Disaster struck the Otsego Lake region after the winter of 1789. Settlers looking for a new life on the New York frontier had poured in faster than they could clear the land.
As a result, they hadn't raised enough crops to get through the winter. By spring, famine was rampant. Hundreds of people didn't have so much as a morsel of bread to eat, and they were reduced to scrounging wild leeks that grew in the countryside.
That, reported Judge William Cooper, a land speculator who had been promoting settlement in the area, "had such an effect upon their breath, that they could be smelled at many paces distance, and when they came together, it was like cattle that had pastured in a garlic field."
Deliverance came with an unusual event: Schools of herring ascended 444 miles of the Susquehanna River and filled Otsego Lake.
"Under Cooper's direction, the settlers wove twigs into a crude seine net to drag through the river and lake, capturing thousands of fish," Alan Taylor wrote in his recent Pulitzer Prize-winning book, William Cooper's Town. "Then he supervised the salting and distribution of the fish to all the starving families."
It has been a good many decades since Cooperstown has seen any herring at all; a series of dams has long closed the Susquehanna to migratory fish.
The same is true throughout the Bay watershed. Rivers that once teemed with shad and herring - fish that spend most of their lives along the coast but swim far up rivers to spawn - have been closed by dams. In some cases, those species have even disappeared from rivers with no fish blockages.
Now, as the Bay Program seeks to reopen many of those rivers to migratory fish and to improve habitat, it is seeking information from the public about where those fish used to be found.
"We're looking for information on how far upstream shad and herring used to go on their historical spawning runs before there were blockages and when populations were more abundant," said Carin Bisland, coordinator of the Bay Program's Living Resources Subcommittee.
"We'll use this information to help target areas for restoring spawning and nursery habitat, including planting trees to provide shade, cleaning up the water and restoring streams and wetlands," she said.
The Bay Program is looking for those stories because no one has ever documented all the places migratory fish once used throughout the watershed. Like the Cooperstown story, much of the evidence of their historic range comes from anecdotes - in part because the fish disappeared from many areas before scientific studies began.
"That's a missing piece of information," said Richard St. Pierre, Susquehanna River Coordinator with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the chair of the Bay Program's Fish Passage Workgroup. "We're never going to know how far they went into these tributaries before dams were built, like in the 1700s. The information just isn't there."
Once shad were the most important fish on the Atlantic Coast, and their spawning migrations brought them "almost to the very doors of fishermen and consumers, several hundred miles from the sea," stated an 1897 report of the U.S. Fish Commission. "In 1896," the report said, "no river on the Atlantic Coast appears too long for shad to ascend to its headwaters, provided they meet with nothing to bar their progress."
But by the time of that report, the fish along the Atlantic Coast had already been blocked from nearly a third of their historic 6,052 miles of spawning habitat because of fish blockages, pollution, agricultural operations or excessive fisheries.
Boshers Dam on the James and Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna together have closed hundreds of miles of river to shad and herring.
In the last several years, Bay Program participants have worked to get fish passages built around such blockages. By the end of 1996, 246 miles of potential spawning habitat will be opened for migratory fish. The Bay Program expects that number to reach 731 miles by 1998, and 1,357 miles by 2003.
Still, dams alone don't fully explain more recent declines in some places. For example, St. Pierre said, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources during the 1960s counted hundreds of thousands of fish each spring using the Octoraro Creek, which enters the Susquehanna below the Conowingo Dam.
"Now I doubt 1,000 fish use Octoraro Creek, yet it's the same Octoraro Creek that we had 20 years ago," St. Pierre said. "But the herring are gone."
At about the same time, he said, people on Herring Creek upstream of Jamestown in Virginia, used to take out herring "by the buckets" as part of a spring dip net fishery on the creek.
"Nobody fishes for herring with hoop nets in Herring Creek anymore because there aren't any," St. Pierre said. "Or there's so few that nobody will waste their time."
In such cases, habitat degradation or an overall decline in the stock may explain the disappearance, he said.
Anyone with personal or historic information about places shad and herring once visited, but are now gone, may contact Karen Hester at the Chesapeake Bay Program Office, 1-800-968-7229.