THE RITUAL OF A RIVER

I went down to the Indian Head River awhile back with Roxie the Wonder Dog to check things out. Conditions were about what we’d expected. The February thaw with its rain and melting snow had the river swollen and bank full, and moving along at a brisk clip. Roxie and I hung around at the little canoe launch ramp as the setting sun turned the sky, behind a lacework of swamp oaks and red maples, salmon pink. Reassured that the river was still flowing, we felt better about things in general, and left somewhat shored up against the waves that western civilization would toss at us via traffic, work, TV, and the Internet.

Checking in on the Indian Head at all seasons is a ritual of mine that goes back to my beginnings as a fly fisher almost 40 years ago. The strange thing about this is that I’m far from alone in my ritual. I may drive to the stream intending to spend some time there by myself, only to find another angler, or two or three others, pacing the bank and staring down river.

As rivers go the Indian Head is small, in its naming suffering from the Pilgrim’s habit of calling anything bigger than a brook a river. The real lure of the Indian Head, in part, comes from its close proximity to the sea. One might argue that at 13 miles inland from the Atlantic, the Indian Head is hardly a coastal stream. And you’d be right, except for the fact that what makes the Indian Head unique is the moon’s habit of pulling the sea 13 miles – more if one adds the many bends – up the winding course of the North River to flood into the Indian Head’s lower reach. Here the Indian Head joins Namasakeeset Brook to give birth to the North in an extensive freshwater marsh where the water floods and then recedes several feet with each tide. The marsh itself is a broad vista of cattails and wild rice rimmed by forested uplands. It’s an untamed place, left wild because, other than for water fowling and fishing, the settlers couldn’t find a use for it.

And that is what draws us to the canoe launch. From there we can look down stream toward the marsh and its wildness. And in spring, when the water temperature rises above fifty degrees, we watch for the arrival of the shad with the evening tide, their backs waking the slick, black surface of the river as they move up to reclaim their ancient spawning water.

That the shad return is a source of wonder and comfort, because the Indian Head, as beautiful as it is in places, is a much-abused stream. A scant quarter of a mile upstream of the canoe launch, we encounter the old Clapp Rubber Company Dam – with its dilapidated fish ladder – that is better known as Luddam’s Ford Dam. It is the first of several dams on the Indian Head and its tributaries. Not far beyond the tail of the Clapp Rubber impoundment there is the ruin of the Waterton Dam that once held back the water of an impoundment named Project Dale. Project Dale flooded out two older milldams that are now, like the Waterton Dam, breached structures that are crumbling into the river. Further upstream one encounters the remains of the Cross Street Dam. While the bulk of the Cross Street Dam washed out in the 1938 Hurricane that also caused the Waterton Dam to collapse, its base of granite boulders continues to block fish passage and impound the Indian Head far above Cross Street. If we continue upstream, we arrive at the point in the woods where Indian Head Stream and Drinkwater Stream join to form the Indian Head River. From there, it is not far up the Drinkwater until one encounters Factory Pond Dam, and above Factory Pond there is Forge Pond Dam. If we were to travel up Indian Head Stream we would soon arrive at the Wampatuck Pond Dam that stands between the Indian Head Stream and its natural headwater at Indian Head Pond.

It is easy to see that the Indian Head has been damned by the dams that were placed on it. The cumulative summer time thermal effect of all of these dams is a river that flows into its freshwater tide marsh at temperatures as high as 85 degrees Fahrenheit, high temperatures that are lethal to many native fish species.

Making matters worse, Factory Pond, on the Drinkwater, was the site of the National Fireworks Company. For decades National Fireworks and its predecessor used Factory Pond as a dumping ground for the toxic wastes of their manufacturing process. One of the byproducts dumped into the pond was mercury, with the result that the Indian Head’s wild fish are classified as toxic to humans. While Factory Pond qualifies as a Super Fund site, a federal government beset by budget issues has handed the responsibility over to local authorities.

