Season Of The Fish

Fish are on the platter this week. And why not? This is, after all, the week leading up to Memorial Day weekend, thus the week that annually signals the end of MassWildlife’s spring trout-stocking program, which, quite by chance, I innocently happened upon while on my daily routine Tuesday morning, eager dogs porta-kenneled under my pickup’s cap, both rarin’ to romp through shin- and knee-high, rain-drenched hayfields and unseasonably dry floodplain marsh below.

On the way to my customary spot, yes indeed, there it was, insignia on the door, purring rectangular tank on the back, passing as I approached a stop sign — a stocking truck tooling down the road, likely headed for the Green River Swimming and Recreation Area. I figured I’d follow and shoot the breeze as well as check out the trout they were depositing into the river.

Not surprisingly, I recognized the driver and he recognized me. We have bumped into each other many times during pheasant season, when he also travels the stocking routes with the same trucks and ring-necked, feathered cargo. Riding shotgun was his brother, along for the ride. I shook hands with the passenger and watched as the driver, standing atop his truck’s bed with a long-handled net, scooped four netfuls of lively McLaughlin Hatchery rainbow trout out of his tank before handing it down to his brother, who hustled the fish to the river’s edge for release. I left after that fourth load, but they must have dumped a couple more after I left. I’d guess there were a dozen of the Belchertown fish, all in the 12- to 15-inch class, in each scoop. Nice fish. Fat, colorful and wiggly. The fellas’ day began along the Vermont border at East Colrain and they had worked their way down to Greenfield.

“We must have made 20 stops,” said the driver, looking at me, then his nodding brother.

The question is, how long will these stocked fish last? It’s been a strange May indeed, with little rain, and the dry weather has left rivers like the Green lower than normal but not nearly as low as their feeder streams, which are at summer levels. When the water’s high, stocked fish are quickly dispersed naturally throughout the stream. But with low water levels, these same trout are apt to stay put more and are thus easy to catch where dumped, and potentially quickly fished-out. So we’ll have to wait and see on that.

If the boys are back stocking next week, it’ll be with a load of surplus trout, which, if available, go out to selected waters for one last round before taking the summer off and returning for a final fling around the first of October. Relying on 35 years or tracking such things from this perch, it’s a rare year when a surplus is not available.

Trout are not the only fish Connecticut Valley folks have an interest in this time of year. There’s also the annual upstream migration of anadromous fish seeking freshwater spawning beds in the Connecticut and its larger tributaries. American shad spawn in the spring, Atlantic salmon in the fall. And, yes, the salmon are still coming, albeit slowly, several years after pulling the plug on the expensive Atlantic Salmon Restoration Program. After nearly a half-century of disappointing returns, politicians could no longer justify the cost. But still they come, a grand total of seven through Wednesday, four this week alone. These determined stragglers are captured, tagged, released and tracked for research.

As for shad, the river conditions have thus far been very good for migration, which is typically disrupted by rains that drop the water temperature and increase the flow, both factors that slow migration, especially when flooding and high-water events necessitate the closure of fish ladders and lifts. The first shad monitored this spring appeared on April 29, and the first email report from the Connecticut River Coordinator’s office arrived in my inbox on May 2. Since then, we have had just one quick overnight rain that impacted local rivers in a big way, and even that swell didn’t last long. Thus the shad have been coming like gangbusters for three weeks, with the number likely up to 300,000 by today.

Something interesting I discovered in recent reading was that Indians utilized anadromous sea lamprey for food. I must admit I was surprised, because I have never heard of anyone eating them. Plus, I thought they were pure trash and total undesirables in the big fish-migration picture. Not so. After reading of their importance to our First Nation, I Googled lamprey recipes and found many in use today. Apparently they were a welcome spring delicacy for local tribes situated in the spring at “Great Falls” in Montague and South Hadley. I must admit to never being fond of the thick, orange, snake-like creatures bumping my legs as they swam between my waders — or, worse still, shorts and Tevas — when shad fishing. Not only that, but there were always many gross, decomposing carcasses in the river this time of year, so they did not hold a high place in my Deerfield/Connecticut rivers fishing experience. The fact that many die after spawning is all the more reason to eat them, I guess. Leave it to the Indians to find a use rather than ignore a resource that visits their habitat annually.

One more little tidbit related to the subject of local anadromous fish, thanks to an email from a consistent reader/emailer. Curious about a new antenna he spotted on Sunderland Bridge, this Vietnam vet chimed in to say he thought it had something to do with fish monitoring. I doubted it but, sure enough, my correspondent’s suspicion was confirmed when I checked with Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle.

“The FERC relicensing studies (for hydro facilities on the Connecticut River) that agencies have requested are underway,” Sprankle wrote. “Those antennas will be tracking adult shad, sea lamprey and, in the fall, juvenile shad and American eel. The monitoring covers from Holyoke upstream to Bellows Falls, Vt. I will be doing my own monitoring downstream of Holyoke.

He says the two power companies involved will capture and release about 550 radio-tagged shad combined. As for sea lamprey, it’ll be about 150 and, “for fall fish I don’t have the numbers in my head at moment. So there are/will be very large numbers of radio-tagged fish loose and being monitored, both with dozens of stationary sites plus regular mobile tracking runs each week.”

So, no conspiracy enthusiasts, Big Brother ain’t watching. Well, at least not from Sunderland Bridge.

It’s Happening Fast

Before eight chimes on the Monday-morning tall clock — gray sky, heavy air, cup of coffee in hand and headed for my customary parlor reading station by the window — it walloped me like an open, clammy palm across the puss from Mother Superior. Ah yes, that first overpowering fragrance of spring lilac, a sweet harbinger of summer. So uplifting a scent to brighten a new day, a new week.

Four hours later, exiting my truck for our daily mile or two walk through upper hayfields and around the perimeter of lower floodplain marsh, large riverside apple displaying its white-blossomed coat, I was immediately greeted by visual stimuli. This time it was a new, invigorating, sea of deep yellow dandelions pulsating in the same strong south breeze that had earlier delivered lilac to my nostrils. Again, what a splendid way to start a walk, sensory stimulation everywhere to unleash effusion. The dogs seemed energized, even liberated by the bright yellow carpet complemented so nicely by a verdant clover underbody like only nature can match it, a rich sight indeed. Stunning. Fresh. New. Inspiring.

It doesn’t stop there. I cooked my first batch of local asparagus from the Hatfield/Whately line Saturday evening for dinner guests. Plus, upon retuning from my Monday-morning romp with the dogs, there was sister-in-law Jan from the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont on her knees collecting our first cut of rhubarb from a small patch at the barn’s sunny southwest corner. Oh how sweet that first cut of rhubarb, even if it does occur before you can mix it with native strawberries. No problem. That tasty alternative will soon ripen. But rhubarb crisps and pies are just fine without strawberries, thank you. Some even prefer it.

