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On The Trail: Record-breaking shad surge


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

With turkey season in the rearview, irises bloom, Memorial Day looms and woodstoves limp to the finish line, burning just hot enough to kill the chill as hayfields, soon to harbor newborn fawns, whine for their first cut.

Overall, it’s been a cool May, one that’s apparently excellent for American shad migrating up the Connecticut River Basin for their annual spring spawning run.

Recent numbers indicate that conditions have never been better for optimal shad runs. On three consecutive days, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, incredible single-day totals passed the Barrett Fishway on the Holyoke Dam. A record-shattering 76,554 were lifted Friday, followed by an all-time second-best 58,544 Saturday. The Thursday record of 55,078 sure didn’t last long. Combined, a total of 190,186 shad passed Holyoke in three days. Amazing! No other three-day run has ever approached it. The fishing in Holyoke has been superb, and should be great here in Franklin County by now, too. So, fellas, clearly it’s time to act now, before it’s too late.

According to rounded-off figures supplied by Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle, the previous best single-day shad run through Holyoke occurred on May 12 last year, when 54,000 were counted. No. 2 all-time was 53,000 on June 14, 1983, a long time ago. The record shows that there have been no other single-day runs reaching 50,000 since counting commenced 50 years ago, in 1967. There are, however, 17 additional daily counts in the 40,000s on record, including Tuesday’s run of 43,455.

Last week’s record runs likely resulted from heavy river flow that has kept the water temperature in the low 60s Fahrenheit, necessitating frequent shutdowns of the Holyoke fish passageways. Such delays temporarily halt migration, accumulating big numbers of fish awaiting a lift past Holyoke to upstream spawning lairs. When the river settled down and the lift opened late last week – Bingo! – the shad came like gangbusters, and they’re still coming in big numbers. In an email from Sprankle that arrived just prior to deadline Wednesday, he reported the aforementioned Tuesday run and a Monday run of 31,481. An incomplete Wednesday total hinted an approximate 50 percent decrease from the previous day.

Sprankle’s Friday and Monday reports could not hide his enthusiasm. A mid-afternoon Friday email, written after a revealing telephone conversation with the Holyoke fishway supervisor, reported that crews there were “observing the same high passage counts (as Thursday).” The report also noted that “the tailrace and the spillway lift entrances were experiencing ‘full buckets,’ with hopper buckets cycling as fast as they can (every 15 minutes).”

Regarding water temperature, perhaps the key factor in shad and salmon passage, Sprankle reported that a favorable “long-range weather forecast would suggest prime fish-passage conditions for the next week.” So, it’s safe to assume that last year’s run through Holyoke (385,930) is well within reach. Through Tuesday, the number transported upstream there stood at 333,614.

Monday’s report also showed a mere 281 shad had passed Turners Falls and an insignificant two of those fish had made it past Vernon, Vt., and neither of those numbers had changed on Wednesday’s report. Although unreported, those numbers have by now surely increased dramatically. Pressed for time, Sprankle apparently was unable to get new upriver numbers Wednesday. Take it to the bank: for those so inclined, it’s high time to hike down to Rock Dam or other favorite Franklin County shad-fishing sites.

The long-term average for annual shad passage through Holyoke since 1976 is 310,000, with highs of 721,000 in 1992, 528,000 in 1983 and 523,000 in 1991. So we’re already ahead of the 40-year mean this spring.

As for Atlantic salmon, well, 6 stragglers have thus far been reported in the Connecticut River Basin. However, Sprankle reported that “a few more have been lifted, with some being picked up for swim tests at Conte Lab in Turners Falls, including one there now.” Several other salmon have been tagged and released, according to his report. One of those fish passed the Turners Falls Gatehouse Ladder Sunday. Additional salmon may yet appear before this year’s counting stops around the Fourth of July. Although I suppose it’s true that every salmon still matters, the future for this regal game fish in our Connecticut Valley is bleak indeed. Sad but true. And with Cheetos the Clown guarding the national-environmental-policy henhouse these days, the end could arrive sooner than later. Oh my! Can you believe the mess Boob-Tube Nation has gotten itself into?

There’s nothing else really worth reporting about anadromous-fish passage this spring in the Happiest of Valleys but, for the record, here’s what the numbers look like thus far: alewife 86, blueback herring 533, American eel 13, sea lamprey 3,622, striped bass 16, gizzard shad 517 and white sucker 2,002. Question: Where have all the bluebacks gone? Not so long ago, the river swarmed with hundreds of thousands of these small, robust migrants annually. Now, four figures is worthy of celebration.

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a senior-active member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: gsand53@outlook.com.