Deerfield River

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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…

The shad abattoir: the final leg home, May 5th

Posted by on 06 Jun 2010 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, CRASC, Deerfield River, Farmington River, federal trust fish, Rainbow Dam Fishway, salmon, salmon hatchery

The shad abattoir: the final leg home, May 5th: Rainbow Dam “fish ladder” on the Farmington, to Holyoke Dam, and on to the confluence of the Deerfield and the Connecticut at Greenfield, MA

© 2010 by Karl Meyer

May 5, 2010.  The shad abattoir and home: including a visit to the deadly Rainbow Fishway on the Farmington River in East Granby, CT

I am out the door of the Iron Horse in by 6:15 the next morning.  In truth, any lurking axe murderers did not seek me out.  I had a decent shower, the TV came on, and I was able to air out the room without turning on the hotel AC—something I pointedly abhor.

There is a small gas station/convenience store a block away.  I mix myself a coffee there.  Along with water, this will be my only fuel for the next five hours.  Then, I head off a little north and east, toward the little village of Tariffville and what I’m hoping will morph into a safe route to Rainbow Dam at the back of Bradley Airport.  It’s already warm, and the day will quickly work towards hot.

With my old fashioned highway maps I’m a bit handcuffed as to local roads, relying much on my general sense of direction and landscape.  That will only get you so far.  I’m in the bedroom community corridor for Hartford, just down the road, as well as Bradley Airport—just across the way.  A poor choice here could get me hammered by commuting traffic once again.

But it’s still early, and the shade near the Farmington River is lovely.  I pull into Tariffville at just before 7 am, stopping to puzzle at maps that aren’t going to give up much more information.  This is a refreshingly modest village, with homes that are older, and built on a human scale.  From the look of it, this is a small town of regular working people.  Tariffville does not put on airs.

Just a bit up the street a pick-up pulls into the only open store, a small convenience-variety place.  I waste little time in accosting a guy in his late-forties as he exits his truck.

He’s wearing a Connecticut State Corrections uniform, and I’m guessing he’s just off-shift.  “Excuse me, but would you know how to get over toward Rainbow Dam?”  He stops, thinks a minute.  “Keep going straight up here.  At the light go right, Hatchet Hill Road.  You’ll go over the mountain.  Just stay straight on that.”

I thank him, and let his errand continue, not mentioning that I was a guest at the Hartford Correctional Center some decades back—the result of a protest over the billions spent on yet another Trident sub at the Groton Naval Base.  It’s a bit early for that kind of small talk.  I’m resettling my maps and already gulping water when he comes back out, “At the bottom of the hill, go straight.  You’ll come to a stoplight—keep going straight.”  I thank him again, and I’m off, crossing the shade dappled Farmington.

Hatchet Hill is a decent climb.  It’s narrow and winding, and a bit tight in places while people head to work and school.  It is, however, a neat biking run, on a road that at least carries the cachet of some historical and landscape significance, though I don’t know its history.  I crest Hatchet Hill, rolling up from farm into mixed woods.  That pattern reverses as I head down the other side and pass through the stoplight mentioned.

There is a small crossroads with a neighborhood, then a few old houses and farmland, with development encroaching.  When I pass the Poquonock Fire Station, I’m beginning to get hopeful that this trip to the Rainbow Dam Fishway on the Farmington will not become a dreaded death-defying race against rush hour airport commuters on a crappy four-lane.  Then, things turn quickly from open field, to modern, mega-industrial.

I hear the roar of the first jet taking off, high, and a little northeast of me.  The road is newer with wide shoulders, to my delight.  But, I’m quickly turning into an ant riding into OZ—on a flat, massive, industrial sweep of pavement bordered by giant warehouses with acres of sodded lawn spaced widely across what were once ancient agricultural lands.  This is about as far away from the idea of nature and thriving fish runs as this odd cyclist could imagine.

And, it’s a damned peculiar place to find oneself in.  As I methodically make my way across these giant fields of industry I know I don’t want to make any wrong turns and find myself on the wrong side of the Farmington, or in the pipeline of rush hour traffic.  I see a FedEx truck rumbling down from the security gate of one of the warehouses.  The guy is coming to the stop sign at the main drag I’m on.  I wave him down.  “Rainbow Road?” I query, “You don’t happen to know if this is the road to Rainbow Dam?—I don’t want to miss the turn.”  He doesn’t have a clue, but points, “Why don’t you try the guy in the guardhouse?”