And, oh yeah, how can I forget yet another long overdue sign of spring that appeared? Yes, last Thursday, finally my first neighborhood turkey sighting, a solitary hen, about 11 a.m. A small drab bird, it was walking south in snappy caution, head and neck extended toward a neighbor’s gray, knoll-top colonial home. On my way home a few minutes later, there it was again, scratching under the same home’s front-yard apple tree. She must have had a nearby nest temporarily covered with loose brush for a quick feeding maneuver. I knew I’d bump into a turkey sooner or later but was actually starting to wonder. I’m confident there will be more.

Next day, Friday morning about 9, sitting comfortably in the front parlor talking to an overnight guest — an old Vietnam triage nurse and college friend of my wife’s — a gray Ford pickup truck pulled into the yard. Hunting buddy Killer was passing by on his way up the hill turkey hunting. He walked the sidewalk up to the open window, sheepishly apologized through the screen for invading my privacy and, smoking a butt, asked me to come outside. He wanted a quick tutorial on the art of making an old Lynch box call sound like a love-infested hen turkey.

The box, his late uncle’s, was in great shape, looked like cedar, maybe walnut. He had never used it and wanted to give it a try. Desperate, he wanted to offer a new voice to silent turkeys in a habitat where he had yet to hear so much as a gobble, despite twice running into a boss gobbler on his way into the woods, shotgun slung over his shoulder, hands occupied by decoys. He had solved the problem of being unable to quickly shoulder a shotgun with his hands full of decoys by tying them to a backpack for transport. Now he wanted a little primer in the art of getting a box call to mimic the sounds of an amorous hen in waiting, sounds that may just lure in a big lonely boss man with long beard and spurs.

Unfamiliar with his rubber-banded contraption, I fiddled around with it from different angles, got it singing a sweet, seductive song, and handed it back to him for further instruction. Just then, departing guest Marylou exited my home and requested a little lesson of her own, which, of course, produced a suggestive, humorous narrative to explain precisely what a caller is trying to accomplish with a series of yelps, clucks and purrs. Hey, you’re apt to have a lot of flexibility when dealing with an old Vietnam triage nurse, even if she did rise to the rank of lieutenant colonel before recently retiring from the Air Force Reserves. Trust me, she can handle gutter talk with aplomb. Been there, done that. Seen a little of everything. Can handle about anything to the horrors of bloody, mangled young death. And when the conversation touches the right chord, she can even contribute, and then some.

A beautiful, cool, bright sunny morning had me in a playful mood. So, I figured it was high time to get my old hunting buddy cranked up.

“Hey, by the way Killer,” I interjected, “with a proud retired Air Force lieutenant colonel here with us on this fine spring day, what again was your classification as an military marksman?” I asked.

“Expert,” he replied with a gleam.

“See that,” I told her, “here with us today is a man who could cut it on the rifle range. He just never liked to follow orders.”

They both laughed, he in full agreement with my assessment, her understanding those who aren’t cut out for the military. Then she was gone, off to Quincy in her Subaru sedan, he up the hill in his truck on a turkey mission.

I hadn’t seen the last of my buddy. Just after noontime, me sitting on my John Deere tractor to start mowing the lawn for the first time this year, my buddy was back, his day of hunting complete. He parked in my driveway, exited his truck and quickly approached, saying, “I can see you’re busy and don’t want to hold you up but … I have to share with you a little conversation I just had.”

I disengaged the mower blades and idled the engine down to hear his tale, which I trusted would be either amusing, interesting or both. As it turned out, the story was, more than anything else, a confirmation of something he had told me earlier. Finished hunting and on his way to his vehicle parked on the side of the road, a shiny black SUV had pulled up to a stop and the driver hit the switch to slide down the tinted passenger-side window. The man, an expert turkey hunter with whom my pal and I are both familiar, wanted to inquire as to what my buddy had been seeing, if anything, while hunting.

“Well,” he said to me, clearing his throat, “I wasn’t going to lie to the man. I told him I’d been out for two weeks and hadn’t heard a freakin’ gobble. He wasn’t surprised. He said he hadn’t heard one, either. He hadn’t been out at the crack of dawn because of a new puppy. But he’s surrounded by turkeys daily, was up early enough to hear gobbles and hadn’t heard a one.”

Hmmmmm?

I can’t say I doubt either of them for a millisecond. On the other hand, I do believe that due diligence could put a gobbler in their game bags regardless of whether there’s gobbling. Silent approaches are not rare. They’re just not nearly as exciting as big boss toms sounding off with earth-rattling enthusiasm as they race toward hunters’ romantic invitations.

All hunters must learn that sometimes it’s necessary to settle for boring yet successful alternatives.

Fiddleheads, Turkeys and Springtime Mystique

Fiddleheads and turkeys are today’s topics, plus potential peripheral musings that can always develop.

It’s that time of year, I guess, when nature’s magic pokes through the forest floor overnight in bright green color, or maybe furtively peeks from behind a large, stately shagbark hickory anchored atop the edge of an escarpment, below which a bulbous Paleo lake once lay as a Lake-Hitchcock-drainage puddle.

Let’s start with fiddleheads. I have been monitoring a patch for some weeks and was thus stunned when stems shot to the heavens six inches or more overnight after just the previous day displaying only an inch-high, tightly clenched, scaly brown fist protruding from the forested wetland floor. There were many other tall ostrich ferns nearby, all of them first appearing like dense little brown periscopes camouflaged among dead fallen leaves two weeks ago, following a soaking midnight rain. And there they sat for two largely uneventful weeks, monitored daily and showing little progress until Monday morning, when, likely inspired by hot daytime temperatures and summer-like nights under a bright Full Corn-Panting Moon, they shot up like curlicue-capped stilts, growing an unbelievable six or more inches in 24 short hours. Ah, for the wonders of nature and springtime fertility.

It’s funny. A week earlier, an old friend and fiddlehead picker I’ve on occasion joined for the spring ritual phoned to inform me he’d picked his first batch not a mile upstream from the ones he knew I monitor. “We didn’t go all-out because I still have a lot of frozen fiddleheads and fiddlehead soup piled in my freezer,” he reported. “But I thought I’d warn you that they’re out, and that someone had already beaten me to mine. I don’t know what’s happening in your spot, but you better watch them. It’s going to happen fast.”

No truer words have ever been spoken, because fast indeed it did happen when they finally popped this week. Overnight, in fact, with a light touch of Mother Nature’s wand. If I get around to it, I’ll pick a plastic-bagful and go through the labor-intensive cleaning process in the sink before placing them into a hot cast-iron skillet and aggressively stir-frying before tipping down the heat and sautéing them in olive oil to the desired tenderness. When done to perfection, just a dab of butter and a dash of salt and pepper to please my pallet and nourish my body with wild greens, all natural, no preservatives or pesticides. Fiddleheads are fine for those trendy Paleo diets so many health nuts have wandered to these days, and they complement that diet’s wild game just fine.

As for wild turkeys, well, although I still haven’t seen any in my neighborhood, word has it that someone else has, right were I’m accustomed to seeing them. Maybe they’re there early and late in the day when I’m away, because they are not there midmorning to late afternoon.