Before the dams were built, and other atrocities were committed, the Indian Head nurtured a vast array of native and diadromous fishes that in turn provided sustenance for humans, wildlife and the complex web of marine life that makes up the ocean ecosystems out beyond the mouth of the North River. Salmon, smelt, river herring, eels, striped bass, white perch, brook trout and lamprey eel were, in addition to shad, the fecund mix that ebbed and flowed – with the pull of the moon – from the waters of a pristine Indian Head River.

At this point you may be asking: Why bother with a lost cause? The first part of the answer to that question is simple: Look around – the Indian Head is not the only river to have been trashed by dam builders who made their profits and then walked away. In fact, it’s fairly representative of the dysfunctional watersheds that we’ve inherited from previous generations. If the Indian Head is lost, then so are many other rivers, and if that remains the case, future generations are going to have a difficult time feeding themselves.

The second part of the answer is more personal, dealing, as it does, with how I feel. The Indian Head, like all living things, is at work healing itself. The site of the former Project Dale impoundment that can be accessed off of Water Street in Hanover, is an enchanting reach of riffles and pools that come alive in spring time with mayflies, caddis flies and stoneflies. Hemlocks shade the pools, and violets sprinkle the sunnier banks with their color. All of this beauty exists thanks to the 1938 Hurricane that tore out the Waterton dam, doing the river, and us, a favor. This too short of a reach of free river, like the view from the canoe launch, shows us what the entire river once was, and what it can be again.

And, as the Indian Head is trying to heal itself, its fisheries are waiting. There are wild brook trout clinging to survival in Iron Mine Brook, the little stream that flows unnoticed through perched culverts to enter the Indian Head at the canoe launch. These are the likely descendants of brook trout that once freely roamed a river that ran cool through the summer; a river where salmon spawned and their parr lingered for two turns of the seasons before smolting and moving out to sea. The brook trout are waiting for the river to cool down, just as the herring that are blocked by the Clapp Rubber Dam, Cross Street Dam and the Wampatuck Dam are awaiting the storms that will free the river and allow for passage up to their ancestral spawning waters of Indian Head Pond. Rivers and fish participate in a grander time frame than we do.

So I don’t see the Indian Head as a lost cause: Never will. Soon, I hope to be staring down river toward the marsh in the growing dusk of an early spring evening. I’ll be waiting, along with a few other anglers, for the shad – now 13 miles from the sea – to begin to show themselves. Their wakes and swirls will announce their homecoming, and our ritual of waiting will have been rewarded. Our ritual, so intertwined with the shad, celebrates the idea of a river. And the river is our home.









                                                 AGENT ORANGE


For those of us of a certain age, the baby boom generation, the words in the title of this piece will bring up unsettling memories. For the sake of younger folks who may not know what Agent Orange was, it was a defoliant used in Vietnam that had dioxin as a principal ingredient. Agent Orange was used to keep the perimeters of firebases clear and to defoliate large swaths of jungle to expose the movements of the enemy. Many of the troops serving in Vietnam were exposed to it on a regular basis, and after they returned home, the dioxin began to take its toll on veterans.


The experience of warfare is a heavy enough burden for anyone to have to bear, but for the young men returning from Vietnam, there was more pain awaiting their arrival home. The country had been torn apart by the war, and for most of the young veterans there was no heroes’ welcome. In fact, for too many, the experience was the opposite. Making matters worse, some veterans were beginning to suffer the symptoms of dioxin poisoning. These symptoms ranged from skin lesions to deadly forms of cancer. For many years the government refused to accept responsibility for the “collateral damage” to its own troops caused by Agent Orange. Conditions like post-traumatic stress, which are routinely treated today, went unrecognized in the years after Vietnam. It should suffice to say that many Vietnam veterans continue to live with threats hanging over them from a war that they fought in long ago.


I mention these things, because Agent Orange came to mind as I was recalling my earliest experiences of the restoration of Red Brook, a sea-run brook trout stream that flows into an estuary at the north end of Buzzards Bay, not far from the Cape Cod Canal.


