Eels and Stuff

The first day of March brought with it an inch of fresh overnight snow, a rarity here this winter, as East Palestine, Ohioans live in fear that each breath inhaled is shaving away hours of their lives.

The morning is gray and gloomy, dark, dreary and warming, a light patter of rain detectable even to old ears, which have no trouble hearing that familiar scraping, sliding sound of snow tobogganing off the slate roofs, followed by a rattling tremble.

I’ve settled into my winter work station, seated on a bow-back Windsor at an oval farm table with thick reeded legs nestled into a kitchen nook, my back to the windowed south wall. Seems like as good a day as any to come up with something for my looming biweekly column. Never too early to get a jump on it. Sometimes somber mornings like this can stimulate thoughts, get the wheels spinning, so to speak – especially when unsure of a topic.

Beware: the route can be circuitous.

I awoke at daybreak and was downstairs before the clock struck six to revive the woodstove and finish reading a poignant Rolling Stone tale about Alabama coal miners enduring a two-year strike that finally ended last week. I was about halfway through it the previous evening when my wife came into the room to watch the nightly news. Choosing not to battle TV distraction, I calmly marked my place in pencil and set the magazine aside till morning. It could wait. Plus, I was ready for the Celtics game before catching up on the Murdaugh trial or latest Trump sideshow.

A couple of minor chores were awaiting me upon completion of the RS article. A stack of outgoing mail resting on a chest of drawers had to go out to the mailbox along with bags of stickered trash and paper recyclables left overnight on the small inset porch. I hate it when critters tear up my trash bags and scatter the contents out by the road. So, I’ve learned to wait till morning to lug them out there.

On my way back to the house, walking empty-handed over wet, sticky snow, a bird was singing a happy tune from its hidden burning-bush perch. I could not identify the song, but knew it wasn’t a cardinal, robin, or blue jay. Probably some sort of drab-colored sparrow, warbler, or wren invisibly perched and foraging the dense ornamental bush’s red berries.

Though able to identify few birds by sight and even fewer by sound, I could decipher the mood, and it was joyous. I had to wonder why it was so happy on this damp morning? There didn’t seem to be much to sing a happy tune about. Could not that innocent feathered creature detect the air- and rain-borne poison in the air from the faraway, black, toxic cloud of smoke we all saw billowing out of that train wreck along the Ohio/Pennsylvania border? Did it not know that, in the name of greed and profit, humanity is destroying most everything dear to it?

Ooops. There I go again, spouting blasphemy. Or is it heresy? I’m not supposed to say such things. You must be aware that some scientists paid handsomely by the captains of industry still claim humanity shares no responsibility for global warming. I’d hate to be outed as Woke by that new flavor of the month, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, and his band of hypocritical holy warriors. If they can shut down Dr. Seuss and Harper Lee, no one is immune.

But enough of that. I’d hate to rile folks of a different political stripe with my opinions born of the Sixties. That kind of talk doesn’t play well at St. Kaz and K Street? Maybe even some at the Voo will object. Heaven forbid ruffling “conservative” feathers.

Which, for some strange reason, brings me to the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission meeting I attended on a whim at the Conte Lab in Turners Falls on February 17. Having lost track of CRASC’s mission after five years of retirement, I wanted to see what it was up to with salmon-restoration in the rearview.

I suppose I could have devoted this entire column to that meeting, but in all honesty there wasn’t that much there. Just a routine morning meeting with Zoom participation, chaired by two familiar old characters from my past – Ken Sprankle and Andy Fisk.

I first knew Sprankle as the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Connecticut River Coordinator. Today his title has changed to Project Leader of Connecticut River Fish and Wildlife Conservation. Same job, different title.

Fisk has followed a similar path from executive director of the Connecticut River Watershed Council, which had morphed into the Connecticut River Conservancy before he left in October for greener pastures. He is now employed by the State of Connecticut, for which he is Bureau Chief for Natural Resources at the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

I must say I was surprised to learn of an ambitious American-eel restoration project, known as the CRASC Connecticut River American Eel Management Plan, aimed at protecting habitat and encouraging population growth. Google it for further details.

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t know that what I call brown river eels were migratory, and likewise had no idea there was a viable sport and even, I think, a small commercial fishery for them.

Yep, that was news to me.

The only person I ever knew who valued river eels as table fare was a late Polish man from my younger days. This man, a notorious game bandit, swore that these eels were the best-eating fish from local waters. I also learned from research that the slimy river critters were highly regarded as a Native American food source. Still, I didn’t in my wildest imagination believe there to be a significant eel fishery of any kind.

I guess I’m wrong. A post-meeting report emailed to attendees by Sprankle shows a proud fisherman holding up a gargantuan eel caught in the Bellows Falls, Vermont neighborhood.

My only personal experience with these eels occurred quite by accident during an overnight fishing journey to one of my favorite trout streams. I went to this Deerfield River tributary with a friend, two young women, tents, lanterns, food and drink, fishing and cooking equipment – the whole nine yards – in search of trophy brown trout summering in a gorge’s deep, dark, cold, underwater stone chambers.

I had learned of these huge browns from another friend who had bought a house in the neighborhood and checked out the gorge with scuba gear and an underwater light after I told him of the many nice trout I had caught there during summer rainstorms. Curious, he hiked into the secluded gorge and discovered huge browns in the five-pound class. He saw them with his eyes and touched them with his hands, hidden and comfortable in small, dark, underwater overhangs.

Because I had fished there many times and never caught such a fish, I figured they must be nocturnal feeders, and planned an ambitious overnight adventure, which failed miserably. This failure was driven by voracious eels, a foot and less in length, that aggressively competed for every nightcrawler we plunked into the deep pool. Their commotion created an unnatural disturbance that telegraphed our presence and prevented us from hooking into any big browns – akin to flushing partridge unknowingly warning deer that a hunter is passing through.

One must wonder if those Deerfield River browns in their cold, deep, summer refuge get so plump by eating eel progeny. They eat mice, frogs, and small snakes, so why not eels in the six- to eight-inch category? There are plenty of them there for the taking.

All I can say for certain is that my creative plan went bust in a hurry, and the steep, uphill, morning trek back to our Toyota Land Cruiser was strenuous indeed, and no fun at all.

Whew! So, there you have it: another winter-doldrums column in the rearview. I have written many over the years. The trick is to absorb the moment, and let the spirit move you.

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