Fighting a Loyal Salmon Crusade

This all began with an email from a local environmentalist gadfly. He wanted to share a recent guest column he had written for the Northampton newspaper. What followed was a string of email correspondence between me and him and another writer still beating the dead horse called Connecticut River Atlantic salmon. The lively discussion stirred dormant memories from decades back, when I was a lonely critical voice in the toxic wilderness of Connecticut River Atlantic salmon restoration.

The memories hark back to my first years at the Greenfield Recorder, where I spent 40 years in the newsroom, 32 as sports editor and 37 writing a weekly outdoor column – On the Trail – that focused on hunting, fishing and nature wrapped in local history, and random musings. My Recorder years (1979 to 2018) bore witness to my marriage, the birth of two sons and grandsons, and the tragic death of my sons before the age of 30. A wild ride any way you slice it.

The Recorder was an afternoon paper when I started, with a Saturday-morning edition necessitating a Friday split shift with a barebones night production crew. The basement press rumbled and rolled daily at 11 a.m. Monday through Friday, and again at the stroke of midnight Saturday.

The departing Friday day shift and the incoming night crew exchanged pleasantries while passing in opposite directions through the doorway. At midnight Saturday, our skeleton crew would hear the press squeak and groan to a thunderous roar before grabbing a paper fresh off the press, sent upstairs on a hand elevator from the bowels of the plant. We’d quickly check for potential embarrassing headline errors, put the newsroom to bed, and scoot to the local bar for last call – a great way to wind down before heading home after another furious deadline crescendo.

During my early years in the 1980s and early ‘90s, I was still playing in men’s softball leagues from May through mid-October, fishing rivers and upland streams, hunting turkeys and deer, and wing-shooting pheasants, grouse, woodcock and even an occasional duck bursting from a swampy brook before the steel-shot mandate took hold. That’s why I wrote an outdoor column. I was plugged into the scene, always curious and trying to gain an edge against prey; wanting to know its history, its habits, and the habitats it preferred. Plus, I’d track annual hunting harvests and fish migrations, fish and wildlife restoration projects, and local personal-interest hunting stories.

As a columnist, I was there for remarkably successful New England wild-turkey and black-bear restorations, and was later recognized and often criticized as a believer in cougar sightings, regardless of what the experts said. Then, of course, there was the Atlantic salmon restoration project, an expensive, high-priority state and federal boondoggle that never caught a break.

Some visionary fisheries biologists warned from the start that it was too late to bring salmon back to the Connecticut River. Sadly, they opined, that ship had sailed. But their opposition was ignored by gung-ho, altruistic colleagues they pejoratively referred to as “true believers.” Even worse, such opposing viewpoints were greeted with anger, and their voices of reason were kept under wraps. Plain and simple, their humble view was that salmon restoration here was doomed from the start, due to environmental and climatic factors beyond scientists’ control.

 

In the Field

Having grown up in this slice of the Connecticut Valley, where my DNA stains many a fertile floodplain, I was in the right place at the right time, so to speak, as an outdoor writer working for the newspaper of my parents, my grandparents, and their great-grandparents. Plus, I had vested interest in shad because I was learning to catch them with shiny objects attached to large, sharp hooks.

I was likewise interested in salmon, which would be the grandest of all freshwater gamefish in my place, if the restoration program succeeded. If salmon returned, the best places to fish for them would be major tributaries like the lower Deerfield River, which I knew intimately after years of crafting my trout-fishing skills there with live bait and artificials, spinning and fly tackle.

I knew all the hidden, double-rutted cart roads accessing the river’s secluded stretches, and I knew the deer runs snaking their way down vertical banks to the water. Those were the days before whitewater yahoos took over the lower Deerfield with their loud, obnoxious presence. Before them, the fishing was nirvanic, the atmosphere tranquil; after them, chaotic for anyone accustomed to the old ways.

During my first decade or so at the Recorder, I was a young man, working nights, with boundless energy. May and June daybreaks below the mouth of the South River were downright heavenly. I’d rise well before dawn, pack fishing gear into my Jeep Cherokee, and arrive at stream’s edge before the birds sang – a very special, reflective time of day. On the return home with my catch a few hours later, my South Deerfield neighbors were pouring their first cups of coffee.

My catch-and-release days came later, after my grandmother died. She loved trout, especially little brookies she’d batter and fry with home-fries, bacon and eggs in a black iron skillet. As for larger big-river trout, she’d bake them wrapped in aluminum foil or give them to her neighbor. Trout must have been in her East Colrain DNA, I suppose. Never asked. Didn’t think in those terms back then.

It was on the Deerfield River, fishing for trout in riffles racing toward deep pools, that I began to understand shad migration. Wearing polarized glasses, I’d catch their passing silver flashes heading upstream between me and the morning sun peeking over the steep eastern horizon. By accidentally hooking into a few on colorful streamers, I discovered they were fun to catch – on the average bigger, heavier, and stronger than trout.

Soon I was hooked, and found my way to the most popular shad-fishing place in New England below the Holyoke Dam. I started on the South Hadley Falls side, where I learned it was safer to leave an unoccupied vehicle, and soon discovered the backdoor into the sparsely populated east bank of the tailrace pulling migratory fish into the Barrett Fish Lift, which transports them over the dam.

