Dad told me that when the water temperature gets to forty-eight, the herring run begins. Meaning the herring—they’re really alewives— would swarm in from Fog Island Sound to swim up the streams to spawn in the ponds.
So when Skip Greenlaw came by after school yesterday, we took a hike over to the flume beyond Saltworks Cove to see what was up.
“They’re here,” he said even before we got to the flume. You could hear the gulls screaming and see them flapping above the scrub pines.
When we got beside the flume, which is a fish ladder with steps so the herring can swim upstream in stages, just like mini salmon, a gull stood on the ground beside the concrete rail, pecking at a herring. It grabbed the fish in its beak and strutted off. Other gulls roosted in the treetops, watching for their chance. Some of them flapped off when we got there, looking peeved, while others patrolled back and forth, yelling to each other about the feast in the form of fish flashing up the ladders into the stream leading to the pond above.
The pond itself was filled with dead trees, and the gulls were waiting in those, too.
You could see the fish slashing up the rapids in threes and fours, sometimes one at a time.
We went over to the head of the flume where the fish jetted out of the ladder into the deeper, slower water. An eddy swirled around a small inlet right beside the bank. Now and then a fish or two would swim into the inlet for a breather.
Skip pushed up the sleeves of his jacket and squatted by the edge. Ever since we were kids, Skip’s been the World Champion Bare-Handed Herring Snatcher. He’s patient—and he strikes fast.
He hunkered down. He stretched his right arm toward the water, staring at the fish approaching.
Me: You’re lucky, you know it?
Skip (without turning around): About what?
Me: I could push you in with a feather.
Skip: You wouldn’t dare.
Me: Don’t tempt me. Temperature’s forty-eight degrees.
Skip: Quiet. There’s one.
I stepped closer and peered into the clear water. I saw fish flit past as they made their way over the bulge of the falls into the smoother water.
I saw one circle around and fin closer to Skip.
He shot his hand out. Water splashed. Gulls cried. He fell backwards, a silvery flapping herring wriggling in his grasp.
Me: My dad says they used to come here with wooden barrels and net up the herring for bait. Sometimes they pickled them to eat, too.
Skip was still holding the fish. Too bad you couldn’t net them for bait now but instead had to pay someone else to catch bait for you.
Skip: This guy’s strong. Look at him.
The fish flapped its tail and worked its mouth.
Skip (getting up): Back in the water with you.
He kneeled down and slipped his hand back in the water with the fish. He waited till the fish gave a lurch, then released it. The fish shot away.
Skip: There he goes. Off to do his herring thing.
He splashed his hands on the water, then stood up and wiped them on his pants.
Skip: That water’s some cold.
Me: Sure you don’t want to go for a dip?
Skip (turning to me, a grin wrinkling his face): Go ahead. Try it.