It was during summer around 1990 or 1991 that I attended my first Trout Unlimited work party at Red Brook. I had driven down to the event with my friend, Bob Veraka. When we arrived at the little yellow house that had served as a fishing lodge for several generations of the Lyman family, we found a large gathering of Trout Unlimited members from across the states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Francis Smith, a plumbing contractor from the town of Falmouth on Cape Cod, was serving as the Chairman of the Massachusetts/Rhode Island Council of Trout Unlimited, and he had pulled together the work party to address sediment and erosion problems at a gas line right of way near the headwaters of Red Brook. The work, as it would turn out, was not the only reason for the TU gathering. Fran wanted to introduce TU members to Red Brook and the Lyman brothers, Henry and Charles, because a plan was being developed that would transfer to Trout Unlimited the 638acres that the Lyman family owned along Red Brook.


None of this has much to do with the main point of the story, other than to provide the background for something that Fran would say after the work was done.  It had been a long, hot, humid day of lugging trash out of the brook, and at its end, Fran stood in the brook and scooped water to scrub the sweat and grime from his arms and face. Smiling, and still dripping from his rinse in Red Brook, Fran turned to the rest of us and declared, “I find that the water of these little trout streams is good for washing off the Agent Orange that I was exposed to in Vietnam.”


Not long after the work party at Red Brook, Fran came to a meeting of the Southeastern Massachusetts Chapter of Trout Unlimited, and gave a slide presentation about the restoration of the Quashnet River.


With the work beginning in 1975, on a state owned Wildlife Management Area, the Quashnet may have been the first stream restoration of its scale attempted in the United States.  And while the Quashnet River has always been thought of as a Cape Cod TU project, from its very beginning it has been open to the public. There was a time when TU volunteers handed out fliers in the towns of Falmouth and Mashpee announcing the dates and times of the Quashnet River work parties. And people came, not just from Cape Cod, but from across the state.  In certain circles, even today, having worked on the Quashnet has a cache not unlike having attended Woodstock.


One of Fran’s slides from the first days of the project was a picture taken during the mid 1970’s showing a group of serious young men with long hair. Some of them are dressed in military surplus coats, and most of them wear jeans and flannel shirts.  They are standing in a line beside the Quashnet. The season looks like April or early May. The trees in the background are budding in the fresh spring sunlight. The day’s work of cedar logs and boulders is piled to one side, and a very young Fran Smith is standing front and center, ready to lead his crew through the challenge of bringing an utterly ravaged trout stream back to life.


For years I wondered why most of the work on the Quashnet was done by hand. Environmental journalist, and author of the book “Alewife”, Doug Watts, recently recalled working on the Quashnet restoration this way: “Joe [Bergin] and Fran Smith’s vision for fixing the Quashnet, foot by miserable foot, made me drive an hour from Easton for several weekends to do pure, rotten drudge work (cutting button brush) when I was in high school.” It has taken me awhile, but now I think I understand Fran’s reasoning – if engineers and bulldozers do the work, our relationship with the stream becomes less physical and more abstract, and a cycle is broken. Doug Watts’ “rotten drudge work” is the palliative by immersion that the river can give us in return.


Today, thinking about that old picture of a youthful work crew, and Fran’s symbolic washing off of Agent Orange in Red Brook, I’ve come to believe that the restoration of the Quashnet River and its trout, and later the restoration of Red Brook, were efforts born, in no small part, from the pain of war and the search for a better and more unifying purpose that could serve as an antidote to that pain. To those of us who have come from that divisive time, these small streams have given some healing, some closure, and the water desperately needed to wash away the toxins of our troubled beginnings. 




