Sunday, March 23, 2014


When I was growing up in Connecticut, alewives running up the Mianus River were a sign of spring.

We didn’t call them “alewives” back then; they were “herring” or, in the vernacular of the city folks who came down to net them each weekend, “bony herring”, and as I grew old enough to descend to the river and fish for them myself, I called them “bony herring”, too.

Later on in the spring, it’s possible that the alewives thinned out and blueback herring took their place; we never thought that there were two kinds of herring in the river, so we never tried to tell them apart.  The folks who lump them together as “river herring” today know better, but “lumping” is just such an easy thing to do…

The first waves entered the Mianus sometime in late March or early April; by Easter, they’d always be in.  They’d arrive from Long Island Sound—and from the ocean beyond--and collide with the Mianus Dam, which pretty much halted their journey upriver.  Yet some of the fish somehow found a way up, because I’ve seen largemouth bass chasing young-of-the-year herring in the pond above the dam.

The folks who study such things say that river herring can’t really jump, and that’s why dams have caused such harm to the stocks; the fish just have nowhere to spawn.  That’s probably true, and the little alewives (or perhaps they were bluebacks) that I saw in the pond might have been spawned by the few buckets of fish that folks usually dumped up there each spring, just because it seemed like the right thing to do.

But I know that after a rain, there was a spate of water that poured past the corners of the dam, creating a small waterfall in the seam where concrete merged with the bedrock of the Earth.  And I know that when the tide was high, if you watched that white water closely enough, you would see flashes of silver and sometimes whole fish streaking upward into the torrent.  Might herring jump better than folks think that they can?  Or did they just have such energy and determination that they swam up the near-vertical flow, perhaps finding miniscule resting spots amidst the jagged rock, which allowed them just enough respite to flex their body into the final spurt of motion that allowed them to gain the spawning grounds above?

I don’t know.

I also don’t know how many herring came into the river back then, nor how many were taken out, by the pail and the bushel and anything else that could hold a fish, but there were certainly a lot of them.

Early in the season, when the water was cold, most of the fish held in the deeper water south of the Route 1 bridge.  Beginning when I was in fourth or fifth grade, I’d go down with my friends and snag the fish with treble hooks that I’d cast out and let sink to the bottom, then jerked back ‘til a fish was impaled.  Yes, that was legal back then, and so was selling the fish to the folks who waited, usually in vain, for the alewives to move up to the dam.  At that time of year, you could get a quarter apiece for the herring, and that was good money to a 10-year-old back in ’65.

That was my sole venture into the commercial fishing business and, yes, back then, selling fish felt good.
But once the water warmed and the fish came all the way to the dam, prices dropped to $5 per bushel and the market was dominated by the high school kids with dipnets who waded out as far as they could and caught herring by the hundreds.

It’s been a while, but I still remember the frenetic April weekends clearly.

Cars would fill the parking lot.  Remember that this happened in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when big Detroit iron ruled the roads, so we’re talking about full-sized Buicks and Cadillacs, old—probably bought used—but repainted, sometimes in what we’d think of as garish colors today, and well-maintained by their owners.

During the early ‘60s, there were few enough cars on the road that New York license plates carried a prefix that revealed where each owner lived—“BX” for The Bronx, “QU” for Queens, etc.—so we knew where the fishermen were from.  They came out to the Mianus not only for fish, which they pickled, but to find some time away from the concrete where they could enjoy a kind of country picnic. 

That was particularly true on Sundays, when folks came to the river right after church.  Men would still be dressed in wool suits and leather shoes, white shirts and dark ties, while the women descended the riverbank in flowing, pastel-colored spring dresses that somehow never seemed to attract a single blotch of mud.

The women often cooked over small bonfires lit on the eastern bank—back then, the government didn’t regulate and prohibit the small things the way that they do today, so no one said anything about the fires, and even when one got out of control and lit up the adjacent brush.  The bank was bordered by water on one side and either concrete or stone on the other three, so nothing got out of hand; if the spring was dry and the fire got a little too big, volunteer firemen showed up and put things right in a few minutes.

While the women cooked, the men fished. 

Just getting to the water—at least on the west bank, where the fishing was best—was a challenge, for the dam, an adjacent pumphouse and the ground around it was owned by the railroad, which pumped fresh water from the pond to a power plant about a mile farther downstream.  The railroad prohibited trespassing but, again, in those days, the police generally ignored the incursion unless somebody complained.   Fishermen—kids and visitors alike—just either climbed over or went under the fence, or just bent the bars and went through it.

Then, everyone jostled for position.  If the tide was high, the fish stayed in deep water, and there weren’t many places where someone could reach “fishy” water.  Netters crowded onto a concrete platform right up against the dam, and the best spot of all was a red tile pipe that carried overflow from the pumphouse.  It stuck out about a foot the wall that held up the platform, and was about two feet below ground level.  So if you really wanted to catch herring, you’d have to be the first guy out to the platform, then ease yourself onto the pipe to reach the most fish.

At least, you’d do that until you fell off, because the pipe was slippery, and the leather-soled shoes that the city fishermen wore weren’t really good for holding on.  The fact that, back in the ‘60s, folks were a little more tolerant of someone having a beer or taking a little nip of whiskey on a Sunday afternoon added to the netters’ instability, so it usually wasn’t long until there’s be a splash and a splutter, and some fisherman—suit, tie and all—would be drifting down the muddy Mianus.

But there was a gravel bar just a few yards downstream, and they all washed up there, so no one ever drowned.

On the other hand, by the time the soggy herring hunter could climb back onto the platform, someone would have stolen his spot on top of the pipe.  Until he fell off, too.

