May 2015

Monthly Archive

The Great Eddy at Bellows Falls

Posted by on 27 May 2015 | Tagged as: American shad, Bellows Falls, Bellows Falls Fishway, Cabot Station, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Dead Reach, GDF-Suez FirstLight, migratory delay, New Hampshire, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, power canal studies, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shad, shad fishing, Station 1, The Great Eddy, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS, Vermont, Walpole

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May, 27, 2015. I happened to be at Bellows Falls High School yesterday, and I took a walk into town and over to the Connecticut River at the now-closed Vilas Bridge. Just downstream of here and pictured above is a place formerly known as the Great Eddy. Here, prior to the completion of the Turners Falls Dam in 1798–the first dam to span the entire Connecticut, historic accounts recall 1,200 shad being pulled from the river at a single haul of the net. This picture was taken a few years ago, my batteries proved exhausted as I stood looking downstream yesterday.

There were two young guys far below, fishing in the shadow of the bridge, just downstream of the Bellows Falls Dam. When I hollered down they said yes, the fishing was good, “A rainbow and some bass.” Thus, today, it is rare for a single shad to reach Bellows Falls, the upstream limit of their historic reach. It is harder still to imagine that this place was once a key part of an ecosystem connected to the OCEAN.

I got a note from John Howard, GDF-Suez FirstLight’s Director of Hydro Compliance on Monday. He assured me that those scores of American shad stalled by false attraction flows roaring down from Station 1 had been worked out and agreed to by the USFWS as part of a flexible test flow grid due to an absence of rain. He’d neglected to forward the new test flow schedule to the Fish and Aquatics Studies Team. I imagine those shad burning up their energies would’ve liked to have had a heads-up as well. Their destination–as is the professed destination of the Connecticut River anadromous fisheries restoration these last 48 years, has been to REACH Bellows Falls, VT, and Walpole, NH.

Head gate flow at the TF Dam today, Wednesday, was again lamb-gentle. Of all the years I’ve witnessed flows pouring out of those head gates in the midst of fish passage season, this is the quietest I’ve ever seen them. Canal head gate flow and power generation from the canal at Station 1 and Cabot Station will all need to be looked at carefully in these studies to tease out any biases. (Click to enlarge photo).P1000457

Meanwhile, there were still shad being taken at The Rock Dam Pool this afternoon. I was headed down the path about 3:30 pm and a guy was walking out with a pole and his two energetic labs. He cautioned the wet dogs to give me a wide birth and I asked how it had been. “Not bad,” he said, “Better this morning.” I took a second look at the gentlemen and said, “Hi Jake, how are you?” “Doing OK, how about you?” Jake was part of the maintenance and grounds crew up at Northfield Mountain under Northeast Utilities when I was working at the Visitor Center some dozen years back.

“You still writing letters?” he asked. “I’m doing what I can.” “Good,” Jake replied, “Give it to ’em. Good luck!” Funny, but I bump into many folks who used to work there and there seems to be little sympathy for the company–or lingering loyalty.

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When I get down to the Rock Dam Pool three people are angling. The guy here has a shad on the line. Another guy, just a bit upstream toward the dam hooks one two or three minutes later. I head out, continuing downstream by bike. (Click to enlarge)
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Looking upstream from the deck of the General Pierce Bridge in Montague City, much of the riverbed is exposed due to the low flows. At top, far right, is the outfall and attraction flow at Cabot Station, which is likely to be attracting and capturing a good slug of the migrating fish–steering them out of the river to the ladder that will dump them into the power canal. (Click to enlarge)

On “false attraction” at Turners Falls

Posted by on 24 May 2015 | Tagged as: American shad, canal shad, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, False attraction, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, FERC licensing process, FirstLight, Fish passage results, Holyoke Fish Lift, New Hampshire, Relicensing, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shad, shad fishing, Station 1, Test flows, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, Vermont

On “false attraction” at Turners Falls

No, this is not about sex—well OK, maybe a little. But it’s different than how you might see someone 200 yards up the trail and think, “Wow, looking good!”—only to discover on a closer pass that they are a different sex than the one that drives you, or they are decades older or younger than the person you were expecting to see. This is about spawning though—about squashing the spawning efforts of migratory fish.

False Attraction Flow is a phenomenon where migratory fish follow flows upstream that lead them to impassable barriers. These flows are created by flood and head gate releases at dam and canal sites, and they keep wild fish expending precious energy that would otherwise be used to swim to upstream river reaches to spawn.

5/24/2015 Today, FERC Relicensing Study test flow releases to the riverbed at Turners Falls Dam are set at 2,500 cubic feet per second. The weather is clear, warm.
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At 1p.m. I visit the ancient Rock Dam site on the Connecticut, where three people are fishing—a woman and two young men. The woman has just landed a shad. She has not been here long.

One young guy is just upstream. He says he’s been getting some hits, but nothing landed. He notes that he’s also a recent arrival.