So, on my fully-bagged bike, in bright morning sun, sometime after 6:30 am, I begin rolling toward the big guardhouse astride the huge fence, surrounding the lawns of a towering warehouse.  There’s a big sign that says, “NO WEAPONS.”  This is slightly intimidating.  I have a moment of worry about how my bagged-approach will be received.

What I get is a man in full security garb stepping from the modern, kitchen-sized security shack.  I’m hoping not to be mistaken for a warehouse attacker.  Turns out he’s pretty peppy, mid-thirties, and likely amused at having this grey-haired guy stop.  I ask my questions, saying again that I don’t want to end up on the wrong side–of the river.  He doesn’t know where the river itself is, but he does know where the reservoir is, “If you keep going up here and head straight after the circle you’ll be on Rainbow Road.  I don’t know about any fishway, but there’s a sign on there for launching boats.”  “Perfect,” I tell him, “That’ll get me there.”

So, I’ve made it!  This will get me to where I did my scouting some weeks back.  I can get to the fishway this May 4th, when the fish are running.  I thank him and head on, enjoying what is not at the moment big commuter road in this industrial sector, at least before 7 a.m.  Soon, I’m around that traffic circle and onto narrow Rainbow Road, the speed trap I’ve been on before.  It’s flanked by cookie-cutter houses that back up tightly against what should be a vegetation-buffered Farmington River.

I reach the fish “ladder” at 7:15.  They gates are locked tight, but there is no way I’m going to be denied the right to visit the river at this juncture.  By its own statements the site is open during the May-June fish passage season.  So, I walk my bike about 100 feet into a tiny patch of woods and weeds to keep it out of anywhere where someone could accost it.  I grab my camera and hop a small, cursory fence, then take the gravel-dirt trail toward the fish ladder.

Yellow warblers, catbirds, robins and yellow throats pump out their spring songs.  The fish ladder sprawls out straight ahead and up along the big monolith of a dam to the right.  There is chain link fencing up flanking the ladder, wrapping back around downstream to lock off the counting and trapping facilities.  To the left are three large “salmon imprinting pools.”  They look like sludgy, forgotten wading pools and don’t appear to be used any longer.

I approach the fence and hear gurgling Farmington River water vented here from the north side of the dam.  That moving water has a wonderful spring voice as it pulses through the tight slots of this decades-old fish ladder patterned from those used for Pacific Northwest salmon.  But that water comes through in a veritable torrent in the narrow slots of this human designed cataract, 66 feet long.  And it is this that makes this structure a veritable train wreck of fisheries restoration in the Connecticut River basin—and one of the first.

The Rainbow Dam Fishway is a fish killer, a veritable abattoir for American shad.  It is so steep, and the slots so narrow, that the fish actually die trying to ascend.  This has been known by Connecticut fisheries biologists for 30 years.  Among those long in the field it has been called the “world’s best shad de-scaler.”  Few successfully spawn after the ordeal of a match with the Rainbow Fishway—upstream or down.  The fish literally scrape their bellies raw trying to ascend a mountain so long and turbulent few make it out the other side.  And most of those who do are in fatal condition.

More American shad have died in their repeated attempts to best this torture chamber than have ever been helped in the Farmington River.  It is the largest single cause of the decline in shad on the Farmington—the state’s largest tributary.  One more cut to the fecundity of the Connecticut River’s federal trust runs.  Blueback herring suffer from the impassible damage done by the Rainbow ladder too.  Its sort of like “New York, New York” in reverse—they don’t make it here, they don’t make it anywhere.  Hardly.

What makes it up the Rainbow Dam Fishway are one–sometimes two or three, hybrid salmon, fish whose lives began in a hatchery.  And, for this reason, there has been this massive run of lies and silence about the Rainbow ladder for decades.  This elite dream of a few, now this salmon hoax, has robbed this entire system of meaningful, native fish runs.  For three manufactured fish per season…  The salmon has been extinct here since 1809; I guess we’re just waiting for the same to occur with the herring and shad.

