Gene Chague | Berkshire Woods & Waters: Questions arise over handling of Pittsfield Lakes

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Recently, I have been receiving correspondences from sportsmen questioning why the water level on Pontoosuc Lake is so low that they are unable to launch their boats in the open water near the outlet channel. I didn't know the answer. It was my understanding that per Order of Conditions, the lake had to be completely refilled by April 1, and I am unaware of any amendments or exclusions to that Order of Condition.

On April 2, I went to the lake outlet and found that the water level indeed appeared to be two feet below the dam overflow level, and that water was being diverted around the dam in a pipe and into the outlet stream (one of the feeders to the Housatonic River). It looked as though the refilling, a process which probably takes a couple of weeks to complete, had not even begun. It is my understanding that the lake is allowed to be raised or lowered no more than three inches per day to reduce adverse impacts on the outlet stream.

Through e-mail and telephone calls, I tried to reach the Department of Environmental Protection regarding this matter. I subsequently found out that I should have contacted the Department of Conservation & Recreation because it is the permittee and operator for Pontoosuc Lake.

I called the Pittsfield Conservation Agent Rob Vanderkar and we had a good conversation. He claimed he contacted the DCR on April 2 and requested that they begin refilling the lake that very day. If they did so, it must have begun after I visited the dam.

On April 4, the DCR Press Secretary responded to my inquiry with the following information:

"Every year, the DCR conducts a winter drawdown of approximately three feet of water from Pontoosuc Lake by opening the dam in the City of Pittsfield. Staff then elevate the water levels back to normal for the spring/summer season (typically April 1st).

"However, the agency has not brought the water levels up to normal seasonal heights just yet due to the large amounts of ice currently present within the lake caused by a prolonged winter season, which has happened in past years. Elevating the water levels at this time would enable ice to drift to the shoreline and potentially damage the bank, property, and/or other structures that it may encounter.

"DCR staff are currently allowing the ice to fully melt, water levels are slowly rising (approximately 15 inches from the spillway), and staff continue to monitor the issue. Water levels are expected to be at spring/summer heights later this week or early next week."

I am no biologist, but I don't think "winter drawdowns" cut it. Unless something changed in the regulations recently, drawdowns had to be completed by November 15 in order to allow the critters (amphibians, mammals, etc.) to relocate in order to survive the freezing temperatures.

The issue of severe and late lake drawdowns and refills has been a constant point of contention to the Berkshire County League of Sportsmen, the umbrella organization for a dozen or so local sportsmen's clubs and some 3,000 or more local sportsmen and women. Rarely has a monthly meeting taken place in the last couple of years when this subject, as well as the use of herbicides, did not come up. Some of the concerns are: too severe drawdowns, drawdowns conducted too late to allow the critters to make new winter homes, excessive or overuse or unnecessary uses of herbicides, and others.

Their concerns were piqued when it was learned that there was a drastic drawdown last winter on Onota Lake which left thousands of freshwater clams, mussels and a rare aquatic plant exposed on a sandbar to freeze. Even a muskrat had been left stranded in the low water and had to be trapped out by DFW (Keep in mind that drawdowns are supposed to be completed before winter).

I have since learned from the DEP that Jim McGrath, Pittsfield's Harbormaster, is the operator for Onota Lake and that MassDEP has, and is providing guidance and recommendations to the Conservation Commission regarding permits.

Complicated, hey?

Nevertheless, someone should have been held accountable for the demise of the thousands of those bivalves. The freshwater mussels were identified by DFW aquatic biologists as common mussels, but they were estimated to be from 50 to 80 years old. A Comb Water Milfoil (as opposed to the invasive Eurasian Milfoil), was also exposed to freezing during that drawdown. It is listed in Massachusetts as "Endangered."

The League's concerns have been frequently conveyed to the Western District DFW Supervisor Andrew Madden, but his hands are tied in these matters because the Conservation Commissions call the shots (Although I am not sure if the Concom called the shot on the above referenced Onota Lake drawdown last fall). Isn't it ironic that the very agency that has the best trained aquatic biologists and expertise to address these concerns, basically has no say? Yes, DFW advice and recommendations are sought by lake associations, conservation commissions and others, but at the end of the day the recommendations are largely unheeded by those who make the decisions and who, in the League's opinion, are the least qualified to make them. The County League hopes to change all that.

It is important that fishermen, conservationists and those who represent the critters also have a say in the management of these Massachusetts "Great Ponds". It is up to them to become informed, attend the various meetings and work with the Conservation Commissions, lake associations, DEP, DCR, DFW and others to come up with sound lake management plans that all can live with, even the critters.

Incidentally, Dan Miraglia, of Pittsfield, has been the watchdog keeping the BCLS updated on lake matters. As a sign of appreciation, the League chose Dan to receive its Silvio O. Conte Sportsmen's Appreciation Award this year.

