The Upper Connecticut project area encompasses over 465 square miles and 15 tributaries in Vermont and New Hampshire, including the mainstem of the Connecticut River from Murphy Dam at Lake Francis in Pittsburg, NH to the Nulhegan River in Bloomfield, VT, across the river from North Stratford, NH.
The Upper Connecticut River and its tributaries boast a diversified fishery. Fly fishers from all over the Northeast travel to the Upper Connecticut to ply their trade and test their skills. The outlet from Murphy Dam draws cold water from the lower portions of Lake Francis (hypolimnotic) and provides a source of water suitable for coldwater species. Eastern Brook Trout and Landlocked Salmon are the traditional native species (Atlantic Salmon were extirpated in the 1800’s). Although diminished in number due to habitat problems, native Eastern Brook Trout occupy nearly every small and large tributary of the Upper Connecticut River. The mainstem also boasts populations of rainbow and brown trout: The project area produced the state-record brown several years ago, weighing in at a more than respectable 16 lbs. 6 oz. Insect hatches on the mainstem are at times generous. Ingredients such as the lack of a population center in the north country, mountain views, breathtaking fall foliage, and the quiet Yankee atmosphere combine to make the Upper Connecticut a world renowned destination for sport fishery.
Agriculture and forestry are the two main land use industries in the region. Picturesque dairy farms line the mainstem and a few of the tributaries, using the land as pasture and taking advantage of the productive lowland soils to grow silage for their herds. However, the dominant land use of the Upper Connecticut watershed has long been the by region’s storied logging industry.
Beginning in 1868, the Connecticut River’s mainstem and its major tributaries were used for log drives to float logs down to the mill in Holyoke Ma. Although practical for their time, the drives had a significant impact on the watershed that unfortunately remains today. Portions of the mainstem and some of the tributaries were straightened, drastically increasing flood power. In the tributaries, boulders, stream structure, woody habitat and riparian habitat were removed. There are no tracts of old growth forest, meaning that the entire watershed was cleared at one point in the last 150 years. An assessment done in 1939 on Indian Stream, a major tributary of the Upper Connecticut, showed 0% cover over its entire length. Today the forest landscape is recovering, but the forests are relatively young. The bad news is that streams are slow to recover on their own, sometimes taking hundreds of years.
From over-logging, log drives and, to a lesser extent, agricultural methods, many Upper Connecticut tributaries today lack critical habitat complexity for coldwater fish. The waters run wide and shallow with few deep pools, are exposed to over-warming from a lack of mature trees, and are almost entirely devoid of large boulders, structure and woody habitat. As a result, they:
Compounding these problems is a lack of connectivity within the watershed. More recently, as modern logging technology has improved, its road system created a large percentage of improperly installed culverts. Some are too small for the tributary, damaging the stream when they were washed out or scouring the streambed below the culvert, causing the streambed to erode downward, thus raising the downstream end of the culvert to be “perched” above the streambed. Perched culverts do not allow spawning fish to return to their native tributary nor do they allow fish of any age to seek refuge from low, droughty, and warm mainstem conditions. An assessment done by TU in 2005 showed that 53% of the culverts in the Home Rivers project area were definite or probable fish barriers.
With a great potential resource at hand, it’s not all gloom and doom. There is hope. TU, through its Home Rivers Initiative, will be embarking on an intensive effort to restore the watershed by replacing inadequate culverts to increase connectivity, by conducting riparian habitat projects with local TU volunteers and other community organizations for tree plantings and streambank stabilization projects, by implementing instream habitat restoration projects that recreate the natural pools and riffles now lost by many years of damage, and by introducing woody habitat to provide for both fish and the insects need to survive.
What will the Upper Connecticut River look like in 10, 20…50 years? What type of fishery will it be? What will the effects of climate change be on the watershed and the ecosystem? While no one knows for sure, from the hard work of TU’s national staff and dedicated volunteers in New Hampshire and Vermont, to the support of our 150,000 individual members, the future looks bright.