If I had time or wanted to run on fumes coming down the stretch on work nights, I’d gather my gear and climb a familiar trail up to a large red pine tree inside an old stonewall where I have shot many toms. I’d set up comfortably at the base of that tree before first light and wait for the sky to light up with the sound of throaty roost-top gobbles piercing the gray, twinkling twilight air.

Without hesitation I’d sacrifice sleep and punish my body to set my grandson up for his first kill. But the kid’s young yet. His day will come. I can’t wait to watch him light up like I once did to the sights and sounds of turkey hunting, which, if it doesn’t get your blood boiling, you had better get your pulse checked.

I can’t say I don’t think about turkey hunting when the season begins. These days, during my self-imposed respite from an invigorating, challenging spring activity I genuinely enjoy, I’m still learning about turkeys’ springtime routines and habits. To be honest, when hunting the birds and calling them to my customized shotgun, I didn’t fully understand what was happening in the turkey world. All I knew was that I’d get them going early off the roost, hear the fly-down, and call them in by simulating the yelps, clucks and purrs of amorous hen turkeys as frantic gobbles approached my stand, momentum building. My assumption was that the nesting and hatching occurred after the season, which, from talking to my professorial Maine brother-in-law and state Turkey Project Leader David Scarpitti, I recently discovered was not quite so. The fact is that increased daylight triggers breeding activity as early as March in these parts, and many turkeys are now already into their nesting mode and unreceptive to gobblers’ advances.

By late May, some broods are indeed already on the ground, while some unfortunate hens have lost a nest or two to skunks, raccoons, bobcats, opossums or other predators and egg-eaters that contribute to a woeful 70- to 80-percent mortality rate. The renesting that results provides eligible gobblers with additional spring mates in addition to others that become receptive to late breeding due to biological and physiological factors. For instance, yearling hens that survive from second and third nests and then winter, develop late and can provide last-ditch mates for aggressive males that are always searching when without.

From what I have gathered of late, once a hen is bred by a gobbler, an internal string of up to a dozen eggs will form in decreasing size from back to front. Hens lay an egg a day until they’re all in the nest, covering their clutches with brush when they leave the nest briefly to feed and patrol. The eggs laid early lay dormant in delayed development until all the eggs are assembled. Then the gestation period begins and lasts 25 to 31 days, at which time the whole nest hatches en masse. Heavy spring rains are murderous to hatchlings, which die of pneumonia from cold saturation, again stimulating rebreeding and renesting by hens that provide more mates for gobblers and opportunities for diligent, late-season hunters seeking a late kill.

So, fellas, take it to the bank: With more than two weeks remaining in the annual four-week season, there’s still plenty of time to bag a nice gobbler, even for hunters who prefer bankers’ hours. Not me. It’s first light or nothing in my world, and I know when the time is right that my grandsons will rise and shine in darkness with eager smiles.

Turkey Talk

The Full Corn-Planting Moon is building as the landscape greens, turkeys gobble and shotguns roar from distant hills. Yes, it’s spring turkey season, a fine time of year for a man so inclined. And, word out of Montville, Maine, indicates the time is ripe.

But first a brief diversion — the first of two little housecleaning chores from last week, thanks to longtime reader Wild Bill the forester, who did well to catch an inaccuracy he suspected to be a slip of pen, which it was. I inadvertently identified the Green River as a Connecticut River tributary, which ain’t far off. But the fact remains that the Green flows into the Deerfield River across from Old Deerfield’s North Meadows and Pine Hill, and the Deerfield joins the Connecticut a mile or so below.

Enough said. It was an innocent overlooked personal error spotted by an astute reader. Call it citizen editing if you will, because he caught me red-handed. Fact is I’ve been on both sides of the Deerfield River where the Green meets it, and on both sides of the Green along the Deerfield’s north bank at Cheapside. Yet still misinformation crept into my column like a mischievous attic spirit entering the bedchamber through a crack in the narrow door leading into the closet beside the fireplace. As for the other clarification point, patience please. It’s coming. Promise.

Back to turkeys, my scholarly brother-in-law, a retired college professor always fascinated by birds, chimed in from his gentleman’s farm peacefully nestled into hilly Waldo County, Maine, where wild turkeys are a relatively new comeback phenomenon that disappeared years ago. Some wild birds spilled over on their own from southern New Hampshire, while others were captured elsewhere and transplanted by state fish and wildlife crews. I clearly remember reports of the first sightings in Maine, when they were rare indeed and being tracked by a Brattleboro native I know named Stu Bristol, now a veteran Maine Guide. These days, the big birds have repopulated the central and southern part of the state, where flocks are commonly seen on the road.

Most interesting about my Sunday conversation with a trusted in-law was his disclosure that the birds on his farm have been breeding for some time. That surprised me, given that he’s a good two weeks behind us after enduring a winter that dumped 10 to 12 feet of snow. There, it’s mud season, with snow remaining in shady, north-facing forest depressions and under north-side right-angle junctions of barn roofs. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by early mating. This week a New Hampshire press release from state turkey guru Ted Walski arrived and he claimed his state’s turkeys have been breeding since March. So, fellas, take it to the bank: gobblers in this neck of the woods are already henned-up to a point — which can be bad news. But relax, they’re still gathering more mates to hoard and protect, and are jacked up in pursuit of their spring harems.

Walski is confident Granite State hunters will find an abundance of birds despite the difficult winter, and the same should be true here as well. He pinned his optimism to availability of a plentiful acorn crop entering winter, and favorable early-winter conditions, when crusty snow allowed the big birds to walk comfortably atop without expending precious energy almost into February. Then came the deep powdery snow that can do a number on turkeys, which must work hard to maneuver through deep snow if they don’t get trapped in a death grip following fly-down from a tree perch. Which isn’t to say they don’t find suitable survival options. Walski said that when the going got tough, New Hampshire’s turkeys closed in on civilization, congregating around barnyards, backyard bird feeders and plowed driveways and parking lots near food sources.

Although I didn’t personally witness such winter flocks here in the Happy Valley, I wouldn’t hesitate to say it was no different; however, I must admit I’m a little concerned about the disappearance of turkeys I’m accustomed to seeing in my neighborhood. I have yet to see so much as a turkey track in my springtime travels, which has never before happened in 18 years living at my current Greenfield address. Yet, still, I’m supremely confident I wouldn’t have to travel far to find them. Thus I’m predicting another state record by the time all the cards are counted after this year’s four-week season.

As for the other housecleaning project, I give thanks to MassWildlife Turkey Project Leader David Scarpitti, with whom I traded emails and spoke on the phone this week about a subject I covered a month or so back about a turkey disease experts are tracking in the East. The column, titled “Scabby mess,” was based on Internet research of many articles written about a virus with the acronym LPDV, which, apparently, I confused with another turkey disease known as Avian Pox. According to Scarpitti, “Some birds with LPDV also are contracting Avian Pox, which is often the scaly, scabby lesions you are seeing. LPDV more commonly presents with internal issues.”