Why have real, self-sustaining populations of native fish when you can have hatcheries instead?

I look in the roaring slots of the ladder.  No struggling shad visible, though I can only view the top three-fifths of the fishway from this vantage, the rest is gated off below.  I’m wondering if they make it this far up and die, floating back down to the base, or whether most simply don’t even make it to this point.

And, or course, there are no salmon, the species this entire structure was built in deference to in 1975.

In good sunlight though I do see the one species that’s destined to gobble up all the hubris and mistakes of the salmon priesthood and spit them out the other side: sea lamprey.  Clamped to the cement walls, resting and waving like downstream streamers in this tumult are dozens of sea lamprey.  Most are clamped onto the structure just outside the turbulence of the ladder’s slots.  Occasionally you will see one or two jockeying for a new position, one up hard against another.

My regard for these fish only ramps up the more I encounter them.  What adaptation!  What tenacity!  There is no arguing with their pluck and spawning impulse.  They have returned to the sea to get it done, and by god they will.  And die afterwards.  This is a fish that has succeeded across an arc spanning hundreds of millions of years.  Unfortunately, it’s not a species with the boutique cachet of a salmon, nor, unfortunately, is it a federally trust target species—lest the old-boys salmon network would have stumbled across some success.

Staring in wonder, I occasionally see a lamprey reach its disc-mouth past the water line to clamp onto the walls, just above the pulsing current.  Looking down on these fish from above, I can’t help but be reminded of a “spy-hopping” hump-backed whale on a Cape Cod whale watch.  Those rows of rudimentary gills pump furiously as they wait for their opening.  Then, several times, I hear a crackling snap–and a spray of water patters my face as one ropey fish makes its lightning bid to best the next slot.

I keep waiting for a tap on the shoulder here, a call over some speaker, telling me I’m unwelcome in the morning sun.  I am, in a way, the enemy at the gate of course—witnessing this folly and tragedy.  That tap never comes.  A state fisheries salmon truck sits parked and idle on the other side of the fence, awaiting its next, precious cargo run.  I see about all I can see from behind the chain links; celebrate the triumph of the lamprey, and feel the heat of the stupidity that’s killing shad and herring.  I take a few pictures, and retreat.  When I’m outside the locked gate I re-read the sign.  It says the gates open at 8:00 a.m.  I look at my watch.  It’s 8:10.  A lone jet roars loudly overhead.

Once again I ferret my way back over Hatchet Hill, finding the carcass of what appears to be a wood turtle on the pavement out by that wide industrial park maze.  How strange.

I get back on Rt. 189, and quickly re-intersect the Farmington Bikeway.  It travels some lovely woods and wetlands in this section of East Granby and Suffield—quite an early morning pleasure.  I know I’ve crossed into Massachusetts when the bikeway almost seems to narrow.  The pavement is newer, there’s a yellow stripe now down the middle, but it continues.  There’s a brand new sign board—but without any info on it.

About 150 yards into the Bay State, a large oak is sprawled across the trail from last night’s storm.  There are two older men and a woman standing around the blocked path.  One man has a saw, but this is a huge tree.  “You can get by,” they tell me, and you can, barely.  I want to ask about the path ahead, whether it’s complete through Westfield, but they are pretty wrapped up in talk.  I bid them goodbye.  Things are going fine for a mile or more as I’m into Southwick past Congamond Road, when suddenly, and without warning, the path turns to a dirt trench near an underpass.  Dead stop.

I head back, and decide its time to reenter the world of the road biker.  I take the right at Congamond and decide I’ll just keep heading west and north, until I intersect with Routes 10 and 202, a familiar path in this region.  I know it well by both bike and car in places.  By back roads I reach Southwick Center by 11:00 a.m.  The sun is bright, and the day is getting warm.  I need to replenish, since I’ve been running on just water and a cup of coffee since leaving Simsbury.  I grab a fat muffin at Dunkin Donuts, and refill my water bottle in their restroom, then stand outside, taking a last look at my maps and wondering if I’ll make it to Holyoke by noon, in time to catch my friend Tony shad fishing.  It’s not looking good.

