One of the great things about having a birthday in early May is getting the chance to take the day off and go enjoy some spring fishing. I had planned a day in my kayak with a fishing pole this year but much to my chagrin the weather didn’t want to be cooperative. With a steady 10-15mph wind gusting to up to 25mph I thought the better of it. Rain is something I’m not averse to braving but wind, especially wind on water, is something else. I’ll admit a grumpy demeanor on my birthday wakeup. I mean things have really been piling up as of late so it was too easy to feel soured and defeated. Thankfully my girlfriend suggested the plan B that I couldn’t see. “Why don’t you go fiddleheading?” Yeah sure, I could do that, wind be damned the day was still beautiful, a perfect day to go in search of the delectable fiddlehead of the ostrich fern! Little did I know the surprise that lay ahead for me would trump the search for these tasty green shoots.
I chose this spot not only because I thought it might be productive for fiddleheading but also because it’s a beautiful spot that I love to come to both for fishing and just for sight seeing.
This is the third spring I’ve had back home in Augusta along the Kennebec River. Truth be told I haven’t foraged fiddleheads anywhere around home since returning. All the pickings I’d ever done were done in the Farmington vicinity along the banks of the Sandy River. I’d have to find a new spot based on the ol’ educated guess. I set my compass north along the banks of the Kennebec to the small town of Vassalboro where Seven-mile stream empties into the Kennebec. I chose this spot not only because I thought it might be productive for fiddleheading but also because it’s a beautiful spot that I love to come to both for fishing and just for sight seeing.
To access this spot follow Riverside Drive (US RT 201) north out of Augusta. Shortly after entering Vassalboro find the Cushnoc Road on your left and take it. Follow for a little over a mile until you find the Mill Hill Road on your left and take it. Mill Hill Road dead ends less than a mile from its beginning but before reaching the roads end you’ll find a road to your left that passes through a series of small sand pits continue to follow this dirt road to the right of the pits until you reach its end. Here you will find a small spot for parking. Finish walking up the road to the old railroad tracks and follow the tracks to the right. Where you’ll find a trestle spanning high above seven-mile stream. From here it’s a tricky descent down to the mouth of the stream. I’ll let the reader figure that part on your own.
From high above the stream seemed to be absolutely teeming with fish. It couldn’t be! I’d never seen anything like this before. I had to adjust my glasses. Was I seeing things?
At my destination I grabbed a few plastic grocery bags and headed towards the embankment near the railroad trestle where I’d get my best view on navigation down to the fiddleheads. Careful here; State law prohibits walking on railroad tracks or standing on a railroad bridge. The wind was blowing hard so it was kind of scary standing on the embankment near the trestle high above the stream. The fear became an afterthought once I looked down far below to the stream. Something was happening down there. From high above the stream seemed to be absolutely teeming with fish. It couldn’t be! I’d never seen anything like this before. I had to adjust my glasses. Was I seeing things? This stream was engorged! Then it dawned on me. This is the spring alewife spawning run! I had to get closer. This was going to be too fun!
Alewives are a sea-run type of herring. Like other anadromous fish species (most notably salmon) Alewives spend most of their lives at sea. After a few years at sea adult alewives swim inland up the rivers and streams to lakes and ponds to spawn during the months of May and June. Though these fish have a long history in Maine as a seasonal food source that was utilized by both native inhabitants and early settlers their current abundance in these waters is relatively new and has been aided by organizational efforts and initiatives designed to protect and develop the stock of anadromous fish that make the waters of Maine their home. If you’ve followed RiverDevin from its inception you’ve heard me speak of our mighty striped bass, and our massive sturgeon. And you’ve heard me speak of how the Kennebec was once just a stinky dammed up cesspool of death. Once upon a time there were huge runs of Atlantic salmon on the Kennebec too. Seeing these alewives teeming through the mouth of Seven-mile stream really brings it all home to you in terms of what happens when the dams come out and the pollution stops. And I know it doesn’t stop there. Great efforts have been undertaken all around by several entities and organizations that want to see these fish return to their native spawning grounds. It wasn’t just big dams like the Edwards Dam in Augusta but little dams have also been removed and proper fish passageways have been built where most feasible.