So, what I wrote a while back may have been a little misleading. This should set the record straight.

Meanwhile, Scarpitti added that, despite the fact that the diseases have infiltrated Massachusetts and been detected in all our neighboring states: “Without any definitive proof, it’s tough to say how meaningful they are to the turkey population. It seems that they are strong and thriving in most places, suggesting that these diseases are not greatly influencing abundance. I’d say the outlook at this point across all the Northeast is that it’s something biologists are aware and watchful of, but at this point it doesn’t seem to be of great concern. Of course, there is substantial research being conducted on the topic. So more is being learned every year.”

I guess it’s no wonder that the folks I’ve polled in Franklin/Hampshire County hot spots are reporting only healthy turkeys displaying no signs of illness. But consider this little disclaimer from my observant, cerebral Maine brother-in-law, who has seen scabby turkeys on his acreage, but not this spring.

“I’m assuming that any birds which went into the winter sick didn’t survive,” he speculated.
So I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens come summer and fall.”

Stay tuned.

Splashback

Do rivers speak? Well, if you listen.

Cool, sunny Sunday morning, 10-ish, variable wind gusting to stir small, random oak-leave twisters out in the open along the north wood line of a closed, two-acre meadow. A splendid day for a walk with the dogs — nose-dominant beasts that rely on winds to deliver information that can quickly accelerate their pace.

Descending the earthen ramp down into Sunken Meadow’s north end after finishing the top loop, the swollen Green River below spoke from surging flat water riled into semi rapids, the water displaying that trademark, clay-based, gray-green hue from which it likely got its name. Suddenly, a large, heavy splash and its lingering disturbance drew the dogs racing to the water’s edge as I curiously observed.

Despite many years of using this short, double-rutted farm road and even walking midstream during the summer with my wife, grandchildren and pets, I had never before seen a trout or any fish rise in that typically placid section of water. But there was no mistaking the sound, a large trout rising aggressively through the surface and landing loudly, likely enticed by some tasty aquatic insect capable of escape. What type of insect I can’t say, but from the sound and aftermath rings on the water, some type of fast emerger must have shot to the surface like a tiny air bubble — or possibly even a large terrestrial of some sort had been blown down onto the surface. Who knows? It could have even been a waterlogged mouse or small snake swept into the stream and gobbled up in a flash by a big, opportunistic brown or rainbow.

Anyone who fishes hatches learns to differentiate between quiet, rolling, slurping rises and fast, furious, splashy ones like Sunday’s. The prevailing type of rise is always the one to fish, because trout feed on the preferred food of the moment. Fickle, they’ll take something else if tantalized by enticing movement, shape or bright color. But if you want continuous, cast-after-cast action, you must figure out what they’re feeding on, then find something similar in your fly box. In fishing jargon, that’s called matching the hatch, which isn’t always easy if you haven’t studied stream entomology focused on Mayflies, stoneflies and caddis flies.

I stood motionless, looking down and hoping to catch another quick rise that never came before impatience pulled me away. Maybe the fish was aware of my dogs’ presence, or maybe the rise was just one random opportunity answered, the taking of unexpected prey the fish happened to spot passing in the strong, cold, cloudy current. Can’t say for sue. But I didn’t have time to linger and moved along on my merry way, whistling the dogs up from the river’s edge for a wetland romp they know and love.

As I followed the base of the escarpment along the western edge looking at the infant skunk cabbage populating its wooded underbelly and wetland below, I wondered when the wild, immature plants would attract the first foraging bears, which eagerly hunt it as a preferred spring food. Last year, right there, we had jumped a bear from behind thick wild rose bushes. Then, after writing about it here, a neighbor I still have never met sent me a cell-phone photo of the big black beast ripping apart a large, round hay bale wrapped in white plastic just around the corner. Ah, for the wonders of cyberspace news.

As I observantly walked on full alert, my springtime imagination, always fertile, carried me back to the deep history of the river known to natives as the Picomegan. Those were the days before rainbow and brown trout were introduced to area waters by state hatcheries. Our first people, for many millennia before European invasion, would have caught beautiful brook trout the likes of which few locals today know. These native trout would have populated the river when the temperature was right and migrated up colder tributaries for summer refuge and fall spawning. Plus, our Pocumtucks, named by those who discovered them here in the upper Pioneer Valley, would have taken advantage of the anadromous fish — shad, herring and occasional Atlantic salmon — migrating each spring upstream from the mouth of the Connecticut River at Long Island Sound to spawn in freshwater. The Green River would have attracted these migratory saltwater fish annually, as would the Connecticut’s other local major tributaries, namely the Deerfield, Falls, Millers and Sawmill rivers. Even Deerfield River tributaries like the South and Bear rivers and Poland, Clesson and Dragon brooks would have pulled in a small sampling of anadromous fish, not to mention big brookies seeking summer refuge and fall spawning beds.

It’s not difficult to fantasize about deep history so far in the past, bygone days when people respected the earth, air and water, birds, beasts, fish and reptiles, and treated them with reverence, even when hunting and eating them, wearing their skins for clothing, or adorning themselves with teeth, claws, quills, feathers and fangs. These indigenous people viewed themselves as part of the whole, no better or worse than the other components of nature, just beings living in harmony with the rest, animate and inanimate, wet or dry, dangerous or harmless, poisonous or benign. They knew that it only takes one selfish violator to disrupt the delicate balance and make life tougher for all. Somewhere along the way, we Occidentals have forgotten that formula. Sad indeed.

Enough! Back to that Sunday walk disrupted by a lunker splash. On the upper leg we had first walked, peering through tall budding hardwoods and underbrush standing on the upper terrace, I thought I spotted a rare human form moving along the riverbank near a big riverside apple tree standing tall in the southeast corner below. As I approached from afar, I smelled smoke and, turning the corner, saw it rising from near the river, presumably on my side. Wrong! What I found was two young fellas, 30ish fishermen with a campfire burning across the river in a safe, stone enclosure on the stony opposite bank. Upon inquiry, they bemoaned a strong, rapid current limiting their success. They had caught a couple of holdover rainbows and one small brookie that had likely made its way into the river from the nearby mouth of Allen Brook.

Lily and Chubby looked across the river with friendly wags but weren’t going to bother swimming across the swollen river to meet strangers, who I told about the nice trout I saw rise a short distance upstream. I immediately regretted sharing the information, wasn’t crazy about the idea of them catching and removing that nice trout from the river. Maybe grandson Rynie and I could chase it down later in the week. The 9-year-old boy had arrived the previous evening and is here from Vermont for school vacation. I had planned to ask him to help me replace floating flyline on the reel for a classic bamboo fly rod. I’d like nothing better than to hook that big, heavy trout and hand the boy the rod for battle. If he wins and wants to take it home for display and breakfast, so be it. I’d be fine with that. But at some point I’d like to tell him I hope he’ll one day be a catch-and-release man committed to conservation.

