Alewife are anadromous fish; they spend most of their lives in the ocean, but return to fresh water to spawn. An important food fish, bait fish, and favorite prey of striped bass, their runs are said to have been declining along the Atlantic coast partly due to construction of barriers on spawning tributaries. To combat the declining number of alewife and other native fish, the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) has constructed on the Carmans River Long Island’s first permanent fish ladder.
The fish ladder is said to permit fish to move upstream beyond a previously impassable barrier into Hards Lake in South Haven County Park, connecting two now isolated parts of this South Shore Estuary. Alewife and sea-run brook trout (a.k.a. "salters") now have access to spawning areas above the Hards Lake Dam. The Carmans River, which flows from Middle Island in the north to Bellport Bay in the south, holds the largest remaining population of brook trout on Long Island.
The barrier dam at South Haven is not new, at least on a human scale. A mill dam was first constructed there in the early 18th century. Several other early mill dams remain along the river, including two former mill dams at Yaphank and smaller weir dams built by various tenants principally to enhance fishing. Since the early 19th century, brook trout has been farmed in fish hatcheries for the stocking of the river. One can still visit a hatchery originally built by the Hards for their Suffolk Game Farm (see Suffolk Club & "Fireplace" Hard Estate) and I believe still maintained by Suffolk County.
Probably the most famous story of fishing on the river from the early 19th century concerns Daniel Webster. The river was very popular among well-heeled sportsmen. A huge trout had become legendary and Webster was determined to catch it. One Sunday, during services at the South Haven Presbyterian Church, one of Carman’s servants slipped in and whispered to Webster that the fish had been seen in the pond below the dam. Webster and Samuel Carman (owner of the dam, mills and surrounding land) sneaked out. Other congregants got the message and began to leave. The minister, seeing the hopelessness of continuing, ended his sermon and the whole congregation watched Webster catch the fourteen-and-a-half pound trout. The much celebrated trout lives on as a wooden replica on the weather vein of the church even today. The event was also memorialized in a Currier & Ives print. It is still said to have been among the largest brook trout ever caught.
A native South Haven resident, who was a young girl in the early 1930s, 200 years after the original mill dam was constructed, remembers the alewife runs as being enormous. They would come up the river and pool at the pond below the dam. They would be so dense that they would jump out of the river onto the shore. She remembers collecting them in baskets and wheelbarrows, and her mother would use them as fertilizer in the garden. She remembers that they were also smoked for human consumption, but were not to her taste.
I have visited the area below the South Haven dam many times, and have never noticed the alewives. This will be the first year that it has been in place during the Spring run. I'm sure someone will be keeping track of its effectiveness.
And maybe someone will explain to me how the little buggers know that climbing the ladder can be a good thing.