Dennys River: Events, Disasters, Solutions
By Ray Robinson
At the recent meeting of the Salmon Authority in Machias I got the impression from their recovery plan that they intended to rebuild the present wild run. How can anyone in their wildest imagination think that the one Atlantic Salmon caught in the Dennys River this year represents the Wild Atlantic Salmon run? This one salmon is not going to accomplish much. There has not been a Wild Atlantic Salmon in the Dennys River for many years. I can think of only one reason that the recovery plan didn’t mention the problem of individual rivers. You have used hundreds of books and authors for your source of information. Most have never heard of the Dennys River. This source of information may be great but in no way will it address the problems of the Dennys River. Salmon fishermen have learned a lot about fishing the river and it is certainly reasonable to believe they have also recognized problems that the river might have. Biologists have much information from books. Fishermen’s’ knowledge came from time
and experience. Why can’t all parties pool their knowledge and bury the so-called hatchet even though some may insist it be buried in a shallow, well marked grave.
I wish to share with you some of the history and problems of Dennys River. These events are based on club records, personal journals, and my experience.
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REMOVE THE WEIR
Alewives have a difficult time negotiating the weir coming and going. Many die in the process. Since the weir has been installed there has been no sea run trout except for one year when the weir washed out in October 2003 and didn’t get put back in place at the usual time. It was not back in working order until mid June. It seems quite evident that the weir was the reason for lack of sea run trout. When smolts are stocked it takes a day or two to work their way through the weir. The concentration of smolts behind the weir attracts untold numbers of cormorants, mergansers, and otters. Cormorants gorge themselves until they cannot fly.
CONTROL GATE AT MEDDYBEMPS
The Dead River Company had offered the water rights to the Dennys River Salmon Club for three hundred dollars. Charlie Lombard tended the old dam for the cottage owners. He would remove or replace a plank to control the lake level within a few inches. Harry Smith, SR acquired the water rights and built a new dam and power plant. Harry’s operation was not continuous and he lowered the lake level by many feet instead of inches. The cottage owners were most unhappy. Harry was willing to sell out for $75,000.00. The cottage owners and fishermen pressured Governor Curtis to buy out Harry. It was a nation-wide letter writing campaign. One legislator, Muriel Halloway, received a letter from Bing Crosby, praising our efforts. After the state acquired ownership, George Bucknam, then Fish and Wildlife Commissioner, held a public meeting at Meddybemps and informed the cottage owners they would not vary the lake level more than two feet. I wrote to prospective salmon fishermen telling them there would be no more erratic flows. The state and the biologists were now controlling the flow of Meddybemps Lake. During the first part of June in 1967 the control gate was finished and in operation. Salmon fishermen from out of state had arrived. The river was running higher than normal with current conditions. On the morning of June 11, 1967 the river had dried up to the point that it was no longer fishable. I went to Meddybemps to find out the reason. The first person that I met was Harry Smith. Harry said, “Is the water low?” I said, “It is low.” Then Harry said, “He who laughs last, laughs best”. He had the $75,000.00. I left there to find the biologist in charge of water control. He said we had water when we needed it and now are on minimum flow for the rest of the year. We never need excess water in April and May. I explained the situation to the fishermen and they took my advice and went home. I also contacted other salmon fishermen who intended to fish the river and told them that Salmon fishing would be better elsewhere. The biologist’s water control was worse than Harry Smith’s.
The local fishermen were most unhappy about being deprived of their salmon fishing. I was president of the Salmon Club at the time and a meeting was called to map our next move. I called Augusta to get a record of the water flows from the gauge at the railroad trestle. I made up flow charts of the operation of both Harry Smith and the biologist. Ed Bartlett came up with an overhead projector. After we had done our homework we invited Maynard Marsh, then Commissioner, to a dinner meeting at the Hinkley Point Clubhouse. After viewing the biologist’s operation, the commissioner told me that he could get someone else to control the gate. I told him that it was not necessary. We wanted only common sense operation. The biologist who was controlling the gate informed me at the meeting that he was going to sue every member of the Executive Committee. He never did sue anyone.
A SIMPLE SOLUTION TO WATER FLOWS & LAKE LEVELS
Build a roll dam above the present dam with a “V” to allow for a two foot
fluctuation in the lake level as promised by George Bucknam. Since there would be no
more than four feet difference in elevation from the “V” and the existing ground level,
that area downstream from the “V” could be built up with rocks to form a natural fish
passage. The present fish way could be eliminated. This would assure that the river
would always get a normal flow. The cottage owners would be happy, the fishermen
would be happy, and I doubt if the fish would object. It would eliminate all present
USE OF LIME
It is said that the smolts being stocked cannot make the transition between fresh water and salt water. No one has proof. A few smolts can be placed in a cage in Dennys River for a week then transferred to salt water. You would soon find out if they could make the transition.
DESILTING SPAWNING AREAS
In a letter from Winnie Carter, one of the most respected Salmon authorities in New Brunswick, he wrote me that he had used a spring toothed harrow and a horse with excellent results. We have grass growing in some areas. A skidder is often used on the West Coast with a brush blade. I recommend the skidder.
BEAVERS, CORMORANTS, & SEALS
Remove the beavers from the watershed and thin out cormorants and seals.
