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Dam removal clears the way for migrating fish

September 30, 2015
By JOE HACKETT - Outdoors Columnist ( , Lake Placid News

Although restoration work continues on the site of the old Saw Mill Dam on the Boquet River in Willsboro, the major portion of the impoundment's structure is no longer standing. The river now runs free for the first time in more than a century.

However, prior to the arrival of the wrecking ball, there was a 7-foot-tall dam that spanned the river above the falls at Willsboro. The dam contained the river at a truly significant location since it also eliminated the upstream migration of a native species that returned to the river every year to spawn.

Prior to the establishment of the dam, the returning salmon traveled upriver on their annual spawn run in the fall. Records indicate that salmon regularly continued as far upriver as Wadhams Falls for more than a century. In the early days, the river often ran so flush with migrating salmon that horses would stumble while attempting to cross the stream.

Article Photos

Duck Hole Dam, as seen before it was destroyed in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.
Photo — Joe Hackett

There are also documents that indicate the annual salmon run provided a boon for locals who parked their wagons in the middle of the stream and filled them with migrating fish that were procured at the business end of a pitchfork. Obviously, there was no such thing as catch and release back in the day. The excess salmon were also used to fertilize their gardens.

I was still in high school when state and federal governments joined forces in the early 1970s to begin a long-term stocking program that was intended to restore a unique breed of landlocked salmon that were remnants of a species that had once populated the Atlantic Ocean.

The first mature salmon began returning to the river during the late 1970s and early '80s, and the annual autumn spawn run brought in a large number of visiting anglers.

Despite continued stocking efforts by Federal Fish and Wildlife authorities on both sides of the lake, the ongoing salmon recovery effort continued to be hindered by a host of threats that included a burgeoning population of sea lamprey, zebra mussels and similarly dangerous exotics.

However, despite the recent historic high-water events, droughts, record ice and no ice years, the big lake has continued to serve as a very effective nursery for the fish known as salmon salar (the leaper). These landlocked salmon are close cousins to the Atlantic salmon, which are regarded as the kings of gamefish.

In many European countries, the finest locations for fishing on rivers that continue to host healthy runs of salmon are known for their "Kings Beats," which have historically been reserved for members of the royal family.

A single section on a prized salmon river in Norway - measuring less than 40 meters of stream in total - currently rents for more than $2,500 a week for a single rod. Although I don't expect the Saranac, AuSable or Boquet rivers will be commanding such figures for a "special beat" in the near future, fish and wildlife experts expect salmon will soon be found upstream as far as Wadhams, Reber and Whallonsburg.

As the dam was being removed in Willsboro, a number of old dams in the interior of the Park were undergoing similar scrutiny, and ongoing assessment by state Department of Environmental Conservation engineers. Following the breaching of the old wooden dam at Duck Hole in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, the DEC has been considering options for a number of aging dams that can be found around the Park.

Such efforts have been expedited due to recent high-water events, and DEC is reportedly keeping a close eye on several of the old interior dams located on Pharaoh Lake, Cedar Lake and Lake Colden. The old dam at Flowed Lands that breached in the 1980s was a taste of what was to come.

Without regular maintenance by the state, I often wonder what will become of waters such as Kingdom Dam that impounds Lincoln Pond near Elizabethtown, or the dams on Hitchens Pond and Lows Lake on the Bog River Flow.

Although most of the aging dams no longer harness the hydro power that they once provided, the potential is still there. Certainly, the dams are necessary for recreation, especially in areas such as the Bog River Flow, which was historically known as Mud Lake, due to its shallow, narrow channel. On older maps, the Bog River Flow is a series of smaller ponds linked by several long carries.



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