Upstream Fish Migration past Turners Falls Pathetic

The query came from Lynn Stowe Tomb of Gill, where, as editor she is leading a dedicated collaborative of local historians and town officials to put the finishing touches on a new, comprehensive book focusing on the history, deep and shallow, of Riverside — that small village butted up against Barton Cove’s tail before the impoundment tumbles over the Turners Falls dam spillway.

One of Tomb’s editorial assistants from the Gill Historical Commission had read something in this space that he found confusing, if not unlikely — heaven forbid, maybe even inaccurate. He queried her and she queried this space by email with: “Is it possible that (last year, according to your column) there were 416,355 shad in the Connecticut River Basin and only 60,000 made it past the Turners Falls dam?”

The knee-jerk answer was, “Absolutely. In fact, last year was a great year at Turners despite the huge drop-off from what had passed Holyoke.”

So, count Ms. Tomb among those who, for good reason, may have trouble comprehending why such a major discrepancy would exist at a relay station designed and built at considerable expense to provide upriver access to migratory fish headed from Holyoke to Bellows Falls, Vt., and beyond. Bellows Falls has forever been the shad-run terminus. But don’t blame Ms. Tomb. Frankly, it makes little sense in the big picture of upstream fish passage for such a correctable inefficiency to exist anywhere in the fish-passage network. But also it’s a dynamic that few members of the general public know, or probably care, about. Hey, it’s only fish, right?

Not that anyone would be shocked to discover power companies may not be totally committed to optimal anadromous fish passage around various dams equipped with different types of fish lifts and ladders. No. Such a realization is pretty much par for the course for public utilities using public resources for private gain and riches. It’s just not a subject that gets a lot of play in the mainstream news. And when it does appear, the most vociferous critics are outspoken environmental crusaders like local gadfly Karl Meyer as well as anonymous recreational anglers who discuss it in coffee-shop conversation or activists addressing small isolated audiences. Pretty much preaching to the choir.

The fact is that, entering this year, the average annual number of migrating shad passed at Holyoke that make it past Turners Falls since 1976 is less than five percent despite consecutive “great years” by historic standards in 2014 and 2015. Yes, during the past two shad runs, the percentages jumped to an almost unimaginable 10.8 and an all-time best 14.1 got past Turners Falls.

Could this recent spike have anything to do with the fact that five dams from Turners Falls to Bethel, Vt., are currently under the public microscope during the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) relicensing processes? Or could that be just another coincidence?

Hmmmm?

No matter how you frame it, anadromous-fish passage past Turners Falls has been pathetic at best, even during the best years. Last year was the second-best year ever. Tops was 60,089 the 1992, when 721,764 passed Holyoke. Do the math. That all-time record year shows a paltry 8.3 percent of the fish passing Holyoke made it past Turners Falls. Definitely nothing to boast about. In fact, whoever’s responsible should hide their heads in failure.

And, oh yeah, don’t hold your breath waiting for the annual percentages to improve dramatically and permanently anytime soon, FERC relicensing or no FERC relicensing. This year, despite assurances last week that he’d finally have passage number at Turners Falls by this past weekend, no word that they have indeed appeared for Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle’s perusal.

Must be the same old song … or worse.

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No Wednesday anadromous-fish report from the Connecticut River Coordinator’s office but, through Monday, with no river temperatures reported (but they must be into the 60s Fahrenheit by now), a total of 287,265 American shad had been counted in the river basin, the lion’s share (283,872) of them counted at Holyoke.

Thus far, not an Atlantic salmon anywhere. Nope, not a solitary one. Sad. The restoration effort is over, and now perhaps the run is history as well; however, it’s more than likely that occasional wayward travelers are likely to continue finding their way to the Connecticut for many years, maybe even building redds as they did at a site in Connecticut last fall.

As for shad, who knows if this year’s total will rival last year’s of over 400,000? But, remember, shad runs are governed by water temps and rain events that effect them and can thus be erratic, so it’s not unlikely that this year’s run still has a way to go. Heavy rain events decrease water temperature and increase turbulence that necessitates fish-passageway closure on dams for days, thus temporarily delaying runs and pooling migrating fish below dams. When the flow returns, the fish come like gangbusters until the river temperature steadies around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Then they establish spawning territories, mill around in one small space and stop hitting colorful lures offerred by anglers.

Who can forget the spring of 1984, when a Memorial Day Weekend deluge flooded Routes 5 & 10 along Old Deerfield’s North Meadows and provided shad fishing clear through to the end of the fiscal year, June 30? No lie, people were catching shad in the lower Deerfield River and at Rock Dam almost to the Fourth of July holiday, an anomaly for sure, one that has not been repeated since but could reoccur with a flood.

Never say never.

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No word yet on surplus allotments, but Memorial Day Weekend always signals the end of the spring trout-stocking schedule here and throughout the Bay State. MassWildlife hatcheries are now assessing their stock to determine what kind of a bonus they can put out in selected waters next week. Because it’s a rare year when a surplus doesn’t exist, take it to the bank that you’ll be seeing a stocking truck or two on the road next week. Good random reviews from anglers who’ve taken spring trout, included among them my neighbor’s report of a handsome 21-inch brown trout taken while fishing from a canoe with his wife at Cranberry Pond.

It’s Been A Wild Spring Thus Far On Shad Front

An unusual spring it is, a peculiar winter it was in the Happy Valley, where haywire harbingers seem to be the rule.

Take, for instance the lilacs now sweetening local neighborhoods. Do they not typically bloom a little later, when mornings are warm enough to allow the pleasant fragrance to enter homes through screen doors and windows? Not this year, when we must adjust by picking bouquets and placing them in tabletop or countertop vases to introduce that sweet, welcome spring aroma indoors.

But that’s not all which is not quite hunky-dory this spring. How about bridal wreath, whose white flagrant flowers typically appear for Memorial Day and the first week of June? This year, hints of the delicate white blossoms started to appear over the weekend, a couple of weeks earlier than usual, and are now maturing toward their full-bloom splendor.

So what about the annual Connecticut River shad run, which far outproduces the other spring anadromous fish migrations for species such as Atlantic salmon, alewife, blueback herring, striped bass and Atlantic sturgeon? Plus, throw in endangered shortnose sturgeon, which were at one time anadromous but now seem to be landlocked between, say, Springfield and Turners Falls, with preferred ancient spawning grounds around Rock Dam in Montague City. Well, all of these migrators seem to be running strong and a little early. It promises to be a somewhat drawn out run ruled by water temperature that’s still five to 10 degrees below the peak 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit, which may soon arrive and may not. All depends on the weather. Heavy spring rains bring flooding and water-temperature drops, but we have yet to experience an event close to that, which, if this spring is like others, can’t be far away.

Now, mind you, despite the fact that no one’s quite bold enough to call what we’re experiencing this week and late last week the peak — with water temperatures at Thompsonville, Conn., under 60 degrees Wednesday — what appears to be an all-time single-day record shad run of 54,000 through Holyoke did occur last Thursday, a day when Rock Dam anglers were enjoying consistent action fishing the classic migration channel there. Not surprisingly, on that productive day the river temp had climbed to just over 60, peaking Saturday at 61-plus. That slight rise in temperature produced runs of 36,687 on May 11 and 54,006 on May 12, when Holyoke water registered at a low 55 degrees.

