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After a century’s absence, a glimmer of possibility for a native New York salmon

Fishing is all about longing. The angler wading into the center of the Fisherman’s Pool in the town of Willsboro expressed that longing again and again, fishless cast after fishless cast. But Zach Eisenhauer of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who was methodically dragging a net around that same pool from the stern of a canoe, was expressing a much more profound longing. Both fishermen were trying to catch salmon. But while the angler wanted a trophy for his wall, Eisenhauer was looking for a salmon to help him restore wild salmon to the whole of the Champlain Valley.  

The site of this unlikely face off was the Boquet River in Essex County, New York. Called the “Bow-kwet” by some, “Bow-ket” by others and sometimes just “the bucket” by Eisenhauer, who is in it up to his armpits throughout the fall spawning season, the river is the state’s last, best chance to have a legitimately wild salmon run. While there are a few dozen put-and-take, hatchery-stocked salmon rivers throughout the North Country, none is truly self-sustaining. The Boquet could be different. In its finest reaches it is the Platonic form of a salmon river. It has deep, throbbing center-current runs to channel the fish as they migrate up from Lake Champlain to spawn. The stretches that have not been trampled by dairy cows have cool, forested undercut banks for fish to rest. Farther upstream there are nice gravel patches for pregnant females to deposit their eggs. By all rights there should be a booming salmon fishery in the former industrial town of Willsboro, where the Fisherman’s Pool lies and where the Fish and Wildlife guys were seining. Ignore the beer cans and old tackle packages scattered around the parking lot and you could imagine well-heeled city folk casting fly patterns with fancy aristocratic names like Jock Scott, Blue Charm and Green Highlander. But very little of this is going on in the Boquet. That’s because, up until relatively recently, the Boquet River didn’t have any salmon at all.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists attempt to net mature landlocked Atlantic salmon at the Boquet River’s Fisherman’s Pool.

After paddling three circles of the Fisherman’s Pool, Eisenhauer felt the net cord on his seine tighten with the weight of a heavy fish. He pulled in the net hand over hand and then called out to his Fish and Wildlife colleagues on shore.

“She’s a big one!” he shouted. The fly-fisherman reeled in, took off his polarized sunglasses and gawked. One of the other fish techs came over with a blue plastic trough and Eisenhauer tipped the net toward him. Out slid a two-foot-long salmon about seven pounds, bright and silver and full of the roaring energy of river. Eisenhauer then deposited the fish in a tank in the bed of the Fish and Wildlife pickup truck and we set off upriver to find a good place for her to spawn.

In earlier times all of this human effort to help a single salmon get upstream would have seemed outright crazy. Landlocked Atlantic salmon, a subspecies of the more familiar sea-run form of the fish, evolved in the region after being cut off from their ocean-going cousins by the movement of glaciers. With Champlain as their ocean, they grew fantastically abundant—so abundant that from a wagon driven into a shallow tributary, men could “spear them with pitchforks, and thus obtain in a few minutes all the fish needed for consumption,” as one 19th-century historian wrote. Whereas the Fish and Wildlife team only managed a single seven-pound fish in an hour of netting on the Boquet, just one pull of a seine near Willsboro in the early 1800s hauled in 1,500 pounds, with some fish hitting the 20-pound mark. Similarly mighty runs of landlocked Atlantics could also be found in nearby Lake Ontario and on up through Maine and into Quebec.

But then those massive runs of giant salmon began dwindling because of what seems in retrospect almost like a concerted effort by humankind to destroy them. From the arrival of Samuel de Champlain in the 1600s to the 19th century, farmers cut down 60 percent of the watershed’s forest cover. The old-growth trees held in place millions of tons of nutrient-rich soil. When the trees were cut, silt overwhelmed the rivers and annual floods scoured them of fish habitat. This was noted in tributaries on the New York and Vermont sides of Champlain and it was something that affected all manner of fish. Zaddock Thompson, in his 1854 Natural History of Vermont, observed, “The trout, perch, and sucker were formerly very abundant in the streams in this state. But on account … of the number of streams being swept out by violent freshets since the country has been cleared, fishes have become more scarce.”

Hand in hand with the clearing of forests was another major factor in the salmon’s destruction that came to mind as Eisenhauer drove me past the roaring cascade at Willsboro: dams. In spite of the fact that upstate residents clearly valued the salmon (nearby Clinton County even uses one on its county seal), Willsboro villagers laid a dam across the Boquet in 1813 that completely blocked the fish’s access to spawning grounds. Soon the same thing happened on nearly every other Champlain tributary. In all, 436 dams were built. By 1880 salmon were extirpated from the Champlain watershed entirely.

