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On The Trail: Correction and reclamation

  • This colorful, 20-inch, upper-Deerfield River brown trout caught last week on a nightcrawler, was thin after long winter dormancy. Had it survived to July, it would have been fatter and heavier. contributed photo


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A mishmash of fishing stuff this week, beginning with a little correction from last week, when I incorrectly noted the old “April 15” opening day of the Massachusetts trout-fishing season.

It seems that the father of a colleague I call “Big Boiczyk” thought a “clarification” was in order. He looked forward to opening day as we all did back in the day. Not only that, but he would have had a special reason for attaching importance to the big day. The pre-Interstate 91 eastern boundary of his expansive Greenfield Meadows farm was the Green River, always a good trout-fishing stream.

“My father says you should have known better,” his son told me Monday at work. “Opening day was the third Saturday in April, not April 15,”

He was right. I should have remembered that opening day always fell on Saturday before year-round fishing was, according to retired wildlife biologist Jim Cardoza’s online MassWildlife history, adopted in 1974-75.

I think I was confusing our opening day with Vermont’s, which it seems to me used to be April 15 back when I traveled annually to the Northeast Kingdom to fish opening day of the Willoughby River rainbow steelhead trout run. I have fond memories of fishing and carousing up there in the Seventies, when we’d bunk in at an old ramshackle country inn named, if my memory serves me, the Osborne Inn in Orleans, Vt. That establishment must be long gone by now, because I could not find a word about it anywhere online. You know you’re getting old when Internet searches like that come up empty; that and the fact that you played for or against and hunted and fished with coaches who now have fields and gyms named after them. Oh well, can’t hold back Father Time.

But enough of that. Let’s move on to another fishing-related topic, brought to my attention by a 72-year-old buddy who checked in last week to taunt me with his latest foot-free retirement adventures. He has by now moved on from ice-fishing at Pelham Lake to angling for big browns in the upper Deerfield River known for them. It seems that he and a chum of the same vintage have enjoyed success, if cell-phone photos can be trusted. But he was not calling about brown trout. He wanted to address another issue that happened to pop into his consciousness while fishing. It was a subject he figured would pique my interest: a state fisheries-management initiative that to the best of his recollection was called “reclaiming the Deerfield River.”

My buddy said he recalled the program as a poisoning that resulted in thousands of stinking, belly-up fish passing through downtown Shelburne Falls in the river back when he was a kid. He wasn’t certain precisely when the river had been poisoned to remove “trash fish,” but thought it was probably in the late Fifties or early Sixties. When he brought the subject up to his buddy at riverside, the man recalled absolutely nothing. Even worse, he sensed that his fishing buddy harbored suspicion of a tall tale. Right then and there, he decided to throw it in my lap as soon as he got home, to see what I could come up with.

When queried on the phone, I admitted having no personal recollection of this Deerfield River program, and I told him I couldn’t recall ever reading anything about it, either. Perplexed, I promised to fire off emails to sources who might know something and, if fruitless, I’d perform a few online keyword searches to see what I could dig up.

My first move was a quick email to Andrew Fisk, executive director of the Connecticut River Watershed Council (CRWC), a smart man committed to protecting the Connecticut and its tributaries. Maybe he’d know something off the top of his head or have easy access to digital files he could share. No such luck, just a rapid, friendly response saying, “I’m not surprised to hear about such a story, but I don’t know any specifics about this being done in the Deerfield. It would take a bit of time to find anything in our archives, but you are welcome to take a gander.”

Although I knew a future visit to CRWC’s Bank Row office in Greenfield might develop, I opted first for a quick buzz around the Internet. The search immediately, on the first screen, brought up the 1990 Franklin County Planning Department’s “Deerfield River Comprehensive Management Plan.” On page 38 under a subhead “Fisheries,” it was revealed that, “In 1959, the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Game reclaimed the river, killing the fish population with rotenone to kill off fish competing with trout. Trout were then restocked to establish a ‘native population.’ A 1972 report assessing results of the program (13 years later) revealed that the river’s fish structure had remained the same.”

When I relayed the message to my buddy, he felt vindicated and said, “Yep, sounds about right. I would have been 15 at the time. That works.”

On the other hand, no wonder I had no recollection of the project. In 1959, I was 6.

Anyway, a few days later, I got a call about another topic from Russell Dodge of Buckland, who’s pushing 80 and served in the National Guard with my friend and initial reclamation source. Great. Quite by coincidence, I had the perfect source to query about 1959 Deerfield River happenings. Did he remember the reclamation project?

“Yes, I sure do,” he said. “They killed a lot of big fish, trout included, and there were many old-timers around the Falls who questioned what the state was doing. Later, they restocked the river with trout that had buttons attached to them for research. The state put cans up along the river for fishermen to put the buttons in. I remember my father having quite a few of those buttons that I don’t believe ever found their way to the streamside cans.”

Dodge said he vaguely remembered the name of the state fisheries official in charge of the program but couldn’t for the life of him remember his name. He said he’d call a friend who’d remember and get back to me, which he did after dark. The state official was Lewis C. Schlotterbeck, who oversaw Massachusetts rotenone reclamation projects, primarily focused on lakes and ponds, for the state Division of Fisheries and Game in the Fifties and Sixties. Rotenone was a natural toxin approved as a management agent in 1952.

According to Cardoza’s online MassWildlife history, under a heading of 1959-60: “A stream reclamation project is now underway and 75,000 pounds (37.5 tons) of trash fish were removed from 40 miles of the Deerfield River, which was restocked immediately with fingerling and adult trout.”

No mention is made of how many perfectly healthy Deerfield River trout, large and small, fell victim to the rotenone, used in many states at the time for similar fish-management projects. According to online descriptions, “Rotenone is an odorless, colorless, poison used as a broad-spectrum insecticide, piscicide (fish) and pesticide.”

“That was a long time ago,” defended MassWildlife information and education director Marion Larson, “and we have not used it for many years. When we were using it, it was in widespread use. Times have changed.”

Yes indeed, they sure have. Just think of the potential impact that 1959 poisoning of the Deerfield had on the different “native” fish gene pools, such as brook trout and smallmouth bass, not to mention aquatic insects, reptiles, birds of prey and predators that may have eaten the poisoned fish. Then draw a comparison to current conservation rules and regulations, which forbid anglers from using lead sinkers and waterfowlers from shooting lead shot while the Wetland Protection Act is firmly in place to protect ecosystems and all the life within.

I wonder what would happen to a Bay State landowner who decided to “reclaim” his private pond by dumping rotenone into it and starting over with stocked fish?  I can’t say for sure but have an idea that, if caught or reported, he’d have a big problem on his hands – one that may well lead to economic ruin.

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: gary@oldtavernfarm.com.