FRANKLIN — A smiling Darrell Young says he and his son’s 2022 alewife catch is better than ever, but he 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 seine.
From a deck and catwalks along and over the stream, using a mast-and-boom system, Dustin Young, 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 opened over a big wooden box. On shore, crew member Mike Klingaman serves as a hydraulic hauler of sorts, backing up 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 purchase 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, from their previous life in Alaska, have experience smoking fish.
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 not trapping alewives, the father-and-son team has concentrated 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 deconstruction or installation of fishways at six 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 upstream 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 the 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 herons, 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.