Restoring runs of these fish isn’t just healthy for the species but it’s healthy for the whole ecosystem. As these fish travel upstream they provide an abundant food source for nesting bald eagles, osprey, and others. I think one of the coolest benefits to having these fish swim back to their native spawning ponds and lakes is that their presence in these waters has a cleansing effect as they help diminish the phosphorous levels in these waters, which cause algae blooms. Once juvenile alewives are grown enough make their first journey to sea they take much of the lake’s phosphorous with them. That’s some cool stuff right there!
Once I’d shimmied down the embankment to the shore the alewives popped into much closer view. This whole area was absolutely alive with electricity. I spied a few hefty smallmouth bass lurking under a wooden berm just below me eyeing the schools of alewives swimming by. Had I wanted to—and if liscensed properly by the Department of Marine rescources—I could have procured a feasts worth of these fish. However, I have heard that though they’re tasty, these fish are incredibly bony. I didn’t want any part of that! Most historical preparations were accomplished by smoking these fish. Nowadays they’re mostly forgotten as a food source, though lobstermen use them as bait for their traps.
Efforts to return the native runs of anadromous fish to these waters haven’t always been met with acceptance. In fact, there are current fights happening right now in Maine over many of these programs.
Eventually I left the stream and poked along the riverbank for fiddleheads. I found enough to make a meal or two but didn’t keep at it because I was drawn to the river bank now. The same alewives that were pouring themselves into Seven-mile stream and up to Webber Pond were swimming right along the shore of the river. These fish could literally smell the outflow of Webber Pond into the Kennebec and knew that this was the place they were born. They were all heading home.
Efforts to return the native runs of anadromous fish to these waters haven’t always been met with acceptance. In fact, there are current fights happening right now in Maine over many of these programs. New laws on the books are requiring dam owners on bodies of water like Sheepscot Pond to open fishways during the alewives spawning run but landowners and residents of the pond are fighting these measures. Returning the pond back to its natural state would mean changing it from its current state. Even where change can be a positive I think it’s the common tendency in some people to resist change that brings these sorts of fights. In Farmington the Atlantic Salmon Federation sees Sandy River tributary Temple Stream as critical habitat for returning Atlantic salmon. The only problem is the old dam that spans the stream and prevents fish passage. The federation would like to see the dam removed and will pay to do so. Otherwise a fish ladder will need to be reconstructed and the non-operational dam will need to be reinforced all of which will be paid for by the town’s taxpayers. What will be done will come to a vote by the town in November. It should seem like a no-brainer but you’d be amazed at how many people are howling about the prospect of removing that useless dam. They talk of a stinking depression of muddy swamp left over where the mill pond once sat, they fret the loss of beaver and duck in the mill pond, or of losing a pretty spot to sit dam side near the shaded stream in the summer. Hemming and hawing about how a beautiful place is going to be ruined. Ruined? Change is not ruin! Change back to nature, back to the natural state. How could that be ruin? I have seen how quick a local ecosystem is transformed back to life and beauty once a dam is removed. Many of the concerns of the naysayers are pure hysterical hogwash from people who just don’t know. It’s hard to watch towns fight about these things. I think if more people were educated about all of this it wouldn’t have to be such a fight. I mean it’s not a dream to believe we can get the salmon back up into waters like Temple Stream. But that’s what some people call it—a pipe dream.
Imagine the stinking Kennebec River in its stretch from the Shamut Dam in Benton downstream to the Edwards Dam in Augusta circa 1975. Back then it might’ve been easier to believe a once great historical salmon run could not be restored. No alewives were making it to Seven mile stream back then. I really believe that any notion of what this section of river is like today would have then been perceived as a pipe-dream. The alewives are back and they are back in abundance, here and all over this state. Now it’s time to seize the day on the salmon. When these little buggers grow and finally leave their spawning waters they do so while the alewives are moving upstream. Yes the baby salmon are helped by these huge schools of alewives returning because swimming under these large schools of fish they avoid detection from birds of prey and increase their chance of survival to the sea. It all works in one big symbiotic circle. The evidence is stacking up. We are restoring these fish species slowly but surely. This is no pipe-dream.
In actuality I’m starting to see this as some other sort of dream. I recently learned of efforts to do work on Togus Stream bringing the Atlantic salmon back there as well. This is pretty much back yard for me. I’ve been starting to think that there might be a place for me in all of this work rather than just thinking and writing about it here in RiverDevin. With as happy as this whole restoration makes me and as much as it completely engages and interests me I totally think I’ve got a part to play in all of this. I’m going to start looking into this stuff and see where it takes me.