No wild Dennys River Atlantic Salmon would ever enter the river in July when the flow was low and warm. The reason you do not get fish in the Dennys River trap in June is because there are no wild fish. Wild fish would enter in May and throughout June and sometimes during the summer if there were an extreme rainfall. Some of the river specific fish were raised by aquaculture through their adult stage. Some were stocked in the Dennys River in October; some of those were caught through the ice and during spring fishing at Meddybemps Lake. These fish should have gone downstream-not upstream. One was seen at the Mill Site and while being observed, a small fish swam by and the salmon grabbed it and ate it. Wild salmon do not feed after entering a river. When they leave a river in April, they are half the weight or less than when they came into a river in June.
I have said in the past that their basic instincts have been out bred. You would have to go back at least 15 years to find an ancestor that has made the five-year cycle. The fish that are used for stocking have gone from hatchery to river and from river to hatchery. What this has done to the fish and their gene pool I do not know, but I do know something has gone wrong.
The Penobscot River run at one time was approaching zero. Horace Bond, a salmon fishermen with political influence, wasted no time. He obtained fish from Washington County and Canadian rivers for brood stock. It has the only run of Atlantic Salmon in the State of Maine. I recommend that the process be reversed. We know that Horace Bond’s idea worked for the Penobscot. Why would it not work on the Dennys River?
In May of 1992 the Commission installed a weir and a trap to catch 30 fish and remove it by July 4. The fishermen thought it was the most hilarious idea they had heard for some time. After somewhat friendly lines of conversation between the parties, one saying no you can’t and one saying yes we can, the score on July 4 was one fish. The one salmon was caught on June 29 and proved we were losing the June run.
In 1978 Harry Vose, then Senator from this area, told the head biologist that we would like to have 30,000 smolts for the Dennys River. His reply was: “Oh, no, it is biologically wrong”. Harry’s reply to him was, how about bio-political? Harry was on the appropriation committee for the Atlantic Salmon Commission. We got the 30,000 and the people delivering the fish were told to dump them in the tidewater. These were fish from the Penobscot. Those delivering the fish followed the directions the best they could. The tide had begun to ebb. I witnessed the dumping off the upper bridge and have never seen smolts leave the river so fast. The question at that time was-would they get the so-called river imprint and return to the river? In the past all stocking had been at least a couple of miles upstream. In 1980 they returned but acted strangely. They ascended the river a few hundred yards to Charlie’s Rips and stayed there for the summer. The fishing there was unbelievable! One morning five fish were being played and landed at one time. At a meeting at the Boat School in Eastport, a biologist told us if the fish had been stocked without heads or tails we would have had a good run. 1980 was a good water year and most rivers did well. The rod count on the Narraguagus River was 106. The fishermen’s best estimate for salmon caught on the Dennys River was close to 300.
At a Machias meeting at Bob Foster’s establishment, the discussion finally got around to predators. The state’s head biologist at the time was chairman of the meeting. The biologist said that he knew that cormorants eat “hatchery” smolts but he didn’t know if they ate “wild” smolts. He said they would have to have a study. After the meeting, someone remarked that he was educated beyond his ability to reason. Clyde Noyes, IF&W warden at the time, among others were involved in the shooting of some of the cormorants in Machias Bay. Their gullets were opened to check their diet. One had a bullfrog and a spruce cone. Common sense tells us that they would never pass up a “wild” smolt.
I believe the purpose of the weir was to prevent aquaculture fish from spawning in the wild. At least two aquacultural fish were caught in one day in the trap and released up river. James Robinson noted that one fish was sick and dying and called Joey Gardner, the local warden. Joey retrieved the fish and I had a chance to look it over. It had an undeveloped tail, which is an obvious characteristic of an aquacultural fish. For further proof the scales were sent for identification. The results came back that the fish was definitely aquacultural. Four salmon above and one salmon below the weir died this particular year that we know about. One year two grilse were caught and this year, 2004, one fish. The trap has done better some years, but one would be hard pressed to justify the expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In 1967 the Club petitioned the Salmon Commission to close the Dennys River from the upper narrows to Meddybemps to all Atlantic Salmon fishing after July 1st. A public hearing was held at the Dennysville Library. Lynn Bond, son of Horace Bond, was the chairman. Three people spoke against the proposal. Two were not Atlantic Salmon fishermen. A letter from the Salmon Commission denied our proposal. In 1984, seventeen years later, our proposal was written into the Fish and Game law books. Why should it take the Salmon Commission 17 years to realize our declining salmon runs need more protection?
Some fishermen visited the Atlantic Salmon experimental station in St. Andrews, Canada and were told that if they wished to make any changes on the Dennys River they would have to convince the biologists that it was their idea. The Commission’s reputation had spread far and wide. The biologists thought protecting the Black Salmon was wrong because they were not good for anything and may as well be caught. How could any biologist be so wrong? The commission passed laws protecting Small Mouth Bass on the Dennys River. How ridiculous!! The Commission never readily accepted our suggestions. One took seventeen years. We have lived through the great years of the Atlantic Salmon on Dennys River and it is doubtful we shall ever see such years again.
Hopefully this review of the history and mistakes of the past can be of some value in creating a future Atlantic Salmon run on Dennys River.
Ray Robinson’s family has had an active interest in Atlantic Salmon for many years. In the 1890’s salmon eggs were shipped by stagecoach from Craig Brook Hatchery to his grandfather, James Robinson. The eggs were hatched in his spring and stocked in Venture Brook, a tributary of the Dennys River. Ray and his father, Bill Robinson, built log cabins on the bank of the Dennys. Meal and guide service was provided for salmon fishermen.
In the past, Ray served as Secretary or President of the Salmon Club for many years. He also was a member of an Advisory Council during Glen Manual’s administration. Ray and Ed Bartlett co-authored the book “Salmon on the Dennys”.
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