Dick Pinney's Guide Lines: Once home to thriving aquaculture, Great Bay is under great strain

By DICK PINNEY May 07. 2017 1:00AM

GREAT BAY'S wonderful production of gourmet food has come to an unbelievable halt, and there's bound to be a lot of uninformed debate on how to get those species such as clams, oysters, smelt, herring, white perch, crabs, lobsters and other multiple flora and fauna that may slip my mind.

We've lived on or just across the street from Great Bay for about 50 years and have witnessed some changes and, because of them, Jane and I have had to change our fundamental and regular harvests of its once great bounty of food and other products that we took for granted.

By just walking out our back door with "clam fork" (actually a clam digging rake) and "apple basket," we could harvest clams or oysters or both in no time that would feed our family for several days. We were quick enough to adapt the practice of floating our bounty in the basket that had an old, used, patched and inflated tire innertube to float behind us to relieve the tough work of dragging the heavy harvest behind us.

We actually mimicked a nice bunch of "old timers" who had developed the "basket and inner tube" approach, and regularly would show up to get their clams and oysters by just wading and picking by hand, rather than the tedious and more complicated effort of launching a boat and dragging long armed rakes to get their shellfish.

Now Great Bay's production of fish and shellfish has just about gone, as we seldom see anyone even working hard to gather enough for a meal!

Our easy approach to harvest a big percentage of our home diet has come to a virtual halt and we can't remember the last time we dined on a freshly dug or picked harvest of any of the awesome seafood of our earlier days here on the Bay.

In the winter, we could just walk out on the ice and slide our smelt shanty off its fishing hole, skim off the new ice, drop our weighted hooks down baited with bits of sea worms, and start catching sea-run smelt, sometimes as fast as you could haul and re-bait your lines. If you've never eaten a meal of fresh caught saltwater smelt, rolled in corn meal and fried to a golden brown, you've missed one of life's great pleasures. Jane's homemade tartar sauce would really seal the deal!

Often on a nice early fall day before ice-in, we'd pull on a set of rubber chest waders, drag along our basket (often we used a short handled rake when the tide was too high to do this by hand) and find a sunny spot in our back yard to "shuck-em-out" and often call friends and neighbors over to share the bounty.

Nice soft-shelled clams, often called "steamers," were also available but in the flats near our house you often had to dig them out in tough gravel or partial eelgrass sod. You earned the clams but they made for great chowder or baked-stuffed in their shells!

Both commercial and recreational lobster fishermen would line the channels with lobster traps and a new year's run of striped bass into the Piscataqua River and Little Bay would draw fishermen from miles around, even from out of state. For those that really were aware of what was going on, a kind of secret catch of great tidal-run white perch were easy to catch if you watched where the old-timers were anchoring, often using hand lines to keep their special places a secret.

We found out about this resource one day when walking our dog along the railroad tracks and sneaking up on a fishing boat that had hidden in the railroad trestle. He was hauling in singles and doubles of big, beautiful perch and was visibly upset when he finally caught sight of me. When talking to him, he was adamant about keeping his place a secret and that I did for many years, enjoying some of the best and largest white perch we'd ever found!

We kept the striped bass fishing as much of a secret as we could. There were plenty of them but they were not spread out randomly, but schooled-up to feed and rest in small areas that we learned the hard way, by just prospecting for them. We seldom shared this information with anyone, as just one boat working our proven spots could ruin our day.

The big fish had small, pet locations where they could rest out of the strong currents and ambush baitfish as they came along with the tide. Only occasionally a school of small-sized stripers would show up blasting at schools of baitfish, but these were not the size bass we targeted. We were hung up on the big ones, often referred to as "bulls" but truth be known, the really big ones were females.

As the ice formed, so did the colony of "smelt shanties" that often numbered in the hundreds on the Newington end of the bay, where the eelgrass flats would entice them to feed on the microorganisms that were abundant there.

The ice fishing for smelt would go on night and day and many a Navy Yard worker would be found on the ice "smelting" for both home consumption or to supplement their income by selling their catch of smelt to local stores for resale or gifting some to their neighbors.

In the fall, waterfowl used Great Bay for a resting and feeding stop on their southward migration. We are not exaggerating when we write that they were in numbers that could actually block out the sun! "Darken the sky," as Jane would say. The noise they'd create was deafening.

The waterfowl hunting from our floating blinds or layout boats was world class. We drew ducks and geese into our big decoy spread by the dozens and we can't remember a hunt that we came home empty-handed! Our bag limits were more apt to be filled, and the experience from the many opportunities to mark well and be guided by our hand and voice signals was key to training our retriever dogs in short order. And we had very little competition or interference from other hunting parties.

We've lost just about all of this incredible fish and game resource gradually!

We're going to get some flack from the do-gooders as to why they are gone, but when you look at the changes that have been parallel to the loss of fish, it's been the rebuilding or refitting of the many sewage treatment plants that have been put into service that seem to be the answer to this lack of fish and game.

You can see it in the lack of eelgrass beds that used to cover thousands of acres of tidal flats. These new treatment plants have filtered or poisoned most of the nutrients from the Piscataqua River and the many other rivers that serve their municipalities that dump their now super-treated effluent into the tidal water, now so sterile and lacking in nutrients and full of poison that plants and animals cannot survive.

I'd like to hear from anyone who cares to come up with any other answer to the Great Bay's lack of fish (including clams and oysters) and game resources.

No one alive, that we know of, has had more exposure to this downfall of living on the Great Bay.

That's it. It's my story and I'm stickin' with it!

Drop us an email at DoDuckInn@aol.com and get out there and experience this loss!

Dick Pinney 's column appears weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Email him at DoDuckInn@aol.com.


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