On The Trail: The shad are running

Published: 4/20/2016 11:30:00 PM

Subtle, wild purple violets cling to the green front and back lawn, awaiting their first spring mowing, while splashes of daffodil-yellow color the triangular common out front and along the low stone wall marking the western perimeter. Soon the large tulip magnolia in the slim, roadside east yard will burst into its full pink splendor, similar to that Full Pink Moon building with a most-soothing, faint silver light cast from the midnight sky.

Actually, Pink is just one of many indigenous names for April’s full moon. The color refers to the blooming wild ground phlox or pink moss, which sports one of spring’s first flowers. Other Algonquian names for the small pink moon that’ll fill up Friday night include the Sprouting Grass Moon, Egg Moon and Fish Moon, the last most appropriate for our the Connecticut River Valley, where the American shad run is off and running.

Yes, though not yet time to head for the river with a fishing rod, our most prevalent anadromous fish has indeed entered the river system and will soon be running like gangbusters, in numbers sufficient for productive recreational fishing. If this year’s spawning run is in keeping with the previous four, we’ll be looking at more than 416,000 shad passed by Barrett Fish Lift over Holyoke dam. The highest single-season runs of the aforementioned four-year string serve as bookends, with 490,431 in 2012 and 412,656 last year.

It’ll be interesting to see how the run is affected by our unusually light snow-cover from top to bottom of the 400-mile Connecticut River corridor, which begins in northernmost New Hampshire and ends at its outflow into Long Island Sound at Saybrook, Conn. Through Tuesday, with river temperatures finally creeping into the low 50s Fahrenheit along the lower main stem, a total of 556 shad had been counted in the river basin. The mother lode of those fish (536) were counted passing Holyoke. Elsewhere, 19 had been counted on Connecticut’s Mattabesset River and one other had passed the DTI Dam on the Westfield River in West Springfield. The first shad appeared on April 1, no fooling.

Other migratory species noted in the river on Wednesday’s emailed “2016 Connecticut River Basin Fishway Passage Count” included 93 alewife and one sea lamprey at Mattabesset, plus another lonely sea lamprey at DTI.

“With water temps edging above 50 in the lower river, Holyoke has started passing a consistently increasing number,” wrote Ken Sprankle, United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW) Connecticut River Coordinator, who characterized the river flow as “very low” for this time of year, when the Connecticut is typically swollen with snow-melt runoff and/or rain.

The dry spring must be obvious to anyone who’s been out and about, watching dust stirred on each step through the meadow. The rain may yet come and temporarily delay our migratory fish runs from time to turbulent time until water temps rise to between 67 and 70 degrees. Then, typically early June, shad stop running upriver and establish stationary spawning lairs, where females deposit their eggs and males fertilize them. The fertilized eggs then hatch into mid-summer Connecticut River progeny that mature or are devoured by predators until late fall, when survivors head for the ocean to join adult schools and ultimately become members of future shad runs as 3- to 6-year-old adults. Most shad die after spawning.

Veteran shad anglers like late Easthampton Fishing Hall of Famer Bob Thibido — a well-known local roofer whose vanity plate read “Shad King” — will tell you that the large, mature 5- and 6-year-old lunkers seem to be most available early. After that, anglers are more apt to catch 3- and 4-year-old fish, and some precocious 2-year-old males that trend smaller. Trophy shad weigh seven to 10 pounds, while, unless something’s changed in recent years, average size during the peak run is around 4½ pounds. Thibobo’s 1986 world record caught in Holyoke tipped the scales at 11 pounds, 4 ounces.

Fish recently lifted over Holyoke dam are at this time somewhere between there and Turners Falls, be they in the main stem or off sampling tributaries like the Deerfield River, smaller streams like the Mill and Sawmill rivers, or even the mouths of Sugarloaf and Clapp brooks when the outflow is strong enough to attract them.

Soon these upstream travelers will gain access to the upper river above Turners Falls, where the power-station fish-passageways are set to open by the weekend. The end of the road has always been Bellows Falls, Vt., first as the site of an impassable natural “Great Falls,” and now a manmade power and flood-control dam.

Since fish passageways were constructed and annual fish-counts began in 1967, the mean annual numbers to pass the various obstacles along the way look like this, according to USFW figures: Rainbow Dam (Farmington River, Conn.) 491, DTI/Westfield 3,251, Holyoke dam 309,119, Turners Falls dam, 14,773, and Vernon, Vt. dam, 7,264.

The four-week, 24-day Massachusetts spring wild turkey hunting season opens Monday and closes on May 21, and hunters are as optimistic as optimistic can be following a mild winter of high temperatures, low mortality and plentiful wild and nutritious feed, especially acorns, which were available on the snowless forest floor of sunny slopes most of the winter. The result should be some mighty healthy monster gobblers in the 20- to 23-pound class.

Plus, longbeards should indeed be sporting long, full beards dangling from their breasts, again due to a lack of deep snow in much of the county. Deep snow and the muddy spring mess that follows tends to rot long beards that drag on the ground at times, but that was pretty-much a non-factor this past winter.

So expect a bountiful season with many trophy birds. Yes, it could be one of those years, minus some yet-to-be-discovered virus or plague that could rain on the parade. Expect another record.

Gary Sanderson is a senior-active member of the outdoor writers associations of America and New England. Email, gary@oldtavernfarm.com; blog, www.tavernfare.com.

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