What I do know is that this road will take me–though not far out of my way, into downtown Westfield, which is currently a mess of construction.  Out of the question, I say to myself.  Then, as I’m back on my bike I start figuring I should be able to lean a bit on landscape memory, common sense, and my experience out here when I used to meet my old friend Carol for lunch now and then.  I grab this back road, and that back road, and finally come to some known turf: Shaker Valley Road, and Little River Road.  I now know where I am, and have the rest of the route in my head.

I scoot through the main Rt. 20 intersection in Westfield and over the Westfield River, and proceed down back roads just west of the ridge that leads over to the Connecticut River.  I re-intersect Rt. 202 and begin grinding my way up the steep side of East Mountain, where the road is totally torn up, and in full repaving mode.  Cops and workers wave me through this stretch and that.  It’s hot, and time is running short for my noon deadline.

Finally, I crest East Mountain, and check my watch.  A few minutes past noon.  Not bad.  I figure another 15 – 20 minutes to Holyoke Dam—nearly all those last miles either downhill, or flat.  Triumphant, its just 12:23 when I pull up to the Rt. 116 Bridge downstream of the dam.  A small string of guys are fishing below, but Tony will be further down.  One guy lands a shad.  I head to the parking lot and check for Tony’s truck; then gamely leave all my bags on my bike, unlocked, and scramble down to the river.

A dozen guys are in the water, downstream of Slim Shad Point.  One, I recognize as Tony.  There’s the quiet banter of fisherman, as birds chirp in the margins.  The Connecticut has its own music too, where it’s been released to come through down the tailrace.  I’m in my bike shorts, looking a bit shaggy.  With a grin I say to their backs, “Anyone seen a guy named Demick around?  He kind-of flicks his rod??”

Tony turns, smiling.  “Hey Karl!  You still on the road?—just getting back?”  “Yeah, I came to catch you—didn’t Alan give you my message.”  “Oh, I got it,” Tony says, “Hey Karl, you’ll never believe what just happened, right down here.”   I’m quick, “Someone caught a salmon.”  “You got it.  Thirty-three inches.”  I chuckle, wryly, “Did they cook it up?  I hope so.  I hear they’re good.”  A few fishermen laugh.

I’d brought my camera down with me, thinking I might get somebody to take a picture of me and my pal Tony.  I figured we would maybe get some lunch.  But I’m mistaken, badly.  “Tony, you want to take a break—get some lunch?”  Tony is still thigh deep in the river.  There’s a pause, then, “No Karl, sorry, I really can’t—I want to keep fishing.  I’ve only got three this morning.”

I am a bit surprised.  “OK,” I tell him, “You know your brother Alan was really good with the hospitality stuff.”  One of the other fishermen pipes in, understanding I’ve just biked all the way from the mouth of the river, “Geez, he wouldn’t even leave the water to shake your hand!”  “OK, Demick,” I say, “I’ll see you.”

Snapping a few pictures at the bridge, I head over to the fishway.  Two of the guides know me well.  It is “Opening Day” at Holyoke Fishway, the first public day of the season.  I chat with the guides a bit, and mention the salmon, which gets their attention– especially the third one, who I’ve never met.  “My friend told me it was 33 inches,” I tell them.  “Did they put it back?” they ask, two of them knowing my intense regard for this hybrid, “No, they cleaned it, and cut it up to share for barbecue.”  Later, I learn this little joke and interaction started quite the argument between the young salmon-head and these other two.  The kid stopped talking to them for the day.

I head up to the viewing windows for my first look at the run from the inside.  And there they are—American shad.  The window is busy with them, schooling nervously, as they wait for this rectangular prison to be unlocked.  They are graceful and silver-shiny.  This is not a super-heavy day, but there are hundreds before me.  They’ve already lifted 15,000.  There is one banged-up shad in the window, perhaps from an encounter with a hook.  A lone, white sucker rests on the bottom, back from the viewing windows—and I’m not referring to myself.

I’m tired; ready to be home, so I don’t quite take in fully that these are the fish I’ve been riding after all these days—don’t fully enjoy the spectacle in the way I might have if this was the sole amusement of the day.  There’s still the work of completing the trip.  I thank the two friendly guides who have watched my bike.  Vinny, the older of them, maybe sixty, says chidingly, “Drive carefully–there are people out there aiming for you!”  These two have enjoyed reading my stuff on the restoration program, and they know it’s unwelcome exposure for many.