I clamber up the cliff that looks down on the Rock Dam Pool. Shad are looping by in a constant stream, visible just to the outer edge of the bubbly rip. The light is so good I can see them almost straight down beneath me, as they are only five feet out from the cliff face at times. What is also apparent is that some turn back after making the approach to the whitewater that would take them through notches they must best to pass this natural falls. I see many turn in the current–cutting back against the school, then milling for a bit in the current.
(Below, is the flow downstream, away from Rock Dam–two people with fish poles are in kayaks)
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All the while, the stream of shad beneath me trying to find a way upstream is constant. Always a run of more fish—ten, twenty–hard to get a count as they spurt along. The spectacle is reminiscent of the old medieval representation of the ocean’s fish in constant circulation around the globe. Here, they simply keep appearing in an endless line. There is no telling if the 2,500 cfs is just too low for them to risk the rough, rocky edges of the Rock Dam’s clefts to move ahead. They get lost from view in the bubbly current. What it appears like, overall, is that these fish are stuck—streaming in, agitated to move upstream, but not finding a clear path forward at this flow.

I toss a question over to the furthest guy upstream near the headwaters over this basalt rock face. He says he’s seeing plenty of fish, but hasn’t brought in one yet.

On the way out I ask the woman if she’s going to cook up the good-sized shad she has laid out in the shallows. “Will you slow cook it?” I ask, “Or do you know how to dress them?” She is going to cook it up, but describes a method of cutting through center, just to get out some of those hundreds of delicate bones, and then toasting it up. “After it’s done, you can just get in there and get at the meat with a spoon.”

She asks me where my rod and reel are, and I tell her I’m really here to document flows—so that maybe someday we can all count on fish being here. I continue up the beach. “I’m hoping when I open this one there are some eggs in there,” she says, motioning over at her catch. She’d be delighted to fry up some roe. “Yea, that’s a pretty big fish,” I say, “I’m guessing it’s a female.” I bid her good luck for the day.

I get back on my bike and follow the Turners Falls Power Canal all the way upstream through The Patch section of Turners, and then down past Station 1–FirstLight’s small hydro generating site located on a dog-leg off the main canal. There’s a lone car down the paved drive that leads to the fishing access. When I scoot down to look over, the tailrace at Station 1 is charged with current. FirstLight is generating at this site, despite the test flow requirement that water only be released from the Turners Falls Dam at the 2,500 cfs level today. This will corrupt and skew fish passage study results.
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I walk down and meet the young guy fishing just off the edge of Station 1’s frothy spillway. James is from Greenfield, and “yup,” he fishes the site pretty regular. He’s just finished landing one. It’s unceremoniously laid out in the sandy silt. Smallish. “When there’s water here there are always fish,” he notes. I ask him if he wouldn’t mind my snapping a few photos and he’s fine with it, “You’re not in my way.” He points to the water, not a few feet out from where he is, “You see them all there?” I look, but don’t see much but shadowy, sun-dappled water. I stare a bit more, then start snapping pictures of the flows.
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When I come back down from near the tailrace I look again in the current. This time my angle to the sun is better. There are the shad. Dozens of them, stacked up in the current facing upstream into an endless, impassable sheet of water. “Now I see them,” I say, “Too bad they aren’t going anywhere.” “Yea,” James notes, “they are just stuck here.” I snap a photo of his dusty catch and wish him luck for the day.
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As I come up to the road from Station 1 there are two young boys, maybe eleven or twelve years old, walking along with poles and fishing tackle. They appear to be headed further on, to try their luck in the canal dog-leg. “Hey, what are you guys going after, shad?” “Anything!” they both say in concert. “If you head just down there,” I say, pointing, “There’s a guy just caught one. There’s dozens of fish waiting in the current—you can look right down and see them.” A quick glimmer passes between them, and they say thanks, heading down the driveway. “There’s a bit of poison ivy on the path. Watch for it.” I call, riding away.

I continue up to the Turners Falls Dam, where the flow is still at 2,500 cfs, the lowest test flow setting. There were not supposed to be any other intervening flows confounding these tests all the way downstream to the end of the power canal. The only time Station 1 is supposed to be operating during test flows is when dam releases ramp up to 6,300 cfs. The Fisheries and Aquatics Studies Team had worked out the schedule with FERC, and FirstLight agreed to it. This appears to be a clear violation of study protocols, and it throws into question fish passage results here.
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I cross the road on the Turners Falls Bridge, and peer over the side just downstream of the dam. A few people are fishing in the flow next to the Spillway Fish Ladder. I yell down to the closest angler. He’s fairly close to where Bascule Gate 1 is pouring down those 2,500 cfs. He doesn’t hear me over the rush of water. I yell again; he looks all around—then, on the third time, he looks up. I’m maybe 80 feet above him and we can’t really converse. “How is it?” yell, mimicking with the thumbs up/thumbs down gesture. At first he doesn’t pick it up, but when I do it again, he gives the thumbs down.

