WESTFIELD, Mass. (WWLP) – The Westfield River Watershed Association’s Free Fish Ladder Open House has been rescheduled to Sunday.
Hundreds of people are expected to gather along the Westfield River Sunday to watch the American Shad as they migrate upstream.
During this time, the Westfield River Watershed Association will offer short tours along the canal and dam at the former Southworth Paper Company on Front Street in West Springfield.
“For many of our local anglers and fish enthusiasts, fish migration is one of the most exciting times of the year,” says WRWA President, Brian Conz. “Cross any of the bridges over the Connecticut River from Turners Falls south and you’ll see the boats in the river, while sites below dams will see dozens of people fishing from shore. Some of the boats might be chasing striped bass, but most are fishing for shad.”
Shad fishing is open all year, but they are most visible from shore in late spring. “People are fascinated by these big fish who battle the currents to get upstream,” adds Conz. “Our on-site experts can explain and answer questions about the Connecticut River shad and their migration. Our shad are the most numerous of the anadromous fish that migrate annually up the Connecticut River and its tributaries to spawn. Last year over 237,000 shad passed through Holyoke’s fish elevator with another 21,000 making it on to Turners Falls. Totals from the Westfield are more modest but come to the Fish Ladder Open house and you will see fish! We’ll have the counting room open which gives folks a chance to see the fish up close, and not just shad but blueback herring, gizzard shad, sea lamprey and alewife too.”
There’s more to see than migrating fish while walking along the river path. “We always see water birds such as mallards, other ducks and great blue heron. Many different warblers are migrating north to their summer nesting sites. There are a couple of beaver dams on this section of the Westfield, and sometimes folks are lucky enough to watch the beaver. There are even bald eagles who have been nesting on the lower part of the Westfield River,” adds Conz. “Perhaps we’ll spot them soaring along the river this year.”
Rain or shine, this free, family-friendly and teen-friendly activity is open to the public. The walk to the fish ladder takes about ten minutes down a dirt path. Participants are encouraged to wear appropriate footwear and dress appropriately for the weather; binoculars are useful for bird watching and viewing wildlife up close. Drinking water will be available for participants to refill their water bottles at WRWA.
“Another benefit of visiting the fish ladder is being able to identify the migrating shad in other waters of the area,” adds Ann Barone, another WRWA member. “I love feeling the connection over time when the earlier people who lived in our watershed also waited for the shad to run upstream.”
During the pandemic, the counting of migratory fish on the Westfield River has been automated, according to Caleb Slater of Mass. Fish & Wildlife. “We will open the below-water-level viewing room for the public this year. People can also see the shad as they rest and gather strength at the bottom of the dam before they head up the fish ladder itself. It’s a powerful experience to watch them, knowing how far these fish have travelled from the ocean and where they still need to swim to spawn.”
The American Shad fish , which can grow to be 20 to 24 inches long, can be found from Labrador to Florida along the entire North Atlantic Coast. Cleaner waters, fewer dams, and fish passageways like the one in West Springfield are all helping shad populations grow.
Shad are anadromous, which means they spend most of their time in water. They spend their lives in salt water at sea before returning to spawn in freshwater streams. These fish can live for up to ten years and reproduce multiple times.
Since native people, and later colonists, began fishing and drying fish, this annual fish run has been an important food source for the Connecticut River Valley. During the year-round open season, local fishermen continue to catch shad.
The family and teen friendly event is open to the public and runs from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sunday.