I decide on the east side of the Connecticut for the next leg—up through South Hadley.  It’s now after 1 p.m., and I’d like to get through that town before the high school gets out.  I know this route by bike so well I’m counting in my head the number of hills for the next 35 miles upstream.  It’s not many, but, so close to home and with the tougher riding yesterday and this morning, they loom a bit larger.

I plod along up to the crest at Mt. Holyoke College; then continue along Rt. 47 up the end blip of the west end of the Holyoke Range that forms half of the water gap here as the Connecticut sweeps in between this, and the Mt. Tom Range.  Swinging widely to the west is the land once roped in by the loop depicted in Thomas Cole’s “The Oxbow.”  Once Hadley farmland, it is now the property of Northampton, and largely overrun by a marina and soccer fields.

At the Hadley Common I stop and grab a sub at a place recommended.  The guy gives me half on a plate, and half wrapped.  The heat of the day is upon me, it’s a little after 2 pm.  I sit on the Common, laid out in 1659, that I’ve written about in the past, and enjoy a good sandwich–washing it down with part of a quart of chocolate milk.  Tired but a bit refreshed, I decide to stick with River Road, Rt. 47, all the way through Hadley and Sunderland.  Ironically, a USF&WS pick-up with a trailored boat passes me as I head north.  Tracking salmon today?

As I blunder the final twenty miles or so, I’m happy that the wind is at my back for a bit. It’s hot, and I’m going through some open farmland on the Connecticut’s vast floodplain.  What is noteworthy, and has been for much of today, is the number of trees taken down by yesterday’s line of storms.  As I reach Sunderland Center there are two crews working the ancient, shattered sugar maples and stringing up utility wires.

At the Sunderland Bridge over the Connecticut it occurs to me that a ceremonial picture is required.  I look south to the knob of Mt. Tom, but its directly in the sun.  I sit for a minute, propped up against the bridge railing and drink the last of my chocolate milk, still respectably cool.  Then, I face upstream, and point my camera toward the mid-stream island and valley beyond, and snap a photo.  It later turns out to be a very satisfying shot.  As I bike down the other side of the bridge I almost miss the two fishermen casting for shad in the afternoon shadows below.

I reach South Deerfield Center and there drop in on my friend Sara, who directs the library.  She’s just over in town running a few errands, I’m told.  I decide to sit in the shade and wait.  I crunch down the last of that very good sub, and then stretch my legs walking back toward the town center.  I don’t see Sara, and start back when I hear my name called.  I wait while she catches up, and we chat a bit.  I run down a few highlights of my trip.  Nice to see an old friend as you near home.

Then, I’m back on the bike, tired, for what are truly the last miles.  I take the back roads into the south end of Old Deerfield, tract housing that morphs into rural farmland and old dairying tracts at Stillwater.  But, here too, the modern, consumptive age is at work.  Huge, rolling sprinklers, in attached, 100 foot segments, are spraying ornamental flower “crops” in two different fields.  Each, with linked segments, is about 500 feet long.  It’s a scene you might imagine in the Central Valley of California, but hardly what one envisions here to grown boutique flowers by drawing deeply on the waters of the Deerfield, not a mile from that river’s mouth.  I have to snap a photo.

At last, I pull up the final hill into Greenfield at Bank Row, and head the last blocks to my apartment.  There’s a bunch of mail in the box and I somehow decide to grab it now, since I don’t think I’ll have much energy to walk back down once inside.  I am literally stumbling up the fire escape stairs under the weight of my loaded bike when I hear a car pull up.  It’s my friend Tonia, who’s come to pick up my mail.  She can’t believe I’m back already.

Later when I’m checking phone messages there’s one from Tony, from this afternoon:  “Karl.  I’m really sorry about lunch today.  I don’t know.  I just start fishing and I can’t stop.  Obsessed, I guess that’s the word for it.  As my wife just said to me, “Once an asshole, always an asshole,” I do apologize.”

I understand Tony’s obsession with shad, they just took me on a 250 mile bike run, and I’m hardly done with the journey yet.

#     #     #

“In encounters where snake identity comes into question, the snakes always lose.”

