Damariscotta Mills resident George Weston, 95, explains an 1814 map of  the alewife stream and mills, above. The restored fish ladder, above, pleases fish and their friends. (Photos by C. Parrish)
Damariscotta Mills resident George Weston, 95, explains an 1814 map of the alewife stream and mills, above. The restored fish ladder, above, pleases fish and their friends. (Photos by C. Parrish)
"Seen any fish?"

"A few, here and there," an older gentlemen from Saco told me, as we peered into the 69th pool at the top of the Damar-iscotta Mills Fish Ladder. It was one more short jump for the alewives to reach the mill pond at the top.

"There goes one," he said.

After three or four years at sea, the wayfaring fish had come home to fresh water to breed.

Damariscotta Lake lay at our backs, just beyond the mill pond. The Great Salt Bay was down below, with three forks of the alewife stream tumbling down in between and then joining up again at the old fish packing house at the base of the falls.

Out on the bay, the cormorants were trolling. Gulls were hanging out, whining for fish. An osprey flew over, scanning the water. It was a full-on fish alert. All of us, waiting on the fish that has headed up the river around Mother's Day every year since long before anyone recorded it. Along with shad, the alewife run is Maine's oldest spring fishery.

"Seen any fish?" three women from Massachusetts asked as I peered into another pool midway down the fishway.

"A few," I said; then three alewives darted past us, going up the fishway that makes up the right fork of the flow. Sleek and muscular, the foot-long blackish-greenish-silvery fishes powered up from one pool to the next, flicked their tails and were gone.

Leyna Tobey, a civil engineering student from Merrimack College who was hired by KEI Power Management, the hydro company that operates the power-generating dam on the main fork, was just completing her hourly fish count at the top of the 69th pool.

She had her counter in her hand. Click, click, long pause, click.

Tobey counts for ten minutes, every hour, from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. In the last few days, she has counted about 350 to 400 fish a day. Last year, at this time, she was counting that many an hour.

"It's been a cold spring," she said, retreating to her car, waiting for the next ten-minute count. She ate lunch, painted her nails a glittery bubblegum pink for fun. There was a lot of down time between counts. Last year, she waited out on the lawn, lounging next to the mill pond.

"They just aren't here," said Jim Brinkler, the volunteer fish agent. Brinkler's job is to catch the alewives that won't be climbing the ladder but will instead be harvested in a huge dipper-tank that scoops them out of the water. The harvested alewives, sold as prime lobster bait, are sluiced with water down a chute into plastic totes in the back of a lobsterman's pickup truck, much the same way they used to be sluiced to the packing-house door.

Last year, the bait fish harvest contributed $20,000 to the municipal fish fund.

But the 2015 spring alewife run hadn't picked up enough to start the commercial bait fishery.

"It could be any day," said Brinkler. He pointed across the downstream convergence of the three forks.

"When they get here, you can walk across their backs, they're so thick," he said.

I smiled and he saw it.

"I'm not kidding," he said. "You really can."

Deb Wilson, a fisheries anthropologist who helped marshall the local community to undertake a $1 million reconstruction of the fishway, yelled at a herring gull who was loitering at the edge of one of the newly built cement and stone-lined pools.

"That seagull is there, again, right there," she said to Brinkler.

"Stay away from my fish!" Wilson yelled at the gull.

Wilson was attracted to the area because of the fish ladder and its history, which stretches back to 1794 when the local selectmen insisted that the mill dams had impeded the upstream migration of the alewives long enough. The fish were battering against the dams in an attempt to get upstream to spawn and the future fish harvests were in danger.

It's been a fight to get those fish upstream for centuries. There were practically alewife riots by settlers up in the Penobscot, when the downstream dams blocked the fish migration. Alewives were a ready source of spring food in the upper reaches of the rivers. One town revolted and tore out a dam.

At one point, there were seven sawmills in the small territory of the Damariscotta Mills alewife stream. When a mill burned down - as the town records show was a common enough occurrence - another went up. At different times there was a grist mill that ground corn, a Diamond Match factory and a leather factory, as well as sawmills. By 1873, the local selectmen set out to petition the state legislature for a law to protect alewife habitat at the alewife run by prohibiting "the throwing of sawdust and other waste lumber into the waters of the Damariscotta River at Damariscotta Mills from the last day of May to the first day of July."

The fish ladder was repaired over the centuries as the sawmills were replaced with hydroelectric dams, but a combination of overfishing and a fish ladder in disrepair led to biologists counting just 26,000 fish reaching Damariscotta Lake in 1978, according to a Portland Press Herald article at the time. The number was so low, state biologists were bringing attention to overfishing of the alewives and calling for more fishways so alewives could bypass the main streams and get through safely.

In Damariscotta Mills the fishway was known as the Lock Stream from the early days when a series of 'locks' or man-made pools led up the right fork to the lake.

It was also known as the Sacred Stream, because once the fish got into it, they were safe, at least from fishermen, if not from gulls.

By 2006, fish ladders and fishways were common on Maine streams and rivers, but in Damariscotta Mills, the fishway had mostly collapsed.

Over the past decade, Wilson started talking to others who were interested in building a new fish passage that would do what the original fish ladder was intended to do, but had never completely succeeded at doing - get a lot of the alewives upstream to Damariscotta Lake, above the dams, so they can make their way to breed in the tributaries in the upper reaches of the watershed.

Fish ladders might help fish return home to breed, but they often looked as appealing as a typical parking garage, with concrete and sharp corners. The Damariscotta Mills fish ladder, which was completed last winter at a cost of $1 million, has become an exception. With the 69 stone pools connected by short waterfalls winding around the backs of village buildings through spring greenery and May flowers, the European fishway design looks more like a very expensive and well planned landscaping project than a place to park fish.

