Shad-Run Surge

With fragrant pink weigelas in full bloom and mock orange buds opening into white flowers, I know the annual Connecticut River American shad run is near its end, typical with Memorial Day in the rearview.

Long ago were the days when I was among the eager anglers wading the margins of deep, narrow migration channels transporting these upstream-swimming anadromous fish to spawning grounds where they were born. I can’t say I miss battling these strong fish that are fun to catch. Nope. As they say in Chi-co-pee (emphasis on the middle syllable), “Been dere, done dat.”

Good ole Chi-co-pee, a mill and sports town where it seems every other dwelling contains an angler of some stripe. I’ve bumped into them on my favorite local trout streams – heaven forbid – as well as places like northern Vermont, western Maine, northwestern New York, and even freakin’ Wyoming, for Chrissakes.

Of course, the Chicopee fellas don’t refer to themselves as anglers. Uh-uh. They’re just plain fishermen, old style, thank you. No need to honor gender-neutral political correctness. No sir. Not in Chi-co-pee, or even Chicopee Falls for that matter – where fishing likely dates back to soon after the peopling of our fertile valley some 15,000 years before the present.

This year’s shad numbers, tracked weekly by the federal Connecticut River Coordinator’s office in Sunderland, reveal that by recent standards, it’s been a good year. Why not? We’ve experienced optimal river conditions for anadromous runs. Everything lined up to near perfection, beginning with a mild winter and little snowfall, followed by a favorable spring, without disruptive rain events unleashing torrents of heavy, run-altering, fish-passageway-closing flooding.

So, migrating fish had it easy this spring – a steady swelled flow and a gradual rise in water temperature, all favorable to spawning runs.

This year’s run past the Holyoke Dam counting station looks like it will top 400,000 for the second time in 10 years, though it pales in comparison to the last one to do so – the 2017 run brought more than 537,000.

The best year on record since the counting began in 1967 was 1992, when nearly 722,000 shad passed Holyoke. Back then, state and federal officials manned several other valley counting stations to compute an annual total-river run, a practice that ended in 2017.

The record 1992 total-river count was a whopping 1.628 million, one of four recorded runs exceeding a million. The others, in declining order, occurred in 1983 (1.574 million), 1984 (1.231 million), and 1991 (1.196 million). Holyoke counts in the same order for those other three banner years were 528,000, 497,000, and 523,000.

In the six-year span from 2012 to 2017, an average of some 350,000 shad – rounded off to the nearest thousand – passed Holyoke annually. In the six years since, excluding this year’s incomplete total, the annual figure dropped to 278,000. So this year’s little surge is good news, considering threats of a warming planet on which sea levels and temperatures are rising along with Northeastern river temps that govern spawning runs and behavior.

Shad start running up the Connecticut River once its water temps reach into the 50s Fahrenheit. The run peaks in the mid-60s and ends as optimal spawning temps rise to 70. That’s when shad stop their upstream migration and establish spawning lairs in the shallows. There spawning unfolds as females deposit eggs to be fertilized by males. At this stage of the annual run, shad are preoccupied with reproduction and will not strike anglers’ shiny, sparkling offerings.

I’m sure local shad anglers have, over the past couple of weeks, been enjoying great success at Rock Dam in Montague City and many other popular Franklin County fishing haunts. The best Franklin County fishing is always a little later than Holyoke’s, providing serious anglers with the opportunity to follow the run upriver and extend their recreational opportunities. Some devoted anglers, many employing boats, fish the entire month of May, and then some, by starting at Enfield Falls and following the run all the way to Turners Falls.

Too bad the power company maintaining the Turners Falls fish-passage facilities doesn’t take its role in the anadromous fish migration game more seriously. Improvements are sorely needed to optimize fish passage past the Turners Falls Dam. Yet, sadly, the power companies overseeing the operations have never strived for peak efficiency.

So, don’t hold your breath awaiting impactful – and costly – adjustments aimed at improving poor anadromous-fish passage through the Powertown. Though power officials will continue feigning altruistic concern and giving the toothless plight good lip service, our warming planet will likely kill the shad run before the passage issues are ever resolved.


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