The herring is the backbone of our Great River's sea run or anadromous fish population. If it were not for the persistence of the herring our Great River and its tributaries would have lost their living link to the sea a century ago. The fact they persist here to this day is a truly remarkable story, and a testament to the herrings' adaptability and durability. Unlike the Atlantic salmon, sturgeon and striped bass which were extirpated from our river by the dams of early industry, the herring have persisted. Later, when pollution and extensive commercial fishing relegated our Great River's American shad runs to the pages of history books, the herring persisted. To understand truly how remarkable and vital this small silver fish is we have to explore both the history of our rivers and the herring in its natural habitat.
By its "natural habitat," we mean migrating up rivers and streams without dams. This is an important point. Most dams on our rivers were built at natural falls and ledge drops. It was here at these spots the herrings’ tenacity and endurance were put to the test. Those who lacked the necessary tenacity and endurance would not reach the uppermost spawning grounds, those that did passed on their champion bloodlines to a new generation.
Today, rather than seeing the herring charge the ledges, we watch them swim docilely up fish ladders, like so many sheep going to pasture. Although the fish ladders are of great benefit, and vital for the passage of herring around dams, they often prevent us from seeing and appreciating the true tenacity and spirit of these amazing fish.
One of the finest places to view the spectacle of a natural herring run is Ticonic Falls on the Kennebec River in Waterville, Maine. Here a dam is built at the top of a long sloping ledge drop. The ledges span the whole width of the river . Water cascades over the top of the dam, pouring down over the ledges for several hundred feet to the pools below. If it were not for the dam at the top, the whole area would appear quite natural. At Ticonic, around Memorial Day, the herring arrive in staggering number. By the tens of thousands they amass in the pools below the ledges.
Standing at the base of the ledges and looking up to the pools directly below the dam, you swear there is no way these ten inch fish will get up there. Looking back down a herring skids across the wet rocks, falling into a small pool above, curiously you take a knee to watch more carefully.
In small groups they ascend the ledges from the pools below, exploring various routes through the torrent spilling down. At first glance their narrow forms are barely visible flashing through the jagged gaps in the ledges. Looking closer, one, two, three silver flashes dash into the empty pool above. For every fish that makes it ten tumble back down.
Now the once empty pool is full of herring. Looking up from this pool you think where do they go from here, it appears to be a dead end. However, a thin sheet of water feeds this pool. No more than half an inch deep, it races across the water worn ledge surfaces from another pool four feet above. Much to your surprise a herring darts up onto this veil of water, turning on its side, its forward momentum sends it skipping like a stone toward the pool above. Beating its body violently against the ledge, it flip flops into the pool. Another follows but is forced back down by the waters force. Then another attempts the climb. This one angles her ascent wrong and skips off to the side onto the dry ledges. Before she can flip herself back into the flow, ravenous seagulls disembowel her, feasting on her roe and entrails while she gasps for oxygen on the ledge.
Making your way up the ledges, you find that each successive pool contains herring, their upward struggle playing out between each. Reaching the uppermost pools below the dam, you look on with amazement at the swarms of herring milling about.
The red highlights the general routes that the herring use to reach the base of the impassable Lockwood dam on the Kennebec River in Waterville, Maine. The removal of Edwards Dam in Augusta 1999 allowed Herring, Atlantic Salmon, American Shad, Atlantic Sturgeon, Shortnose sturgeon, Sea Lamprey, American Eel and Striped Bass access to these ledges for the first time since Edwards Dam was constructed in 1837.
The yellow dot highlights the general area where a Shortnose sturgeon was found when the flash boards where put on the dam this spring (2003). The Shortnose sturgeon is a federally listed endangered species. The sturgeon was attempting (like all the above mentioned fish) to reach its historic spawning grounds above the impassable Lockwood Dam.
Photo gallery and video clips of the rebirth of one of nature's finest spectacles, the run at Ticonic on the Kennebec.