Woods, water and wildlife: more than fish tales

Monday, September 26, 2016 5:52PM

Sometimes we get so used to where we are today that we forget how we got here in the first place.

A case in point is the wild world around us: The forests, lakes and streams and wildlife that enrich our lives in countless ways.

Jack Noon doesn’t want us to take for granted the continuing journey of New Hampshire’s fish and wildlife and how their realms have changed over the centuries. Noon, who lives in Sutton, is writing a book about the history of the Hampshire Fish and Game Department. And while Noon’s focus is on the 151-year-old agency, it’s also about the many changes of fish and wildlife in the Granite State, starting from post-Ice Age to the present.

Noon is no stranger to histories about fish and wildlife. He’s the author of “Fishing in New Hampshire: A History,” “The Bassing of New Hampshire: How Black Bass Came to the Granite State,” and “The Big Fish of Barston Falls.”

Noon recently gave a talk about his upcoming book at the Hancock Historical Society, where he was appropriately surrounded by old fly rods, snowshoes, deer mounts and antique guns. The society is wrapping up an exhibit called “Woods, Water & Wildlife,” featuring all sorts of cool artifacts from our hunting and fishing legacy.

Free-Running Fish

If anything exemplifies the long, strange trip of New Hampshire’s wildlife, it’s sea-running fish, according to Noon. Those are the shad, alewives, Atlantic salmon, sturgeon and other fish that spawn in fresh water and live the rest of their lives at sea; anadromous fish. Noon makes his point by showing big blown-up illustrations of these amazing, heroic and largely forgotten fish.

Long before Europeans arrived, the Contoocook, Merrimack, Connecticut and so many other rivers large and small were filled with sea-running fish during the spawning seasons. “Indians took no more than they needed of these fish,” Noon says. “They came up the rivers to spawn in tremendous numbers.”

Before dams interrupted their lives on the Merrimack, as many as 2,500 shad were taken in a single haul of a big net at peak spawning times. So many ancient and giant sturgeon traveled up the Merrimack as far as Amoskeag Falls that the river was once known as the “Sturgeon River.” Now they’re extremely rare.

If you could ask a few generations of lifelong, avid fishermen about fishing for shad in our rivers – like folks who used bamboo fly rods and creels at the Hancock exhibit – their eyes would gloss over. They probably wouldn’t know what you were talking about. Few have experienced the thrill of catching these remarkable fish or seeing thousands of them swim upstream in the spring. If those anglers had a taste of such treats, they might have something to say about making our rivers flow free.

Some Gone, Some Restored

It wasn’t just the dams that doomed New Hampshire’s sea-running fish, Noon says. It was also the changes on the land. Before Europeans, our streams were free-running, flush with oxygen and cooled by the forest’s dense shade. Eastern brook trout were abundant and much bigger than the wild, non-hatchery reared brookies that we see on a lucky day today.

On land, some species have disappeared – some forever, and others have returned. Gone for good is the passenger pigeon; the last ones seen or shot in 1880 or thereabouts. Wolverines, once recorded in some town histories, are gone. Canadian lynx, thought to be extirpated from the state by the 1980s are making a shy, slight comeback in the far North Country. Wolves have disappeared. But coyotes with wolf genes appeared on their own by the mid-1900s. The mountain lion is arguably gone from New Hampshire, though cryptic sightings and conspiracy theories persist.

The restoration of other species is testament to the success of modern wildlife management. Once gone from the New Hampshire landscape, wild turkey and beaver were restored in the 20th century, thanks to the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Program. Also known as the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937, the program has wisely used funds from hunters’ purchase of firearms and ammunition to help states provide restoration and scientifically sound management of the public’s wildlife resources.

Regulations and Revenues

Before that, as Noon will point out in his book, hunting and fishing had little or no regulation in New Hampshire and other states. For a taste of what market hunting was like, check out old photos like the ones at the Hancock Historical Society exhibit. Duck hunters with hundreds of ducks behind them. Two or three deer hunters with dozens of deer hanging in a barnyard. Anglers with stringers loaded with fish.

This North American Model of Wildlife Restoration, championed by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, eliminated market hunting, established science-based management, enforcement of laws, and provided funds for states to do this (via sportsmen’s purchases and licenses).

The system is good, but not perfect, as Noon points out. New Hampshire Fish and Game and wildlife agencies in other states are sorely strapped for cash in ever-expanding missions and declining revenues from slowly dwindling numbers of hunters and anglers. In the years ahead, Noon said, the pressure will increase on New Hampshire’s state government to provide the agency with more money, whether it’s revenue designated from rooms and meals taxes or other sources.

A Million Great Stories

Politics and taxes aside, New Hampshire’s rich legacy of hunting and fishing make for a million great stories told by the campfire or at deer camp, each tale improving with age. They’re stories that shouldn’t be forgotten.

At the Hancock Historical Society, you can get a glimpse of these tales. There’s the “Porcupine Buck,” a five-point buck shot by young Hunter Mathewson of Hancock. Mathewson had seen it messing with a porcupine before he shot it, then discovered a half-dozen quills in the dead deer’s nose.

There’s the 1942 photo of the Weston family’s legendary hunting parties. The 23.4-pound lake trout caught in un-named but obvious Hancock waters. The one-man sneak boat for hunting ducks. The priceless photo of trapper-tuned-naturalist John Kulish after a day of fishing.

The exhibit can be seen at the society on Main Street in Hancock on Saturday October 1 and 8, from 2 to 4 p.m.

Noon’s book about the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department is expected to be published in 2017.

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock. ericadine@gmail.com.