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Fish return while fishermen and volunteers spring to action

March 19, 2014

Volunteers at the Main Street dam in Wakefield lift herring over the wall.

March is a lovely month. Spring breezes stir the ocean, energize the daffodils and rally the laundry to dance on our clotheslines. Bursting with changes, March is all about a reawakening of our senses and our waters, for fishermen two things deeply intertwined. Spring’s arrival affords us a natural opportunity to forget and remember. This is how the aches of hauling firewood and pains of cold skiff seats can be lost for thoughts of open windows, open rivers and easy excuses to “go check out the water.”

Spring provides us with largemouth under early blooming maples and a long overdue swing of nature’s color wheel. There is a Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management hearing on March 25 at Corliss Auditorium to cover proposed local fish regulations and the New England Saltwater Fishing Show on the 28-30. Ambitiously polygamous red winged blackbirds have been clinging to cattails in Middlebridge for a month. Male American woodcocks are staging their magnificent mating dances in high grass meadows, crashing down from the sky to impress potential female partners. Our natural excitement for change is building as pond ice turns that weak milky white before disappearing altogether, we find forgotten flies to organize, outboards to tune and new licenses to buy.

This year’s RIDEM gorgeous new conservation stamp depicts the brook trout, illustrated by Robert Jon Golder. Genetically a char, its proper epithet is fontinalis, Latin for, appropriately enough, “of a spring or fountain” and you will need this if you decide to keep any trout this year. All state designated trout waters are closed until opening day on April 12 at 6 a.m. With that down time, before we start chipping off bottom paint, we should first walk the old Post Road and check out a river.

The Saugatucket River moves as an ageless clock, quietly trickling and draining, as her lower reaches breathe with each ebb and flow. She keeps her own natural time. This is a fine river, supporting pickerel, bass and stocked trout populations and while her banks get a bit ragged up towards Peace Dale, there are fun fish to catch on a small boat passage in the heart of Wakefield. A few years back, my young son landed a beautiful 18-inch rainbow just above the dam as I lectured him on how not to get snagged.

Starting this month she will carry up dark waves of river herring from the sea as they ride her high tide complete to Main Street. It’s a wonderful bit of nature’s magic, really. Lucky for us, we can grab hold of our children and peer over the black tube rail to watch these relentless fish returning to their natal waters in a millennium old cycle of reproduction and survival. Then under the shadow of sunset red bricks and the lights of a tidy car dealer, the clock seems to stop, stifling their journey, leaving them circling aimlessly at the foot of an old stone dam.

Alewives and blue back herring, known locally as buckeyes, are perfect 12-inch silver swimming machines whose return was once cause for town-wide celebrations. For generations fishermen harvested them from streams by the basket load for lobster and striper bait while even more were smoked for the dinner table.

Born in fresh waters like Worden Pond and Indian Lake, they swim back down the Pawcatuck and the Saugatucket in the Fall to mature at sea, hopefully returning in two to three years to complete a natural circle. In a necessary nod to their low return numbers, today in Rhode Island they are totally protected and banned from harvest.

The dam and two mills were operating by 1850 to manufacture clothing items like kentucky jeans and cashmeres, until a fire in 1867. The dam has outlasted manufacturing and much like its partner holding back Peace Dale Pond, it affords the same fate migrating anadramous fish have met all over New England for hundreds of years.

Our Main Street dam has an antiquated fish ladder designed to move herring around the wall so they can continue their journey upstream. Its water moves with such velocity that few have the strength to summit, ending in schools piled up at the mouth working up more courage or waiting for a tide ride south. Jim Turek, restoration ecologist with NOAA, hopes that construction of a new, more effective ladder system will begin late summer and be completed in November.

Thankfully, March is also a month for new chances. For these weeks of migration there are some unlikely heroes in wool hats and hip boots, carefully balanced in a cold water high wire act, squinting down at tiny waterfalls, jousting with long green nets. Our river is very lucky to have this group of volunteers who each spring net the herring and gently lift them over this and the dam at Palisades Mill. RIDEM also takes trucks loads to Worden Pond to encourage that population, in an act of man working earnestly to undo what man has done in another age.

So what does all this mean to us? Fins at the fish ladder mark a real beginning of spring and that’s something we should all celebrate. Imagine working past such serious obstacles, constantly running into a dam wall and having to fight your way up the ladder. If they don’t surrender, get washed out with a falling tide or die from exhaustion, they flop briefly into calm waters under a hungry osprey’s shadow, before starting upstream again. We seem to have much in common with these lovely fish.

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