Posted by on 16 Apr 2010 | Tagged as: Deerfield River, MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, Nature, nighthawks, snakes

The following piece appears in the Spring issue of Sanctuary, Journal of the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

© 2009, Karl Meyer

The State of the Snake

A black racer saved me once.  Not to over-glamorize it, that snake was dead.  Still, it came between me and the fast-closing mongrel bent on ripping me from my bicycle on a lovely spring day.  It was inches from my calf when it suddenly yelped, screeched to a halt, and circled back timidly–the fur raised on its neck.  I too had noted the large snake looped along the pavement.  But I knew something the canine didn’t–I’d examined the beautiful gray-black scales of that mostly-intact black racer corpse the previous afternoon.

Where snakes are concerned, I’m a lot like that dog.  Our shared mammalian fear of snakes, ophidiophobia, appears to be a hard-wired survival trait harkening back to an age when reptiles were far more prominent. “Fables about snakes far outmatch reality,” herpetologist Tom Tyning will tell you.  None of Massachusetts’ fourteen species provoke much fear in Tyning.  He’s studied snakes for four decades and today is one of the Bay State’s staunchest advocates for preserving populations and critical habitats for increasingly rare species, “Since Europeans arrived in North America our response to snakes can be summed up on one word: persecution.”

Tyning authored the Stokes Nature Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles.  His UMass graduate work included radio-telemetry tracking of timber rattlesnakes.  For the past decade Tyning’s been a professor of environmental science at Berkshire Community College–on the heels of 24 years as a touted trip leader and master naturalist with Mass Audubon.  Our inordinate snake fear is evident in the near extirpation of the state’s two venomous species, copperheads and timber rattlesnakes, but all species suffer persecution and, “In encounters where snake identity comes into question, the snakes always lose.”

Common patterned species like northern water snakes and milk snakes are often misidentified and killed—yet the chances of someone happening across a venomous snake, even in their few remaining habitats, are minuscule.  “There have only been two recorded snake bite deaths in Massachusetts in over 200 years,” Tyning notes.  Curiously, venomous species are not even the rarest snakes in the Commonwealth.

Five native snakes are today protected by penalties of hefty fines and/or imprisonment– it’s illegal to “harass, kill, collect, or possess” them.  “Geographically challenged,” is how Tom Tyning describes the state-threatened worm snake’s predicament.  At just 7-11 inches, these sandy soil burrowers both prey-on, and resemble, earthworms.  The worm snake is a more southern and western species whose biological footprint brushes just north into the metro-Springfield area.

As habitat and size goes, black rat snakes are at the other end of the spectrum.  With a few specimens measuring over six feet, they are the state’s longest snake.  Endangered rat snakes are noteworthy for their climbing ability, even laying eggs in the rotting cores of trees.  Black rat snakes are found in pockets of habitat in central Massachusetts and the Connecticut Valley.  But most of us, even if we stare up into the sun-dappled May woods for the rest of our days, will never see one.

“The coolest thing about them is their climbing ability,” researcher Peter Mirick will tell you.  Mirick is widely known for his nearly 30 years as editor of Massachusetts Wildlife, the Commonwealth’s quarterly on natural history, conservation, hunting, and fishing from the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.  But few know that his biology studies in grad school focused on reptiles and amphibians.  Today, Mirick’s field work continues–including an ongoing study of a population of endangered rat snakes in Sturbridge begun in 1997.

“In spring they are very arboreal, looking for birds and squirrels,” he says, “They’ll stick to a pine tree like Velcro.”  A kid’s enthusiasm creeps into his voice, “They have a whole different set of muscles.  They’re shaped like a loaf of bread in cross-section.”  Peter Mirick devoted nearly an entire issue of Massachusetts Wildlife to a guide describing the Commonwealth’s snake species in 2009.  Thanks to radio-tracking, he once witnessed the combat “dance” between two male rat snakes, “They intertwined from end to end.  They don’t bite each other, they wrestle. The point seemed to be holding your opponent’s head down.”  Once the loser skulked off, the winner went into a hollow log, “Apparently to mate with the female.”

