These days, lobstermen are hard pressed to find bait for their traps. Even when they find a source, it is expensive. These fish, however, are helping to provide that need for bait. These are Alewives which at this time of year, migrate from saltwater into fresh water to spawn. It is a fascinating process since they swim against the current, often in narrow, manmade passages. There are two such places in Phippsburg, the largest of which is on one side of the causeway leading from Bath into Phippsburg. At high tide, you are likely to see trucks parked and men down on a float ready to catch these migrating fish. In the picture below are two fishermen, one in charge of netting the fish which he sells to others looking for baitfish. These alewives are also smoked for eating, but right now with a scarcity of bait, they are primarily used for that purpose. The catches of alewives continues into May once the migration slows down.
The fish swim up a "ladder" into the concrete channel to the right of the picture. The screen is then dropped so the fish can be collected, then opened for more to be caught. Sometimes, the catches are good, not so on other days. The fish are about six inches in size, and quite scaly. Greg Gilliam holds one in the picture to the left to show its size.
Alewives are anadromous (sea-run) fish. They spend the majority of their lives at sea, but enter fresh waters to spawn. The eggs hatch in 3-5 days. They develop and make a seaward migration in mid July to November. The importance of these fish is not just as bait, but to the ecology of freshwater and marine environments. They provide an alternative prey for other fish, seabirds, mammals and even turtles. They also provide cover for migrating salmon. Alewives tie the ocean, rivers and lakes together providing vital nutrients and forage needed to make healthy watersheds.
There is another fish ladder for Alewives off Parker Head Road, leading the fish into Center Pond. This one is new and not an active producer so far. In Damariscotta, there is a large migratory path for Alewives which is most interesting to observe. Why are they called Alewives? The common name comes from a comparison with a "corpulent female tavernkeeper, i.e. ale-wife". It was also thought that these fish were wives of eels that come up rivers at about the same time. Incidentally, there are also land locked Alewives called Sawbellies. All are Herring species.
So there you have a bit of ale-wifery! It's just another fascinating spring ritual in this great State of Maine! 5/2/10 Ronnie, along for the swim-ride. Hello May!