“I went through records back to 1976,” wroye Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle, “and could find no single-day run over 50k.”

By this week, with river temps again dipping below 60, the Monday and Tuesday runs through Holyoke were 14,242 and 7,531. If clear sunny days and warm nights stabilize for the rest of this week, expect another surge and, yes, now’s definitely the time to fish Franklin County, where the fish passageways are tardy in reporting numbers. Thus far, not a word about how many shad have passed Turners Falls’ three fish passageways, a fact that seemed to rankle Sprankle some. But he sounded confident that he’ll finally have some numbers by the weekend.

“Having a delay in fish counts is fairly typical for many facilities that do not staff live counting humans,” he wrote Wednesday morning. “That being said, this year the delay in fish counts from Turners Falls as well as Vernon facilities is becoming a noticeable concern to many people.”

He pointed out that for Turners Falls’ fishways, the Federal license contains Article 38, which notes the licensee “shall file with FERC an annual report detailing operation of the facilities, problems in design or operation, and listing the number, by species, of all fish passed upstream.”

So, despite the fact that the license language does not specify timing for counts at Turners Falls, Sprankle says, “it is obvious that fishery managers, anglers and the public have an expectation that fish counts will be timely — in the sense that once thousands of say shad have passed Holyoke, there will be regular updates at Turners and at the next project.” He added that he does intend to address this issue at the June Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission meetings in an effort to better understand what caused the delays, and what the options are to produce timely reports in advance of next year.

Sprankle praised conscientious Greenfield Community College for its role in providing Powertown numbers over the years, writing: “The Vernon fish ladder’s counting operation is the responsibility of Vermont and New Hampshire. This year they decided to contract the review of the digital imaging (files) to Greenfield Community College, which has been doing that task for Turners Falls for many years — and doing a good job. It is of course most imperative that a good job is done and counts are considered accurate — which has always been the case with the GCC crew. In the past, the delay in counts from TF (and Vernon) has not been so protracted as this year.”

Thus far, a total of 232,445 shad have been counted in the river system, the lion’s share (230,626) passing Holyoke. It would seem we’re well on our way to another big year rivaling last year’s total of 416,355 in the river and 412,656 through Holyoke.

Meanwhile, not an Atlantic salmon has yet appeared anywhere in the valley, which seems curious given river conditions that should be about perfect for the king of North Atlantic game fish. On a more encouraging note, a new season record was established Monday when the 17th shortnose sturgeon was hoisted over the Holyoke dam by Barrett Fishlift.

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During a pleasant midday visit to Rock Dam last Thursday with Dr. Peter A. Thomas — an anthropologist/archaeologist/historian/author who has devoted much professional energy and intellectual investment to the Turners Falls area’s indigenous past, not to mention its geology — we had the opportunity to watch what some might view as an uncomfortable relationship between recreational and commercial users of the swift channel overflowing the falls.

With a line of three or four anglers waded out into the river angling for shad, two large blue oval rafts wearing a commercial whitewater company’s name on their sides kept shooting the rapid over and over again, blowing right through the key fishing zone without apparent concern about being inappropriate. The rafters would squirt through the short, “yee-ha,” rapid, swing their vessels into a calm backwater and maneuver them to the base of mid-Rock Dam, where they’d haul the rafts over the rocks and into the impoundment above. There, they’d paddle diagonally upstream 50 or more yards before again riding the current over the swollen falls and repeating the process to their hearts’ content.

To their credit, the anglers never showed a discernible scowl or voiced dissatisfaction with the potentially annoying, obtrusive activity, but at least one observer — yes, one who leans heavily in favor of pure recreational use over commercial use of a public resource for private gain — found the commercial whitewater folks to be, perhaps unwittingly, rude and oblivious to proper etiquette, though not in any way confrontational.

This is not the first time these eyes have been exposed to this type of behavior by whitewater people passing through a place where anglers are working a stream in peace and tranquility. With flyrod in hand, I have witnessed the same thing on the lower Deerfield River between Bardwells Ferry and Stillwater, and on the Catch-and Release area known in the local vernacular as The No-Kill above Hoosac Tunnel. In none of these spots did the whitewater people give any hint that they respected the presence of anglers. In fact, I would call their behavior loud, intrusive, disruptive and maybe even obnoxious — ignoring the possibility that they may be disruptive to others who had established position before they arrived.

It was once again clear to me that commercial whitewater enthusiasts and recreational fishermen are incompatible bedfellows with many opportunities for conflict. Of course, that’s just one man’s opinion that has widespread support among critics, including an unnamed activist who fought hard for trout fishermen on the Deerfield River many moons ago during the contentious FERC relicensing process around 1990.

“They’re using Mother Nature as an amusement park,” he scoffed.

Well stated. Hey, maybe there’s nothing wrong with whitewater activity when the time is right. But when fishermen are already lined up before the rafts and paying customers arrive, maybe they ought to at the very least extend the courtesy to ask if it’s OK or maybe find another place to rollick.

Rock Dam’s Most Important Component Is Long Gone

A hectic five or six days it was. Yes, a bit of a whirlwind leading up to and culminating this past weekend.

In-laws converging from here, there and everywhere. Places like central Maine, the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont and Guatemala. A strong hint of NYC in the air emitted by the Northeast Kingdom-ites, Sixties back-to-the-earthers of the Scott Nearing mold; by chance, friends of Bernie — yeah, that Bernie — and his ex-wife, Susan, dating back to ’69.

“Hey,” interjected Vermont brother-in-law Tom Doyle, a Long Island native and no Trump fan, during a Friday-morning parlor chat over organic Guatemalan coffee with a mighty wallop. “I’d like to see that Connecticut River site you wrote about. It sounds like a cool place.”

Hmmmm? A splendid idea. One that would serve two purposes, the second an interesting field trip for grandsons Jordan, 10, and Arie, 6, who would likely eat it up with curious and dynamic gusto if framed by indigenous mystique, often a speedy vehicle to fantasy, creativity and you name it, even for an old-timer with spunk.

Closing in on 6 p.m., hard rain falling after a cookout eaten in, we embarked on our short journey to the Connecticut River. Our destination sits just above Cabot Station and Cronin Lab, behind the Farren and power-canal impoundment in Montague City. The air was gray, still and wet, the rain just short of a downpour but manageable for our short wooded hike to a place of high spirit along the eastern shore of the Pioneer Valley’s aorta. A geological wonder known as Rock Dam, it on optimal days displays as large chunks of ancient basalt bedrock protruding from the river’s bed, extending east/west as a natural obstruction crossing the river. Midstream, it passes the north end of Smead Island and terminates at the steep western base of Rocky Mountain, home of Poet’s Seat Tower.

It was not an ideal day for a maiden journey. Several days of rainy overcast weather had swelled the river so that it was breaching the natural dam that just a week earlier had funneled the full flow of the river east, through a turbulent 12-foot-wide channel overflowing and concealing a narrow, 8- to 10-foot summer waterfall that also takes the river’s full flow under normal conditions. So, no, with water overflowing, Tom and the kids couldn’t really get a feel for Rock Dam, the feature of our Friday-evening curiosity. We must return someday when the impressive line of irregular boulders is visible, a thought-provoking sight on many levels for any student of deep history and/or deep ecology. Kids, too, for entirely other reasons.

