Nathan Hamilton maintains a fire using feathers Saturday while cooking alewives at the Benton Alewife Festival. Anna Chadwick/Morning Sentinel

BENTON — Though the star attractions of the Benton Alewife Festival only appeared via video from the nearby Sebasticook River, or nicely smoked, hundreds of their fans nonetheless gathered Saturday to celebrate the sea-run fishes’ annual upstream return.

Thousands of the keystone fish, a major food source for numerous other animals, swam in the Sebasticook nearby the festival site in the park next to the Benton Town Office. But tours of the nearby Benton Falls Dam were not available this year, due to repairs that are underway. But festival organizers did find a way to show festivalgoers the alewives as they made their way up to the dam, into a fish elevator, and out the other, upstream side to continue their swims. A live video camera, with rotating feeds of the fish swimming up to the dam, entering through a filter meant to prevent other species from joining them, getting a ride in an elevator, and being released out the other side, played inside the town office. Numerous children gathered to watch the masses of fish swimming under the water’s surface.

Dwight Gagnon, the town’s new alewife warden and father of festival organizer Amy Gagnon, said one day last week more than 200,000 alewives passed through the dam in a single day. He estimated more than a million have likely come through so far during the upstream run of alewives, also known as river herring.

Wearing a shirt that said “Everything eats alewives,” Dwight Gagnon greeted visitors at the fish-cam. One mother, as she came in with her young son who parked himself in front of the fish camera video screen, said, “This is the whole reason he came.”

Outside, festival volunteer Emma Donovan of Benton showed that people are among the “everything” that eat alewives, giving out free smoked whole alewives to anyone who wanted some. She and Amy Gagnon told visitors that they have a nice flavor to them, but warned they are very bony fish.

Donovan said about three-quarters of the people who tried them said they were really good.


Steve Valleau assists children Saturday as they use water paints on wooden fish during the Benton Alewife Festival. Anna Chadwick/Morning Sentinel

When Desirea and Ryan Murray of Vassalboro walked by, Donovan invited Desirea to try some of the smoked river herring. She declined but pointed to her husband and said he’d have some. He did, and she later had one bite as well.

Both said it tasted like smoked tuna fish. After sampling the smoky fish, they had hot dogs, which were also free. The hot dog stand was getting considerably more diners than the smoked alewive booth, though numerous people did partake in trying the fish. Most people would consider alewives more as a bait fish than one for people to eat.

“It was tasty, kind of tuna-like,” Ryan Murray said. “Bony as all get-out. But the bones are soft.”

Donovan said it was her second time coming to the festival, and first time volunteering there.

Silas Pillsbury, 5, receives help from his mom, Lindsey Pillsbury, while block printing Saturday during the Benton Alewife Festival. Anna Chadwick/Morning Sentinel

“It’s a nice community event, a chance to get to know people,” she said of the festival. She noted the alewives attract so many predators that the area has one of the largest breeding populations of bald eagles in the country.

Landis Hudson, executive director of Maine Rivers, said it was great to see people out celebrating the return of alewives, a keystone species known as “the fish that feed all” for its popularity as a food source for nearly anything that eats other animals and flies, swims or walks near water. She said only 5% of Maine’s waters are accessible to alewives, but the state nonetheless has a vibrant fishery for them.


Nathan Hamilton maintains a fire using feathers Saturday while cooking alewives at the Benton Alewife Festival. Anna Chadwick/Morning Sentinel

“It’s great that people can come out, with their grandkids, with their friends, and welcome them back,” Hudson said of alewives, which migrate upstream by the thousands.

Dwight Gagnon said the river herring are a source of revenue for the town, selling the rights to fish for alewives, which are popular bait for lobster fishing. He said so many build up at the base of the dam they turn the river black.

Researcher and living history interpreter Ken Hamilton and his son, Nathan, of Corinth, smoked alewives on sticks set horizontally across an open fire at their setup of a 1690 Wabanaki and French fishing camp. With a replica 1690 axe at his feet and his hands covered in fish guts and blood from preparing fresh caught alewives for the fire, Hamilton said the festival site is near a major portage route that was used by Native Americans. He said canoes were the main form of transportation as they traveled to different areas based upon what food sources were available. Hamilton said the Native Americans harvested alewives and would smoke them for a couple of days at temporary camps.

The annual event returned last year after not being held since 2019 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The festival began in 2012 to celebrate the annual alewife migration, when the fish travel upstream for about a month in the spring to reach lakes and ponds to spawn. The removal of the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in Augusta and the Fort Halifax Dam in Winslow, along with other restoration efforts, now allow the fish to travel up the Sebasticook again. In 2022, there were an estimated 2.7 million fish counted at Benton Falls Dam, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

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