A Tale Of Two Rivers: A Book Review


AUTHOR: Ronald F. Lasko

A Book Review

In his preface to his book, “A Tale of Two Rivers”, author Ron Lasko asks a rhetorical question: Why write another fly fishing book? Which in turn leads to the question: Why did I buy another fly fishing book? In this instance it happened to be Ron’s “A Tale of Two Rivers”, and Linda just shook her head when she saw “yet another fly book” clutched in my hands as I waltzed through the door. In our house the issue is space. Two bookcases overflowing with fishing prose amounts to one bookcase too many in Linda’s opinion. After all, it’s just fishing. It can’t be that complicated! And she may be right about that. As Linda has pointed out, my two bookcases worth of fishing knowledge have done little to improve my game. So why would I want to read yet another tome dedicated to the craft of tricking fish into eating chicken and duck feathers lashed to a hook?

My reason for reading “A Tale of Two Rivers” is pretty much the same as Mr. Lasko’s answer to his question of why he wrote the book. This book, unlike others, is about our home fishery, our native sea-run brook trout. It is important because it wasn’t written 150 years ago during the heyday of the sea-run brook trout fishery. It is a contemporary saga of our salter brook trout told by a person who treasures coastal brook trout and their streams.

If you are looking for testosterone laden adventure replete with double hauls and monster fish that take you down to your reel arbor, “A Tale of Two Rivers” is not for you. Besides, you can read that stuff anywhere. If, however, you are open to learning about brook trout, small streams and their natural wonders, and history, then you will enjoy reading this book.

Ron Lasko’s “A Tale of Two Rivers” is a result of Lasko having spent thirty years fly fishing two Cape Cod trout streams, the Quashnet River and the Mashpee River. A self described Cape Cod “wash ashore”, Lasko began fly fishing as a boy with his father, and his passion for both fly fishing and brook trout runs deep. And his book, three years in the writing, is an expression of love for the two small trout streams that make up his home waters.

“A Tale of Two Rivers” can be broken down into three parts, the first being the fishing, the second part details the history of the two streams and covers their degradation and subsequent restoration. The third and final section makes the case for future work on both the Quashnet and the Mashpee along with setting a goal of the eventual restoration of all of the Cape’s salter streams.

I would be remiss in writing this review if I were to fail to mention some of the “omissions” that I came across while reading “A Tale of Two Rivers”. Joseph Bergin, the Mass. Div. of Fisheries and Wildlife fisheries biologist, who first approached the Southeastern Mass. Chapter of TU with the proposal to restore the Quashnet, isn’t mentioned in this book. In my view, Bergin should have been credited with beginning the Quashnet’s rebirth. Even though Bergin’s original intent was to start a brown trout fishery, had he not proposed the restoration of a section of the Quashnet, the stream might still be a sterile, sand choked bog ditch today.

I also feel that Brendan Annett should have been in “A Tale of Two Rivers” for a couple of reasons. The first reason is Brendan’s 2002 genetic study of five sea-run brook trout populations, a study that included Red Brook, the Quashnet River and the Mashpee River. The study showed that the brook trout of the five streams had avoided genetic introgression from hatchery trout, and were genetically stream specific. This bit of insight forced fisheries professionals in Massachusetts and elsewhere to take the concept of salter brook trout restoration seriously. Annett should also have been credited for originating the PIT tagging study on the Quashnet while he was heading the Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Reserve. The study now encompasses three streams, Red Brook, the Quashnet and the recently repopulated Childs River and is being carried out by Steve Hurley and the crew at the Bourne District Office of MDFW. Other than these “omissions”, the book contains a wealth of information. And to be fair, I knew of Brendan’s genetic study because it was funded, in part, by a Trout Unlimited Embrace-A-Stream grant and donations from Francis Smith, and TU Chapters that belong to the Mass./Rhode Island Council of TU. You probably have to be an “insider” in the small world of sea-run brook trout, their streams and their restoration to know all of the details, and Lasko admits that he has not been part of the restoration effort with its various partners for many years.