I’m not surprised. With all the false attraction flow at the Rock Dam Pool from the added water released by FirstLight at Station 1, there is little flow here in the broad reach of the Connecticut that would temp fish away from treading water at those sites into these thin upstream currents. The fish are basically being tricked; they are expending precious energy that could be used to get upstream to Vermont and New Hampshire just running down their batteries downstream. Imagine treading water on an aquatic, industrial treadmill that’s trying to lure them into a power canal. If you are a Vermont or New Hampshire angler, just understand that these swam their little fins off trying to spawn up on your stretch of river. The lure of false attraction just got the better of them.
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When I take a look at the head gates at the head of the Turners Falls Canal they appear all but quiet, save for the bubbling attraction currents that help lead fish into the Gatehouse Fishway —the place where the public will see them passing. The main and only place where these fish are getting a substantial upstream current that leads to this site is…yup!—2-1/2 miles downstream at the tail end of the power canal at Cabot Station. That’s likely where these fish are really being attracted–and tallied, as some that are actually radio-tagged for these studies are being registered. Humn! That would certainly skew study results toward fish “preferring” the canal…

There’s a long tradition among American shad themselves–and the fisheries biologists that have studied fish passage at Turners Falls over the decades. Study results sometimes show a remarkable uptick in fish passage at the Turners Falls Fishway on holiday weekends when the public is most likely to visit. The fish just seem to just know exactly when it’s Memorial Day Weekend. Even in those years when passage is poor for most of the month of May, those shad seem to just love to appear in the fishway windows at the holiday weekend. It’s uncanny how the fish know. Ironic, really. Not like they are being manipulated…

What would also be uncanny would be if FirstLight had their “most successful canal passage year” ever–right at the time when the studies that impact relicensing flows are taking place. Last year, when 370,000 shad were lifted past Holyoke Dam, just 39,914 made it out of the canal and upstream past Turners Falls Dam. Not a great number. In 2013, when 381,436 shad were passed upstream at Holyoke, just 35,124 made it out of the canal and upstream past Turners Falls. A slightly worse number.

For the last 15 years the canal route for migratory fish has been studied and “improved” for fish passage. Today’s numbers are still pretty much junk.

As a final testament to the lack of progress let’s go back almost a quarter century: in 1991 the Holyoke Fish Lift passed 520,000 American shad upstream. Of those, 54,656 shad managed to emerge, alive, upstream of the Turners Falls Canal and dam, to swim toward Vermont and New Hampshire spawning site.

Thus, a quarter-century later, migrating American shad here are still “partying like its 1991.” False attraction–and false solutions, are very closely related here at Turners Falls. Study results are compromised.

Vermont, New Hampshire, sorry but as an ecosystem, we are still broken up. Just know this: “It’s not you, it’s US!”

Bald eagles; canal shad and anglers up-close; fishy fishway windows

Posted by on 23 May 2015 | Tagged as: American shad, bald eagle, canal shad, Connecticut River, Connecticut River ecosystem, Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, Conte, CRASC, Dead Reach, Federal Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, fishway windows, National Marine Fisheries Service, New Hampshire, NMFS, Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, power canal studies, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shad, shad fishing, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Service’s Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab, USFWS, Vermont

May 23, 2015. Turners Falls, MA. The test flows at Turners Falls Dam are now tamped down to 2,500 cubic feet per second. Thus anglers had given up fishing the riverbed below the dam yesterday(Friday) morning. However, the head gates beside the dam were open, releasing water at a good clip to course down the Turners Falls Power Canal. With little flow moving fish upstream in the actual river, it is commonly accepted knowledge that this forces fish to default to where they will find stronger upstream current to attract them. In this case that means a place 2-1/2 miles back downstream in the Dead Reach–the terminus of the canal at Cabot Station, where the power company dumps the river back into… the river. Thus, the canal becomes the impoverished, default habitat for migratory fish, attracted via privately- controlled flows that can be manipulated by dam operators. Thus, on Friday, just down from those head gates was the place where a few anglers gathered to fish the canal–just down the paved path to the low bridge behind the Great Falls Discovery Center.
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These gents were fishing shad that are part of the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission’s 1967 fisheries restoration mandate to move migratory fish upstream into New Hampshire and Vermont–to create a source of “seafood” for the public. These American shad, in Latin Alosa sapidissima–or “most delicious herring” were going to be eaten.
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With the main attraction flow coming from the downstream end of the power canal, it was primarily company flow through that conduit that was affecting upstream fish movements. Friday morning that flow was facilitating good numbers of fish in the viewing windows at Turners Falls Dam. The public’s fish and river should never be left in the private control of a corporation. That situation has resulted in the Black Hole of fish passage all these decades: the fish never reach Vermont and New Hampshire, and no one knows their fate after all upstream migrants are forced to enter the Turners Falls Power Canal.
A mile and a half downstream, there were two other potential anglers–perched in a cottonwood above the partially-flowing Connecticut’s riverbed. At just 2,500 cfs, they may have been licking their lips over fish that were confused or slowed and turning back in the river due to the withering upstream current. Slowed or stalled fish make for good eagle forage.
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Another half mile on down the river fishermen at The Rock Dam Pool were also happy to try and take advantage of a slowed or confused migration at this ancient site. Looking down from the rock ledge at the head of the pool, shad could be seen streaming through the water just 10 feet out. They moved by in tens and fives and dozens, but there was no way to discover whether they were milling through the edges of that frothy pool and simply returning to be seen again in an endless circling, or whether they were trying to shoot through one of the upstream notches in flows that were diminished by reductions at the dam.P1000433P1000432
Lastly, on “Migratory” Way, just down the canal past the USGS Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center, a crew of Conte fisheries people were inside FirstLight’s gates at the Cabot Hydro Station on the canal. USGS and the power company owners of the canal have been very close friends for decades now. Lab staff have worked for years on endless canal studies subsidized by Northeast Utilities, then NGS, and–of late, GDF-Suez FirstLight. Funny, though USGS holds the only National Marine Fisheries Service permit to study federally endangered shortnose sturgeon right here on the Connecticut, no study or tagging of sturgeon was done at all this year at their only documented natural spawning site–the Rock Dam Pool, just yards away from Conte Lab. And this, in a critical year of FEDERAL RE-LICENSING STUDIES.
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The folks in this picture are likely doing studies on migrating American eels. Power companies tend not to mind this type of work–as eels are difficult to study, they don’t spawn in the Connecticut River and thus are not an angler concern, and putting in “eelways”–which are wonderfully inexpensive, is a dirt cheap way to look “environmental” in the marketplace. Just as USGS Conte staff did endless canal studies with corporate study cash for decades on the TF Canal, they may be embarking on yet another cozy partnership, where years of data collection can be corporately subsidized, while true flows and fish passage upstream in the broken Connecticut River ecosystem through the Dead Reach here–and north past the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station, gets ignored.
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The Turners Falls Power Canal’s emergency spillway chute and a portion of its failed fishway are pictured here, with a bit of Cabot Power Station in the background.