I’d cross the river shallows between the Holyoke Bridge and the dam, picking my way to an island and crossing it to “the other side” of the tailrace, which I’d have virtually to myself. Facing me from the opposite shore was a maddening, elbow-to-elbow crowd spending more time untangling crossed lines than fishing. Not for me. Same reason I stopped fishing the Willoughby River steelhead run in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom each spring.

I met commercial fly-tier Indian Al Niemiec there, and he showed me the way, telling me I could ignore the danger signs. We met by chance in the dirt parking lot not far from a riverside youth-baseball field and became fast friends. A veteran angler and Amherst College man from Chicopee, he showed me the secrets of catching shad with silver, willow-leaf, metal blades soldered to large hooks and fished with sink-tip flyline. In my experience, willow-leaf blades more than double the catch of those using ubiquitous shad darts.

 

Numbers Game

Curious about these anadromous fish streaming past me all day in schools and pods, I soon became even more interested in salmon. Wouldn’t it be great if they were running upriver in similar numbers? That’s when I started asking questions of the federal officials I routinely spoke to each spring when tracking weekly migration numbers and comparing them to previous years in my column.

The goal of the salmon-restoration project from the start was to re-establish a large enough annual run to justify sportfishing. The obvious question was, what kind of numbers were we shooting for? Better still, how many salmon would have migrated up the Connecticut River annually before dams built in the late 18th and early 19th centuries blocked their path?

When the experts couldn’t answer that deep-history question, it seemed odd to me, perhaps even evasive. If we couldn’t quantify what used to be, how then could we set a reasonable modern-day goal? It made no sense.

As I kept gently pressing folks like Dr. Henry Booke at the Cronin National Fish Lab in Turners Falls and Micky Novak at the Sunderland National Salmon Station, it became clear to me that they had no answer and were insecure about it. It wasn’t their fault. There were no records, just fanciful tales that almost never lead to future successes. No, Martha, you couldn’t walk across tight river channels on the backs of salmon, no matter what the tales say.

When pinned down, Booke, whom I had met while he was still a UMass professor, tried to deflect my constant line of questioning by taking issue with my focus on raw numbers. The numbers didn’t matter, he scolded. We’d get there if we were patient and supportive. Cynicism, criticism and pessimism did no good. We needed to be positive, optimistic. The fish would come in time. We had to give the restoration program time to work.

Huh? Something was adding up. I was supposed to believe numbers don’t matter in a scientific experiment? Preposterous. How could any scribe with a sliver of pride or good sense accept that perspective, even between quotation marks? The problem was that most if not all did. So did I, likely more than once, before I saw the light.

The only way to protect my integrity and credibility was to investigate what I could find about historic and prehistoric shad and salmon runs. I began searching for data in town histories, 18th and 19th-century newspapers, and sparse records here and there in dusty old volumes. That way, I could get a handle on the status of historic salmon migration and thus figure out for myself realistic future goals in a modern, polluted world.

The journey for information led me through local-history rooms in many Connecticut Valley libraries, where, notebook in hand, I went through indexes of town histories written primarily between 1850 and 1910 to get a feel for the anadromous-fish scene. It was immediately clear to me that, although there were indeed spring salmon passing through our valley in colonial days and into the Federal Period, their numbers had been greatly exaggerated. Shad always outnumbered salmon by a wide margin on their annual upriver migration, and were thus the dominant spring fish.

Even Native Americans here before white Europeans arrived caught far more shad than salmon, viewing the latter as a welcome bonus when caught in weirs, traps, and nets situated along the river each spring.

 

Pie in the Sky

Eventually, as I continued researching and piecemealing out what I found in my column – much of which was contrary to what salmon-restoration officials wanted to hear – a few timid sources came forward, off the record, to admit I was on the right path. Then, one day in downtown Greenfield, a woman I didn’t know but would soon join on the Greenfield Historical Commission approached me with a bombshell. UMass anthropologist/archaeologist Catherine Carlson had written a 1992 doctoral dissertation that supported what I had been reporting. Based on examination of biological data gathered from more than 70 known Northeastern prehistoric fishing sites, she found little evidence of salmon. Very little.

The woman promptly snail-mailed me a copy of Carlson’s academic journal article excerpting her dissertation. Salmon-restoration proponents knew of the report and were furiously working behind the scenes to discredit it and keep it from public view. It was the last thing they needed while trying to defend disappointing salmon returns in the news each spring. But word got out, and the damage was done.

OK, yes, it is indeed possible that Native American cosmology reserved a special place for salmon and disposed of their remains honorably, perhaps discarding them back into the rivers from which they were taken. Thus, the absence of remains in riverside refuse pits. It’s not out of the question. Such special treatment was the custom for bear remains left off the ground in trees. Why not salmon, king of the annual run?

Still, there is no tangible evidence that salmon runs ever approached the much larger shad runs in our Connecticut River, or in the Hudson River for that matter. That’s undisputable fact. The rest is history.

Twenty years after Carlson’s dissertation was published, and some 25 years after I started picking away at the topic the best I could – with abysmal annual salmon counts staggering into the 21st century’s second decade – the plug was mercifully pulled on restoration in 2012.

This year two salmon returned to a large tributary in Connecticut. Last year there were none. Not a one. Zero. Which is precisely what one can soon expect annually.

Some fisheries biologists knew it was a Hail Mary from the start. Few listened, and those who did were ostracized, criticized, and ridiculed as naysayers. But the true believers finally had to throw in the towel, raise the white flag, and retreat. They put up a good fight, and never got to sample that pie in the sky they savored.

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