It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that residents and management agencies on both sides of the lake started to think about restoring what they had lost. Swept up in the enthusiasmof the environmental movements of the 1960s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began an extensive salmon reintroduction program both for sea-run varieties on coastal rivers and for landlocked varieties that occurred in New York State, Vermont and Maine. Taking eggs from the last still-viable salmon stocks in Maine’s West Grand and Sebago Lakes, salmon were reintroduced to Champlain. For the first few years the fish seemed to take. But then they came face to face with an ancient eel-shaped pre-vertebrate called sea lamprey.

Lamprey affix themselves to the sides of salmon and can suck an adult fish dry of fluid in a matter of days. Researchers can’t agree whether they are native or invasive to Champlain. Regardless, there is no disputing that the reintroduced Maine salmon, which may have lacked the original Champlain salmon’s anti-lamprey adaptations, were no match for the parasites.

“As soon as those salmonids were introduced, the lamprey population just skyrocketed,” says Bill Ardren, Zach Eisenhauer’s boss at Fish and Wildlife who heads the salmon restoration program out of Essex Junction, in Vermont. “We were seeing 100 wounds for every 100 fish.”

Federal and state officials continued to stock salmon into the lake through the 1970s and ’80s, but it was essentially a put-and-take fishery. Ardren told me, “No fish were living the requisite two years to let them spawn in the rivers.”

Thanks to an ever-evolving lamprey suppression program begun in 1990, lamprey are now significantly reduced in the lake and wounding rates are at about 20 per 100 fish, which is why Ardren thinks we’re seeing a “second pulse” of salmon starting to come up the Boquet again.

Weighing, measuring and tagging salmon bred from stock in Sebago Lake, Maine.

This second pulse seems to have awoken a longing for a self-sustaining salmon run in the region, especially passionate in the former Essex County Planning Director Vic Putnam. Putnam had interned with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) on some early salmon research on the lake in the 1970s and later worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when they began talks with local communities throughout the northeast to raise interest in restoring native fish. An enthusiastic angler, he was a founding member of the Boquet River Association and a student of local history. All this drew his attention to the dam at Willsboro, which he came to realize was a major impediment to salmon restoration. The dam did have a fish ladder, but it was largely ineffective. Putnam couldn’t get it out of his mind that a free-flowing river with salmon surging past could once again be the natural order of things. Unfortunately, villagers didn’t feel the same way.   

“Residents enjoyed looking at the placid water of the impoundment behind the dam,” Putnam told me. “They were aghast when they heard we were talking about removing it. They were like, ‘What’s going to happen to the ducks on the mill pond?’ And, ‘Won’t teenagers put graffiti all over the rocks once the water level drops?’”

Putnam, though, prevailed; after federal funding came through as part of a larger flood control package, the Willsboro dam was removed in the fall of 2015. The year after that, two centuries of silt that had built up behind the dam washed downstream as the river gradually repaired itself. November 2017, the time of my visit, was the first season biologists were hoping salmon were going to make a real-life spawning run up past Willsboro all on their own.

But the cascade at Willsboro still hasn’t fully readjusted to the post–dam removal water flow. Erosion pools and timber snags that once would have afforded migrating salmon deep enough water to thrust themselves up weren’t quite there yet. So, just in case, we were hand delivering our pregnant female to where she might find a mate and a place to lay her eggs.  

Every American angler at some point in his or her fishing education realizes how completely topsy-turvy everything has become beneath the surface of our lakes and rivers. Nearly all the fish we like to cast for in the Adirondacks—the crimson-flanked rainbow trout, the gold-mottled browns, the smallmouth and largemouth bass, the walleye pike and the bluegill sunfish—were introduced to the area by humans. Even nonnative Pacific salmon, originally trucked in from Puget Sound, overwhelm the rivers that feed into Lake Ontario. It’s all part of a larger upending of the native biology of the Americas that has been going on since colonists set foot here.

But if your longing is strong (as it is within the heart of Fish and Wildlife Service’s Zach Eisenhauer), you reject the image of city types standing shoulder-to-shoulder hauling giant Washington State king salmon from a river where they don’t belong. For fishing idealists like Eisenhauer, the hope persists that maybe, just maybe, with a little bit of effort and decent science, the American paradise can be reestablished. And even if the salmon in the back of our pickup truck was technically a reintroduced Atlantic salmon, bred from a stock of fish in Maine, Eisenhauer was clearly rooting for her. While there are plenty of domestic salmon throughout the Adirondacks supported by hatcheries in Vermont and New York, what the Boquet experiment is all about is trying to back-breed a Boquet-specific salmon that is imprinted upon the Boquet alone. Such a fish would migrate, spawn and breed offspring that would gradually readapt to the Boquet and become a new, native fish.

After weighing, measuring and tagging the fish are released upstream, near spawning beds.