On Monday the Holyoke Fishway passed 21,198 shad; the Turners Falls season total as of 5/17 was just 22,499 shad

Posted by on 21 May 2015 | Tagged as: American shad, FirstLight, Holyoke Fish Lift, New Hampshire, sea lamprey, TransCanad, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Fish & Wildlife Service, Vermont

May 21, 2015: The Holyoke Fishway lifted 7,360 American shad on Tuesday and 21,198 shad Monday according to today’s update fro the Connecticut River Coordinator’s office. Fish passage reports from FirstLight’s Turners Falls fishways are always days behind–due to having no real-time fish counters there reporting. Howsoever, as of their last report from Sunday, May 17th, the season’s total number of shad passing upstream there toward VT and NH spawning grounds was 22,499. That’s a decent DAY’S count at the Holyoke Fish Lift.

Holyoke has also passed 10,849 sea lamprey this season, while 794 have been reported at Turners Falls. This morning test flows from the Turners Falls Dam had been reduced to 2,500 cfs. At 7:30 am head gate flows into the Turners Falls Power Canal were generally quiet as well, with a nearly mirror-like surface and shuffle-along flow visible 100 feet downstream. At 3:30 pm, head gate flows were perhaps a tad more vigorous, but so mild that there we no bubble in the current whatsoever 60 feet from the gates. With more timely fish passage reports it might be possible to tease out how some of these settings are impacting upstream fish passage success.
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The photo above is of an American shad in the bubble-filled window of the Vernon Fishway on Sunday, May 17th. TransCanada has yet to submit fish passage reports to the USFWS website this season.

Head gate flows coursing once more; new TF flows could help rejuvenate amazing herring runs

Posted by on 21 May 2015 | Tagged as: Uncategorized

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May 21, 2015. Head gate flows into the power canal at Turners Falls Dam at 3 pm on Wednesday, May 20th, were coursing downstream at a pace people are more accustomed to seeing during fish passage time. The canal was churning with whitewater–bubbly froth was strewn out going downstream to points far beyond that industrial conduit’s first long, wide bend. So, things were back to a more “normal” configuration for wild migratory fish forced into that 2-1/2 mile long trench outfitted with slicing hydro turbines. Those migrants need all the prayers you can send them—especially if you are a hopeful angler up in Millers Falls or Northfield, or Brattleboro, VT or Walpole, NH.

By tomorrow, Friday, May 22nd, test flows from the dam will again be reduced from the current 4,400 cfs to 2,500 cfs through Sunday. All these changes, from canal head gate settings, to spill over the dam, have profound impacts on fish trying to make it past Turners Falls.

Thirty-six miles downstream in the spring of 1955 a small miracle occurred. A simple fish elevator—essentially a giant bucket, was installed at the Holyoke Dam. Spill being released from the dam attracted fish directly into that clunky apparatus. By season’s end the first 5,000 American shad to pass Holyoke Dam since 1849 had been lifted upstream. With further improvements there in the mid-1970s, shad numbers skyrocketed to 720,000 in the early 1990s.
Sadly, when all those fish continued upstream to Turners Falls, they found their path ahead blocked once more. The upstream runs foundered there.