Somewhere along the line, I’ll introduce him to a motto I’m confident he’ll remember. It’ll go something like this: If you’re hungry, kill and eat it; if not, throw it back for another day. A stream harboring trout is better than one without.

Springtime Buzz

Illuminated in a high, bright morning sun, it and a refreshing south breeze in my face, there it lay, clear as day: my trodden trail carved into a short March-brown hayfield, the thin, angled depression still easily discernible after a long, cold, snowy winter freeze, no foot-traffic I’m aware of in quite some time.

I myself hadn’t taken that familiar route for months, probably last walking it in mid-January, before the fields iced over with treacherous ice that promptly left me with broken ribs and sat me nightly for eight long weeks in a La-Z-Boy-recliner sleeper chair, never missing a day of work or interfering much with my many daily winter routine. Yet there it was, the path, still easy to follow, pointing south-southeast. Even Chubby ran down it, as he often uses my paths. Why? You tell me.
And while you’re at it, explain to me why deer often follow those same paths.

Do you find it surprising? You shouldn’t. Haven’t man and beast shared the same trails as long as they have coexisted? Oh well, so much for the age-old advice to never leave sign of your presence in woods where you hunt for deer. I long ago learned that advice was bunk. Honestly, I have walked a predawn trail into a morning stand and, lo, an hour later watched wary deer cautiously walk virtually the same path right past me. Doubt me if you will, but it’s true, and has often happened over the years, seemingly less in the evening.

Though I have seen just one deer thus far this spring, they’re back as roadside attractions in my neighborhood. My colleague and neighbor told me Monday that on Sunday evening before dark he saw five blending in along a wood line I daily walk. I told him I had that day followed their tracks through a thin patch of woods between fields, then all the way across the muddy upper edge of that wooded escarpment before dropping down into Sunken Meadow. There, I have been noticing a large solitary track for a couple of weeks now. It’s not the distinctive splayed track of the soon-to-be 5-year-old buck I’ve gotten to know. I suspected through winter that he may be dead, taken by a bowhunter across the street from my home. But then, just last week I encountered that track in wet snow and it may have been his. We’ll see.

A nice buck with a black snout, he patrols the Greenfield Meadows and its bordering ridges. The last time I saw him was a year ago, towering over four thin, leggy does across the brook from me at dusk in March. The last time I saw his antlers was two falls ago on the side of the midnight road, a nice 6- or 7-pointer. Not a spectacular trophy rack, but a keeper for sure.

The deer whose tracks I’ve been daily following are bedding in the cattail wetland lips surrounding the hayfields I traverse. They stay hidden by day and come out before dark to feed in the fields, where they seem to be concentrating on the red- and white-clover stubble clinging to damp brown turf like week-old whiskers on a heavy-bearded chin. The shoots may not be big, tall and luxurious, but they’re plenty green and nutritious, in fact more so than at any other time of year. That’s why hungry winter deer gravitate to it and other fresh spring growth, and it’s why we humans will soon be hunting wetlands for wild fiddleheads and visiting asparagus farms to help make for a healthy spring. Just Tuesday morning I searched through two of my favorite fiddlehead stands, below an escarpment’s snow-covered underbelly, and couldn’t find so much as a hint of any sprouts poking through. Not so for wild leaks and skunk cabbage, which have emerged through a carpet of brittle leaves that retain moisture in the soil to incubate young growth.

Home, at the southeast corner of the barn, the first rhubarb sprig this week broke through 75-year-old horse manure I spread from under the stables in the fall. Rain will bring many more in the days to come as my daffodils, not far east in a flower bed down the southern foundation, prepare to burst into brilliant spring yellow. Often they’re in bloom for Easter. Not this year, an early Easter and late spring, one the maple-syrup producers apparently aren’t bemoaning. Just this past week I spoke to two such folks, and both said they were having a good year; not their best, but better than most in recent memory. So expect the price to stabilize.

Which reminds me. On a recent trip to pick up my grandsons in Vermont ski country, a gallon was selling for 45 bucks, $7 less than the going local rate. My wife, a shopper, was anxious to buy some on the spot, where it was only advertised, not sold. Oh well. Never hurts to support local vendors. They work hard to make syrup and related products, all of which I love and am willing to pay for to sweeten my mornings.

Switching gears, so inspired was I by the recent warm snap that I even dug out all my flyfishing gear for spring inspection, just in case, focusing particularly on the aluminum-tubed bamboo rods and their zipper-cased reels hanging in a separate bag. I took out one old Orvis CFO IV reel and left it handy in its brown suede case for my grandsons’ next visit. I intend to replace 30-year-old, 4-weight, double-taper floating line on that reel to easier-to-cast 4-weight, weight-forward line I bought on sale last fall. Why not include my grandsons in the project, and explain why we’re doing it? It may plant a seed, maybe even inspire us to the river to see what we can catch. And even if that doesn’t happen, they may want a casting demonstration in the yard before trying their hand at it, beginning with roll-casts, then graduating to traditional overhead casts, which, in my opinion, they’re too young for. You start a kid with manageable bait-casting lessons.

I guess what got me thinking about those two dear young fatherless lads is today’s poignant date. Today would have been my younger son Rynie’s 30th birthday. Three years after losing their father, my grandsons lost Uncle Ry-Ry, whom they dearly loved. His passing occurred a year ago Wednesday, a day before he turned 29. Though life isn’t always fair, you must go on and make the most of the hand you’re dealt. That’s what I impress upon the boys during teaching moments.

Could there be a better setting than a rattling mountain stream singing a sweet song of freedom as kids learn to catch trout in nature’s classroom? Not in my mind. It’s oh so liberating and healthy for the young mind.

Off I go.

Lessons Learned

There’s something about flowing water that I find liberating, metaphorical to human thought and emotion — be it the rattle or roar, foaming riffles descending into roily runs and step pools, the gentle swirl of frothy eddies.

All of the above are likely spots for lurking trout when you understand water and know how to use the natural flow to trigger aggressive strikes by dead-drifting lively bait through the fish’s feeding lair in a natural, drag-free presentation. Yes, mountain streams produce a certain damp, shady, wild solitude that places me in the grip of nature, away from it all, governed by forest law.

When teaching youngsters to fasten a pair of hip boots through their belts for fish-hunting on such a stream, it’s important to start small on manageable water you can hop across in spots yet holds all the components of larger streams that will eventually be mastered using small-stream skills honed by trial and error. Fact is, once you understand flowing water and how fish feed in it, the same rules apply everywhere, big or small. But there’s always one key difference pertaining to large, deep streams, such as the Deerfield or Millers rivers, which become much easier to read and fish once they’ve settled down to their summer level. Then the runs, riffles, eddies and corner pools with overhanging roots become accessible in chest waders.

The natural evolution of an angler typically starts with live bait and a closed-face, push-button reel before advancing to open-face spinning tackle and delicate pendulum casts, long-casting of lures and spinners, flyfishing with dry and wet flies and weighted nymphs, plus streamers bright and drab that simulate bait fish.