The site has a documented fishing history for shad, salmon, sturgeon and other fish dating back at least 8,600 years, according to three 1970s archaeological surveys conducted and/or supervised by Dr. Peter A. Thomas on the adjacent, more iconic, site called Riverside. No one is certain who first set eyes on this important section of New England’s largest river between Turners Falls and the Deerfield River confluence, or, for that matter, when. But some experts believe human beings have been aware of the site for 13,000 years or more, which borders on unimaginable to devoted students of the Occidental New World history, which starts with Christopher Columbus.

Viewing our place through this long-accepted European lens is limiting and short-sighted to near blindness. Unfortunately, what’s lacking is the indigenous creation and transformer myths lost by institutional removal of the people who guarded and maintained their oral history through song, dance, poetry and all of the above during annual celebrations. These festivals of thanks saluted the arrival of anadromous fish, the ripening of the upland nut groves, and the fall fattening of deer and bear and whatever bigger prey preceded them in deep-history lore.

Discussing cultural erasure recently with Dr. Thomas, he agreed with the lamentable realization that the native tales surrounding our spiritual landscape are likely forever lost. Not by accident, either. This is not entirely true in South and Central America, where extant histories written by Catholic monks and priests who witnessed the Spanish conquest do exist. These devoted teachers spent their lives chronicling the colonial conquest, describing the vanquished cultures, and recording the destruction of the protected written histories of Mayan, Aztec, Inca and other advanced Western Hemisphere tribes that were burned, obliterated and slaughtered in the name of converting pagan savages to Christianity. Canadian history is backboned by the “Jesuit Relations,” similarly written by Catholic scholars. These “Realtions” chronicle the observations of what greeted French explorers at the contact period and beyond, and what was done to convert Native tribes to Christianity; they offer many helpful cultural observations about the Indians. Unfortunately, that type of detailed information about the indigenous tribes is much rarer from the earliest New England Protestant clergy, which kept records far less sympathetic to the Indians, dismissing their spiritual customs as irrelevant and sinful, not worthy of historical preservation.

What we are left with here in the Happy Valley is a vanquished tribe of River Indians, including Pocumtucks, Sokokis, Norwottucks, Agawams and Nipmucs. All that’s left is the Beaver Myth, miraculously rescued by deep-rooted Deerfield historians like Epaphras Hoyt and George Sheldon, but told with little context and supplying no relationship to other distinctive features of the landscape. Here, we’re talking about the Pocumtuck Range, Sugarloaf, Rock Dam, and the majestic falls descending from the Barton Peninsula to Fall River, once a surreal geological formation of intense spirit, now submerged and previously blasted to oblivion by industrialists interested in supplying water-power and canals.

The long-lost Indian spiritual-landscape tales regarding this special slice of the upper Pioneer Valley — where five six rivers join the Conecticut within a few miles (north to south, Millers, Fall, Deerfield, Green and Sawmill) to create a number of important habitable watersheds — would bring added perspective crucial to anyone infected with a sense of place and committed to putting together the pieces. “It’s incredible and extremely rare for six rivers like that to meet in so small a space,” said well-known Paleo archaeologist Dr. Richard Michael Gramly during casual telephone conversation. “In fact, I can’t think of another place like it. Six rivers. It had have had exceptional significance in the ancient world.”

Sadly, contemporaries don’t even know what the Indians called the natural falls at Riverside or Rock Dam, and we also know nothing about how these important sites connected in the ancient mind to other prominent landmarks like Mts. Sugarloaf, Toby and Warner, Canada Hill, Rocky Mountain, Mts. Tom and Holyoke, and the Pioneer Valley oxbows in Northampton, Hatfield and Whately. The people who best knew the tales and recited the oral history, often in verse, are long gone and hard, if not impossible to find. Even if the tales did continue verbatim for generations after diaspora, the audience had been displaced and was so far removed that it had no familiarity with the relating landscape. By then, these people had for too long lived in another place, without a visual relationship and intimate knowledge of their ancient homeland.

Once a culture is displaced, it doesn’t take long for historic meaning and imagery to vanish, leaving only the conquerors to reinterpret the place through a foreign-invader’s lens.

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The hot sun and warm days should raise the Connecticut River temperature and nudge the American shad run toward its annual peak.
Through Wednesday, with Holyoke water temperature at 55 degrees Fahrenheit, 47,959 shad had been counted in the river, the lion’s share of them (47,678) passing by fish lift over the Holyoke dam.

“Things are on the upturn for the shad run,” said Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle of Gill. “My observations for (striped bass) abundances are low. Anglers may say different. I’m basing my observations on what I observe during herring survey/assessment activities. So far, the blueback (herring) run is slow. Numbers are not great. I’m hopeful they are just running a little late. We’ll see. We are most focused on the bluebacks because the alewife run has ended in the lower Connecticut River. We see only a few spent fish for that species now.”

Sprankle also wanted to publicize the upcoming May 21 World Fish Migration Day (http://www.worldfishmigrationday.com/events), saying: “I’ll be at Holyoke Fish Lift that day. I’ll give talks, have radio telemetry gear etc. We are, of course, expecting a high volume of shad passing if there are no weather events. This celebration is designed to raise awareness for the challenges facing migratory fishes worldwide.”

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The Millers River Fishermen’s Association and affable Peter Mallet have their final Kids’ Stocking adventure scheduled for Saturday morning, rain or shine, at 11 at Alan Rich Parking Lot, Main Street, Athol. Kids will get to help release trout into the Millers River there before fishing for the fish they stock. According to Mallet, many kids from the Greenfield/Turners Falls area showed up for the last stocking event, also held in the Orange/Athol region. It’s fee. Just bring your fishing tackle and bait.

Blooming Shad Bush A Reliable Harbinger

As the annual fiddlehead-picking season fades into its brief overlap with that of asparagus this week, vocal word arrived in the Upper Meadows of Greenfield that a shad bush down road not far from Greenfield Community College is in bloom, signaling the real start of the Connecticut River shad run.

Yeah, yeah, it’s true that American shad started running up valley two weeks ago, when the annual spring spawning migration was detected in insignificant numbers at a couple of Connecticut monitoring sites, plus a few here and there were getting hoisted by fish lift over the Holyoke dam. Now, with the shad bush down the road in its full white splendor, numbers indicate that the Connecticut Valley’s most populous annual anadromous fish run is underway and building to a grand, full-steam-ahead finale down the road.

Last week at this time, the total number of shad counted in the Connecticut Valley and reported here was 7,220, the lion’s share of which were recorded at Holyoke (7,146). At the time, river temperature was 51 degrees Fahrenheit, about 10 degrees below the point at which the run starts to increase dramatically, peaking in the mid-60s. Then comes a slowdown at between 67 and 70 degrees, when females start establishing spawning beds in the shallows, where they lay eggs to be fertilized by males on patrol. From now until then, anglers can enjoy successful days astream by manipulating brightly colored attractant lures and flies at the right depth in braided channels migrating fish follow like super highways upstream.

