Sturgeon Survive, Native Fishing Camps Fade

Two recent meetings I chose to attend pulled my focus to Connecticut River Basin fisheries and, more specifically, those of our own Pioneer Valley – a topic I have explored in depth over the years, be it with books, scientific reports, fishing rods, shotguns, or paddles in hand.

First came the January 17 meeting of the Connecticut River Fish Restoration Cooperative Technical Committee (CRFRCTC) at the Conte Lab in Montague City. Then the February 7 Battlefield Grant Advisory Committee (BFAC) meeting at Montague town hall’s meeting room in Turners Falls. The first gathering stirred my curiosity about the status of majestic, endangered Connecticut River Atlantic sturgeon. The second drew my attention to ancient, temporary, Native American fishing villages built each spring near waterfalls and manmade weirs and traps on the Connecticut and its tributaries.

Soon after the BFAC meeting, I emailed Ken Sprankle, project leader of the Connecticut River Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office in Sunderland, for an Atlantic sturgeon status report. I was surprised to learn that the large anadromous fish still exists in the Connecticut, though barely.

Sprankle sent me links to informative online sources, primarily reviewing recent Connecticut Department of Energy an Environmental Protection (CT DEEP) efforts to tag, monitor, and further understand a population in peril. Atlantic sturgeon populations reach back 200 million years. Individuals can live 100 years and reach 16 feet in length.

I was surprised to learn of the ongoing Connecticut sturgeon initiative, which I had either seen and forgotten or, more likely, totally missed. My antennae have not been alert to Atlantic sturgeon news in these days dominated by the “save-the-shortnose-sturgeon” campaign championed by vociferous local gadfly Karl Meyer. Given Mr. Meyer’s loud, repetitive, activist wail, one could be excused for being unaware that grander Atlantic sturgeon share the river with their shortnose kin.

My Atlantic sturgeon interest was recently elevated by reading 18th-century Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm’s fascinating Travels into North America, probably the best natural-history account of 1750 northeastern America on record. During canoe explorations up the Delaware and Hudson rivers, Kalm observed many gargantuan, prehistoric-looking Atlantic sturgeon patrolling the shallows and intermittently leaping “a fathom” – six feet – out of the water.

Had a contemporaneous investigator made a similar trip up our Connecticut River, this same Atlantic sturgeon spectacle would have unfolded. The massive fish are, like Atlantic salmon and American shad, anadromous, which means they are born in freshwater, live as adults in saltwater, and return to their natal freshwater streams to spawn. Shortnose sturgeon, on the other hand, while also identified as anadromous, spend most of their lives in rivers and tend to cling to the shoreline when they do venture into the ocean.

Judging from the material Sprankle sent me, I would not expect a bright future for Connecticut River Atlantic sturgeon. Researchers are, however, gathering and studying progeny, so it’s not hopeless. Sadly, however, that’s about the best outlook one can have regarding the future of Connecticut River Atlantic sturgeon, and the plight of shortnose is no different. A warming climate and water pollution are the major factors weighing heavily against restoration.

Which brings us to the Battlefield Grant meeting that brings us back to the final days of indigenous Connecticut River fishing encampments like the one attacked by Captain William Turner’s troop of King Philip’s War militia in the predawn hours of that fateful day of May 19, 1676.

The peaceful village would have looked like others traditionally built and inhabited each spring at the Connecticut River’s three “Great Falls”, today known as Bellows Falls, Turners Falls, and South Hadley Falls. Similar camps would have been found at lesser falls, like Rock Dam in Montague City and Enfield Falls in northern Connecticut. A fourth set of forgotten falls on the Connecticut mainstem existed at a sharp turn in the river between North Hatfield’s Bashin and North Hadley. That once-rocky site is now submerged under Holyoke Dam backwater.

These ancient seasonal villages took advantage of natural constrictions, falls and rapids that slowed the progress of upstream-running migrant fish gathered in settling pools, where they were easily dip-netted, speared, and shot with arrows. Contributing to bountiful spring harvests were manmade traps and weirs, where fish were also easy prey. The sought-after fish were shad, salmon, herring, and sturgeon, likely including smaller shortnose.

When the BFAC discussion ventured into educational goals, my thoughts went immediately to the battleground’s deep history as an ancient fishery. Yes, metal-detecting experts are reconstructing the battlefield and its retreat-route skirmishes by following the path of spent 17th-century bullets. But that’s only a Eurocentric sliver of the infamous “Falls Fight” tale – a triumphant narrative about mayhem and massacre that turned King Philip’s War in the colonials’ favor.

The Native American people slaughtered by some of my own ancestors that day were there to fish, not fight. They had built temporary riverside shelters and workshops aimed at catching, preparing, and preserving salubrious fish after a long winter.

The indigenous inhabitants knew the drill from experience dating back thousands of years. They’d select the best fish to feast on, and preserve the rest for storage. In a celebratory process saluting nature’s bounty, there would be song, dance and games, fireside storytelling and negotiation, matchmaking and lovemaking with newfound lifetime mates.

Men, women and children were there. They knew their chores and performed them well at a safe place of high spirit and peace. There the creator had placed a river obstruction, which had to be portaged around by canoe travelers. It became a sacred, hunter-gatherer site that invited harmony and diplomacy.

Not nearly enough is known about the makeup of this fishing village, its many stations and diverse activities. Never a sketch, a detailed recollection or description of the fileting and butterflying stations. Not a word about nighttime, torchlight-spearing parties or daytime dip-netters. No discussion of trap construction and repair. It’s sad that no one who was there that fateful day recorded the layout, the contraptions and their functions.

Anthropology and ethnology were then unknown fields of study. What the attackers saw through their twisted Christian lens was a riverside Satan’s Village occupied by copper-colored Devils incarnate. Their mission was mayhem, ridding their New World of the evil, sleeping “savages” – their word, not mine.

Upon returning home from the battlefield meeting, a new source awaited me at home. Rev. J.H. Temple’s History of Palmer had arrived by mail the previous day. I snagged it on eBay and was eager to go through it before placing it in my library next to the former (1845-53) Whately minister’s histories of that town, Northfield, and North Brookfield. The price and condition were right, so I chased it.

I respect Temple as a careful, thorough, late 19th-century historian. Though I never considered it during the buying process, I also recognized Temple as one historian who displayed more than a passing interest in our valley’s indigenous people.

He didn’t disappoint in the Palmer book, immediately digging into the topic and describing Native American fishing practices on the rivers traversing the Hampden County town. We’re talking about rivers like the Swift, Ware, and Chicopee, to name few, and many smaller feeder streams in what is basically now the Quabbin watershed. Native Americans fished all of these streams for anadromous fish, and some of their V-shaped weirs were still clearly visible in Temple’s time.

New to me was his description of downstream-facing weirs with basket traps at the apex, designed to catch spawning survivors returning to the ocean. I’ll take him at his word for now, but must check other sources about Native American fishing practices on rivers in Maine, New York, the Maritimes, and the West Coast to see if I missed or forgot something.

Targeting fish returning to the ocean after spawning makes little sense to me for a number of reasons.  First and foremost is the sporadic tempo of the downstream migration, not to mention the exhausted physical condition of spawning survivors. Why target random, wobbly returnees that are spent and sparse, when vigorous upstream travelers are larger, healthier, more plentiful, and much better eating?

Stay tuned.

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