Every spring, Dad took us kids to the herring run at Stony Brook in Brewster.
This year, I got the chance to break away from Derby hat orders and drop by the old familiar Gristmill.
It was just as I remembered it.
The old waterwheel…
Once again I was struck by the sound of the water spilling down over the rocks at each descending level of the falls. It still seemed magical.
Suddenly I spotted a herring leaping up the falls, and then another, and another, going single file against the current, while others continued to swim in the waiting pools; each fish gathering strength as it awaited its chance to tackle the next stage of the ascent.
I marveled at the physical effort of making it upstream through this series of waterfalls, and also how strange it must feel for these fish who are so used to swimming in circular “schools” in Cape Cod Bay all their lives now faced with a journey that was in many ways a solitary one as they had slowly made their way through the long tidal marsh and finally up the falls, fighting their way upstream.
Over the years the diminishing numbers in herring populations put a stop to the herring harvests.
The fish counter indicated that nearly 18,000 fish had made it up 26 waterfalls to the pond above since April 2nd; a small fraction of the numbers that would have made it through in the past with 18th century records showing upwards of 300,000 in a single year!
The herring gulls come early in the mornings and late in the evenings to feed, camping out for weeks at nearby tidal marshes and adjacent ponds until about mid-June.
There seemed to be a definite “pecking order” for who got the best spots along the rocks and fences.
Some gulls can be extremely verbal, determined to get to the fish first with intimidating cries…
And aggressive shoving and wing flapping.
Whenever one of them would catch a herring…
They would quickly take it to shore to swallow it whole, head first, before another could come to steal it.
Here, the noisy rush of the falls had been left far behind and each fish had reached its destination at last to spawn where a new season of herring would soon get their chance to make the return trip as “minnows” back down the falls, through the tidal marsh and on to Cape Cod Bay.
I didn’t know that even for those who make it to the ponds to spawn, the next stages in their lives are no easier. Suckerfish (who consume many of the eggs) are soon followed by eels, larger fish, ospreys, night herons and gulls who are waiting for them with big appetites for these growing schools of “minnows” making their descent to the sea.
The fishermen out in the Bay are also part of what makes the herring’s life precarious, as their wide nets unintentionally sweep up some of the herring as “bycatch”.
Yet despite all the dangers the herring face and the many obstacles they must overcome, I came away feeling inspired by their incredible perseverance, their sheer will to survive.
Revisiting the herring run had rekindled some wonderful childhood memories of this dramatic and yes, still magical harbinger of spring and made me appreciate this age-old struggle for life more than ever before.