Through Wednesday, despite river temps dipping a degree from last week because of the cool, gray, wet spring weather, the run is picking up, with a total-river count of 25,980, again most of them monitored passing over the Holyoke dam (25,848). So, yes, there should by now be fishing opportunities here in Franklin County. Though sparse, some shad are here, with better days ahead. As soon as the sun comes out and the nights warm a bit, elevating the river temps past 60, the run will kick into high gear for prime fishing.

Who knows how long the best days will last? The run is always at the mercy of Mother Nature. Rainy spring weather has a way of creating somewhat erratic river conditions and temps that fall and rise relative to a mix of rain events with hot, summer-like days, whose clear skies and bright sun can act as rapid warming factors. Then again, often when fish are coming like gangbusters and extended rains move in, flooding drops the river temps, slowing the run and sometimes necessitating the temporary closure of fish-passageways that totally stops upward migration at the base of dams. When the gates open, the delayed fish come daily by the thousands after having been sealed off and frustrated for days.

Finally, when the river progresses to optimal spawning temperature, the annual fishing bonanza halts overnight and the spawning begins in earnest, producing by midsummer a new crop of juvenile shad to populate the river briefly, before all that elude predators head for Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. There, those that mature to adults will live to return and spawn as 3- to 6-year olds, with random, precocious 2-year-olds here and there.

The best days are near, fellas. You can take that to the bank.

So get that gear fine-tuned and ready for impromptu trips to the channel below Sunderland Bridge, Rock Dam or whatever site tickles your fancy. Oh yeah, and don’t overlook the Deerfield River, which can be a productive shad-fishing stream for those who know what they’re doing.

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Based on scattered information that has crossed this space’s path — including a beautiful drive-thru sighting of a mature tom shot Saturday morning by a dear hunting buddy and friend, weighing over 21 pounds, ungutted, with an 8½-inch beard and spurs just a hair under and inch — there are still plenty of hunting opportunities left for the four-week season that opened April 25. The drive-thru bird was killed between 11 a.m. and noon, and came running through the woods to investigate simple clucks from box and slate calls.

True, most hunters prefer crack-of-dawn hunts when gobblers can be called right out of the roost to the gun, if the tom doesn’t first get “henned-up” with its harem clustered in nearby roosts. But this hunter used the Saturday conditions to make things happen for him. Once gobblers have tended to their first-light hens, which one by one leave the boss to set on their nest, especially during wet weather when eggs are vulnerable, even henned-up gobblers can become easy targets if gluttonous and seeking something new after “their” hens have abandoned them.

A case in point occurred at around 11 a.m. Wednesday, when the same hunter, set up perhaps a quarter mile above where he had scored on Saturday, called in another boss gobbler that came running to clucks after his harem had deserted him. Problem was that the bird arrived too fast and appeared 20 yards away, screened by undergrowth in an open green rye field. The longbeard caught movement or a sound it didn’t like and emitted the sound all turkey hunters dread. That is, “Putt,” which means the game of deception is over, the easy stationary head shot a fantasy.

Still, even though he didn’t kill that bird and may well have educated it too much to be fooled again in the next day or two, an eventful hunt it had been. No big deal, because it sure did get his blood boiling. Isn’t that the goal?

Enchanting Power Of Place

Nice spring day.

Bright sun, powder-blue sky, refreshing cool air circulating in variable, gusty west winds, at times strong enough to sweep off your hat toward wet, flowing oblivion. All in all, a splendid day for a Connecticut River stroll, following shortnose-sturgeon experts and advocates Boyd Kynard and ubiquitous Karl Meyer.

So there we were, late-morning Saturday, perhaps 30 of us, mixed-gender, adult, cars parked a quarter- to half-mile north of the intended site called Rock Dam, Bernie stickers in view. The program began with a shared oral presentation by Meyer and Kynard. We then we hoofed it to the river’s eastern shore to view the surreal geological formation that looks like a stone dam built by an ancient giant of indigenous transformer tradition. The site has attracted fishermen for thousands of years. A sting of six or eight basalt outcroppings as big as small rooms extend east-west across the river to Smead Island, another deep-history site that is misidentified on contemporary maps as Ames Island, most likely a transcription error made long ago by a careless cartographer.

Meyer shared a little history as we walked: “Following the 1676 ‘Falls Fight’ of King Philip’s War, soldiers burned more than 100 wigwams on that island.”

We were at that moment on the paved road following the western bank of a long, narrow impoundment leading into Cabot Station. There, the 100-year-old power station draws canal water to produce electricity before spitting it back into the river below, some quarter-mile above Montague City Bridge. The problem, according to Myer and Kynard, is that the canal removes too much water from the river between Turners Falls dam and the station’s outflow, above which stands Rock Dam, where endangered shortnose sturgeon dating back to dinosaurs have annually spawned. Even worse, Cabot Station administers a lethal double-whammy of sorts, which not only removes too much water for sturgeon-spawning to occur but also releases an enticing outflow that lures anadromous fish to bloody murder and mayhem through meat-grinding turbines.

Experts claim this human burden to the river’s ecosystem is a reason — perhaps the reason — why far fewer American shad and Atlantic salmon make it above Turners Falls than in the days before the first dam was constructed during the final decade of the 18th century. As dams at that site have evolved between then and now, growing to the current gargantuan presence, a long, multi-component, bedrock waterfall and deeply incised flume capped by Burnham’s Rock off the Gill shore has been submerged and hidden. Obliterated and underwater is what’s left of a remarkable geological wonder described by 19th century Pioneer Valley professor/author Edward Hitchcock as New England’s most beautiful falls. Rock Dam, about a mile downstream, is similarly impressive and equally significant and alluring in Pioneer Valley deep history, the human part of which begins with our First People’s spiritual landscape.

The river was running high Saturday, not flooding but swollen and strong. Two fishermen anchored on the Smead Island side were casting Rapala’s and other lures from a small bass boat anchored just downstream from Rock Dam; they were working the western edge of a narrow, frothy channel flowing through a deep channel overflowing the inundated Rock Dam waterfall near the eastern shore. At lower summer flows, the same site displays a pretty constricted waterfall with a narrow eight- or 10-foot drop. On this day, with the rushing river sucked over the capstones on both sides of the buried fall, the sound of rapids was powerful and soothing, worth recording as a bedside sleep aid.

West Coast poet and environmentalist Gary Snyder, an articulate and outspoken advocate for intimate sense-of-place awareness, wrote something in his essay “The Place, The Region, And The Commons” that came to mind as we stood there absorbing the stimuli. Snyder writes of a Crow elder in the Seventies telling a group at a Bozeman, Mont., conference that, “If people stay somewhere long enough — even white people — the spirits will begin to speak to them. It’s the power of the spirits coming up from the land. The spirits and the old powers aren’t lost, they just need people to be around long enough and the spirits will begin to influence them.”

