After Labor Day and the mass exodus of people from Cape Cod, the juvenile river herring, also known as fry start their downstream journey from the ponds they have called home for the past 2 or 3 months to salt marsh embayments and then eventually to the open ocean.
As Wellfleet's Herring Warden, I start preparing for this movement of fish in early August. I'll take you for a tour as I go on my rounds. I start at the "Sluice way" between Gull and Higgins ponds. A quick look allows me to see the water level and gage the ability for the fry to oscillate from one pond to the other. There is a flow but a bit less than the fish need to move around. That will require a bit of sand manipulation. The 80 foot long stretch is easily changed into a passable flow but digging 1 shovel deep and 2 shovels wide. If we get rain soon I won't need to do much there until later in the season, my actions here for now will be weather permitting and can wait for now.
The next spot is "Patience Brook" - one of my favorite places to hang out. It is named for the woman (Patience Gibbs) who kept a flow of water through this connection between Herring and Higgins ponds back in the 1800's. I first thought the name was derived from the slow but steady flow of water passing by.The brook is narrow and shallow allowing for the same type of simple maintenance as the sluice way, but the Brook is a little more complicated. It has a lot of trees and shrubs along the banks and a small culvert right smack dab in the middle of the 200 foot length. The Brook occasionally dries up on the downstream side of the culvert stopping the ability of the fry to move into the pond that allows access to the Herring River itself. And that is the case today - dry for about 12 feet. A good rain will also cause a flow here much like the sluice way. Maybe the weather will take care of this as well.
My third and final stop for the day is where Herring Pond flows into a shallow narrow area that at maximum is about 18 inches deep but is usually only 3-9 inches deep most of the year. This is the beginning of the Herring River, but I call this area the "Herring Brook". With boots on and clam rake in hand I begin walking the brook. I move some of the debris from the Brook's bottom to the side and sometimes up and over the embankment. This is difficult work between the briars and a very limited area to place the debris. This work will allow a good flow of water when we do get rain.
The citizens of Wellfleet have made many changes to this 1/8 mile long area. It was hand dug by the Freeman family back around 1700 and given to the town for the Alewife run (Belding 1920). The Brook was dug out much like a follow the dots picture, except the Freemans used the fresh water springs that were numerous in the area as they directed the water to what at that time was a tidal harbor up to what is now State Highway Route 6. Now tidal salt water only reaches a little bit beyond the Herring River dike that was constructed across the mouth of the river in 1908.
About half way down the Brook I stop at the Old Kings Highway culvert. This is the area where we conduct our spring herring counts. It's a very pleasant place to spend some time even when you are wrestling the wall of briars like I did this day. This one area from the culvert to the power lines some 300 feet or so has the steepest slope of the river. In dry years I have to make a bunch of rock weirs to allow for an acceptable flow of water for the fry to pass through to the marsh.
I spent three and a half hours today clearing briars, and it will take another 4 or 5 to complete the task. Clearing this area will allow me to make the rock weirs if they needed of course.
Next week I should be out of the brook and into the marsh.
Jeff Hughes, Town of Wellfleet Herring Warden