That's a rare change from eight years ago, when returning alewives were indeed parked, many of them stranded in a ruined fish ladder that was held together with two-by-fours, in places, and had crumbled completely away, in others.
In 2007, the Nobleboro Historical Society and the towns of Nobleboro and Newcastle, who both share ownership of the alewife stream, along with longtime locals and people from away, had worked to raise funds and move ahead with work on a new fishway. They raffled handmade quilts and sold mugs, applied for conservation grants and got them. A year later, Curtis Orvis, an engineer from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who specializes in designing fish ladders, developed a plan for a series of pools and short waterfalls that provided the best chances for the fish to get home. Alewives, it turns out, do best when the jump from pool to pool on the way upstream is between eight and ten inches high, at a particular angle and through a chute about two feet wide.

Alewives are a historic fish. Even their name, which is thought to be on account of their beer bellies that were reminiscent of the physique of women who kept ale houses in the 17th century, seems quaint. But they hold contemporary standing in nature's give and take. Alewives return by the millions every May. Along the way, their spring migration fuels new life, the mating, then the hatching out and feeding of the young of the year. And alewives are what's for supper for seals, seabirds, haddock and cod, eider duck babies in flocks with their mothers and aunties who follow masses of fish into brackish rivers.

The sheer volume of fish moving through from saltwater into fresh and back to the sea again knits together the food web in ways that are actively measured.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the presence of alewives tends to reduce phosphorus in lakes, one of the aggravations that causes lakes to clog with algae and deplete oxygen in the water, causing fish die-off. The alewives apparently lock the phosphorus in their bodies, taking it with them when they head out to sea. They have even been used to clean out municipal water supplies.

Still, alewives may be the universal fish of New England and the Maritimes, but they are not universally loved.

They have run afoul of sport fishermen, particularly those in the upper reaches of the St. Croix River that borders Maine and Canada. The Grand Lake Stream area, and the lakes above it, closed the fish ladder there 20 years ago to keep alewives from competing with the sport fish, including the non-native bass. The Passamaquoddy people pushed hard for the return of the alewives, and their effort helped reopen the fish ladder two years ago, but the fight to close it continues.

Fish politics aside, alewives have a long and loyal following as both a spring phenomenon and a boon to local economies, according to a file of clips saved by local historian George Weston, who is 95 and lives a quarter mile from the fishway. Weston thanks his lucky stars he didn't follow in his grandfather's footsteps as keeper of the fish ladder himself, but enjoyed a career in the military, instead, and now has the happy occupation of being keeper of the history of the fish ladder.

Assessing the usefulness of the new fish passage isn't difficult with estimates from the hourly data. In 2007, before the fishway ladder was rebuilt, about 150,000 alewives made it up to Damariscotta Lake.

In 2014, Wilson reported 1.3 million fish made it from Pool 69 into the mill pond. That is, roughly, the same number of people who live in the entire state.

Does that mean we should forget Herbert Hoover's campaign promise of a chicken in every pot and think about an alewife in every skillet?

For many reasons, that has considerable appeal as a 2016 presidential campaign slogan, but for all their ecological value and their attractiveness to fish and fowl, how do alewives actually taste?

"They're greasy," said Brinkler.

"Like mackerel, only greasier," said Wilson, with a grimace.

"They're not for me," Weston said, with a slight shake of the head and what was quickly turning into a familiar reaction. A grimace.

The perfect political fish, I decided. Clearly, it crossed party lines as well as international boundaries.

Weston showed me his grandfather's recipe to brine alewives in a wooden hogshead barrel: string them ten to a stick, then hang them in the rafters above a smoldering pine fire for just shy of two days until they cure to a golden brown. Woodbury I. Oliver was his name, and he ran three smokehouses by the bridge, where now there is just one.

Salt the bottom of the barrel, writes Oliver, then layer the alewives and the salt, cover with water and weight down a board on top with a stone. A day and a half later, clean off the slime, scales, and blood, string them up tidy-like on the stick, noses all pointing in the same direction.

Throw out the bloody brine, Oliver warns, and don't use alewives that have been in fresh water. They need to be caught in saltwater. If the fish have been in fresh water for longer than 12 hours, Oliver warns, you'll get maggots hatching out of your smoked fish.

"The water at the bottom of the run there by the bridge used to be red with blood when they were packing in the fish house," said Weston, who only worked the harvest once, as a teenager.

And for three centuries lots of alewives were eaten. They were salted and shipped in barrels to the West Indies, where I could only imagine them being heavily spiced up with ginger and served up with rum. They were brined, smoked, skinned and shipped to Europe, too, with barrels rolling onto ships from the Damariscotta wharf that is now home to the current-day public town landing.

Tastes change, though, and by 1970, Damariscotta Mills was harvesting the fish of our founding fathers for lobster bait.

"The lobstermen say the hardshell lobsters love alewives," said Brinkler. When he harvests, local lobstermen line up at five in the morning and, again, at five at night, paying $25 a bushel for bait.

It kind of makes sense that lobsters would love them. Lobsters eat anything, as anyone who has ever filled a bait bag knows. The smellier the better.

Mulligan's smokehouse sits across the road next to the bay. They had started a batch and the smoke smelled fragrant and tempting in the fresh salt air.

This year, they weren't crowning an Alewife Queen at the Memorial Day festival, but they were serving beer. Or was it ale? It would be possible to wash a smoky fish down with a cold one in view of the bay while ospreys dive on thousands of fish flippering their way upstream to the accompaniment of a live band. But, really, the fish needed to show up for the party.

On Wednesday, I called Brinkler.

"Yep, they're coming in," he said. "We start harvesting tomorrow."