The spiritual aura of Rock Dam — that place, that day on New England’s largest river — was powerfully palpable as we watched and listened to the river surging through the small, inundated fall. Almost the entire flow of the river was passing through that tight, turbulent spot, creating below it a narrow superhighway for fish migrating upstream. Combine this special site with the Beaver Myth of the Pocumtuck Range and Sugarloaf, Native myths and legend associated with Mt. Toby and Mt. Warner, the high shelf caves of the two Sugarloafs, Pine Hill and many other archaeological treasure troves on both sides of the river between Northampton Meadows and Turners Falls, and the deep history is dynamic and enthralling indeed.

Those unfamiliar with this easily accessible, often-fished Franklin County landmark known as Rock Dam, just downstream from the infamous Turners Falls “Patch,” should do themselves a favor by visiting it, studying it and performing a little research to better understand it. Search for Native legends, oral traditions and the colonial record. Listen to the neighborhood tales, the drowning, the tragic accidents. Once you get a good grasp, revisit the site on a quiet day to just sit there, blend into the habitat, watch, listen, pull the scents through your nostrils. Feel the power. Allow it to transport you to a reflective, meditative state. It’s one of those places where ancient spirits lurk, begging recognition. Intercept them, embrace them and let their magic consume you.

It’s a special place … has been for longer than most can comprehend.

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KID’S STUFF: Two upcoming Saturdays, beginning this week, worth noting for young anglers wanting to participate in 11 a.m. Millers River Fishermen’s Association trout-stocking extravaganza’s for kids, who get to stock the fish, then wet their lines to catch the trout they’ve just released into the Millers River.
• The first kicks off this Saturday at the Orange Wastewater Treatment Plant on Route 2A.
• The second will occur on May 14 at Allen Rich Park, Main St., Athol, at the bridge spanning the Millers River there.

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SHAD COUNT: American shad are still trickling in at counting stations here and there in the Connecticut River basin but probably not yet in sufficient numbers to start chasing them with a fishing rod in hand. A fresh Wednesday-afternoon email from Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle arrived Wednesday afternoon, showing a total of 7,220 counted thus far in the valley, the mother lode (7,146) recorded at the Barrett Fish Lift on the Holyoke dam. Otherwise, we’re looking at 23 at the Mattabesset River in Connecticut and 51 at the DSI Dam on the Westfield River. Water temp at Holyoke was 51 degrees Fahrenheit, way low for productive fishing, which picks up dramatically once the river reaches the 60s, which stimulates the annual migratory run to peak levels.

The Shad, They Are A Runnin’

Subtle, wild purple violets cling to the green front and back lawn, awaiting their first spring mowing, while splashes of daffodil-yellow color the triangular common out front and along the low stone wall marking the western perimeter. Soon the large tulip magnolia in the slim, roadside east yard will burst into its full pink splendor, similar to that Full Pink Moon building with a most-soothing, faint silver light cast from the midnight sky.

Actually, Pink is just one of many indigenous names for April’s full moon. The color refers to the blooming wild ground phlox or pink moss, which sports one of spring’s first flowers. Other Algonquian names for the small pink moon that’ll fill up Friday night include the Sprouting Grass Moon, Egg Moon and Fish Moon, the last most appropriate for our the Connecticut River Valley, where the American shad run is off and running.

Yes, though not yet time to head for the river with a fishing rod, our most prevalent anadromous fish has indeed entered the river system and will soon be running like gangbusters, in numbers sufficient for productive recreational fishing. If this year’s spawning run is in keeping with the previous four, we’ll be looking at more than 416,000 shad passed by Barrett Fish Lift over Holyoke dam. The highest single-season runs of the aforementioned four-year string serve as bookends, with 490,431 in 2012 and 412,656 last year.

It’ll be interesting to see how the run is affected by our unusually light snow-cover from top to bottom of the 400-mile Connecticut River corridor, which begins in northernmost New Hampshire and ends at its outflow into Long Island Sound at Saybrook, Conn. Through Tuesday, with river temperatures finally creeping into the low 50s Fahrenheit along the lower main stem, a total of 556 shad had been counted in the river basin. The mother lode of those fish (536) were counted passing Holyoke. Elsewhere, 19 had been counted on Connecticut’s Mattabesset River and one other had passed the DTI Dam on the Westfield River in West Springfield. The first shad appeared on April 1, no fooling.

Other migratory species noted in the river on Wednesday’s emailed “2016 Connecticut River Basin Fishway Passage Count” included 93 alewife and one sea lamprey at Mattabesset, plus another lonely sea lamprey at DTI.

“With water temps edging above 50 in the lower river, Holyoke has started passing a consistently increasing number,” wrote Ken Sprankle, United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW) Connecticut River Coordinator, who characterized the river flow as “very low” for this time of year, when the Connecticut is typically swollen with snow-melt runoff and/or rain.

The dry spring must be obvious to anyone who’s been out and about, watching dust stirred on each step through the meadow. The rain may yet come and temporarily delay our migratory fish runs from time to turbulent time until water temps rise to between 67 and 70 degrees. Then, typically early June, shad stop running upriver and establish stationary spawning lairs, where females deposit their eggs and males fertilize them. The fertilized eggs then hatch into mid-summer Connecticut River progeny that mature or are devoured by predators until late fall, when survivors head for the ocean to join adult schools and ultimately become members of future shad runs as 3- to 6-year-old adults. Most shad die after spawning.

Veteran shad anglers like late Easthampton Fishing Hall of Famer Bob Thibodo — a well-known local roofer whose vanity plate read “Shad King” — will tell you that the large, mature 5- and 6-year-old lunkers seem to be most available early. After that, anglers are more apt to catch 3- and 4-year-old fish, and some precocious 2-year-old males that trend smaller. Trophy shad weigh seven to 10 pounds, while, unless something’s changed in recent years, average size during the peak run is around 4½ pounds. Thibobo’s 1986 world record caught in Holyoke tipped the scales at 11 pounds, 4 ounces.

Fish recently lifted over Holyoke dam are at this time somewhere between there and Turners Falls, be they in the main stem or off sampling tributaries like the Deerfield River, smaller streams like the Mill and Sawmill rivers, or even the mouths of Sugarloaf and Clapp brooks when the outflow is strong enough to attract them.

Soon these upstream travelers will gain access to the upper river above Turners Falls, where the power-station fish-passageways are set to open by the weekend. The end of the road has always been Bellows Falls, Vt., first as the site of an impassable natural “Great Falls,” and now a manmade power and flood-control dam.

Since fish passageways were constructed and annual fish-counts began in 1967, the mean annual numbers to pass the various obstacles along the way look like this, according to USFW figures: Rainbow Dam (Farmington River, Conn.) 491, DTI/Westfield 3,251, Holyoke dam 309,119, Turners Falls dam, 14,773, and Vernon, Vt. dam, 7,264.

—–

The four-week, 24-day Massachusetts spring wild turkey hunting season opens Monday and closes on May 21, and hunters are as optimistic as optimistic can be following a mild winter of high temperatures, low mortality and plentiful wild and nutritious feed, especially acorns, which were available on the snowless forest floor of sunny slopes most of the winter. The result should be some mighty healthy monster gobblers in the 20- to 23-pound class.