Peter Mirick says common snakes like garter, ring-necked and northern water snakes seem to be doing fine, but populations of state-listed species, including the Eastern hognose snake–which receives only minimum protection, all face challenges.  He notes that decades of public and private land protection work has made great strides in protecting habitats, but speaks at a time when the MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program and the state’s ability to protect rare species have come under attack.

The attacks include both a private lawsuit and a legislative challenge to the state’s powers.  House Bill 4167, the Coakley-Rivera bill, was backed by an unusually large and somewhat unlikely group of Western MA state representatives.  The bill is largely viewed as spearheaded by complaints about development rights raised by Springfield WWLP TV Channel 22 Vice President and General Manager William Pepin.  Pepin objects to restrictions or changes that might be required through Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program considerations as he seeks to build a luxury retirement home–plus a second house on a smaller parcel, on 36 acres of land purchased with his wife in April 2009 in Hampden, MA.  Parts of the tract turned out to be the habitat of the increasingly rare Eastern Box Turtle.  Pepin is currently challenging NHESP powers in court.

Many business and development interests—and legislators in the Channel 22 viewing region, are rooting for the heavy-handed challenge to the state’s species protections in Coakley-Rivera.  But those worried about the viability rare populations see the bill as a knee-jerk, statutory-response to problems that could be addressed via minor procedural changes.  If passed as written, House Bill 4167 would strip the state’s NHESP of significant review powers—including long-held-and-rarely-used failsafe tools that are critical to ensuring the Commonwealth’s biological heritage will be protected for future generations.  Peter Mirick describes today’s species protection work in the face of developer demands as doing ‘wildlife triage’, “There’s only so much habitat to go around—with them wanting everything.”

Last September 30th, Dave Small, the state’s Assistant Regional Director of the Ware River Watershed at Quabbin Reservoir, received a call and then an email about snakes.  He was out the door in a heartbeat, “I told my boss I had to leave,” he chuckles.  The reason for the departure: baby Eastern hognose snakes.  Small zipped over to a sandy Quabbin site where friends hovered over marvelously patterned hognoses, each barely six inches long.  The snakes moved cryptically in grass and sand, just off the pavement’s edge.  They counted four in all, but one was dead–likely crushed by a pedestrian or passing cyclist.

Dave Small, President of the Athol Bird and Nature Club since 1988, is also Acting Executive Director of the Millers River Environmental Center.  They stood vigil until the snakes retreated to sandy burrows with the day’s setting sun, but worried more would be lost if they were using the pavement for warmth.  The next morning, October 1, 2009, Small and a friend were back.  Gingerly walking the pavement edge, they spotted three tiny hognoses; then another two—five in all.  They circled outward and returned: and five snakes had morphed into seven.  What happened next is described in Small’s blog, “Almost immediately movement caught our attention as another snake appeared from below ground, than another and another. Fourteen in all!”

The tiny, adult-look-alikes burrowed straight up through sand, moving “in fits and starts out into the undergrowth shedding their skins along the way.”  Bulky-bodied hognose snakes rely on their fabulous coloration—ranging from mustard to gray, to black and brown, for protection.  These harmless snakes specialize in consuming toads in their sandy habitats.  But if surprised or challenged, they will inflate an almost cobra-like hood and hiss, feigning strikes to fool predators.  If that doesn’t work they may simply loll over, playing dead in a singularly unappetizing display.

As the rarity of watching snakes hatch sank in with Small, he phoned Peter Mirick–partly to share the event, but also to check with the biologist about what was taking place, “I was on the cell phone with Peter making sure what I was observing; I wanted to fully understand it.”  In retrospect, “I just felt so privileged to be there,” Small says.  Like many of us, Small has a healthy snake phobia, “I’m definitely not one that has to pick up every snake,” he laughs. Yet if conditions permit each March 31st, he spends his birthday looking for snakes.

Though the Eastern hognose snake is mentioned beside our rare species in NHESP documents, “It’s a snake that is, at the moment, totally unprotected,” says Tom Tying.

At UMass, researchers are currently satellite-tracking six hognose snakes, he notes, “They tend to be big fat snakes that people notice, and kill.  They are truly uncommon.” Peter Mirick says he wouldn’t be surprised if the hognose was proposed for listing as a species of special concern, “It is probably at that level.”  And Dave Small–fascinated for decades by birds, butterflies, and all manner of herps since he was growing up in Athol, agrees about the hognose, and notes anecdotally, “Overall, there just aren’t as many snakes around as there used to be.”

