Signs of Spring: Blackflies & Alewives

May 23, 2017 | By: Merritt Carey

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There are few things that mark spring’s arrival in Maine with more certainty than the arrival of black flies and the alewife migration. Alewives are the preferred bait for many fishermen in the spring, and each year when they run you will find dozens of fishermen waiting at the town operated fish traps that dot Maine’s rivers in hopes of filling their trays with the small, silvery bait fish.

And so it was when I arrived just before 5am at the fish trap in Warren one warm mid-May morning. The first thing I noticed was the trucks, which did not surprise me, wherever there are fishermen, there will be trucks. The second thing I noticed was the faint smell of smoke from the alder fire, lit to smolder and smoke in an attempt to ward off the black flies. 

The trap is essentially a fence that runs diagonally upstream and spans the river forcing the fish to swim into what acts as a corral.  When there are enough alewives in the pen, Dana, the trap operator in Warren, takes a large dip net and scoops them into a stainless tank.  When the tank is full, depending how many fishermen (and trucks) there are, each fisherman gets an allotted amount, three trays, or 6 bushels. That’s how it works in theory. But as with anything in life, and particularly anything related to fishing, the distance between theory and reality is often vast. 

Adjacent to the trap sits a fish house, once used for smoking alewives, today used as a place for fishermen to sit and chat, while they wait (hope) for fish to show up.

At one point Dana wandered out and maneuvered his dip net into the water. There were a few fish; but the tide wasn’t dropping. Up stream from the ocean the tide isn’t predictable as it is by the ocean’s edge, controlled in part by the ebb and flow of the ocean tide, but also by the runoff from upstream and the previous week had been marked by torrential rain. With the water high, it was virtually impossible for Dana to get a good angle to scoop the fish out. And there were very few fish to speak of in any case.

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I left the trap and walked across the bridge to the other side of the river. There was nothing high tech about the operation: a series of lines staked to shore held up the two by fours in the river which the nets were strung across, the lines humming from the pressure of the current.  The sun began to poke out from behind the morning’s mist; I could see and hear bald eagles, osprey and seagulls. Cormorants came and went. The sounds were those of the ocean; but the sweet, sticky smell of the river was vastly different from the clean salt smell of the sea. This was an inbetween place: the alewives and their yearly migration, bringing these two worlds together.

People along New England’s coast have relied on alewives since there were first settlers. Historically, so the lore goes, each widow in a town was granted a set amount of alewives; fishermen would then buy the alewives from the widows for bait. Today, with restored habitat, thanks in part to a number of ambitious and successful dam removal projects on some of Maine’s larger rivers, and good management by the Department of Marine Resources, this small silvery fish has earned the title of a “keystone species” converting plankton which cause harmful algea blooms in lakes and ponds into a source of sustenance for virtually every bird of prey as well as ocean fish such as cod, haddock and pollock. 

From the other side of the river, I could hear intermittent banter from the fishermen, who now stood chatting, glancing down at the trap, watching for the signs of a run. “Here are the birds, maybe now we’ll see some fish.” 

I walked back over to the other side.  By now it was pushing 7am; most guys had been here since 5am. If fishing required patience, this was surely a testament.  “Well,” said Robert Morris, a fisherman I knew fairly well, “I don’t know if we’ll be getting any today.” I stood looking down at the trap, I could see the fish, dozens and dozens of them. To me they looked plentiful, but I’d been told when they were really running, you could just about walk across the water on them. “We might just have to wait until Monday, see what happens then,” Robert concluded, the Maine fisherman wait-and-see approach always winning the day.  Each trap must allow a certain number of fish through to ensure a stable and rebounding population. The traps all do it differently, in Warren they simply open the gates Friday and let the fish pass through all weekend, closing them Monday morning at 5am.  

In the end Robert came away with just 1 tray of bait for all his trouble. Others were similarly (un)rewarded. “They’ll be more coming,” I heard Dana say. “This is just the start of the run, they come every year.” And I thought: just like spring in Maine – its arrival painfully slow, ushered with cold rain and raw easterlies – but ushered nonetheless, and followed, happily, by summer.

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