Plus, longbeards should indeed be sporting long, full beards dangling from their breasts, again due to a lack of deep snow in much of the county. Deep snow and the muddy spring mess that follows tends to rot long beards that drag on the ground at times, but that was pretty-much a non-factor this past winter.

So expect a bountiful season with many trophy birds. Yes, it could be one of those years, minus some yet-to-be-discovered virus or plague that could rain on the parade. Expect another record.

Snake Tales From A Surveyor

An old surveyor and longtime reader of this space stopped by Saturday afternoon to shoot the breeze. A bit of a character, he’s always welcome.

He started right in on the Red Sox, especially Panda Bear, whom he calls “Fatso,” then said he’s more interested in the Patriots’ draft and even had the date memorized. Not bad for an octogenarian closing in a 90.

Then came the subject he most wanted to address.

“What the hell is wrong with those people wanting to stock rattlesnakes at the Quabbin? Do they need their heads examined?”

“Well, you’re not alone in that opinion,” was the response. “Truthfully, though, it probably won’t change things much. No one will likely ever know the difference.”
“That may be true, but it still makes no sense to me.”

Mind you, we’re talking about a man who has legitimate reasons for his feelings about poisonous snakes. In 40-some years as a land surveyor on jobs from northern Maine to Maryland, he had some close calls over the years. And he didn’t hesitate a millisecond to engage in eager conversation about his encounters with dangerous snakes as a member of crews cutting line with machetes, pounding hubs into the ground and running traverse and cross-section detail through mountainous wilderness plots spanning the Northeast from the early 1950s into the ’80s.

A South Deerfield native, he had heard childhood tales of poisonous snakes and where they lurked but had managed to avoid confrontation during a foot-free childhood that included many a trek up the two Sugarloafs. No, never a rattlesnake or copperhead sighting from his boyhood adventures. Not a one. Just cautionary adult tales planted in his consciousness to assure that he was always alert when exploring the hills and dales.

That all changed as an adult, when he went to work as a land surveyor, working on projects like the MassPike between Westfield to Russell, where snake-infested Mt. Tekoa loomed large to the north, or Lane’s Quarry along the West Springfield/Westfield border, and especially during extended work in the early 1960s laying out peripherals related to Camp David, the famous presidential retreat built 62 miles northwest of the White House in the 1930s and situated in the snake-infested Catoctin Mountain Park in rural western Maryland.

“We had to wear special high boots when we worked there,” he said, “and sightings of poisonous snakes were not rare. In fact, I recall a laborer getting bitten not far from me and getting very sick.

Of course, he also remembers the time he was working somewhere in western Massachusetts — for the life of him, he can’t recall where — when a trusted crew-member he always called “Old Fred” intervened in a memorable incident.

“I was walking along through the woods with Old Fred behind me and I unknowingly walked right past a snake I didn’t see,” he said. “Well, Old Fred — he had a hunter’s eye in the woods — touched me on the shoulder and said, pointing down with the tip of his machete, ‘Hey, look what you just walked right past — copperhead!’

“Sure enough, right there, a foot away from the point of his machete was a three-foot snake in an aggressive pose. You’re more apt to get bitten by a copperhead, you know, because they don’t warn you with a rattle. Old Fred took care of the problem. With the flick of his wrist, he cut that snake’s head off right there within five feet of me.”

Another time, having laid out an underground mountain communications chamber outside of Clear Springs, Md., blasting crews were hollowing out the bed rock with dynamite when they disturbed a thickly populated nest of rattlesnakes, blowing many living, squirming, angry rattlers atop a large, flat, warm bedrock shelf. The fellas were used to dealing with such problems, and their methods speak to the reason why Eastern timber rattlers are now an endangered species in these parts, where they were likely for years attacked with similar lethal fury.

“They doused the stone surface with gasoline and set the ledge aflame,” he said, “killing them all.”

You don’t have to wonder whether rattlers uncovered during similar construction projects here in the Pioneer Valley and elsewhere in New England were likewise burned from existence. It was undoubtedly done here before the snakes became protected by law.

“When we told the story to the guy who owned the place where we ate every night, he didn’t seem surprised,” said the surveyor. “Apparently, it was common practice. Plus, he told us a story about a wildfire up there up on that mountain, when people could hear the rattlesnakes rattling as they fled down the hill toward water.”

Who knows whether that’s fact or fiction? You be the judge.

Back closer to home in the Pioneer Valley, our aged surveyor source said he didn’t recall seeing a rattler, per se, when working on the MassPike project “around that bridge at Woronoco,” but he did remember being warned often to be wary of rattlers, then in early autumn finding the shed skin of a large rattlesnake in a cement drainage trench along the edge of the interstate. It served as a visual reminder of the potential dangers lurking around any sunny, stony corner, and, of course, gave the fellas the heebie-jeebies every time a twig snapped across the back of their legs or a dead prostrate branch two or three inches thick lay across a path they were clearing through brush.

Then there was the time not far away, our source remembered, when a worker at the aforementioned Lane Quarry went into the brush to answer Mother Nature’s call, come running out terrified, grabbed a long, heavy stick and came back out with a limp four-foot rattlesnake dangling from the end of it.

“In the field, we were always on the lookout in rocky, upland terrain, plus around stone walls, which snakes seem to like,” he said, “especially down in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Stonewalls were always a concern down there, but I would guess you’d find snakes in stonewalls here, too, if you went looking.”

One other place our surveyor friend remembers for its poisonous snakes was his brother-in-law’s secluded, wooded estate in the middle Hudson Valley Town of Kingston, N.Y. There, he said, copperheads were not an uncommon sight in the woods and probably still aren’t, be it along the dirt roads or even around the house, where one of his brother-in-law’s Irish setters was once bitten. When his brother-in-law asked him if he’d survey the perimeter of his property some weekend to mark the corners, he promised to do so, “but only around wintertime when the snakes were hibernating.”

As indisputable as it is today that local rattler and copperhead populations have diminished over the past 50 years, the fact is that they were here and were not at all uncommon in the not-so-distant past. Now, given the fact that the Pioneer Valley is indeed warming with the rest of the planet, how long before the return of the vipers with or without MassWildlife’s proposed reintroduction initiative at the Quabbin Reservation?

Who knows? Maybe rattlers will find their way to Mt. Zion on their own.

Quabbin Rattlers, Crown Point Cat

If you thought that rattlesnake controversy snuggly coiled around Mt. Zion, a secluded Quabbin Reservation island targeted for future viper stocking, had slithered off to some deep, stony crevice called Devil’s Den, think again. The dustup is alive and well, with many opinions on both sides of the issue.

Illuminating that fact are two unexpected, rapid fire letters with different spins that recently arrived the old-fashioned way, by USPS snail mail. Why they came now was a bit of a mystery. Not like the subject has been broached here of late, but apparently this space is still associated with a topic capable of producing heebie-jeebies in ophidiophobes, not to mention just plain residents and outdoors enthusiasts.

The first letter, sent by George L. Payzant of Turners Falls, arrived late last week. Enclosed was a Boston Globe Magazine article titled “Relax. Rattlesnakes Aren’t as Scary as You Think.” The piece was written by Ted Levin, author of the pending book “America’s Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake,” scheduled for release in May. Levin’s article, and presumably his book, speaks to the rarity of the poisonous snakes and, even more so, people actually being bitten, never mind dying from rattlesnake bites.