A lot of the folks realized that it was better to stay dry and enjoy the sunshine, rather than ending up wet in the river, and they hired the high school kids to catch the herring for them.  The kids grew up on the river, so they owned waders, and could walk out to where the fish were without taking an unintended bath.  As a result, they could fill up a bushel basket in minutes.

The people on shore quickly discovered that there were more fish available than there were baskets to hold them.  The problems was usually solved by just pouring the fish right into the trunks of the waiting Cadillacs, where they could be bailed out of the back at the owner’s leisure once he returned home.

I’m sure that a few slipped into crevices where they weren’t located right away…

When the tide went out, the herring still came in, although in lesser numbers.  There’s a seven-foot tide on the Connecticut shore, so when the water retreated, all that was left of the river were runnels as shallow as high mountain brooks, that wended over the gravel and between the bigger stones.  Yet the herring came on, flowing silver as mercury in an old-time thermometer, often turning onto their sides to navigate the shallow stretches and reach the deep at the base of the dam.

At that point, the water was actually too shallow to net fish, unless you waded right up to the dam itself.  There was a lobsterman who everyone called “Sarge”—not an unusually nickname given that World War II wasn’t twenty years past—who used to come down at low water to catch herring for bait.  He also owned a black Labrador retriever who was an old hand at handling fish.

So while the lobsterman waded out to catch the fish at the base of the dam, his Lab would race into the shallows, pick up one herring at a time, then run back to drop them on the bank.  Every now and then, as fish flopped back toward the river, the Lab would break the routine to catch one of the wayward herring and drop it higher on the bank.  (That dog also liked to eat live lobster, and had learned over the years how to avoid their claws by coming up from behind and crushing the lobster’s carapace with one hard and sudden bite.  It’s not clear how the Lab learned to do that, how painful the learning might have been, or how the lobstermen felt about his companion eating a share of his profits.)

An entire colorful, if very local, seasonal culture built up around the “bony herring” run, but it died when the fish went away.

The herring never disappeared entirely; the run declined to about 5,000 fish—probably less than the folks used to net in a single weekend.  Maybe the run had been suffering for a long time, and finally reached some tipping point.  Maybe, like many similar runs, it was depleted offshore, by the small-mesh trawls that targeted Atlantic herring (a fairly distant relative that never enters fresh water), mackerel and squid.

Whatever the problem was, people could see it coming for a long time before they did anything about it.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission engaged in extensive studies to determine the health of the various runs and to figure out why runs were declining, but it took a very long time before ASMFC actually did anything to reduce the kill.  A few states, including Connecticut, didn’t wait for ASMFC to take action, and preemptively shut down their river herring fisheries.  In 2009, ASMFC finally caught up, giving states the choice:  Draft a management plan that creates a sustainable river herring fishery by 2012, or close the fishery altogether. 

Maine, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina and South Carolina produced such plans, although some are very limited in scope.  New York’s plan, for example, only permits river herring harvest in the Hudson River and a portion of its tributaries, and that harvest is, rightfully, extremely limited.

In the ocean, federal management is lagging. 

In 2012, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council did adopt a cap on river herring caught as bycatch in the mackerel fishery, but the cap is fairly large, and may not be restrictive enough to help stocks rebuild.  An effort to implement more comprehensive measures, which would have led to more effective management in federal waters, failed in a close vote last October, and was replaced by an industry “working group” that may or may not ever take meaningful action.  The New England Fishery Management Council is also making some efforts to limit the number of river herring incidentally killed in the Atlantic herring fishery, but once again, the efforts are modest and may not be enough.

On the other hand, local efforts are starting to bear some fruit.  Dams are being removed, giving herring access to spawning waters that they haven’t been able to reach, in some cases, for well over a century.  In many places where dams aren’t removed, fish ladders have been built to allow at least some fish to get upriver and spawn.

One of those fish ladders was built on the Mianus some years ago.  My childhood river, which almost lost its herring run, now hosts the largest run in the state of Connecticut.  It has rebuilt from a low of 5,000 fish to a current run of about 100,000, which I suspect is still smaller than it was when I waded the river’s waters, but it’s still far better than it was not very long ago.

Another fish ladder has been built on the Carlls River, in the village of Babylon, New York.

The Carlls River’s herring were deprived of their spawning grounds many decades ago, when a dam created Argyle Lake.  But a fish ladder was built there last spring, and with childhood memories and a haunting knowledge of what had been lost up in Connecticut, I volunteered to monitor the run this spring.

I didn’t expect to see anything, given the age of the dam.  When I stood watch on the river for the first time, my low expectations were fully justified.  The water was dead.
Five days later, on my way home from work, I stopped by the river again.  I went through my routine, checking the water temperature, scanning the surface for signs of life and then settling in with the sun at my back to watch.

And then I realized something that, somehow, I hadn’t noticed before.  Lying next to the fish ladder, on a gravel flat exposed by the dropping tide, was an alewife. 

It might sound strange to folks who don’t spend their spare time helping to keep fisheries alive, but when I saw that alewife on the gravel I felt an emotional jolt as strong as the one I get when I hook up with a big fish offshore.

On the other hand, if you do this sort of work, I don’t need to explain.  You already understand.

Maybe that fish was the only herring in the river, a loner that somehow wandered up the Carlls instead of some other creek.  But I don’t think so.

Herring normally travel in schools, and I suspect that it was part of a small group that was ascending the ladder as the tide fell away, and that it was either bumped or became confused and darted over the edge.

I hope that is true.

Because if it is, then there is hope that both our rivers and their hordes of river herring can again shiver with silver life every spring.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such a thing, and I miss it.

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