On The Trail: Anadromous countdown

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

As the spectacular strawberry moon wanes in the midnight sky, the sweet scent of wild rose fills the meadow, pink weigelas are in full, fragrant bloom, and mock oranges are opening their buds to white blossoms, adding another subtle dimension of spring sweetness.

Yes, signs abound of a slow spring transitioning into summer, including a slowdown of anadromous-fish runs up the Connecticut River basin, to be expected this time of year. Numbers released on Tuesday morning, when the lift on Holyoke’s Barrett Fishway was closed due to high, turbulent river flow, indicate it has been a great year for the annual American shad run, and a surprising yet largely insignificant season for Atlantic-salmon migration.

On Tuesday, the river temperature was still low for this time of year, lingering just under 65, which is a bit surprising given the hot days and warm nights for three or four days beginning over the weekend. The wild card in the formula is the water volume of water in the Connecticut, which is taking substantial runoff from heavy rains up and down the watershed. Once the river settles down, the water temperature should rapidly rise, with sunny days and warm nights forecast through today. Then it looks like extended wet, overcast weather is on the way, which could delay shad spawning if the river remains under 68 or so degrees.

There was no word from Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle by Wednesday evening, so it’s likely there was no change continued shutdown of the Holyoke lift. When you have tracked these annual anadromous fish runs as long as I have, you learn to expect reliable patterns coming down the stretch. It’s all water-temperature driven. Once the river reaches shad-spawning temps, the shad run halts and the shad begin selecting spawning lairs, unaffected from that point forward by water-temperature-reducing rains.

So, take it to the bank: come hell or high water, the most-recent shad-passage numbers through Holyoke (505,580) do not figure to grow much. That said, 505,000-plus through that traditional counting station is a big number by recent standards; in fact, the highest total since 721,000-plus in 1992. That number is obviously out of reach, but it’s not out of the question that we’ll approach or even pass the other two top-three runs through Holyoke, 528,000-plus in 1983 and 523,000-plus in 1991. It probably won’t happen but definitely could with a heavy dense pulse of fish passing the day the lift opens.

It seems overall that things are looking up in recent years on the shad front, and recreational anglers are the beneficiaries. Word has it that the fishing at Holyoke, Turners Falls and points in between has been awesome, and probably still is today at sites like Rock Dam in Montague City. That’ll all stop rapidly as soon as the spawning ritual begins. Shad running to upstream spawning lairs are likely to strike shiny, colorful attractant lures out of surly aggression, and have a lot of current-aided fight in them once the hook is set and the battle ensues. That’s what brings out anglers in droves.

Big shad weigh seven to 10 pounds. The average is probably more like three to five. Many folks ask if they’re good eating, and the answer is, yes, if you know how to prepare them. Boney and labor intensive to remove the scales, I have sampled smoked, canned shad as finger food that’s excellent with crackers or mixed into noodles and rice. Taste it and you’d think it’s salmon but is of a whitish-brown hue, not pink. The best I ever tasted was prepared by South Deerfield native Tony Plaza, a well-known high school basketball official from Hatfield, not to mention an avid fisherman in his day. I attended a couple of sportsmen’s functions at which his smoked shad laid out on a large platter was a hit on the hors d’oeuvres-table.

The shad counts through Turners Falls and Vernon, Vt., are not even worth reporting because they’re so dated. The last report through the Powertown was 28,500-plus on June 2. The last Vernon report showed 10,600-plus had passed, through May 26.

As for salmon, well, thus far 14 have been counted in the river system, almost three times last year’s figure of five. Eight of those fish were counted passing Holyoke. The rest were tracked on the Salmon (1) and Farmington (1) rivers in Connecticut and the Westfield River (4) here in the Pioneer Valley. One salmon has been monitored passing Turners Falls, and two have been seen passing Vernon.

The only other number that sticks out on Tuesday morning’s report is the lamprey eel count, which stood at a paltry 14,793, less than half of last year’s average total of 36,914. Not that anyone fishing the river misses the orange-colored eels swimming between their waders, but there was a day when many more migrated up the river. The modern-era record is 97,000-plus in 1998. The 42-year mean is 33,540.

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.