The real significance of “A Tale of Two Rivers” is that it is about fishing for sea-run brook trout in the modern era – the here and now. Lasko’s book is a testimony to the fact that, contrary to reports that the Cape Cod salter fishery is dead, it is still very much alive, in places thriving and is positioned for a renaissance. As Lasko shares his fishing methods, his rituals, his knowledge of hatches and his favorite fly patterns, we begin to realize that he is favorably comparing his two Cape Cod streams to the spring creeks and chalk streams of Britain.

Lasko points out that just as the British streams were protected by the landed gentry of that country, two streams, the Mashpee and Red Brook, were originally preserved by wealthy American anglers.

The book also makes the point that the return of the devastated Quashnet River to a beautiful, wild brook trout fishery is thanks to the on the ground and in the river work of citizen volunteers serving under the banner of Cape Cod Trout Unlimited. And here Lasko makes it clear that the Mashpee, particularly at its upper reach, has not been spared entirely from the ravages of development and cranberry cultivation, and needs the same citizen involvement that has worked to restore trout habitat to the Quashnet.

Then Ronald Lasko goes on to speak against the mindless greed and carelessness that has destroyed so many Cape Cod streams and their brook trout.

Writing of the manic development of the South Cape Lasko says, “Who would build the quickest and reap the fastest profits and taxes? It was an ugly, Wild West gold rush, devastating this fragile island peninsula while state and federal agencies stood by, ignoring the permanent long term damage to the environment that was going to cost us all eventually.”

Now we know that the cost of the Cape’s unchecked development will be well over 3 billion dollars for sewage and water treatment, not to mention the damage that can’t be undone. Lasko, however, ends his book by making a plea for the restoration of more of the Cape Cod trout streams: “We have only two partial, fragile river systems left. We have proven they can be preserved but the even bigger vision is to utilize them to restore the twenty plus rivers lost. In undertaking such an effort we will be benefitting our children and future generations.”

So if you’re looking for solid information on how to fly fish for the Cape’s salter brook trout in their remaining streams, presented in an entertaining fashion, this is a good book to own. But more importantly, in writing “A Tale of Two Rivers” Ronald Lasko has given us the rationale for pursuing “the even bigger vision” of restoring our coastal brook trout streams. Let’s hope that “A Tale of Two Rivers” will be widely read, spreading the word about the joys of, and the future of, America’s first sport fishery, the sea-run brook trout.

Now I have to make some space for “A Tale of Two Rivers” in one of those bookcases.



If you’re looking at the title and salivating over the idea of a mid-winter fish fry at Red Brook, you are out of luck. The grills will stay in the barn until spring.  In this instance, a trout fry is the equivalent of a new-born, and we were treated to the sight of quite a few brook trout fry on Saturday, February 1 at Red Brook.

   I suspect that trout fry voyeurism may not be for everyone. For starters, there’s not much to see. The trout that we spent an hour oohing and aahing over, like grandparents in a maternity ward, were scarcely a quarter of an inch long. In the grand scheme of things, their size doesn’t matter much. It’s just that when you come upon them in the stream – feeding on invisible stuff in a sun warmed shallow during the frigid height of winter – you’re struck by the fact that brook trout start life looking surprisingly small and frail.  

    At this point I should do a little explaining for those who are unacquainted with Red Brook and the life cycle of wild, sea-run brook trout.

    Red Brook is a small spring fed stream that flows out of the pitch pine barrens of Plymouth and Wareham, emptying into a salt marsh at the edge of ButtermilkBay. ButtermilkBay and Little Buttermilk Bay are shallow, saltwater estuaries at the northern end of Buzzards Bay near the west end of the Cape Cod Canal. In fact, the west end of the Canal, prior to its construction, was the site of the MonumentRiver, a sea-run brook trout stream that used to produce fat, eighteen inch long trout.

    I’m mentioning these things, because it’s important that we understand Red Brook and the significance of those trout fry in an historical context.