One of the first little trout streams I learned to fish flowed out of Clapp’s Pond in the forest off Stage Road in Deerfield, feeding the Connecticut River just upstream of the Hillside/River roads intersection. There it crossed under River Road near the gate to what we originally called Kahle’s, then University Pasture, before racing through a steep ravine on the other side to a polluted Connecticut. We’d start at River Road, fish our favorite pools upstream, then pick away at the entire brook on the way back out, focusing on all the sites where we had rolled little pan trout that escaped. We’d fill a couple of fern-lined wicker creels, flea-market collectors’ items today, and bring them home for a sweet, tasty breakfast, the fingerling brookies battered and pan-fried in hot, spitting bacon fat that quickly curled up the tails in a black Griswold skillet.

Once we had it down on that little stream meandering through a steep hollow carved into the southeast terminus of Deerfield Mountain, we graduated to bigger streams like Mill River on the other side of town and Whately’s West Brook, which led us straight to the old Northampton reservoir near the chapel snuggled up to the earthen dike. There, many a large squaretail in the two- to three-pound class were caught — ah, how clear are the memories of those oven bakers of the sweetest, moistest, most succulent pinkish-orange meat. But that came later, discovered as teenagers before the new Hamp Reservoir’s spillway was built in the late Sixties, holding the water back far too long to save the big brookies we savored and have not seen since. Well, I suppose there are still some around for the taking. But let’s just say we were young back then, much more daring and capable of outrunning just about anyone giving chase through the wilds.

The hot-spot was a narrow neck that flowed under the iron bridge on the south end of the slim reservoir where I learned to take trout on Thomas Buoyant spoons, Mepps spinners and later flies. We had Steve Zayach’s dad to thank for our introduction to flies. The man was a wildlife biologist and fly-fisherman, had his equipment hanging neatly inside his Eastern Avenue garage, and he must have been OK with us borrowing it because use it we did, there and at another sweet little squaretail pond on the other side of the Connecticut River. We knew nothing about flycasting, presentation or matching the hatch, just that, according to The Count, Mr. Zayach’s son, trout preferred tiny midges enticingly twitched on the surface to draw a strike. Whether true that they preferred those tiny little artificials to larger mayflies or caddis flies or streamers from different compartments in the same flybox, we took heed and the midges seemed to do the trick over and over again at both of our favorite sneak-in sites, both reserved only for the first hour or two of light. Once lights started showing inside neighborhood homes, we were packed up and long gone in the proud Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn tradition.

By then, we had our drivers licenses and had graduated to the productive Conway streams, the South and Bear rivers and Poland Brook, and even fished the Sawmill River in Montague and Leverett now and again, particularly the lower end, sometimes as high as the base of the dam at Martin Machine (now the The Montague Bookmill), but most often in the wild, winding sanctuary that meets the Connecticut below Meadow Road. We also hunted there in the fall for pheasant, grouse and woodcock, plus jump-shot many a duck back in the day when lead shot was legal for waterfowling. To be honest, since the day lead was outlawed, I have not killed a duck. Just one of my many idiosyncrasies, I guess. But I was never much of a duck hunter, just a bird hunter who bought an annual waterfowl stamp just in case my dog flushed ducks out of small, muddy streams running through swamps I was hunting for pheasants, among them Hopewell Swamp between Christian Lane and Mount Sugarloaf.

Once we graduated to flyfishing the Deerfield, we had honed our skills and knowledge, applying what we had learned on smaller streams’ to a larger, more dangerous microcosm that from high above looked no different than those first narrow, shallow mountain streams where we learned to hunt trout. But now, instead of pendulum casts, we were using roll casts, the double-haul and shooting line through stiff winds, quickly mending it as soon as it hit the surface to produce a natural, realistic drift that fooled many a big trout, even a few big, early-morning Deerfield River browns, foolish gluttons that remained in their feeding lanes a few minutes longer than they should have.

Such rare trophy fish were always worth the harrowing hike in, negotiating a steep, switchback deer run to the river’s edge in the black of night, always hoping to drop the first cast into the river well before the birds sang their first note. Talk about magical. It was all of that and then some to be there when the river and surrounding woods awakened, the first ray of thin yellow sunlight peering over the eastern horizon still an hour or more away.

Hermit Tales

Mention in last week’s “Fish tales” column of a haggard roadside hermit familiar to travelers earlier in my lifetime along Route 5 and 10 between Greenfield and South Deerfield drew additional anecdotal information from near and far that’s worth reporting.

The feedback started right off last Thursday morning, when waiting for me on my first email adventure was a comment from an angler who, like me, fished a section of Mill River containing the site of Deerfield’s first grist mill (1693) on Sawmill Plain, not far from Pekarski’s Sausage on Route 116. He said he, too, always did his best to skirt that peculiar roadside recluse who lived just downstream. The note came from Michigan, where South Deerfield native Scott Farrick, a faithful faraway reader and intermittent correspondent over the years, now resides.

The Michigan correspondent and another emailer who chimed in later corrected me on the hermit’s name as well. They grew up in his neighborhood and said it was Victor, not Henry Kisloski, as I had speculated. Henry Kisloski was Victor’s brother. They both apparently grew up on a Sawmill Plain farm near the brook.

Anyway, Farrick’s quick Thursday-morning note read: “Sure is/was a great little stretch of water to grow up on. We knew the ‘hermit’ as Victor Kisloski. We steered clear, too. One day, when we were kids, there he was at our front door, dressed as he always was, in 19th-century style, with that snow-white beard. We were freaked but my mom answered the door. As I recall he was as polite as could be, asking if the Clark family still lived there (they were long gone). Plus he had two stray dogs and was looking for the owner. Like you guessed, surely he was odd, but he surprised us that day with a glimpse that wasn’t so scary.”

Later that afternoon came another, longer email from Scott Healey, a Sawmill Plain lad and neighbor of Farrick’s who was about the same age and often fished for trout on the stream where I had honed my skills before they found their way there. Most interesting was that, without a clue that Scott Farrick had already touched base, Healey wrote: “My best friend Jim Jobst and I would fish that brook all the time, and it was tough going if the Farrick boys had been there first.”

Healey also recalled the hermit’s name as Victor, not Henry.

Like me, Healey and friends “loved the stretch of brook between Pekarski’s and Victor’s land, especially the (old mill) waterfall.”
Now that we’ve made this man Victor Kisloski a passing fancy, a little more on the man, who was still walking the highway between Greenfield and Deerfield after I married in 1979. Following the rush of email traffic last week, I queried my wife to see if she could remember me pointing the hermit out along the road. Yes, she vividly recalled him trudging along Routes 5 and 10 and even described his distinctive attire.

Healey, a neighbor who saw much more of the eccentric chap than me, offered additional insight, writing, “Victor would walk weekly or biweekly to Greenfield for food and supplies. He was basically self-sufficient, with his gardens and his brook. Real story — he did chase Jim and me up the trail behind his shack with a hatchet one day because we both had maple twigs strung with nice trout. Although he probably was just trying to scare us and having a lot of fun doing it, we were scared and had quite a tale to tell.”

