What J.R. Healey likes best is the fight in the fish.
He has hooked lots of different quarry in his waders, but the one he enjoys the most, the one that gives him the grandest of battles is the Atlantic salmon, a species renowned for its strength and stamina.
Healey, a 56-year-old carpenter from Middlebury, remembers one salmon, a 36-incher that weighed 17 pounds. It fought for 52 minutes before subduing. Yet of the 42 salmon Healey has caught in his life, most of them (27) have been pulled from the Naugatuck River.
“I’ve fished all my life. I never thought I’d fish the Naugatuck,” he said.
His dad taught him to fish as a boy at Lake Quassapaug. Back then, when the fumes of vulcanized rubber would waft up the hill to his home from the Uniroyal plant in Naugatuck, Healey never imagined he’d one day cast a fly into that river.
“My brother still doesn’t want to set foot in the Naugatuck,” Healey said. “For him, there’s still the stigma.”
Such lingering disdain is a legacy of two centuries of industrial filth and municipal sewage dumped into the river. But most of those factories have since shut down, the ones left are restricted in their discharges, and municipal treatment plants have been upgraded or replaced.
Meanwhile, five decrepit dams, once vital to industry but barriers to fish, were removed between 1999 and 2005 at a cost of $1.6 million.
Only one obstacle, the Plume & Atwood dam in downtown Thomaston, remains between the river’s mouth in Derby and the Army Corps of Engineers’ flood-control dam above Thomaston.
“(The Plume & Atwood dam) is on our list for removal. The owner ran into hard times and the dam is now owned by someone else,” said Steve Gephard, a fisheries biologist with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the head of its salmon program.
In the center of Seymour, the Tingue Dam couldn’t be removed without compromising the elevated Route 8 expressway overhead. Instead, a 500-foot channel was blasted out of the adjacent bedrock, allowing fish to detour the dam.
The $5.4 million project, one of the first of its kind in the country, was designed to mimic conditions in a small stream with rapids and riffles. It was finished last autumn, and another, smaller project is now planned for the Norwalk River.
“We need to tinker with it,” Gephard said. The flow of water at the top of the passage is sometimes too strong for fish to overcome.
When all the kinks are ironed out, though, it will enable migratory species such as American shad, sea-run brown trout and sea lamprey to swim 29 miles to Thomaston.
“The hope is that the river could be a tremendous fishery for sea-run species,” said Middlebury’s Frank McDonald, a member of the Pomperaug-Naugatuck chapter of Trout Unlimited. “It could bring people to Waterbury from all over to fish.”
There’s a tunnel under the Army Corps dam that theoretically would allow fish to continue on to Torrington, but it’s so long and dark that they don’t use it.
“It would take a super fish,” said Gephard. “But to have the first 29 miles opened up, we’ve accomplished an awful lot.”
Some 42 species of fish have been found in the Naugatuck since its cleanup. And each year the DEEP stocks 10,000 to 12,000 trout at 40 sites spread along the length of the river.
But the most prized catch is probably the silver-blue Atlantic salmon, the so-called King of Fish. Anglers flock to the Campville section of the river and the stretch between Naugatuck and Beacon Falls after the state does its stockings in October and November.
Among the license plates commonly seen then along the banks are ones from New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts.
“It’s strictly recreational,” said Gephard. “We want to provide the public with a variety of angling.”
That was always the idea on the Naugatuck. In 1992, the DEEP decided to start stocking the captive fish, or broodstock, used in breeding for the restoration program. Previously they were discarded.
It decided to pick one river on either side of the state. The Shetucket, near Norwich, was chosen in the east, and the Naugatuck, with its fast currents and abundance of deep pools, was picked in the west. A few select lakes, such as Mount Tom Pond in Morris, have also been stocked.
Middlebury’s Bob Gregorski, the president of the Naugatuck Watershed Association and a 30-year advocate for a cleaner river, was chosen to release the first salmon into the river, which he did in Naugatuck’s Linden Park in November 1992.
“For guys who never caught a salmon, to hook a fish like that in the Naugatuck was mind-blowing,” said Gregorski, who writes an outdoors column for the Republican-American.