The article basically works as a soothing assurance that MassWildlife’s plan to introduce endangered rattlesnakes to the isolated Quabbin island offers almost zero threat to residents of border towns and/or their abutters, not to mention faraway Pioneer Valley landscapes. Plus, according to Levin, there have been a grand total of two confirmed deaths from snakebites in Massachusetts, the last of which occurred in the 18th century.

Whether or not every record or death by snakebite found its way to Commonwealth town records over the past 400 years, it’s a safe bet that, given the paucity of official records, mortality was rare indeed. And that’s going back to colonial times, when New England rattlers were not uncommon, especially in the southern reaches. Plus, whether people know it or not, and no matter what wildlife officials say, there are already rattlesnakes living among us here in Franklin County and into Quabbin country. Woodsmen know what type of terrain to avoid, particularly talus slopes and high, stony, sunny habitats facing south and west, and are thus able to sidestep potential conflict.

It’s true that the rattlesnake population in these parts has diminished dramatically over the past hundred years due mostly to habitat destruction, highway deaths and wanton destruction of the creatures by folks who encounter and fear them. Although such lethal action is now illegal and punishable by a stiff fine or worse under strict endangered-species laws, you have to suspect that random rattlesnakes are killed upon discovery in places too close for comfort to backyard gardens or sun-drenched woodpiles.

Which brings us to the second letter that found its way here by mail, arriving on The Recorder sports desk over the weekend. The paste-on return address on the upper left-hand corner of the small white envelope read, “Robin L. Bestler” of Shelburne Falls.

Unlike author Levin, Mr. Bestler is obviously opposed to releasing potentially dangerous, poisonous vipers anywhere in the state, fearing the worst, which proponents adamantly claim is unlikely to happen. Yes, he begs to differ, which is more than acceptable in a free country where diverse opinion is said to be welcome. However, to make his case by comparison, Bestler cites the Burmese-Python problems in Florida’s tropical swamps. There, after years of pet owners buying these snakes and other large foreign jungle boa constrictors that grow quite large, become difficult to feed and contain, are thus released, and can grow to more than 20 feet in length, by which time they are capable of eating — gulp — wetland deer. It has become a serious Florida problem that promises only to get worse. Not only that, but the problem may start expanding into the Carolinas and north as the global climate continues to rise.

“I’d like to suggest that those in charge (of the rattlesnake re-introduction) research what’s happening with Burmese Pythons in Florida,” Bestler wrote. “Clearly the pythons are an invasive species that should not have been introduced there. Perhaps it is also true that unless rattlesnakes find their own way back here, they qualify as an invasive species as well.”

While Mr. Bestler’s opinion is understandable and likely shared by many snake-reintroduction foes, comparing native Timber Rattlers to exotic foreign imports like the large jungle snakes sold at mall pet stores near you doesn’t work. “Invasive species” are non-native plants, fish, wildlife and insects introduced into a place where they have no natural history. New England rattlesnakes do not fit that definition. They are native reptiles that have slithered to near extinction, remain here in much smaller numbers and will likely remain and rise in population as our climate continues to warm from worldwide overuse of fossil fuels.

Invasive, non-native species introduced to new habitats can indeed have dire effects on ecosystems. Rattlesnakes, not so. They already live here and lived here harmoniously in Northeastern habitats long before colonial Europeans emigrated to this continent.

Dangerous vipers? Yes, perhaps.

Invasive? Not quite.

—-

On another note, a couple of emails, one anonymous, arrived last week after trail-camera video of what appears to be a mountain lion, cougar, puma or catamount showed up in upper New York State, near Crown Point on Lake Champlain, and went Facebook viral.

The first email alert, the one from a known, identifiable source, came this way from South Deerfield native and former Recorder scribe Lou Hmieleski, executive editor of the Civil Service Employees Association in Albany, N.Y. Aware that this space had been in the forefront of publicizing New England cougar sightings, he sent it along with a note saying: “What do you think of this? Looks like New York (Dept. of Environmental Conservation) is taking this seriously.”

The online press release from the “Adirondack Almanack” drew about 100 comments — some of which suggested that, because the animal pictured is difficult to size without anything to compare it to, what appears to be a cougar and definitely is a cat walking through a sandy habitat is most likely a large, long-tailed, tawney house cat.”

Hmmmmm? Haven’t we head that assessment before?

Although not impossible, it appears unlikely. For those interested is assessing the film, keyword search “Crown Point cougar” and take a gander for yourself. If so inclined, you can even add to the growing list of comments.

Trout-Stocking, Turkeys And A Little Clarification

It’s spring, signs everywhere.

Trout-stocking trucks from the Connecticut Valley and Western Wildlife districts are rolling through Recorder country, depositing fresh, lively, colorful brookies, browns and rainbows from Pioneer Valley hatcheries at Montague, Sunderland, Palmer and Belchertown. No word on this week’s schedule, but ponds like Cranberry in Sunderland and Puffers in North Amherst have already been visited by Valley District trucks at least once thus far. Meanwhile, the Western District has thrown caution to the wind and stocked the upper Deerfield River from Florida to Buckland for Mohawk Trail anglers.

The upper Deerfield usually gets stocked before the lower because, once a fish is placed in the lower river below Station No. 2, just above Bardwell’s Ferry connecting Conway and Shelburne, there’s nothing to stop them from being washed into the Connecticut River and out of play for Deerfield River anglers. Of course, that’s the bad news. The good news is that many trout seeking refuge from spring high-water events also find their way into popular fishing tributaries like the Bear and South Rivers and Dragon and Hawks brooks, where they can thrive and offer wooded pursuits for hip-booted stream fishermen or, then again, find their way back into the Deerfield once the water settles down.

So, don’t assume that spring flooding always removes stocked trout from the lower Deerfield. That’s a myth. Once acclimated, stocked trout can find refuge and remain available in the river system throughout the fishing season by moving in and out of the better tributaries. And don’t think you can just forget about these fish even if thy do wind up in the Connecticut, where they never stay long. Those fish stay in play by finding their way into tributaries, some of them small “unstocked” brooks feeding the Connecticut, such as boyhood South Deerfield streams like Clapp and Sugarloaf brooks, longtime secret little gems to which big trout can find their way. Particularly enticing for anglers are the wide, deeply-incised outflows, which dig back into riverside terrain from the Connecticut riverbank.

Expect stocking crews to stick to their longtime pattern of hitting the lakes and ponds first, soon after ice-out, then the smaller upland brooks, and finally the larger streams, such as Fall and Sawmill rivers, and major rivers like the Deerfield, Millers, Green and North. The spring-stocking schedule always ends Memorial Day Weekend, after which hatchery managers assess their inventory for the potential of one additional bonus stocking of surplus trout, which sometimes includes brood-stock lunkers for the grand finale.

