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Fish of the Connecticut River
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Fish of the Connecticut River

The Anadromous Fish of the Connecticut River
Every spring, usually in late April, anadromous fish, including the American shad, sea lamprey and Atlantic salmon, migrate upstream in the Connecticut River from their ocean homes to spawn. Anadromous (ah-‘nad-rah-mus) means the fish are born in fresh water, mature in the ocean and return to the fresh water rivers of their birth to spawn. On their way, they overcome dams, falls and fishways to reach their destination.

During this migration, which ends in about mid-June, the fish-viewing facility at Turners Falls is open to the public.

Information follows on three anadromous fish. Information about others is available on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Web site.

The American Shad
After four to six years at sea, adult shad travel upstream to their native, fresh-water spawning areas. They return when river temperatures reach 50 to 54 degrees Fahrenheit and spawn when the water reaches 56 to 61 degrees. A shad can lay about 130,000 eggs; each egg is about 1/16 inch in diameter. After spawning, the adults return to the ocean and spend the summer and fall in the Gulf of Maine.

The fertilized eggs hatch in about six days. Hatching at 3/8 inch long, the larva develops backfins and grows to about 5/8 inch long within 17 days. Once able to feed itself, the immature shad is called a fry. A fry spends four to six months in the river, until the cooling waters of autumn signal it to swim to the ocean. By the time the fry reaches the ocean, it is three to six inches long.

Young shad join adult shad in the ocean and migrate south during the winter, feeding on plankton until they mature and are ready to continue the cycle.

Most adult shad are from 16 to 20 inches long and weigh three to five pounds, although females can weigh as much as six pounds. Shad can live for four to six years; however, disease, fatigue or injuries caused by the journey upstream cause as many as 90 percent to die after spawning.

The Sea Lamprey
Sea Lampreys, fish that resemble eels, travel as many as 200 miles upriver to spawning areas. Considering they only travel two to three miles per day, this takes them a long time.

Lampreys live in the ocean during the winter and can be found from Greenland to Florida. They undergo great physiological changes when they enter fresh water, including going blind. They orient to the current as they move upstream and attach themselves to rocks and dams to rest. Lampreys do not always return to the place where they were born. They spawn when the river temperature reaches 77 degrees Fahrenheit.

Lampreys, which weigh from two to three pounds and can be up to three feet long, spend their first four to six years in fresh water, burrowed into the mud. After migrating downstream, they spend two to four years in the ocean before returning to fresh water to breed.

The female lamprey creates a gravel nest for the 200,000 eggs it lays when spawning. Lampreys use their disk-shaped mouths to carry stones up to four inches in diameter to form a semicircle to catch the floating eggs below the spawning site. Mating occurs during a 48-hour period; both adults die shortly after spawning is completed.

The Atlantic Salmon
Although some migrate in the fall, most Atlantic salmon begin their spawning migration in the spring. Spawning takes place in October or November with the female seeking out a gravel stream bottom to build her redd (nest). Eggs fertilized by the male’s milt develop over the winter and hatch in the early spring. After spawning, the kelts (adults) either swim back to the ocean or stay in the river until spring.

Newly hatched alevins remain in the gravel redd until May or June. As they feed and grow, they develop from fry to fingerlings (three to four inches long) to parr (four to five inches long). The parr, known for their vertical striped bars, spend one to two years feeding and growing in fresh water while their bodies change to prepare them for life at sea.

When the parr lose their vertical bars and turn silver, they are called smolts and are ready to head downstream to the ocean. Once there, they swim to feeding grounds off the coasts of Canada and Greenland. After one to two years in the ocean, they return to the rivers of their birth to spawn. Unlike sea lampreys, Atlantic salmon do not die when spawning is completed.

The Obstacles the Travelers Encounter
The historic upstream migration of American shad, Atlantic salmon, sea lamprey, striped bass, and blueback herring was thwarted at the end of the 18th century by the construction of dams, overfishing, and pollution.

The Ladders at Turners Falls
120 miles from the mouth of the Connecticut River, the fish reach the ladders at Turners Falls. Unlike Holyoke’s elevators, 35 miles downriver, the Turners Falls fishway relies on the ability of migrating fish to make the climb using their own power. Here, they swim over a series of rising pools in much the same way they would have overcome the natural rises in the river before dams were built. Completed in 1980, the Turners Falls ladders help migrating fish past the Turners Falls dam.

The Turners Falls ladders are a series of three ladders, located at Cabot Station, the spillway (dam) and the gatehouse. In order to continue upriver past the dam, all fish must pass through the gatehouse ladder. Water flowing through an entrance gallery attracts the fish into the ladder. The Cabot ladder consists of 66 pools, each pool approximately one foot higher than the preceeding pool. From the Cabot ladder the fish enter the power canal and swim two miles to the gatehouse. Fish that bypass the Cabot Station ladder, continue two miles further up the Connecticut River and find themselves at the base of the Turners Falls dam. There, at the spillway ladder, the fish climb 42 pools, joining the fish from the power canal in passing through the gatehouse ladder. The fish then swim past a public viewing area and a counting area and exit the fishway above the Turners Falls dam to continue their journey up the Connecticut River.

Visit the Turners Falls Fishway
Underwater viewing windows offer visitors of all ages a chance to see American shad, sea lamprey and other migratory fish during their upriver spring journey to spawn. Open Wednesday through Sunday, 9:00 am – 5:00 pm from mid May to mid June, as well as on Monday, Memorial Day. Free admission, no reservations required. For school program reservations call 413- 659-3714 or 1-800-859-2960.


Traveling south or north on Rte. 91, take exit 27 for Rte. 2 east (Greenfield/Boston). Take a right at the second light and go over the bridge. Turn left onto First Street. The fishway is on your left.

Traveling west on Rte. 2, travel 9 ˝ miles beyond Erving Center and turn left at the first light. Go over the bridge and turn left onto First Street. The fishway is on your left.

School Fishway Program

Fins and Ladders

Visit the Turners Falls Fishway for a watchable wildlife experience. This program focuses on migratory fish of the Connecticut River, and the fish ladders that help these fish bypass the dam. A variety of activities will introduce anadromous fish and the challenges of their upstream journey. These fascinating fish are born in the river or its tributaries, migrate to the ocean and return as adults to spawn in the river of their birth. American shad and sea lamprey can often be seen swimming by the viewing windows. Hands-on activities and an opportunity for possible wildlife viewing make this an exciting program for all ages. Pre- and post-visit curriculum materials are available. Please call (413) 659-3714 or (800) 859-2960 to register.

Science and Technology Standards Applicable:
Earth Science (PreK - 2) # 1,
Life Science (PreK - 2) # 1, # 3, # 6, # 8, (Grades 3 - 5) # 3

All Grades
Group Size: 30 (15/1 student/adult ratio)
Available: Wed., Thu., Fri.,
One hour programs at 9:30, 10:45 or 1:00
Mid May - Mid June
Fee: Free
"As always the
program beautifully
fit the standards
and developmental
stages of the

1st grade teacher,
Hatfield Elementary

Several government organizations have contributed to the success and design of the fishways. They include the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Silvio O. Conte Fish and Wildlife Refuge and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

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