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The Return of Atlantic Salmon: “We Spawned in Willsboro, New York.” 

The Return of Atlantic Salmon: “We Spawned in Willsboro, New York.”  January 4, 2024
The Boquet River as it wends its way upstream from Lake Champlain. With the removal of dams on the river and its tributaries, wild salmon habit has been restored. Photo courtesy Adirondack Land Trust.
The Boquet River as it wends its way upstream from Lake Champlain. With the removal of dams on the river and its tributaries, wild salmon habit has been restored. Photo courtesy Adirondack Land Trust.

In 2019, for only the third time in 150 years, scientists found wild Atlantic salmon fry in the Boquet River, a tributary of Lake Champlain in Essex County.

The long-term effort to restore self-sustaining, naturally reproduced populations of salmon to the Lake Champlain basin appears to be on the verge of success

It is something I wish my father, Robert F. Hall, were alive to see.

In 1982, he found himself appointed chairman of a committee to promote Willsboro, the community at the mouth of the Boquet  River, as a center for salmon fishing.

His first task was to organize a ceremony to commemorate the construction of a fish ladder at the Saw Mill dam, used for power generation since the 1890s.

The campaign to build a fish ladder began in the late 1970s, when as a result of stocking by Vermont and  New York, more salmon appeared at the dam, struggling to leap its height. Every year, members of the Willsboro Fish and Game Club assembled to grab the salmon and toss them upstream.

Clearly, something more sustainable than the enthusiasm of volunteers would be required if the salmon were to make their way up the river to spawn.  

A study by state Environmental Conservation biologists recommended that the town construct a fish ladder at the dam, stating that it would produce excellent salmon fishing for at least fourteen miles up the river.

With construction of the fish ladder imminent, the promotion committee got to work tying salmon fishing into the Lake Champlain Valley’s tourism promotion.

A local motel owner came up with a slogan for t-shirts and posters: “We spawned in Willsboro, New York.”

As time would tell, the fish ladder was not especially effective, but fortunately for the fish, the Saw Mill dam was demolished in 2015.

According to the Lake Champlain Basin Program, the destruction of that dam was among the public and private actions responsible for the return of wild salmon to the Adirondacks.

A few miles inland from the mouth of the Boquet River and Lake Champlain, in the fall of 2022, another barrier to spawning habitat was removed, a dam on a tributary of the Boquet known as Cold Brook, which runs below the Reber Cemetery and behind the Methodist church and the firehouse.

According to the Nature Conservancy’s Adirondack chapter, the 100-year-old dam was so small that it was never even mentioned in the state’s inventory of Adirondack dams. Nevertheless, “it had an outsized impact on the local wildlife and community.”

By removing the dam, roughly six miles of salmon and trout habitat were reconnected to the North Branch of the Boquet River, says Josh LaFountain, freshwater project coordinator for The Nature Conservancy in the Adirondacks

“Our goal is to open the entire system for spawning habitat, while increasing resilience, protecting coldwater fish from the warming temperatures due to climate change,” said LaFountain.

More good news for the salmon was to follow.

Earlier this fall, we received a press release from the Keene-based Adirondack Land Trust stating that, with financial assistance from The Nature Conservancy, it had secured a conservation easement across 294 acres of farmland with more than two miles of undeveloped land along the Boquet River and tributaries.

The farm, once owned by a family friend named Ben Wever and now run by Willsboro Town Supervisor Shaun Gilliland and his family, is located midway between the Saw Mill Dam and the Reber Dam.

After the Saw Mill Dam was removed in 2015, salmon nests, called redds, were found near the property.

“Over the years, I have supported Atlantic salmon restoration work along the Boquet River in various ways, including the removal of the dam. We are as delighted to help conserve salmon habitat as we are to keep our promise to Ben Wever that the land he sold us would continue as a family farm just as it has been since 1829,” said Shaun Gillilland.

According to the Nature Conservancy, easements such as the one across the Ben Wever Farm add protective buffers along the river, improving water quality, allowing for habitat restoration, helping the stream revert to its natural condition and re-establishing river connectivity for migratory fish.

Back in the 1980s, the purpose of the restoration of the wild salmon fishery was to lure tourists and anglers to the Champlain Valley.

My father wrote in an editorial column for the local newspapers that “it doesn’t upset us to consider the economic benefits to our community (of having) good salmon fishing in these parts within a couple of years.” But, he added, it was even “more pleasant to think of our of lake and rivers teeming with fish.” “We spawned in Willsboro, NY” may not be the cleverest slogan ever coined, but it is proving to be a prescient one.  

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