Anne Stengle will also be out on spring’s earliest days searching for snakes.  The UMass undergrad got interested in them partly through her job at a Southampton exotic pet shop (it no longer offers reptiles), and later as a Holyoke Community College student where she signed on to do research work on the black rat snake under Tom Tyning’s guidance.  It was the first study of the black rat snake in the western Massachusetts.  It got into her blood, “Rat snakes are incredibly gorgeous, especially when you see them coiled up in a tree. They can go back and find the same spot year after year.”

At 24, Stengle’s among the new generation of herp researchers.  She worked on surveying native snakes in the Holyoke Range in 2007, incorporating radio-tagging.  That field work is done, but she continues working up data.  Meanwhile, she has moved on to tagging and studying endangered timber rattlers in the Berkshires—snakes Peter Mirick calls, “Our number one wilderness animal.”

Asked about any snake phobias, Stengle replies, “Nope—never,” She notes that most people think of snakes as egg-layers, yet half the state’s species have live births.  Stengle loves getting out to the places where those rare study species reside.  Though she favors rattlesnakes, one of her most memorable sightings was a litter of newly-born copperheads, “There were seven of them they were a muted gray–they hadn’t shed yet.  We just sat and watched.”  What amazes Stengle in her rattlesnake studies is also part of what makes this species vulnerable, “Female timbers go almost two years without eating in order to give birth—they don’t eat their entire gravid year.”

Tom Tyning’s work on snakes is providing new information on timber rattlers, copperheads and rat snakes–some of it through genetics.  In some rugged habitats where populations still exist he’s finding distributions and combinations of co-habiting snakes that begin to look like a little the Galapagos Archipelago, “We don’t know why they all coexist in some places together, but we get these oddball distribution maps that don’t quite fit what we would have guessed.”  Without further habitat protection its unknown how increasingly small, genetically-isolated populations can do, “Work in Sweden has shown that these populations can go fine for a while, and then crash,” he says, “Last year’s cool, wet summer here resulted in lots of reports of dead females or partially developed young.”

Tyning will continue mapping genes on species that can live 20 – 30 years, but only breed every two years.  Swedish biologists are making progress introducing new gene-mixing techniques in their rare populations.  But Tyning also notes a troubling development in some rare species here: anecdotal reports of disease similar to the “white nose syndrome” that has decimated the Northeast’s hibernating bat populations.  “Some claim they are seeing a health issue with some species—a fungus or bacterium.”  The worry again is that human visits and disturbance in these isolated habitats and hibernacula are possible vectors in distributing a catastrophic pathogen.  Global warming could also prove part of the scenario, “If these diseases are a real factor,” says Tyning, “We need to try and get a handle on this and inoculate or isolate populations.”

One bedrock necessity is simple enough: habitat for snakes to go about life cycles unmolested by ever-widening human consumptive patterns.  Smaller, less mobile populations like worm snakes may require just a few protected acres to remain viable.  But, for sunning, hunting, breeding, and hibernating, the sometimes-intermixed populations of copperheads, timber rattlers and rat snakes may require relatively-untrammeled tracts of hundreds—or even 1,000 acre, to continue into the future.  That means an absence of ridgetop houses, ATVs, mountain bikes and poorly chosen windmill sites with attendant road networks.  It may mean leaving the dog at home.

Tom Tyning notes with relief that one notorious rattlesnake poacher, Rudy Komarek–who reportedly removed thousands of timber rattlers from New England sites for his carnival barker lifestyle, passed away in Florida just a few years back.  But what ultimately is most needed is perhaps a simple acknowledgement that snakes have a right to exist as life forms, co-evolved with humans across millions of years on earth.  “We fail to ask the right questions,” Tyning insists, “They have their own intrinsic value. These are creatures that live without arms and legs; they hunt animals, and navigate in complete darkness.  They are nothing short of miraculous.  We are lucky to be alive with them at this time.”

Karl Meyer’s story about an encounter with Common Nighthawks along the Deerfield River will appear in the May/June 2010 issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest.