromous-fish runs, for all intents and purposes, they’re history.

Yes, a straggler Atlantic salmon might come through between now and fall-time. But does it really matter? Thus far a whopping five have been monitored in the river system compared to 22 last year.
Two of this year’s salmon are currently in the Westfield River system. The other three are in the Connecticut River system between Holyoke and Turners Falls — perhaps the Deerfield River but possibly even smaller tributaries like Sawmill River in Montague, Fall River in Gill or Mill River in Hatfield. Other possibilities include the lower Green River or possibly even such Deerfield River feeders as the South and

Bear rivers, or even Dragon Brook. Hey, for that matter, you might find one hidden away below the cold Hawks Brook falls just off the Shelburne  bank above the mouth of the South and the old Conway Station railroad-trestle abutment in the river.

As for American shad, well, a good year all in all with 384,996 through Holyoke and a total of 391,097 in the river, just a tad under last year’s totals of 412,656 through Holyoke and 416,355 in the river.
Meanwhile, the curious saga of Turners Falls’ shad passage remains perplexing indeed. Numbers released by Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle show 50,770 shad passing Turners Falls as of June 7 and 30,534 passing through Vernon, Vt., through June 15. As it stands today, only 13 percent of the shad that made it past Holyoke made it through Turners Falls as well, which may be misleading given that the run lasted two or three weeks longer than charted. On the other hand, 68 percent of the shad that  passed Turners Falls made it past Vernon, which is not a bad number.

Hopefully, we’ll see the day when Turners Falls gets it together and turnstiles the majority of Holyoke’s fish upstream, headed toward the annual run’s historic terminus at Bellows Falls, Vt.

Wishful thinking after all these years of expensive dysfunction?

Maybe.

No! Make that absolutely.

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