First fish: the nose of the run © 2010, Karl Meyer

April 5, 2010, Connecticut River mouth

Head down to the mouth of the Connecticut River on an unusually sun-warmed April 5th, and you’ll find the coastal plain opening onto Long Island Sound shrouded in a cool, 50 degree fog on an Easter Sunday.  It’s a dozen degrees warmer just a mile inland.  Looking out across the small state access, restaurant lot, and private marina, you can make out Saybrook Light just off Fenwick Point—a place probably best known as the former haunt of Katherine Hepburn.  What I also see in my mind’s eye as I look across that sandy lip is the massive storm surge of September 1938, thundering, Katrina-like, directly up this river opening.  Some 800 people died.

But I am here to find fish, and to plot out a route to take upstream by bicycle early next month.  Still, the pull of history and landscape in this place is strong.  Here golf courses and manicured lawns spread right to the edge of Long Island Sound.  Old money.  But, I get a feeling if I looked a little harder, I might be able to find some of those bank bailout funds us earthly folk have been forced to fork over in the name of the inflated desires of others. I spend much of an hour scratching around the town’s historic representations of Fort Saybrook, 1635, and how the Pequot, Niantic, and Mohegan seem to eventually get ticketed with bringing about their own demise here.  It’s a recounting full of holes in logic and history, interesting nonetheless.

The other piece I see here is that the myth of a grand salmon run on the Connecticut River is amply represented, right from the first—at the very mouth of the river.  An historical story-board notes an anecdote stating the salmon on the Connecticut were so numerous at times that one could walk across the river’s mouth on their backs—if a person had snowshoes on.  Snowshoes?!  Who came up with this one?  The species base on this river in terms of sheer numbers and the ecological pyramid had been anchored by foot-long alewives and blueback herring, followed by waves and waves of nearly two-foot American shad, steaming up the shoally currents here—for millennia.  Salmon never accounted for more than one fish in ten thousand, and that tiny run died out in 1809.  But the hype begins at the very entrance to this river.  Is there any question why we are losing ground on migratory fish on the Great River here?

Still, it’s wonderful to be along this shore.  I put on my yellow windbreaker and cycle south along the shore road against a good headwind.  There are just a few places the public can actually access the shoreline.  I scoot along a broadened bit of salt marsh, and also down to a little public viewing spot.  Here a pair of osprey sits in vigil, resting at their nest on a wooden platform.  Surely they know there is a growing compliment of fish soon to blossom nearby.

I head the 5 – 6 miles into Westbrook, around salt marsh curves, and then along what is the old Post Road in places.  I pass a house over three centuries old, and another, scrappier looking place that’s nearly as antique–the Jacob Chalker House from 1735.  This, I’m thinking, was an old fishing shack at its inception, and perhaps a trading site.  I snap a few pictures, and then one more of a fish market, with its salmon advertised on the sign board.

I head back along the Post Road and down through the center of Old Saybrook.  Nearing my start point at the old fort site at Saybrook Point I pass a house built in 1671, before King Phillips War.  But that is not the war that decided things in this neighborhood.  The battle for this turf was settled decades earlier, when a significant proportion of the Pequot were massacred in their fort at Mystic, just northeast of here, in 1637.  Part of that siege was engineered from this very spot.  I spend some time poking around in the 17th century cemetery just up the road from the fort site.  Here, most stones are effaced by time.  Perhaps the most interest thing is the racket made by the nesting parrots—an introduced species here.  Their large, rounded nest with a bottom opening occupies an old red cedar.  They are both curious and annoyed with me.

I head out onto the public walk bordering the Sound and the river’s headlands.  It’s not particularly busy here, too early in the season.  However, I do find two salted fishermen with poles and tackle about to be put away.  One is well into retirement age.  I ask them about the fishing.  Nothing much today.  I ask about the shad.  “Not in yet.”  Soon, they think.  The younger one, in his fifties, says that maybe two years ago the shad came in all at once, and were just pushing up against the seawall in a big, waving froth.  Here, I’m thinking–is the remnant of those true fish of old, fantasized into salmon by those desirously in need of something more “sexy” than the waves of green-gold, two foot long shad that brought this spawning river to its peak year in, and year out.  No snowshoes needed.

These guys are chatty, full of stories.  The older fellow is “sure” they are already getting stripers up at Chicopee.  That’s a stretch for April 5th, I’m thinking.  He takes out his fishing license, showing me that you now need one for saltwater here too.  It’s a one-time fee for seniors, good for the rest of his days as long as he does the renewal paperwork.  I agree with them that it does seem a shame its come to this—a salt water fishing license, just to toss out a hook.

I jump in the car, head north a bit, having noted a sign for pedestrians and cyclists to use the I-95 Bridge over the river.   I find it, and even though I’m pooped, I can’t resist the idea.  It’s warmed inland, mid-sixties at least.  I find a place to stash the car, and the next thing I know I’m looking upstream and down, over Long Island Sound and the tidewater meadows of Lord Cove, with traffic roaring by at 70 mph.  I’m delighted to be able to cross here.  I shoot down into Old Lyme, and simply must explore further.  I make it into town after intersecting Rt. 1, and head upstream a bit through the old, outlaying sections.  Here is an art colony complex, but also hints of tributaries and fish runs.

I follow a promising ancient way, Sill Road, upstream, as it follows the Lieutenant River,  then stop at a tiny bridge crossing and change out of my sweaty shirt.  Suddenly, I look down into the sun-dappled waters and twenty herring shoot under the bridge, as if I’ve startled them.  It’s so quick, I can’t quite believe my eyes.  I look for more in the afternoon current, but don’t see any more fish.  I walk across the little road, not expecting anything, and a similar number of herring dash forward, out of the shadows and upstream.  They are here!  Here are the first fish, my first fish.  As far as identity goes, they are most likely alewives who generally head upstream first.  This is also the species reported in runs here.

I linger for a bit, imagining these fish having traveled a thousand miles or more in the ocean—at least to the Bay of Fundy and back.  Now, here.  A sweet moment to witness.  There is a sign at this site forbidding the capture of any herring.  I walk back over to my bike for the few miles back across the river to my car, tired, satisfied.  As I reach for my helmet, maybe a dozen alewives shoot forward, then aside and back into downstream shadows–having somehow seen my shadow or sensed a presence.  They’ve fallen back temporarily, but I quickly relinquish their upstream destination to the sunshine and this unusually warm, early April afternoon.

Heading home, I check for commercial seiners up toward the Goodspeed Opera House and bridge near Haddam.  The crusty fisher guys said a few still pursue shad up that way.  But, it’s too early in the season.  I snap a shot or two of the famous “shad shack” up along that stretch, and head home on back roads until I reach Middletown.

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