Dam good news for many species of fish

DICK PINNEY
Guide Lines
July 31. 2011 7:49PM

Winnicut River structure: Removal of a deteriorated head-of-tide dam will allow many sea-run species to return to the river and its tributaries.

THE WINNICUT RIVER that enters the saltwater in Greenland with its headwaters stretching into the towns of Stratham and North Hampton has become the first of Great Bay's major tributaries since the early years of colonial settlement of the area to no longer have a dam at the headof- tide.

It's easy to see why dams were so important to the colonial settlements. They provided water power to run mills, which provided necessary products. Two of the most important products - truly necessities of life - were grain and lumber, and gristmill dams and sawmill dams figured prominently in the settlers' ability to deliver these products.

Even small brooks and streams running into Great Bay were dammed. One in particular in Greenland, Haynes Brook, produced electrical power used to can vegetables grown on the abundant local farms. Throughout my lifetime, this dam had been called the 'Cannin' Factory Dam' and the pond that it flooded was also called 'Cannin' Factory Pond.'

One side effect of these local dams affected New England's sportsmen: They destroyed most of the fish runs that entered these rivers and streams from the ocean to spawn.

As the industrial revolutionera mills gave way to machines run by electrical power in the late 19th Century, these dams became mostly obsolete.

Several years before my time, the old dam at the head-of-tide at the Winnicut River had washed out so the river was running full of searun herring, American eels, lamprey eels (not really true eels), smelt and the occasional sea-run brook trout. Little elvers that had made their way the thousands of miles back from the Sargasso Sea to where their parent American eels had bred, swarmed up into the Winnicut River by the thousands as did those awful looking lampreys.

As kids, we used to hate the lampreys as they scared the life out of you if you were wading the Winnicut River barefoot fishing for trout. I've never known of one actually grabbing a human, but that ring of teeth surrounding their round, suction-cup mouth made for a scary sight.

But lampreys were indeed a part of the successful natural state of the river as they spawned and died and at death added tons of nutrients to the whole river watershed, actually a transfer of nutrients from ocean to land. Mother Nature surely had her plans.

The old millpond at the head of tide seemed to have sentimental value to those who were brought up in that neighborhood. So eventually, spurred on by a local conservation officer, a plan was laid and consummated to replace the dam and to create a waterfowl- friendly backwater; a low-head dam that could have easily been created to enable the passage of the marine life that passed up the river.

That conservation officer didn't like this plan. He wanted the dam to be the same height as the old one, and put enough pressure to bear that the plans were changed and a fish ladder that was said to be 'state-of-the-art,' costing thousands of extra dollars, was put in place.

There was a problem with this ladder, however. It may have been state-of-the-art for such fish as trout and salmon, fish that were capable of jumping from pool to pool.

But the new ladder spelled the eventual loss of just about all the fish runs from the ocean into the Winnicut - herring, lamprey, smelt, American eel elvers, etc.

Now for the good news: This dam has been taken out by the state Fish and Game Department, and an easy-touse fish passage is being put in place under the Route 33 bridge where, during construction of the bridge, some rubble created a small, lowhead dam. This dam removal had brought with it new interest in and study of the watershed, and a remarkable discovery was made: There exists in one of the river's tiny tributaries a remnant population of native brook trout. Friends, let me tell you that native brookies on the New Hampshire Seacoast are as scarce as hen's teeth.

Another conclusion of this study is that passage to this native trout brook from the mainstream of the river is impossible because of a road culvert with a long drop on the downstream side. A solution to this problem is in the works, with a fish passage-friendly culvert in the near future.

Local conservation groups such as the Great Bay Chapter of Trout Unlimited and the New Hampshire Chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association are helping to implement the culvert replacement in the hope that sea-run trout eventually will return to ascend the Winnicut River, allowing Mother Nature's original planning to be restored for all the species.

This writer spent many happy hours as a small child, riding a bike to fish both the Winnicut River and that tiny native brookie stream. It's hard to control the emotion that has flowed with the thoughts of the past and the hope for the future of this watershed.

Godspeed in your efforts, New Hampshire Fish and Game.

Dick Pinney's Guide Lines column appears weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Readers may e-mail him at DoDuckInn@aol.com.


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