At Turners Falls today fish passage is still in much the same state as it was at Holyoke in the 1950s–before they installed that simple apparatus bringing fish directly upstream in the river and giving them a simple lift over the barrier.

Few fish make it upstream past the Turners Falls Dam today. The difference amounts to this: 2-1/2 miles of river that has gone without guaranteed flow for decades; and an industrial canal masquerading as a suitable habitat in which to send wild, migrating fish.

One other miracle began taking shape downstream at Holyoke after that 1955 lift was constructed. Blueback herring, one of the base forage and staple fish in the Connecticut River ecosystem, had a new route upstream to their old tributaries and spawning habitats. By the 1980s they were annually streaming past Holyoke by the hundreds of thousands. Fisheries studies at Turners Falls Dam at that time note that bluebacks were spawning in the mouth of the tiny Falls River–which enters the Connecticut just a few hundred yards downstream of TF Dam.
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Ken Sprankle, the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s Connecticut River Coordinator has been working to again restore blueback herring to upstream habitats for the last 5 years. Blueback numbers have crashed since the late-1990s. Test flows released at Turners Falls Dam this spring have re-nourished the depth and flow regime at the mouth of the Falls River, and—at least at higher flows, you can see where this is a perfect spawning site for migrating bluebacks. Hopefully, with continued work and renewed flows into the Dead Reach here at Turners Falls, blueback herring—which formally migrated upstream to southern Vermont and New Hampshire, can again spawn at the rejuvenated outfall of the Falls River.

20,000 American shad lifted at Holyoke on Monday, flows reduced at TF

Posted by on 19 May 2015 | Tagged as: Uncategorized

May 19, 2015. This is the anniversary of the massacre at Peskeomscut–known today as Turners Falls, in the second year of King Philips War, 1676. Native Americans had gathered at encampments above the falls for safety and to sustain themselves on the season’s bounty of migratory fish. Women, children and the elderly were sheltered in wigwams at Riverside in Gill, and across the river in what is today’s Unity Park in Turners Falls. They were attacked as they slept. The counter attack by Native American fighters was launched from downstream–on the mid-channel island adjacent to The Rock Dam Pool, where their able-bodied men were harvesting migrating fish to feed their people.

This spring’s spawning run continued strong at Holyoke Monday, with some 20,000 shad lifted there. Upstream at Turners Falls Dam flows were tamped down from 6,300 cfs on Monday to 4,400 cfs today, leaving a significant portion of the riverbed below the dam exposed and unusable for migrating fish.

However, on Monday night at 8 p.m. the head gate flows into the Turners Falls Power Canal were again quiet as a kitten–just as they were again this morning at 8 a.m. These unusual gate settings are anomalous for migration season and it will be interesting to see how they get figured into fish passage success through the dismal environs of FirstLight’s power canal.

By 3 p.m. today head gate flows were back in their usual configuration–with churned whitewater coursing downstream and lacy ribbons of bubbly foam interweaving for some 700 feet into the first wide turn of the canal. The photo below is the accumulated muck that collects in the canal downstream. Its great habitat for carp, goldfish and snapping turtles, but nothing a wild population would ever choose to spend any time in.

This is the habitat all upstream migrants are diverted into at Turners Falls

This is the habitat all upstream migrants are diverted into at Turner Falls

Dead Reach test flows continue; canal currents quieted

Posted by on 18 May 2015 | Tagged as: Uncategorized

May 18, 2015: Test flows from the Turners Falls Dam into the Dead Reach of the Connecticut continued today at 6,300 cubic feet per second–the highest flows in these tests. Flows will drop to 4,400 cfs on Tuesday, and run through Thursday at that rate. On Friday they again are tamped back at the dam to the lowest test flow rate, 2,500 cfs.

A stop at the Rock Dam Pool at 12:30 this afternoon found shad still being landed in easy order. Three people were fishing–two in hip waders and one in jeans standing on the ledge above the Rock Dam flow. In fifteen minutes the hip-wader guys landed two and lost one at the waterline, while the angler on the ledge had no luck.

Heading upstream, there were just two people at the base of the Turners Falls Dam at 1 p.m. I crossed the deck of the bridge to see what was up and the one guy with a pole was reeling in a shad, while his buddy was fetching the hoop net. They brought that one in, released it, and the guy tossing in shad darts soon had another hooked. It slipped off as it was brought toward shore. I only stayed for ten minutes, then tucked in under the bridge along the bike path.

AGAIN, something rarely noted during shad migration season–the headgates and flow into the canal at Turners Falls Dam were quiet as the proverbial kitten. There was just a few feet of bubbling water near the Spillway Ladder entrance on the far side of the canal, and perhaps 20 feet of bubbling flow coming out of the entrance to the gatehouse fish ladder on the opposite side of the canal.

Normally, flows here are bubbling and roiling along for a few hundred feet downstream of open head gates on the canal, with quick-water moving through the curve going toward Cabot Station. Today, water there was moving at no more than a s l o w walk… Changing canal headgate positions effect fish passage at Turners Falls.

