Since 1999, Waltham fisherman Darrell Young has managed the annual alewife run in the Grist Mill Card Brook streams for the town of Franklin ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTOS BY LETITIA BALDWIN

Alewife fisherman expecting a bountiful harvest as species makes a comeback

FRANKLIN — Darrell Young, smiling, says he and his son’s 2022 alewife catch is better than ever, but won’t divulge by how much their harvest will top the 500 to 700 bushels landed in previous years in the Grist Mill Stream off Route 182. Dustin Young and crew early Monday morning waded into the brook, driving the fish swimming in from Taunton Bay upstream and guiding them into a purse sein.

From a deck and catwalks along and over the stream, using a mast-and-boom rig, Dustin, Steven Battis and Spencer Merritt labor as a team working lines to raise and lower a long, rugged net bag into the brackish waters to scoop out the trapped alewives. The heavy bag of fish is then hoisted high up, positioned and emptied over a big wooden box. On shore, crew member Mike Klingaman powered the operation driving back and forth with a rope attached to a pickup truck. On the Grist Mill Bridge above, Darrell Young oversees the operation and deals with lobster fishermen dropping by to buy the fresh bait fish that fetches $30 per bushel compared to as little as $8 per bushel two decades ago. The fish also is in demand from halibut fishermen.

Maine’s alewife-fishing season runs from May 15 through June 15.

“We’re selling everything,” Darrell Young said. He supplies some alewives for free to a Great Pond Road couple who have experience smoking fish from their previous life in Alaska.

Spencer Merritt, Steve Battis (from left, foreground) and Dustin Young (across stream) maneuver the net containing freshly trapped alewives over the fish box at the Grist Mill Stream in Franklin. ELLSWORtH AMERICAN PHOTO BY LETITIA BALDWIN

The Youngs and their crew’s harvest methods and wooden scaffolding, allowing them to maneuver around the Grist Mill Bridge and stream, have been fine-tuned over 23 years. Besides the Grist Mill Stream, the Youngs also manage the Card Brook Stream’s alewife run at the head of Hog Bay as part of a five-year contract through the town of Franklin’s river herring ordinance. When they’re not trapping alewives, the father-and-son have concentrated their energies on elver fishing for years.

Alewives are among several fish species called “anadromous” or “sea-run” that move back and forth between fresh and saltwater at key points during their lifecycle. After four years maturing in the ocean, the fish run upstream into ponds and lakes along the Eastern Seaboard. Baby alewives then hatch in the ponds and swim downstream to the sea. The fish have been a major source of food for Atlantic salmon, striped bass, bluefish, cod and haddock.

In 1999, the dismantling of the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River spurred the subsequent removal of other dams throughout Maine. While the initial impetus was to save the endangered Atlantic salmon, alewives have greatly benefited. In Maine, alewife runs now number between 60 and 100 and the number is growing as more dams impeding their migration are removed. Just last week, alewives swam upstream on their own to China Lake for the first since 1783. The alewife restoration project took a decade to accomplish and involved the removal of three dams and the installation of fishways at three other dams on Outlet Stream in Vassalboro. As a result, China Lake is reconnected to the Sebastocook River and the ocean. Close to 1 million adult alewives are expected to return to spawn in China Lake.

Another factor behind the state’s alewife comeback was the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the federal National Marine Fisheries Service’s joint development and implementation of a river herring conservation plan along the Atlantic coast. As a result of that management plan, the Maine Department of Marine Resources required that each Maine town submit an annual river herring harvest plan.

When he took over the river herring contract in 1999, Darrell Young’s predecessors were Charlie Bradbury and Eugene Robinson. Managing the Grist Mill and Card Brook streams, Young tweaked his plan for each stream as his own knowledge of the fish grew over the past two decades. Over the past five years, he has made a practice of letting 1,100 alewives migrate up stream during the season. That conservation measure has paid off. Managing both alewife runs involves trapping beavers and removal of their dams in the spring and fall to ensure passage of the mature and juvenile fish is unobstructed.

“We have learned a lot,” Young said. “They’ve [DMR fisheries scientists] been tagging fish and figuring out where they went and how much to let go for a good return.”

A scenic spot, frequented by great blue heron, the Grist Mill Stream Bridge boasts a handsome granite stairway descending to the stream. The flight of sturdy stone steps, featuring posts and rope handrails, was constructed by local builders Scott Picard and Dan Grant in 2013. Young paid for the town-authorized project, which cost $6,000, not only to make his alewife operation safer for him and his crew, but also as a place for the public to enjoy in the town where he grew up.

Letitia Baldwin

Arts Editor at The Ellsworth American
In addition to editing the Arts & Leisure section, Letitia edits special sections including Out & About, Overview, Health Quarterly, Your Maine Home, House & Garden and Get Ready for Winter. She comes from Chicago, Ill, but has deep family ties to the Cranberry Isles. [email protected]

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