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On The Trail: Fiddleheads and feedback


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Turkey season is underway as skunk cabbage brightens marshy floors with splotches of salubrious green, fiddleheads are sprouting – providing harvesters a tight window in which to pick the springtime culinary delight – and feedback about the 1959 Deerfield River reclamation project discussed here last week was, not surprisingly, considerable.

It’s difficult to say exactly what’s happening in the turkey woods, judging from a couple of random opening-day reports. A farmer working Monday morning says he heard a shot from out behind Greenfield Community College somewhere at about 6:30. Then there was the hunter who visited a popular Shelburne haunt late only to find many opening-day participants still hunting after 10:30 a.m., suggesting slow going during the opening hours of opening day. Oh well, that was only Day 1 of a 24-day season. And then came the rains to further complicate first-week matters.

The skunk cabbage will attract foraging bears to swamps, seeking their favorite spring delicacy following winter hibernation and fasting. So, yes, some fiddlehead hunters will undoubtedly bump into bears here and there, given that the two wild plants populate the same wet terrain, high and low. It’s nothing to be overly concerned about, though. Bears don’t hold their ground when folks by chance bump into them. They’d rather just flee to another patch of skunk cabbage where they can feed in total privacy. There’s more than enough for everyone. No need for fights fueled by greed.

I can’t imagine fiddlehead-picking will last much longer than an additional week. I have monitored one spot for about three weeks and on Tuesday and Wednesday picked hefty plastic bagsful on my daily walk with the dogs. The ones I have been monitoring for three weeks were cropped tight to the ground and tough to pick, although I knew some would sprout following Monday’s overnight rain. On the other hand, less than 300 yards north, at an adjacent spot where I once bumped into a lady from Denny’s Pantry (famous for its fiddlehead soup) out on a secretive harvesting mission, I found many primo clumps that were easy picking, among them, ferns a foot tall and taller that had already gone by. That’s the way it goes with fiddleheads: here today, gone tomorrow, especially following nourishing spring rains. Once the tight, little, brown clumps finally sprout into rich, green, tasty fiddleheads, they quickly become knee-high, soon to be waist-high, ostrich ferns.

But enough of the segue. Back to the 1959 Deerfield River reclamation-project and the feedback I fielded from folks who remembered well the rotenone-poisoning and dead, stinking fish.

The first to chime in was Rod Bamboux, who wrote, “I remember well the ‘cleansing’ of the Deerfield mentioned in (your) column. At the time I was at DA, fishing the Deerfield on a regular basis and living in (South Deerfield). One thing stands out in my memory of the rotenone use was not only the dead fish, but I think that people were told that rotenone had no effect upon people and the fish could be eaten. Better check that one out to make sure.”

Indeed. It is believed that human exposure to rotenone can produce Parkinson’s Disease-like symptoms.

The next comment came from Eric Giebel, who wrote, “Ahhh, memories. The reclamation of the Deerfield River. I was 26 years old. Late summer of 1959. Four of us were skinny dipping after dark near The Bars in Deerfield. Belly-up fish were floating by.”

Swimming was not uncommon the Deerfield back then, even though raw sewage and industrial waste was flowing into the river from many sources. That was clear from the next correspondent to throw in his recollections, that is one Fred Bourassa, who grew up in Shelburne Falls.

“Having grown up on the river, I was 10 going on 11 at the time (of the reclamation),” Bourassa wrote. “Yes there were a lot of trout in the river, but also lots of trash fish – suckers, eels and the like. This river was so toxic. Every home on the river emptied its waste into the river. Kendell Mills would empty all its chemical waste into the North River, which emptied into the Deerfield. The smell was horrid. It should be noted that eating trout was not recommended at the time.”

Denis Dassatti of Buckland, a little older than Bourassa, concurred.

“Oh yeah,” he said, “there was definitely raw sewage flowing into the river at Shelburne Falls. I can remember watching it come out of pipes, toilet paper and all. It didn’t seem to keep fishermen away.”

Retired Greenfield High School teacher Peter Conway, who called Monday night to talk about this and that, said it was no different on the Deerfield River tributary he grew up on, that being the Green River over near the Greenfield Dunkin Donuts and the overarching railroad trestle.

“There were three pipes across the river from me emptying raw sewage directly into the river from River Street homes,” he said. “We used to catch huge suckers around the outflows. They just hung in there and grew very large. The river was an open sewer back then, but we used to fish it and catch trout and other fish.”

But, returning to the Deerfield River reclamation project, the next respondent was old friend and Sunderland native Chris Hubbard, who reached out by email:

“I was standing on Bardwell’s Ferry bridge when all those dead, white-belly suckers (trash fish) went floating by! It was a sight to behold. In 1959, I would have been 10 years old. I remember it being a big event at the time. … I’m sure The Recorder must have covered the ‘fish story.’”

Yes, Hub, probably so. Maybe I’ll go through the microfilm when I get a chance.

Next up was another old friend, Myron Becker of Wendell, with whom I’ve hunted pheasants, not to mention sparred about long-term Millers River PCB and heavy-metal pollution from industrial effluent. Becker, 73, actually assisted with the Deerfield reclamation project as a teen, so he had valuable hands-on insight.

“I was involved in the project as a volunteer helper from the Massachusetts Outdoors Fish & Game Summer Camp at Bearstown State Forest, which I attended for two summers, including 1959.

“All I remember was thousands of big suckers with a few small smallmouth bass mixed in. There might’ve been some trout. We had to net and pile the ‘trash’ fish for disposal. The Rotenone was sprayed in from ‘Indian cans.’

“Times have changed.”

Yes, Brother, you can say that again.

Speaking of old friends, Millers River Fishermen’s Association founder Peter Mallett reached out by email to request publicity for his club’s annual “Kids Stocking” program. The first event will be held Saturday at 11 a.m. at the Orange Treatment Plant off Route 2A in Orange. The next will occur at the same time the next day, Sunday, at the State Wildlife Management Area, off Route 2 in Erving Center. In the future, at 11 a.m. on May 13, the Kids Stocking will resume at Alan Rich Park on Main St. in Athol. The club’s “Kids Stocking” initiative will give youngsters a chance to assists with the stocking of 11- and 12-inch trout before trying to catch what they’re just released into the river.

Mallett promised that the club has much more up its sleeve this year: “We’ll be stocking the river with 14- to 20-inch rainbows and brookies. Plus, I can’t say where or when, but some of these fish will be five pounds.”

Last call: The Barrett Fishway on the Holyoke dam opened Monday and had lifted 114 American shad through Tuesday, so, yes, the annual migratory run is on. Last year was a good one by recent standards, with a total of 392,057 passing Holyoke.

The first report from Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle arrived by email Wednesday and showed the shad count thus far at places other than Holyoke to be 80 through the fish passageway on the Rainbow Dam on Connecticut’s Farmington River and 33 past West Springfield’s DSI Dam on the Westfield River.

It’s a little early to start shad fishing, but not too early to get your fishing tackle ready. The run usually peaks in mid to late May and tails off in early June, once the river temperatures climb to 68 degrees Fahrenheit.

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.