River's Ebb
June 26, 2001

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I read an article the other day suggesting the removal of derelict dams from the Connecticut River. It seems that these derelict dams create pockets of warm water in the river that don't support salmon very well. Naturally, I started thinking...

I grew up on the Connecticut River. I mean this literally, because nearly all of my best childhood memories involved being out in a boat or an inner tube or even on the ice of that great river. I have fished that river, swam in it and enjoyed it all my life. I have watched the proceedings of kingfishers, osprey, beavers and blue heron for 40 years and enjoyed every minute of it. I remember catching my first walleye there and spotting my first eagle. I remember standing on its banks during the flood of '73. I remember the fire of the Perseids at night, falling asleep to a Whip-Poor-Will lullaby, and being wakened in the morning by loons. It has always been a wonderful place.

I do not, however, think of salmon when I think of the Connecticut River. I've been fishing in that river for 40 years. I've caught walleye, perch, brown trout, brook trout, rainbow trout, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, perch, bluegill, rock bass, crappie, dace, suckers, pickerel and northern pike out of that river. No salmon, no shad. It may have been a salmon river once, but no more - not during my lifetime.

For those of you who don't know, the government has been trying to return salmon to the river for the past 30 years or so. Salmon, like eels, shad and lamprey, are anadromous fish. They live their adult lives in the ocean, but return to fresh water to spawn. This annual migration was disrupted by the building of dams. The restoration project built fish ladders in the river dams and began introducing salmon fry into tributaries such as the White River. Over the years, millions of dollars have been spent on this project, with some success in southern New England, but very little up this way.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Environmentally oriented. Everybody's in favor of that. I certainly am, because I remember a time when companies poured raw chemicals and towns raw sewage straight into the river.

The Connecticut River Salmon Project is a disgrace. It would be one thing if they'd just built fish ladders and stocked salmon fry and hoped that nature might take its course. That wasn't enough though. Apparently the salmon didn't do well in competition with other species of fish. At some point, they decided to import hybrid tiger muskie to help clean out the "trash fish." That didn't work. They have tried other invasive tactics such as lowering the water level during the spawning period of yellow perch to try to disrupt the spawning. That didn't work either. What's next, some type of short-life, selective biologic or chemical agent?

What has been done under the guise of restoration of indigenous species over the course of 30 years, has been the systematic attempt to alter what has become the natural state of the river. Like it or not, the river has evolved naturally into a productive and rich fishery. The fact that the fishery does not include salmon and shad is inconsequential. The loss of salmon habitat in the river was achieved through ignorance and human progress. While that is regrettable, the systematic attempt to eliminate other species of fish in an attempt to return the salmon is reprehensible.

It's time for the government to stop pouring money into this sinkhole. Like it or not, nature has adapted the river to accommodate human activity and dam building. Nature has a stronger hold on the river than ever and will not yield. This and other projects, conducted in the name of environmentalism, have lost touch with reality. They are being overrun with an environmental elitism that, rather than working in concert with nature, seek to manipulate nature in their own image.

It's funny in a way. Despite all the expense and attempts at manipulation, the prime beneficiaries of the salmon project have been the Northern Pike. Thirty years ago, Northerns were relatively rare, found mainly in the northernmost parts of the river. Now they are everywhere and grow monstrous gorging themselves on salmon fry. I think nature is sending us a message here. Let the river be.

Jim Bennett

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March 21, 2009