SPEAKING of fish passage. The USFWS’s Fish Passage Hot-line has not been updated since last June. It is possible to get fish passage numbers via the Connecticut River Coordinator’s web-site.

Here are some of the numbers compiled there, reflecting fish counts at Holyoke as of Sunday, May 17, 2015:

American shad: 241,000 for the season.
Sea lamprey: 8,500
hybrid Atlantic salmon: 3

Holyoke lifted some 5,779 shad on Saturday; that number nearly doubled to 11,605 on Sunday.

Turners Falls, as of Friday, reported passing 10,292 for the season. Updates at TF are irregular.

NOTE: sea lamprey are native migrants–parasitic while in the ocean, but not feeding at all as they migrate up the Connecticut to spawn, then die. They add significant ocean minerals and nutrients to the upstream ecosystem and are an important species in this bio-system. Lampreys were a source of food in some local towns during colonial times.

Spawning run ride from to Vernon; back to Turners Falls, Rock Dam and Cabot: May 17, 2015

Posted by on 17 May 2015 | Tagged as: 5-year FERC licensing process, American shad, Bellows Falls, Cabot Station, Connecticut River, Conte, Dead Reach, Federal Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC license, FirstLight, Holyoke Fish Lift, New Hampshire, power canal studies, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, sea lamprey, shad, shad fishing, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, Vermont, Vernon Dam Fishway

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The Headgates at Turners Falls Dam sending flow into the power canal were as quiet as I’ve ever seen them this Sunday. There seemed to just be a bit of attraction water for fish looking to get upstream, but no usual frothing rip that is usual with power generation.
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Downstream at the end of the power canal there was a nearly lake-like stillness as Cabot hydro station seemed to be producing little power.
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Looking upstream at Cabot hydro station from the bridge at Montague City, there was just a small run of whitewater coming down the spillway at Cabot. Data about these flow manipulations should be available for investigations and study results for the re-licensing
inquiries currently taking place under Federal Energy Regulatory Commission purview. They have significant impacts on fish passage.
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Three of the lucky anglers fishing Rock Dam today–two are in the boat in background.
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Rock Dam rocking with anglers and 6,300 cfs of flow.
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Letting a Rock Dam shad off the hook.

LASTLY, here’s today’s full POST:

Spawning run ride from to Vernon; back to Turners Fall, Rock Dam and Cabot: May 17, 2015

After cycling up Rt. 5 to Brattleboro early today, I headed south along the Connecticut. I was shocked to actually find the gates to Vernon Fishway OPEN! This is something that should be guaranteed to the public—regular, posted hours where the public can view their fish. Let John Rangonese of TransCanada know. There is always at least one pickup parked at the Vernon hydro station, all that’s needed is someone to walk over and open the gate; then close it upon leaving. Self-serve site, no cost involved. Public’s fish; public’s river.

Anyway, in the riot of effervescing current in the Vernon Fishway windows today were literally streams of American shad. They were running upstream like there was romance in the offing. Here, like at Holyoke, fish come directly upriver to the base of the dam. There, attracted by flows released down the short fish ladder at this modest falls, shad quickly find their way past the dam toward Brattleboro, Putney, Bellows Falls, and Walpole, NH. Today they were passing in pods at around 10:00 a.m. There were also a couple of smallmouths lower in the current, as well as one ropey sea lamprey flashing through the bubbles.
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USFWS tank truck used to transport tagged shad

Here, also, I ran into Steve Leach and his crew, from Normandeau Associates. Using the borrowed US Fish & Wildlife Service tank truck, they were preparing to tag fish and truck them a-ways upstream for fish passage studies connected to TransCanada’s hydro relicensing at Vernon, Bellows Falls, and Wilder. They’d done some previous tagging at Holyoke as well. We chatted a bit about test flows downstream, and the lack of rainfall, and the river’s temperature profile that is rising a bit early. I bid them luck, noting a few anglers fishing below Vernon Fishway—along with a perched bald eagle and a circling osprey.

After stopping to visit friends in Gill, MA, I was on the Turners Falls Bridge just a few minutes after noon. The test flow current is at 6,300 cfs (cubic feet per second) today, and the Connecticut is alive with frothy water across the wide, curving expanse formerly known as Peskeomscut. I look down at four people fishing the quick current along the Spillway Fish Ladder, just downstream of the bascule gate that’s pouring down current. In ten minutes time I watch five shad get hooked—four of them are landed, and one is lost near the waterline.

I get back on my bike and tuck in to the Canalside Rail Trail, scooting under the Turners Falls Bridge. As I come alongside the canal at the Turners Falls Gatehouse I notice that the canal is nearly quiet—almost like a still pond. This rivals the quietest flows I’ve ever seen passing through this site. FirstLight controls the headgates here–and with so few open, the fish coming up through their power canal can get a better shot at passage.

A cynical person might think they were manipulating the canal to make it look like a good industrial conduit for wild fish—especially during tagged-fish tracking surveys during test flows. One also might think this could be done to punch up fish passage numbers for weekend visitors to the TF Fishway—something that has shown up in fish passage tallies there for years. You’d think fish were only interested in migrating on weekends… Nonetheless, after well over a decade of subsidizing federal Conte Lab employees for fish passage studies and structural changes in the Turners Falls Power Canal, they have yet to succeed in passing more shad upstream than passed this site in the 1980s…

Curiously, when I head all the way downstream along the canal to Cabot Hydro Station, and then out on the deck of the General Pierce Bridge in Montague City—it is absolutely true that the TF Canal appears lake-like in its absence of flow, with just a small bit of whitewater bubbling down from its tailrace. Operators have certainly quieted the whole canal system this day.

In between I make a stop at the Rock Dam Pool, where the 6,300 cfs flows have the rocks roiling with lively current, and the anglers reeling in fish, seemingly at will. For the first time ever here I see two men standing and fishing below the Rock Dam’s fall in a motorized Zodiac type craft. Between the boat, the fishers wading out in the Rock Dam Pool, and the people tossing darts from the ledge over the pool, there are nine anglers fishing the site—eight men and a woman.

And the shad are streaming in. In the fifteen minutes I spend there, five fish are brought to shore. When I ask one guy to pause with his catch for a minute while I shoot a photo, he obliges. “How’s it been for you?” I ask. “I can’t seem to make a mistake today—I’ve had two dozen,” he tells me. “Well, I guess you know what you’re doing.” “Hey, I ran the Turners Falls Dam for 8-1/2 years,” he says. I nod, adding, “I guess then you know exactly when it’s time to come down here for shad.”
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The other great thing that has happened for anglers with these actual flows in the river: almost nobody is relegated to tossing lines in the stillness of the power canal. The anglers and the fish are all in the river.

Shad angling still good at Rock Dam Pool during minimum test flows

Posted by on 15 May 2015 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River, Deerfield River, FERC licensing process, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shad, shad fishing, Turners Falls, Turners Falls dam

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An angler pulling in a shad in the Rock Dam Pool on Friday, May 15, 2015. (CLICK TO ENLARGE)

On a slightly overcast late Friday morning the shad were still hitting for anglers at the Rock Dam Pool. Flow from the Turners Falls Dam into the Dead Reach remained at just 2500 cfs, which leaves much of the riverbed below the dam as just exposed, rocky cobble.

Down at the Rock Dam three anglers were doing pretty well, however. Within a minute, virtually, of my late morning arrival, I saw each hook a fish. Two bring theirs to shore; while one slips the hook at the water’s edge. The guy in hip waders gently unhooks his fish right at the water line and it splashes away. The other angler hauls in a shiny 22-inch shad and flops it on it’s side for keeping in three inches of stilled backwater.

I get down to business. “How’s it been?” I ask, approaching each, upstream to down. “Not bad,” says the first, and youngest guy. He’s been here maybe an hour and he’d just landed his first fish of the day. The middle guy, short and heavy set with white hair, now has three fish laid out in the shallow drink to carry home. He replies with halting English, but conveys that he’s had six total for the morning.

The guy in the waders–who I’ve now watched land and release two fish, describes the day’s angling as “Not bad.” He’s pulled in six–now seven, in the two hours he’s been here. “It’s better in the afternoons,” he offers, “The other day here I had twenty.”

I arrange an old brick for a seat on the sandy beach and enjoy their efforts and the beauty of the Rock Dam with a bit of flow coursing through it for a change. Across twenty minutes I see seven shad pulled from the waters circulating into its pool.

As I make my way back to the road another angler has just pulled up in a pick-up. “You heading down after shad?” I ask. His name is Jeffrey Smith. I’m guessing he’s maybe in his late-30s, and certainly a well-versed angler. He also fishes the Deerfield but was here yesterday casting for shad, “I had a dozen fish in an hour and a half.”

I explain a bit about the test flows and the federal relicensing that’s responsible for water in the Dead Reach here. We shake and exchange names as we head in opposite directions. “Good luck!” I call to him.

Fifteen minutes later I’m standing on a ledge near the Turners Falls Dam, looking down on three more fishermen. “Any luck?” I holler, catching one guy’s eye. “A little,” comes the unenthusiastic reply. “Well, I just came from Rock Dam and they’re hitting down there–they landed seven in about 20 minutes,” I tell him. “You know the Rock Dam?” He nods in the affirmative, then says something to his compadres. They begin packing up their gear.

Holyoke has been lifting shad since April 30th. They passed 13,000 on Wednesday, and 20,000 yesterday. This year’s total thus far at Holyoke is 214,091.

It takes just a few days for shad passing Holyoke to reach Turners Falls, 36 miles upstream. And over half those counted at Holyoke will attempt to pass this site to reach spawning waters in Vermont and New Hampshire. All that attempt to pass Turners Falls are steered out of the Connecticut River into the Turners Falls Power Canal.

Upon questioning, federal Conte Lab researchers who have been studying shad in the canal via power company subsidies for over a decade, revealed that shad spend an average of 8 days in the 2-1/2 mile long Turners Falls Power Canal–before making their way upstream to the “vicinity” of the dam–where they have one more ladder to thread at the Gatehouse before making it to open water. So it takes them more than a WEEK to travel 2-1/2 miles here, before they even make an approach. At best about 1-in-10 ever emerge upstream. A person can walk this stretch in well under an hour…

THE KICKER IS: the shad that do make it past the dam SHOOT up to Vernon Dam–20 miles distant, in just a day’s time. Seems they may feel at home swimming in an actual river…

Shad anglers help ground-truth test flow impacts at Turners Falls

Posted by on 13 May 2015 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River, Conte, endangerd shortnose sturgeon, Endangered Species Act, ESA, Federal Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center, federally-endangered shortnose sturgeon, Holyoke Fish Lift, Northfield Mountain, Rock Dam, Rock Dam Pool, shad, shad fishing, Turners Falls dam, Turners Falls power canal, US Geological Survey's Conte Fish Lab

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The above photos were taken at the Rock Dam Pool today, May 13, 2015. Many shad could be seen with the naked eye fidgeting and milling through the pool. Two anglers were enjoying plucking a few out of the drink. (CLICK ON PHOTO FOR LARGER IMAGE)

Shad anglers help ground-truth test flow impacts at Turners Falls

Federally mandated test flow releases from Turners Falls Dam continued today, with flows reduced to 2,500 CFS (cubic feet per second). That drop, from 4,400 CFS the day prior, produced some interesting results for shad anglers fishing the 2-1/2 mile long Dead Reach below the dam.

At 12:20 p.m. I stopped by the Connecticut River’s Rock Dam Pool, off G Street and “Migratory” Way in Turners, basically just a few hundred yards upstream of the Conte Fish Lab. Curiously, with the tamped-down flows, the Rock Dam Pool was a-bustle with milling shad—perhaps defaulted to this site when flow got cut at the dam. What’s clear is that 2,500 CFS is not a flow level that moves migratory fish upstream in the river through this site toward the TF Dam. When I spoke to three anglers at the base of the dam just 20 minutes later, they said the shad had run out with the decreasing flow.

The river levels today at the Rock Dam though, would at least likely have sustained the presence of the annual spawning gathering of federally endangered shortnose sturgeon in the Rock Dam Pool. They were many levels above the mid-summer conditions created by dam operations at this site on May 3, 2015, which basically scuttled a year’s reproduction there. But hey, who’s enforcing the Endangered Species Act these days??

I did meet a young angler at the Rock Dam who was having a blast pulling in shad. He will graduate Westfield State this coming weekend, and noted that his dad—President Elect for the American Fisheries Society, works in fisheries for the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Hadley.
He’d been tossing in shad darts at the Rock Dam Pool for maybe an hour, and had landed and released 7 shad. Big ones, he noted. I explained a bit about the test flows, and we both stood for a bit marveling at the pods of shad turning quick laps around the pool—ten, then a run of a few, then a line of several more—all darting into shadows beneath the high, mid-spring sun.

Hopefully, he’ll carry news to his dad that these fish are here because there’s flow being released to the river. A well-kept secret in these parts is that USGS Conte Lab fisheries biologists who like to get in a little fishing on lunch break always make their way down to the Rock Dam Pool when there’s flow in the Connecticut—cause that’s where the fish want to be.
You won’t find them flicking darts into the power canal just out their front gate.

When I debriefed a trio of 20-somethings fishing below Turners Falls Dam just 20 minutes later, they reported the fishing had turned to dust once the flows were tamped down to 2,500 CFS. One of the guys said that yesterday—Tuesday, all he had to do was just cast and reel in. “I probably caught a hundred.” OK, that’s fish talk, but I’ve seen these guys before. They are shad people. When I told them the Rock Dam was rocking, one said to the woman angler with them, “Wanna go down there?” “Hell yeah!” was the response.

Lastly, I drove Greenfield High Girl’s Softball down to South Hadley later in the afternoon. It’s only a mile or so hike down to South Hadley Falls Dam from there. I took the stroll. There were maybe two dozen anglers strung out along the edge of Slim Shad Point at around 4:30 p.m., but things looked fairly quiet. I didn’t have much time, but I did a little de-briefing to two hefty Latino guys I’ve seen fishing from the Veterans Memorial Bridge before. “Shad are done!” one said of the days fishing. “There’s no water.”

Interesting, since its possible this could be equated to the cut-off of nearly 4,000 CFS up at TF Dam earlier. It’s known to take 6 – 8 hours for the impacts of flow manipulations at Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls Dam to be experienced 36 miles downstream at Holyoke. Thus, these guys may have been experiencing the impacts of test flows, which temporarily quieted the upstream run of fish. Be interesting to try and tease out the correlations. Test flows at Turners will bump up again to 6,300 CFS this Saturday through Monday.

The Greenfield Varsity Girls won at South Hadley.

As of Tuesday, Holyoke had lifted 181,000 shad.

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