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December 20. 2014 9:01PM

Human intervention hobbling ice fishermen


WE'VE LIVED ON and utilized Great Bay for our outdoor recreation and source of great food for about half a century and have never thought that some of these things we cherished could come to a screeching halt. But we are not happy to pass the word: that was then and this is now and things have changed for the worse.

Mother Nature probably is the cause for one thing: lack of fishable ice for the hordes of fishermen who would set up "encampments" out on the ice and fish both night and day for the saltwater smelt that would come in from the ocean in numbers that were no doubt staggering.

Back in the heyday of this fishery, fishing camp villages out on the ice would include fishing "shanties" in the 400 to 500 range. They spread out from Exeter, Stratham, Greenland and Newington and even over at Newmarket and Durham, which found the fishermen out on the frozen tidal waters of the Lamprey, Squamscott and Oyster rivers.

Well, those days are gone, as for the last decade the ice pack never formed in some years and in other years only offered a month at the most of safe ice to fish on.

Things have gone from bad to worse! It's not the lack of ice but lack of fish! And to our knowledge, nobody had put a definite finger on the cause, but one thing we did find out was that Fish and Game's Coastal Division may have dropped the ball on keeping tabs on the health of the smelt population.

Our Coastal Division has been on its toes and has kept a good finger on the pulse of what is happening on Great Bay and its tributaries for a long time. In the spring, when the saltwater smelt would move on to their historical spawning beds in the bay's tributaries, they could keep track of the success or failures of the spawning by setting special burlap covered wood en-frames in the stream beds. The burlap would catch and keep alive the eggs and these would be counted, egg for egg each year after spawn and then be returned to these rivers to hatch. This was one of the best ways to keep track of the size of the smelt population and had a long history of providing this information.

But for some reason (and this information came to me from a most reliable source) and unknown to the public, this smelt egg procedure had not been done in the last five years so it was only by a very spotty survey of fishermen on the ice could the health of this valuable natural resource be monitored. Out of those last five years, the smelt anglers' numbers plummeted for lack of ice and lack of fish!

Tell me it ain't so, Joe!

Now comes a little frosting on the spoiled cake. When the locally famous boondoggle, the Winnicut River Dam, was built at the head of the tide, the plans called for the creation of a waterfowl impoundment behind the dam. These impoundments are almost universally designed to have lots of shallows and a low head dam.

But pressure from a local and long passed conservation officer who had missed the old dam that furnished power for a small factory, put enough pressure on to change the waterfowl-based plans for a much higher dam and with it a fish ladder that allegedly would pass sea-run trout, salmon, herring and smelt.

Well for many years it did support a very small population of waterfowl, mostly wood ducks. And the fish ladder was a complete failure and if it passed a few lamprey or American eels, that could be considered a bonus!

Spin the clock's hands about 50 years forward. A new hue and cry for removal of the dam and defunct fish ladder was finally heard and answered by a now-better advised Coastal Division. And the purpose of this removal was to construct a new fish passage device (nobody uses the "fish ladder" term any more) was to be built under the Route 33 bridge, which did have a very low natural bump underneath that could create problems for fish passage.

The species that would most benefit from this new fish passage would be herring, both river herring and alewives. And hopefully maybe smelt would benefit from it. Could you guess what you're going to read next?

Yup, the fish passage was built, supposedly the newest and latest design, and it doesn't work.

Hundreds of thousands of your dollars went into this effort. And nobody has found out whether the problem was a design flaw or a construction mistake. Or, if they know, they are not acknowledging it.

It pains me to have to write such a scathing indictment of our Fish and Game Department's Coastal Division, as we've had a very supportive relationship with them over the years. But the buck has to stop somewhere and they have to be the first place.

Just in: News from Guide and fellow outdoor writer Tim Moore. He's producing a free "Modern Ice Fishing Seminar" on Tuesday, Jan. 2 at 6 p.m. at the Great Bay Discovery Center in Greenland.

We know and admire Tim and his knowledge of this great outdoors activity is probably the top in this subject! See us there also, good Lord willing! Drop us an email at and get out there and get some recreation and wild food. And we hope we haven't spoiled anyone's joy of the holiday season so Jane and I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Dick Pinney's column appears weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Email him at DoDuckInn@aol.

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