A Path of Fish
An alewife is a beautiful fish. Its back is dark blue, its belly, silver. It is laterally compressed, deep from dorsal fin to the sharp belly scales that can slice the skin on the palm of your hand, and as narrow from gill to gill as a pack of cards, a perfect shape to move up through down-rushing water. Put your hand in a fast stream, your fingers pointed into the current, and feel the water part. You can't do it with your palm catching the flow, but it is easy when you aim your fingers upstream, the way an alewife aims its snout.In the 1970s and for generations before that, Patten Stream, in my town, supported one of the best commercial alewife runs in the state. In the old days, alewives grew to be more than a foot long. They could weigh up to a pound. But today, if we see them at all, they are younger, smaller fish. They were sold to lobster cooperatives for trap bait, to companies that made fish meal, and to people who hung them in their smokehouses and made a tough pemmican for the general stores along the coast. As a child, my son loved to eat smoked alewives that used to be stacked on the counters of every store. They were soft-boned, darkly fleshed, sweetly chewy. They tasted of salt and a hint of mold.
Alewives still gather at Patten Bay at the mouth of Patten Stream in the spring. When the ice lets go and the rains come, you can hear the stream as you drive over it on Route 172. It sounds like half a dozen people standing inside the culvert under the road practicing their kettledrums. If you are a bit deaf, all you have to do is to turn your head toward the bay, to the plumes of water pitching over boulders. Patten Stream is beautiful this time of year because it cannot contain such excess.
More than fifty years ago, Wayne McGraw's father bought a lease from the town to harvest alewives. He built a wooden footbridge, just above the mouth of the stream, just before the bay, and when his boys were tall enough, he taught them to lean out over the bridge and scoop up the fish in dip nets, just as Wayne taught his own sons when they were grown.
"The year before the run dropped off for good, we had the biggest catch ever," he told me. "They came into the Union River the length of it. Right to the big dam. And they came in here to Patten Bay so thick the bay was solid. It looked like you could walk across it on their backs. And I think there might have been almost as many seals out there as fish. And the gulls were screaming so loud you couldn't hear yourself think. Anyone who hasn't seen it can't imagine it, a path of fish a hundred feet wide stretching clear down this bay.
"But they just stopped coming like they used to. For fifty years I saw them swim in by the thousands. Some years we'd land 24,000 bushels, maybe more, and every spring they'd be back."
People in town used to time their lives to seasonal events such as the alewife run. Today, most of us hardly notice it when it does come. The loss of a huge number of fish has changed the bay and the stream and the ponds where they once spawned, where their eggs and fry fed other species of freshwater fish. And it has changed the people who live here. The alewife runs all along the coast dropped off at about the same time. Over-fishing, dams, the heating up of the breeding ponds as a result of those dams and other impediments, pollution run-off, these trespasses contributed to the bust. But there is something more, something we can't quite read.
Here in Surry, there is no trace left of the old footbridge. Route 172 crosses the stream, and when the road was last upgraded, a big new culvert was laid down to usher the water underneath and deposit it back in its bed fifty yards before the bay. The culvert sits on a riprap of boulders, and sometimes, when the spring melt and the rains are not ample, it stands above the streambed and spews out a thin ribbon of water. It is a hung culvert. The alewives coming in from the ocean cannot reach it.
One spring, a group of neighbors and I and our children climbed down the bank with nets and five-gallon buckets and caught alewives trapped in the pools and thrashing at the lip of the culvert. We hauled them up and across the road and released them back into the stream. We worked in a haze of sweat and blackflies, but still, when we left, there were hundreds of fish schooling below.
When I drove by Patten Stream this spring, I spotted an osprey and four gulls wheeling over the maples and birches that grow along the banks. They were dropping down toward the charging water where it meets the bay. I got a quick look at the blunt heads of two seals out in the high tide, and I knew the time had come. The alewives were back.
The rains had been good, and Patten was a wild and muscular surge of water. Above it, the branches of the trees crisscrossed the air with their pale unfolding leaves. I turned my car around and headed back, drove down the dirt road to the town landing and pulled to a stop. A telephone lineman had parked his yellow truck next to the stream. He was eating a sandwich, sitting in the truck with the door open and watching the scene, in spite of the light rain.
I got out of my car for a closer look. Rain squalled across the bay. The backs of the fish pierced the surface, hugging the mouth of the stream. Three ospreys circled down and rose again as the fish sank beneath their shadows. Herring and black-backed gulls stood on the rocks screaming.
I sat down on a rock across from them. In front of me five cormorants were swiveling and diving through the fish. Cormorant eyes have bright turquoise irises. From where I sat, I could see them. I could see the orange gular pouches, the slack skin at their throats. One bird dove and came up wrestling a silver-bellied fish, flipped it into the air and caught it face first and swallowed. The two harbor seals dove and came up and hung in the water, their huge, black eyes keyed to the stream. No one seemed to notice me, not even the great blue heron stepping elegantly along the opposite bank as the stream foamed and pitched across the rocks and shot straight into the tide. One by one, some of the fish slipped up to rest in the dark pools by the sides of the rocks before they tried the next step.
"Nobody owns anyone, except in memory," John Updike wrote. I suppose that goes for owning wild migratory fish in a hometown stream as well. We can spend our lives regretful. We can watch three ospreys and want a dozen. We can hear the shattering screams of twenty gulls and know that true cacophony is a hundred of them, each one insisting on its own insatiable hunger. We can want fish we can walk over, but those are Wayne McGraw's memories, not ours. I would like to see what he saw, but I don't dare miss what is here now. I was taking it all in, just like the lineman, loving the rain, these hungry birds and seals, these silver-bellied, blue-backed fish, maybe a couple of thousand of them, rushing for the deep pockets between the rocks. They will spawn in Upper and Lower Patten ponds this year, and swim back down, and their young, before fall settles in, will ride the current to the bay. The water will get them there and back for now.
The lineman stepped out of his truck and squatted on a rock next to me. Together we watched the fish leap and slide and hammer their way up.
The pitching water was so loud, we couldn't have heard each other speak even if we had wanted to, and the rain had started again. The fish, one by one, hurdled, fell back, hurdled, fell back. Then one kinked its way into a higher pool. The lineman and I saw it resting there, slowly sweeping its tail back and forth, and we turned to each other and grinned.