Over time, Healey’s mother, in the holiday spirit, helped soothe her son’s fears of the man by giving him an entirely different view of a character who was easily misunderstand. “Yep,” wrote Healey, “this was the same man to whom I later delivered my mom’s homemade Christmas brownies and tollhouse cookies. When I finally got the nerve to knock on the door, scared, he would open it with big, happy eyes you could barely make out through his big beard. … He also once offered Jim and me some of his garden if we wanted to try our hand at growing food.”

Plus one other Healey anecdote about a man many southern Franklin County travelers recognized on the side of the road in the Sixties and Seventies, and probably earlier, before my time: “I once watched him (Jim and I were hiding in the woods) saw down a tree by himself with a two-man bucksaw. I’m telling you, Gary, this guy was tougher than a mountain goat.”

I wouldn’t question that depiction one iota. A person must be strong to be as “different” in a non-conformist way as he was.

And to think that all this new information about an old character from days of my distant past arose from one innocent little mention of fishing an old boyhood stream I was quite fond of, and where the presence of the hermit’s humble abode scared the bejesus out of us each time we passed.

Oh yeah. One more time: he was Victor, not brother Henry.

Sorry ’bout that.

Fish Tales

The cardinals have been singing their happy song this week, brightening my outdoor morning chores with the dogs as the snow cover shrinks.

Who knows? Perhaps those beautiful red birds, too, can hear the brook gurgling through widening gaps in the thick, punky ice out back, massive, foot-thick ice chunks still strewn high along both banks, tangled among upslope trees but finally shrinking before breaking loose during the first major freshet. Or maybe my feathered friends can see that the roof slates are finally high, dry and snow-free. Hey, they may even feel through their tender little feet the subtle upward tremble of sweet sap flowing through the sugar-maple limbs from which they sing. Whatever it is that has triggered their joyous spring melodies, they sure are nice to hear after a long cold winter capped by record February snows.

Finally, over the weekend, I was able to resume my daily Sunken Meadow walks, soul-soothers for sure. I must get out early to stay atop the condensed corn snow that on mornings after cold overnights is just hard enough to keep me on top and just soft enough to prevent irritation to my braced, balky left knee. God, how I missed those daily walks for three or so weeks that seemed like an eternity! It made me feel fat and logy, like my blood and brain weren’t flowing freely. Next up is mud season, which I’ll get through. Oh yes, and so will my splattered bird dogs, who truly love mud, the wetter and dirtier the better. They have already started going to the Green River for drinks down by the big old apple tree standing sentry on the west bank along the way. No, they’re not yet swimming and standing submerged over their rib cages to slurp water. But the river that accepts my backyard brook about a half-mile upstream is wide open, much more so than the brook, and the dogs enjoy refreshing drinks after building a lather running through open fields and marsh alike, panting in pure ecstasy. That’s what a good romp does for English springers, born to run and bounce and chase and flush, especially the latter, and retrieve.

How can water not be on a man’s mind entering spring, when you must find ways to keep it away from your foundation, channeling it downhill in the opposite direction? Plus the fishing season is upon us. Soon the stocking trucks will be patrolling the highways, depositing fresh hatchery fish into our swollen trout streams and rivers, ice-out ponds and lakes. Although I seldom fish anymore, I’ve done plenty of it in my day and must admit I found myself thinking back to boyhood fishing adventures more than 50 years back on the Mill River. The stream follows Route 116 downhill from Conway through the Mill River section of Deerfield to Whately, then to its confluence with the Connecticut River at Little Naponset in Hatfield, an old hunting haunt of mine.

The stream’s name came from the mills it supported in colonial days, one of which I got to know quite well when, as an elementary school student, my mother would drop me off near the outflow of Matthews Road and I’d fish the stream down to the old Settright Farm now owned by Sam Chickering and wife Joanie, whose roots there lie deep. Back then I’d fill my wicker creel between those two spots a mile or so apart, occasionally bumping into old coach and Frontier teacher Butch Farrick during summer storms. Most of the trout were small brookies, with an occasional big one and even some rainy-day browns. I’d cover them with ferns in the creel to stay fresh and tasty. My last fishing hole was under a wooden-plank cow-pasture bridge I’d briefly fish off and sometimes catch a trout or two before calling it a day. Then I’d walk across the front half of the pasture and up a steep, wet, crumbly escarpment to the Settright porch, where I’d bang on the door and telephone my mom to retrieve me. I may be wrong but it seems to me that the door was often answered by matriarch Nellie Settright, by then old and confined to a wheelchair, yet always pleasant, happy to help a young angler.

What reminded me of that secluded stretch of an otherwise accessible stream was research for a talk I’m giving tonight at the Whately church about the town’s Connecticut River oxbow, another old haunt I frequented for sporting adventure — mostly woodcock, grouse and pheasant hunting, though it’s also a fact that I’ve caught a trout or two out of Sugarloaf Brook over the years. I’m sure my ancestors who lived there way back when also pulled many a nice, sweet squaretail with sweet orange meat out of the lower section of that brook that starts in South Deerfield center. Those were the pre-stocking days, when only native trout lurked.

Back to the Mill River, it was the site of Deerfield’s first mill, built in 1693 by none other than fur merchant Joseph Parsons, a member of my Pioneer Valley gene pool. I’m sure what I remember of the ruins at that site atop a 10-foot waterfall — wood fame remnants, likely chestnut, chunks of decomposing wooden siding, heavy, rusty iron chains and sprocket wheels strewn about — were the remains of a later upgraded mill. I’ve been told there’s nothing visible today that suggests an old grain mill once stood there. But I clearly remember the clues in the Sixties, when I routinely caught nice trout above and especially below in the deep, bubbling waterfall pool.

The only thing we had to worry about was the old hermit who lived right across from today’s Route 116 gas station/convenience store. We all knew his ragged, roadside hobo profile, and were warned by adults to avoid him. But, really, we never encountered the man astream, and I doubt he would have bothered us if we had. He was just an eccentric old recluse named, if my memory serves me, Henry Kisloski, long gone. Trust me, we knew when we were passing through his place, though, and never lingered. Local legend can do that to kids: scare the bejesus out of them.

Which reminds me of a another fishing tale I’ll share, occurring years later on another of my favorite childhood streams, introduced to me as a boy by Babe Manson. He taught me and his son, Mike, how to catch trout in that stream, which meets the Mill River along the Hatfield line. Thus it was a stream I thought ideal for teaching my boys to fish. Problem was that on our maiden voyage I parked along a pasture fence where I had always parked, and right there facing me in bright red letters was a posted sign reading “No Trespassing: Hunting, Fishing and Trapping Strictly Prohibited. Violators Will Be Prosecuted.”

Hmmmm? How could that be? It had never been posted. I felt entitled — grandfathered in, so to speak — because I knew most of the neighbors and was even related to some. I knew the new owner’s house across the street, noticed lights shining despite the early hour and figured, “What the hell? Why not give it my best shot?”

Me and the kids, Gary II and Ryan, pulled into the driveway and parked. I exited the car, went to the side door of the tidy yellow dormered antique cape, stood atop an impressive stone step and knocked. The owner appeared, I introduced myself, told him I had been fishing there since childhood and he didn’t hesitate to give us the OK.

“There’s no need to stop again,” he smiled. “You can fish here anytime you want. I’ll remember you.”

So, off we went, backtracking to our posted spot, gathering our equipment, squeezing through the locked wooden gate and walking to a deep pool fed by a fast channel. At streamside, I was baiting the kids’ hooks with pieces of lively coffee-ground nightcrawlers to entice hungry trout before pendulum-casting upstream, dead-drifting the bait toward the pool and handing them the rods when I set the hook on a strike. As they pulled nice, 8- to 12-inch brookies from the stream one after another, I was busy unhooking fish, gutting them and freeing the kids’ snags when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed rapid movement coming our way. An older man wearing a white fishing vest and cap was hurriedly approaching, obviously unhappy. I think what was bothering him most was the fact that we were literally hooking fish on every cast while he was having little success at a downstream corner pool I knew well.

“Can’t you read the signs?” he screamed, face red, veins bulging through throat and neck. “My son owns this land and he doesn’t want you here.”

I looked down at Rynie, about 6, noticed a fearful tear streaming down his cheek and got hot. That was it. I took a couple steps toward my assailant and boldly got right up in his grill.

“Hey, pal,” I barked without a hint of fear, “do you know how to swim? Because if you don’t shut up and quit scaring these kids, you’re going in.”

He didn’t challenge me, instead walking sheepishly away and remaining dry. I never even bothered to tell him we had permission. For what? That was irrelevant.

Although I have never returned to the scene, my kids never forgot the incident and often reminded me of it with a twinkle in their eye.

“Hey, Dad,” one or the other would say, “remember that day we were fishing and you threatened to throw that mean guy in the brook?”

“Yeah, boys, how could I forget?” I’d reply, holding my thumb and forefinger less than an inch apart. “That man came about this far from taking a little dip.”

They’d just chuckle and nod.

Though I hesitated to share this ancient tale, I think it’s hunky-dory. The statute of limitations has long passed and I assume that me and that pleasant owner who granted permission are the only involved parties still living. Plus, what’s the likelihood he’ll read this? If he does, so be it. His father was being a jerk. He frightened a couple of young, innocent boys, and was asking for trouble from a younger, stronger man on a raw, gray, unruly April morn.

In the nick of time, he was wise enough to back off before receiving a humbling, violent, frigid little streamside-etiquette lesson.

Scabby Mess

Whether it was winter’s final roar or a soothing song of coming spring depends upon your perspective, I guess. But to my gray tiger cat sleeping peacefully across my lap on a bright, spring-like Monday afternoon, it was threatening indeed.

Visibly alarmed, she rose to her feet, jumped down, scooted off in the opposite direction and vanished for more than an hour. It was clear that, be it sweet melody or vicious roar, Kiki wanted no part of that short sudden earthquake created by weeks’ worth of heavy, icy, accumulated snow finally tobogganing off the barn’s slate roof to the ground. The west side broke free first, triggering the east release, the loud, trembling avalanche over in a matter of seconds, then eerie silence.

To me, the event was a clear, happy harbinger of spring. Oh how I have waited through weeks of bitter-cold trips to the woodshed for that burden stressing the barn’s chestnut frame to fall. Now it’s gone with limited if any damage to the slates, and the sugar-maples are ready to perk up and push sap upward into pails and tubes and vats that will someday soon sweeten breakfast.

Soon our winter-famished deer that have survived on buds and canes and whatever else they could find during a difficult winter will appear along the edges and around residential neighborhoods, devouring whatever greens they can find for sustenance. But something to look for in coming weeks is wild turkeys, which should first start appearing in large, noisy flocks before breaking off into smaller groups leading up to the spring mating season.

People accustomed to seeing turkeys should try to assess the status of this year’s flocks. The question is: Are the numbers dwindling? If so, the decline could be related to a disease being tracked nationwide. This turkey-flock scourge, known as lymphoproliferative disease virus (LPDV), is believed by the National Wild Turkey Federation to have, at the very least, contributed to a 15 percent population reduction across the range. The disease showed up in New York in 2012, and is now impacting Maine and New Hampshire turkeys as well.

I had not heard a word about the disease here in Massachusetts until placing a call to MassWildlife information guru Marion Larson, who confirmed through Turkey Project Leader Dave Scarpitti that the disease has indeed infiltrated our state, appearing first in 2012. Birds carrying the disease are obvious because their heads become an ugly, scabby mess that is easily detected from close range or when looking through binoculars. So take a look if you’re used to viewing turkeys through the picture window. And, of course, checking-staion personnel will also be on the lookout.

This disease began in domestic European and Israeli turkeys but somehow crossed the big pond to the sunny South approximately seven years ago before spreading in all directions. Maine and New Hampshire have been proactive in response to the disease, but the other New England states have not been as aggressive. Some states have been examining birds at checking stations, confiscating the carcasses of those infected and supplying the hunters with another harvest tag because it is not advised to eat infected turkeys.

Thus far, infected turkeys have been found in 17 states from Colorado to Maine, and seven states have reported turkey fatality resulting from the disease. According to a recent Associated Press story, the New York State turkey population has plummeted from 300,000 in 2001 to 180,000 today, not in the least bit and insignificant drop.

The same report claimed the disease is not responsible for declining numbers, but it seems that the jury’s still out on that.
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In case you missed it: Bear Project Leader Laura Conlee reported a record 240 bears were harvested during the split fall season, 203 in September and 37 in November. In total, 132 males and 107 females and one unknown. Harvest breakdown by county is as follows: 78 in Berkshire; 56 in Franklin; 51 in Hampden; 43 in Hampshire; 4 in Middlesex; and 8 in Worcester.

The preliminary deer harvest for 2014 (excluding Quabbin and any data not yet received) is 11,165, which is close to last year’s harvest. The preliminary archery season harvest is 4,456, the preliminary shotgun season harvest is 4,742, and the preliminary primitive season harvest is 1,967.
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Feedback: A few people responded to last week’s question about parking in Vermont near the Massachusetts border on the shore of the Sherman Reservoir, walking across the border to fish with a Massachusetts license, catching fish and returning to your vehicle in Vermont carrying legally caught fish. The question was: Should the angler be worried about getting pinched in Vermont for possessing fish without a Vermont license?
Well, all three respondents thought it bordered on paranoid to entertain such fears, claiming that hunters routinely cross state lines to hunt and transport what they kill back home without fear. In their opinions, the worst outcome would be getting approached and questioned, maybe even hassled by an overbearing law officer, but that in the end, everything would work itself out without any serious consequences. Sounds about right to me.