Atlantic salmon still returning to the Connecticut River


The Holyoke Fish Lift closed on June 22 for new passage construction activities.  Perhaps more Atlantic salmon and other fish returned to the river but are not included in the following figures.

As of June 23, some 20 adult Atlantic Salmon returned to the Connecticut River from the Atlantic Ocean.   This compares with previous years as follows:  31 in 2014, 89 in 2013, 57 in 2012, 111 in 2011, 51 in 2010 and 75 in 2009. This year, 3 returned to the Farmington River in Connecticut, 3 to the Westfield River in MA and 13 reached the Holyoke Dam.  Of those reaching Holyoke and released upstream, 3 of them reached Gatehouse Dam and were released and 2 reached Vernon and were released.


One salmon passed the Moulson Pond Fishway on the Eightmile River in Connecticut.  That fishway is situated downstream of Rathburn Dam in the town of Lyme, CT.   It is the first and most significant barrier to migrating fish in the Eightmile River Watershed.  The mouth of the Eightmile River is eight miles upstream of Long Island Sound on the Connecticut River.


As you may be aware, the Connecticut River Salmon Restoration program has ended.  One reason was that the salmon returns were not what the US Fish & Wildlife Service had hoped for.  Both the USF&W and wildlife agencies of MA, VT and NH will no longer support it.   The last stocking of salmon fry into our feeder streams in Massachusetts took place in the spring of 2013.  They remained in our streams until this year and begin making their migration as smolts to Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean.  After a couple of years, with luck, they will return to their home streams to spawn.  That means the last Connecticut River spawning run into Massachusetts will probably take place in 2017.


Adult returning sea-run Atlantic salmon are being tagged and released at all fishway/trap facilities.  If a tagged salmon is caught while fishing, you must release it immediately unharmed. You are asked to not remove the fish’s tag and to call 413-548-9138 ext. 121, (indicated on the yellow streamer tag).


In Connecticut, they are still maintaining their fry stocking program on their own but at a greatly reduced level.  The CT Dept of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP) officials feel that maintaining the salmon rearing program in their schools is an important educational program.  Amen to that.


Other 2015 returns to the Connecticut River this year include the following:  416,346 American Shad (vs. 375,132 last year) 10,334 adult American Eel (vs. 42 last year) 106 Blueback Herring (vs. 679), 106 Gizzard Shad (vs. 403), 27,535 Sea Lamprey (vs. 24,052), 1 Shortnose Sturgeon (vs. 3) and 21 Striped Bass (vs. 68). This year the American eel counts at Holyoke are primarily a result of numerous eel ramps/traps.


Some 3,375 American Shad (vs. 4,789), 216 Sea Lamprey (vs. 1,127), 49 American Eel (vs.38) and 1 Blueback Herring (vs. 4) returned to our Westfield River. *****


This year while fly fishing a remote stretch of the East Branch of the Westfield River in Chesterfield, MA, I caught and released one of the most memorable fish of my life.  No, it wasn’t a behemoth, in fact it was only about 7 inches long.  It was an Atlantic salmon smolt and it was on its journey downstream to the Connecticut River and the sea.  So what’s the significance?  Well, I am quite sure that I will never catch another Atlantic salmon out of the Westfield River again.


You see, that fish was from the last (2013) salmon fry stocking conducted by MassWildlife and its volunteers.   It spent the last two years growing up in a Westfield River tributary eluding predators such as larger fish, mammals and herons as well as low summer water conditions.  The odds were against it making it this far.


Even if that fish was to survive the near impossible odds of returning to its natal Westfield River after spending a couple of years in the open sea, it would only get as far as the first dam it encountered in the Westfield.  There it would be captured and released upstream of the dams and prohibited from being caught by fishermen.   It would not be brought to a hatchery to be spawned out for the following year’s fry because of the ending of the Connecticut River salmon restoration program.


Because of the program’s ending, that little fish had a lot of significance and I spent the remainder of that fishing trip thinking about it.   It brought back memories of years of effort by the USFWS trying to get the salmon fry, whose parents had previously returned to rivers in Maine, conditioned to return to the Connecticut River.  Helping Division of Fisheries and Wildlife stock those one inch small fry was part of my spring ritual for nearly 30 years and the memories of trudging along the little feeder streams with hip boots and plastic pails along with my wife Jan and others came to mind as I released that fish.   And memories of kids from the schools who raised them from eggs, named some of them and released them into tributaries sending them on their long journey with songs.


The cost to maintain the salmon restoration program was but a drop in the bucket as compared with some useless programs that our government is financing.  There are other ways to measure the program’s success besides dollars and returning numbers such as the educational value to the thousands of students who participated in it over the years.


That little salmon that I caught and released represented the end of an era and there will be no more salmon in Massachusetts waters. It was a final good bye. I’m glad I was fishing alone.

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