Incidentally, the leadership of the BCLS asked me to announce that they still have tickets available for the Silvio Conte Memorial Banquet on April 21. At that banquet, Dan, along with George Wislocki, Karen Kruszyna, Tom Tyning and another guy will be recognized. While there, maybe we can ask Tom what the effects the constant drawdowns have on the turtle, crayfish and other amphibian populations.

Trout Stocking

The following water bodies were scheduled to be stocked with trout last week, subject to change: Green River in Alford, Egremont and Great Barrington; West Branch Westfield River in Becket, Chester, Middlefield and Huntington; East Branch Westfield River in Chesterfield, Cummington, Savoy, Huntington Russell and Windsor; Deerfield River in Buckland, Charlemont and Florida; Farmington River in Otis and Sandisfield; Konkapot River in Monterey, New Marlborough and Sheffield, Norwich Pond in Huntington; Windsor Lake in North Adams; Mansfield Pond in Great Barrington and Lake Buel in Monterey.

Coyote Contest

Eight coyotes were entered into Dave's Sporting Goods Coyote Contest this year, and the winner was Carl Dolle of Clarksburg. He bagged the most with a total of five and he also bagged the largest coyote which weighed 41 pounds. Joe Trybus, of Lanesborough won the random draw. Congratulations to both.

As you undoubtedly noticed the checked-in numbers were low this year. According to store owner, Dave (DJ) Benham, Jr., it was probably due to the poor weather conditions. It seemed like every time it snowed, it crusted over, keeping the hunters out of the woods. The hunters did not want the crust harming their dog's paws.

Fishing Derby

The Berkshire Hatchery Foundation in Hartsville-New Marlborough is having this year's first free children's fishing derby Saturday from 9-10:30 a.m. at its lower pond. Children aged 12 and under must be accompanied by an adult.

Intro to Action Shooting 101 Class

Do you want to start shooting International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA), or Steel Challenge this season but really don't know where to start? On April 15 there will be an Action Shooter 101 class at Lee Sportsmen Association from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The cost is $5 per person.

The training will begin with a mandatory 45-minute safety and procedures training session in the clubhouse. They will then move to the range for training on action shooting match firearm handling. Later you will be shooting a short, simulated match under the direct supervision of a safety officer. The instructor is LSA's Paddy Sullivan, a Master level shooter in IDPA, Steel Challenge and USPSA

You do not have to be a member of LSA to attend this class. This is a class for new shooters and you are absolutely welcome. But this is not a class for someone not familiar with the firearm you will use. You should have practiced and be very comfortable with loading, unloading, shooting and clearing jams prior to taking this class. You are encouraged to find some introduction to IDPA and Steel Challenge videos on YouTube prior to taking this class in order to be much better prepared and more comfortable.

On April 22, they will be having a 2-gun event. (2-Gun is similar to IDPA, only you use a pistol and shotgun.)

There are certain rules with which you must abide. For information on them and to see the 2018 IDPA and Steel schedule, contact Shawn Sullivan at ssullee@icloud.com.

Beagle Club hunt

Looking for something to do next Saturday or Sunday? Maybe you want to hear some good music, sung only by beagles. Perhaps that type of music brings you back to the old days when lots of folks had beagles tied to dog houses in their back yards.

Well, I know just the place to once again hear that music, and that is the Berkshire Beagle Club on Sleepy Hollow Road in Richmond. Next Saturday and Sunday, the club is having its spring field trials, where some of the best beagles in the northeast compete at following the scents of snowshoe hares and/or cottontail bunnies. All of the dogs are AKC registered and many already possess championship ribbons won at other field trials.

When they strike a scent, they sure sing, some practically yodeling. For beagle lovers, it is truly music to their ears.

The club welcomes folks to come and just listen to the dogs and observe the judges. Every now and then, you will hear someone shout "Tally Ho!" to let the judges know that they spotted a bunny or dog on its scent.

There will be plenty of food to purchase there.

Taconic Chapter of TU hosting speaker

The Taconic Chapter of Trout Unlimited will be having DFW Western District Aquatic Biologist Leanda Fontaine-Gagnon as its guest speaker on Wednesday at the Cork N Hearth Restaurant in Lee. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. and the presentation begins at 6:30.

She will talk about the annual fisheries inventory census that MassWildlife conducts on streams and rivers across the commonwealth. The overall focus on fisheries within the Western District region has been sampling on numerous streams and larger rivers; to gather data on new waterbodies never before surveyed and to update old survey records on major rivers in Berkshire County and the western portions of Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden Counties. It is part of an ongoing effort to catalog as much fisheries data as possible across the state, to identify new coldwater fisheries resources and to look at any possible trends or changes in fish communities over the years.

Questions/comments: Berkwoodsandwaters@roadrunner.com. Phone: (413) 637-1818

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