To this end, similar romantics at the New York State DEC have set aside the North Branch of the Boquet as a landlocked Atlantic salmon spawning refuge. It was there we headed on the abnormally warm November day of my visit to complete our pregnant salmon’s mission. In the village of Reber, at a narrow reach behind a church, we backed up the Fish and Wildlife truck, transferred the fish to a mesh cradle and lowered her into the stream. The fish was fighting hard to get going. Eisenhauer dipped down one side of the cradle and the fish shot out into the current. Within seconds it was gone. The only sign we ever saw of it was an occasional flash of the red survey tag Eisenhauer had inserted just below the dorsal fin to help differentiate human-transported salmon from the hoped-for salmon that might have made the journey on their own.

It was cheering to see her take so vigorously to her new habitat. Yet for every obstacle cleared, another obstacle seems to be thrown in the Boquet salmon’s path. In 2003 a non-native species of herring called an alewife was discovered in Champlain’s Missisquoi Bay. Very quickly alewives started outcompeting native rainbow smelt and are now the most common food for salmon to dine upon. At first glance this would seem to be an advantage. Abundant forage means abundant predators like salmon, right? Not so fast. When salmon eat alewives they are exposed to an enzyme called thiaminase that breaks down vitamin B1—a nutrient essential for successful reproduction. It might turn out that even if our salmon ended up laying her eggs in the gravel beds of the Boquet’s north branch, those eggs might never hatch. The romantic vision of a restored, self-sustaining native salmon population could end up stillborn.

A month after we released our salmon at Reber, I came back up to the Boquet to see whether she had found love and laid eggs. By then Zach Eisenhauer had gotten engaged to a woman who was as fanatical about fishing as he was. He had decided to leave the Fish and Wildlife Service and go for his master’s at Concordia University in Montreal, to work on a study of the river that had come to occupy most of his thoughts. The turn toward academia had him in a reflective mood as we waded into the icy water and started to look for spawning nests, called “redds” in salmon parlance.

“The nice thing about the Boquet is it’s hard to get to,” he told me as we stood in the icy waters of “the bucket.” “It’s open to public fishing but it’s remote. There are only a few access points. Which makes it easier for law enforcement to target poaching.”

In his quest to reintroduce salmon, Zach Eisenhauer crawls upriver on the Boquet in search of salmon fry.

Indeed, this most potent invasive species, European humans, might be the greatest obstacle Boquet salmon must overcome if they are to reestablish themselves to Eisenhauer’s satisfaction. In addition to poachers who have been known to spear fish on the spawning beds at night, the ongoing presence of roads and dairy farms in the basin means that “fines”—small particles of silt and dust—can continually wash into the river and impede the flow of oxygenated water over salmon redds, choking off the already fragile eggs.

But just as the conversation took a darker turn toward all the things that stood in the way of a successful restoration, Eisenhauer, with his well-trained eye, spotted the telltale light-color gravel that indicated where a salmon had cleared away stones and deposited her eggs. He took measurements of the current above it and below it and right inside it.

“It’s just amazing,” he said, marveling at the sight of the nest. “In an ideal redd, the speed of the current in the center where the eggs are is zero.” And then, to satisfy his curiosity but also to try to determine whether this nest belonged to the salmon we’d trucked up above the cascade, he loosened a rock, pulled out a single egg and deposited it in a vial for later analysis.

The day went on in similar fashion, for it was not just the one redd we found. In fact, by the end of the spawning season 32 nests were located and mapped. But most exciting was the fact that those 32 nests weren’t only the product of fish that Eisenhauer and others had moved upstream by truck. About half the fish they later observed lurking around the North Branch of the Boquet had made the journey from lake to spawning beds all on their own. Each habitat where a redd was found was different and each had its own personality. Some salmon would like it siltier, some rockier, others in an undercut bank. Together the hope was they would make a diverse, robust population. But for now it was all very fragile.

“Was it more than you expected?” I asked Eisenhauer at the end of the day’s spawning survey.

“In a way, yes. In a way, no,” he said. Uncertainty and doubt. The two bogeys of any scientist’s career. I watched as he packed up his gear and began trying to crunch the many years of research he’d done on the Boquet River into something that would fit into his new world of academia.

Did those eggs hatch? Are there, as this article goes to press, actually native-born Boquet salmon flitting around the river’s north branch, dodging birds and invasive brown trout? Will those fry survive the winter and then hurtle themselves past the dismantled dam at Willsboro on to the mouth? Will they spend the next two years fattening up, frolicking in the cool depths of Champlain, and then burst back up in the fall of 2020 as heavy-shouldered, olive-silver adults? I’d like to think so. I’m an angler too. But when I last checked in with Eisenhauer, the future was very much in doubt.

“Got fry?” I texted him in May.

He texted back that the water was still cold and the hatching was probably delayed.

“Any fry yet?” I texted again in early June when the water had warmed.

“None yet. Just got back. Headed out again tomorrow.”

A week later, “What’s the fry update?”

“I am going to hit the redd sites one more time each and then do a little exploring. Maybe they are just hiding.”

That’s how I had to leave it with Eisenhauer. When last I checked, he was still looking. 

Lead image: Zach Eisenhauer of the Fish & Wildlife Service beside the Boquet River.

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