    Up until the mid-19thCentury, Red Brook and the other streams and rivers flowing into Buzzards Bay supported a thriving sport fishery for sea-run brook trout. The brook trout from the various Buzzards Bay streams would school together and spend the winter feeding on shrimp and minnows that they would find in the eel grass beds of the shallow bays and estuaries near their streams. As the waters of the bays warmed beneath the spring sun, the brook trout would begin to return to their home streams, accompanied by the blue back and alewife herring that were making their spawning runs. It was said that the trout returned to their streams ‘under the cover’ of the herring run. The trout would remain in the cool waters of their streams until after they spawned in late October and early November.

    Brook trout prefer to spawn in course sand or gravel where there is an upwelling of groundwater entering the stream. The groundwater keeps the eggs aerated and at a constant temperature. The female brook trout will use her tail to sweep a depression into the stream substrate. As she drops some of her eggs into the depression, a male trout will move in along side her and fertilize the eggs. She will then sweep some gravel over the eggs and move up to make another in what will be a series of depressions. These stream bottom egg depositories are called redds. Within the redds, the trout will seem to grow out of their eggs until they reach a point where they become sack fry, tiny fish with an egg ‘sack’ still attached. The egg sack provides nutrition while the fry is growing in the redd. Then one day the sack is gone, and the young trout have to leave the redd in search of food.

    Meanwhile, Mom and her boyfriends may have gone out to the bay to feed for a period of time that can vary from a few days to a couple of months, although, these days migrating to the bay in winter is not as productive as it once was. Nitrogen loading, the over fertilization of the bays by nitrogen from septic systems and agriculture has caused the eel grass to die, turning the once productive estuaries into something akin to saltwater deserts.

    This brings us back to Red Brook and the trout fry on Saturday, February first. These miniscule Red Brook trout are important because most of the trout that once thrived in the watersheds of Buzzards Bay are gone and forgotten. The culprits are dams and cranberry bogs, and of course, the Cape Cod Canal, which wiped out two trout streams – Monument and the stream where the east end of the Canal flows that was called Scusset Brook.

    In fact, back in the mid-1800s, Red Brook and its trout nearly succumbed to cranberries, and would have if it were not for a wealthy Boston Brahmin named Theodore Lyman III. But that is another long story.

    On Saturday we had arrived at Red Brook for our monthly Trout Unlimited work party, something that we’ve been doing since 1998. The sun was out, and for the first time in a long while the temperature was above freezing. During the morning, a big new moon tide had flooded the lower reaches of the brook. Upon arriving at the Lyman Reserve, I took my coffee down to the Red Brook Road where it crosses the stream at the edge of the salt marsh. The marsh was flooded almost to the tree line, looking like a long indent in the shoreline of the bay. The flooded marsh was covered with an assortment of waterfowl, including a few hungry looking, fish eating mergansers.

    We didn’t see the trout fry until after the tide had dropped. They were in the slack water of a bend just below a reach of stream, where until 2009, there had been two cement dams, relics of the cranberry cultivation that had taken place along the brook. The dams have been gone now for almost five years. The fry had probably come from redds located just upstream from where the dams had been. It was a section of stream that with the removal of the dams had been cleared of choking sediment by the increased flow of the brook. In early November we had watched trout spawning there, and while the redds were in a tidal portion of the stream, they were just above the furthest reach of salt into Red Brook.

    Thus these fry were true salter brook trout, born into water moved by the moon, and they are destined to carry the genetic adaptability of their ancestors into an uncertain future. For a short while we were the proud foster parents of fish. These tiny creatures, already feeding in the current like adult brook trout, were our pay off for years of work restoring Red Brook to a wild state. At that moment we could not have asked for more.

    If you wish to see Red Brook, you can do so at the Theodore Lyman Reserve operated by the Trustees of Reservations. The Reserve is open to the public and has walking trails and access to beach front on ButtermilkBay. Fishing in Red Brook is catch and release, and artificials only. There is a parking lot and access to the Reserve on the north side of Head of the Bay Road in PlymouthMass.

    If you’d like to learn more about sea-run brook trout, check out the website of the Sea Run Brook Trout Coalition at Tell them Warren sent you.