September 24th, 2001

The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
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Mill River

By Jed Prouianski, Northfield, MA

Ten thousand years ago during the retreat of the last ice age Lake Hitchcock was formed when a pile of rubble was deposited in Windsor, Connecticut. The melting water formed a lake extending to Springfield, Vermont. The lake is no more, but the Connecticut River flows down the center of the valley, fed by many rivers and streams providing some of the better trout fishing in the east. In the early US history, every town had mills powered by water and almost every town had a Mill River. There is one in Northfield, Greenfield, Montague, Hadley, Amherst and other towns throughout the valley. My Mill River empties into the Connecticut river in Northfield.

The Mill River starts in the wetlands of Warwick at the base of Mt. Grace and flows westward, squeezed between Notch Mountain and Great Hemlock into the town of Northfield and then into the Connecticut River. For most of its distance it is a fast moving brook with a gravel substrate. It shaded by overhanging branches from Spruce, Maple, Alder and other trees and shrubs. Like many New England brooks this one has riffles, small falls, pockets of calm water and some deep pools. Because it is in such a steep valley there are few houses built on its banks, leaving its banks to be managed by the natural course of events.

Each year, children in schools throughout the Pioneer Valley, as the Massachusetts part of the Connecticut River Valley is called, take Salmon eggs and raise them in fish tanks in their classrooms. The fry are then collected by the US Fish & Wildlife and distributed to brooks and streams in the Pioneer Valley as part of a Salmon restoration project. When the Shad bushes come out, the thousands of Shad and a handful of Salmon leave the ocean and travel to their spawning grounds and volunteers from all around the Pioneer Valley come out to take buckets of Salmon fry and distribute them in small calm pockets throughout the "best" streams in the valley. A small soup bowl will hold 500 or more fry. At 10 - 20 foot intervals in quiet water 5 to 10 fry are released to fend for themselves and hopefully become one of the 1/10th of 1 percent of the Salmon that get to run to the ocean and return three years later to start the cycle again. The Mill river is one of these "best" streams and gets stocked annually.

The Mill river flows down through the steep walled valley that is wide enough for only the river and the Warwick-Northfield road and then comes to a flat plain backed up behind the old dam from the now defunct mill in Northfield. It then makes a final plunge 80 feet down in the last half mile to meet the Connecticut River. At this flat section the river spreads out across acres of wetland filled with Cat Tails, Alder, Orange Loosestrife, Knotweed, grasses and a myriad of other flora. It creates a habitat that supports deer, otter, beaver, turtles, eels, trout, birds and others. Just above that, the freshly mowed fields provide habitat for foxes, looking for the easy prey of mice, shrews and voles whose homes were suddenly exposed by the blades of the mower.

In July, the chirping Cedar Waxwings travel in groups, swooping around feeding on berries and quickly moving from place to place. It is not unusual to hear the song of warblers as they flit back and forth in the tree tops hunting for insects remaining almost invisible to the human eye. Near the edge of the wetland there is sign of otter, crumbly scat, made up of fish scales and crayfish shell telling of a plentiful bounty. You can see the drag mark of an otter or beaver across the soft mud. If you are observant and patient you may very well see a hawk or other predator floating in the air currents as they look for their next victim.

Deep in the water in the gravel bottom there are mayfly and caddis larva living next to the Salmon fry, Minnows and tadpoles. All hoping on some animalistic level that they will be the predator and not the prey tonight. Frogs and small trout are nearby hoping to get a chance to grab a meal. The Frogs croak saying "I Am Here" until some animal further up the food chain tells them otherwise.

As the seasons move forward and the light of day changes, the nymphs living on the bottom get some signal that lets them know that it is time to emerge from the world of the river bottom to the air above. Nymphs shuck their sacs and swim up in the water to the top, struggling to break the surface tension of the water so they can sit on the water, dry their wings and fly off to mate, lay eggs and die. These eggs give rise to the next cycle of life. While this is going on, trout line up in the best of feeding lanes, in pecking order and wait for the nymph or emerger to float by or for a fly drying its wings to float overhead. In the most primitive of ways the trout calculates the energy needed to capture its food vs. the energy value of the food and for those that pass the test the trout speeds off to catch its meal.

There in the midst of all this magic and wonder stands a fisherman with rod in hand, with pieces of fur, feather and whatever trying to imitate a part of this wonderment, to become a part of this magic if even for only a moment. Success is measured not by the catching of fish, but by the ability to become a part of this cycle of nature and blend in with rather than stand apart from it all. ~ Jed Prouiansky

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