Meanwhile, on the wild turkey front, our state game bird of the first Plymouth Colony Thanksgiving feast many centuries ago had a splendid mild winter with lots of food on the ground for the taking due to minimal snow-cover and plentiful hard and soft fall mast crops. A credentialed hilltown spotter reported just Tuesday that large flocks of turkeys congregated and stayed in the hardwoods over the winter, taking a mix of bountiful nuts and berries from the forest floor. This natural, nutritious food kept the birds healthy, and the shallow snow eliminated the threat of deep, powdery snow mortality that occurs when the big birds fly down and get mired. Either that or, knowing what awaits them in the deep, fluffy snow, wise old birds of both sexes have been known to remain in the roost too long, weakening quickly in the cold due to lack of food, and perish. There should have been none of that this winter, and spring hunters will be the beneficiaries, with many big, mature toms in full strut for the taking by veteran hunters who know what they’re doing.

It seems that anthropologist/archaeologist Dr. Peter A. Thomas received undeserved credit here last week for work performed at what was referred to as WMECO/West Springfield. Thomas said he had no knowledge of any such project and definitely had no hand in it if it was conducted. This space was told long ago by a trusted source that, thankfully, Dr. Thomas had led an archaeological salvage project at a deep-history construction site facing obliteration around the old 17th-century Pynchon Plantation of Agawam. Well, last week’s mention here was the first Thomas had heard of that supposed salvage project. Oh well. It would have been easy to double-checked with him before publishing it as one of his Pioneer Valley accomplishments. Dr. Thomas needs no embellishments for an already impressive list of accomplishments.

Roger “Hezekiah” Ward of Buckland chimed in last week on the Quabbin rattlesnake-stocking controversy:
“I have seen snakes traverse water at speeds probably faster than they could travel on land. If I was the one who had to make the decision about the Quabbin island, I would say no in the interest of public safety.”
Not through, he then offered this little tidbit:
“Some time ago, around Nov. 1, 1966, I took the forest-fire power wagon from Mohawk State Forest to a fire in the town of Leverett, where we fought a fire on a mountain that was called Rattlesnake something or other. I can’t remember the exact name but believe it was listed as Rattlesnake something on the topo maps as well. Later, when talking with Leverett natives, everybody was familiar with the rattlesnake name. Perhaps there’s an old-timer who could help you, but if LEVERETT IS ANYTHING LIKE BUCKLAND, old-time natives are an endangered species.”
Well, Heze, no need for an old-timer on this one. I’d bet my Sweet 16 side-by-side you’re referring to Rattlesnake Gutter, an area of Leverett passed through by the Sawmill River and Rattlesnake Gutter Road.

A New Salmon Twist To Stir The Imagination

Call it a new twist to a crusty old topic: history of Connecticut River Atlantic salmon … approached from a roundabout route.

It starts noontime Friday in South Deerfield, high, bright sun illuminating a large, round, wooden kitchen table and lending warmth to the conversation. Two of us were seated comfortably, discussing new thoughts about ancient trails while looking out diagonally across North Main Street at the closed St. James Roman Catholic Church and its glittering gilt dome, not a half-mile down the road from the Bloody Brook Monument. How appropriate, as we tried to connect the dots from information gathered in Historic Deerfield’s recently acquired Hoyt journals, which devote a lot of space detailing early 19th-century South Deerfield, the path walked by colonial soldiers known as the “Flower of Essex” killed that fateful day of Sept. 18, 1675, and the location of their graves and maybe even those of the Indians who died.

Who better to engage in such discussion about 17th-century trails and pathways than anthropologist/archaeologist Dr. Peter A. Thomas — dean of Pioneer Valley contact-period scholars with deep knowledge about Pioneer Valley founders like father-and-son entrepreneurs William and John Pynchon and trusted underlings Joseph Parsons and David Wilton. All four men were prominent indeed in opening our valley’s first wilderness settlements while attempting to monopolize the fur trade from the natal Pynchon depot of Agawam, which became Springfield?

Having scoured the primary records for decades to hone the public record’s sharpest interpretations, Dr. Thomas — author of the highly respected and often footnoted “In the Maelstrom of Change: The Indian River Trade and Cultural Process in the Middle Connecticut Valley, 1635-65,” his 1990 UMass doctoral dissertation — may understand the early players and their motives better than anyone. But also peerless is his vast knowledge of the so-called “River Indians” with whom our earliest English merchants and their agents cut deals to control the lucrative, untapped Connecticut Valley fur trade. Among Thomas’ archaeological excavations are important sites like Riverside/Gill, Fort Hill/Hinsdale, N.H., Wills Hill/Montague and the WMECO Site in West Springfield — all treasure troves of indigenous Pioneer Valley prehistory.

What a stroke of good fortune for local historians that family responsibilities pulled Thomas temporarily back to his boyhood home right in the midst of the ongoing National Parks Service Battlefield Protection Program grant given to Montague, where a research team is now focused on reconstructing the famous Falls Fight of May 19, 1676, a turning point in King Philip’s War. The study promises to apply for and receive additional future grants that could reconstruct not only the Falls Fight but the entire Connecticut Valley campaign, beginning in August 1675 and continuing until briefly after the Falls Fight led by infamous Capt. William Turner. A better human resource than Thomas at a more opportune time could not have been delivered from heaven’s golden gates.

It was during a brief pause in our Friday discussion aimed at retracing the most-traveled 17th-century trail between Hatfield and Deerfield that Thomas — the archaeologist who discovered archaeological remains of shad, bullhead and other fish, but not salmon, while overseeing three 1970s Riverside digs — abruptly changed the subject to something that has appeared many times in this space over the past 25 years.

“Oh, before I forget,” he interjected, “I wanted to tell you that I was reading what you wrote about Catherine Carlson’s dissertation citing the absence of salmon remains at dozens of New England archaeological sites known to be used for pre-contact fishing and had a thought you may want to ponder. Suppose salmon were sacred to Indians, and for that reason they did not bury their remains but instead threw them back into the water. I’m not saying it happened, just throwing it out there as a possibility, because had they thrown the remains back into the water, archaeological evidence would be rare.”

Thomas was comfortable with the speculation because he was familiar with similar Northeastern indigenous practices regarding disposal of beaver bones as well as a spiritual practice of propping in trees the skulls of sacred black bears killed for food and hides commonly used as blankets in winter wigwams. It could have been that the bones of Atlantic salmon were treated with similar respect and dignity in New England prehistory.

So, there you have it. Chalk it up as a little more food for thought pertaining to a question that may never be satisfactorily answered. Thomas’ hypothesis can’t be ignored or dismissed when trying to solve the mystery of why salmon remains are nearly nonexistent at known prehistoric indigenous New England fishing sites. We know salmon were here during colonial times and remained here until after the first Connecticut River dams were constructed (at South Hadley Falls, then Turners Falls) just prior to the turn of the 19th century. It is also clear they existed here before that.

Anadromous-fisheries historians have estimated annual Connecticut River Basin salmon runs of up to 50,000, possibly even more during the best years of the Little Ice Age (1500-1850), when they were a tasty bonus among netfuls of American shad pulled ashore for riverside filleting and processing chores on sun- and wind-splashed drying racks. If so, where are the bones? Where are the scales? They’re mysteries that may never be solved.

Still, it never hurts to ponder such questions, offer potential answers and float additional ideas.

Thomas did just that on Friday to set the wheels of curiosity spinning.