There is a monster lurking in Salmon Brook.
It hovers, nearly motionless, in that narrow space between dark and light, waiting for its chance to feed. Passersby rarely notice it, and when they do, they often dismiss it as just a shadow, or perhaps a reflection of something nearby.
Incapable of rational thought, it is driven entirely by its most basic instincts. First, an insatiable hunger, and later, the primal need to reproduce. Feed, feed, feed. Then, spawn, spawn, spawn. For millions of years, that is all it has known.
It has a unique capacity to destroy slowly, subjecting its victims to a gradual, agonizing death. Those that don’t die outright from an attack often succumb later to exhaustion or infection.
It is patient and cunning, holding in areas where its prey would be the most vulnerable and least suspecting. When its selected target gets close, it coils like a snake and suddenly, precisely, slams into the victim, just below and behind the cheek. Dozens of pointed, curved teeth sink into flesh. Twitching slightly, it uses its rough lips and circular mouth to form a tight suction around the teeth. Once securely attached, it flicks its tongue to create a small cut. Then it flicks again and again until the wound is deep and wide enough to allow sufficient blood flow. Finally, it injects a chemical into the wound to prevent the blood from clotting, so that it can feed slowly and methodically.
Its victims initially feel shock and pain, and then a gradual fading out….
It was beautiful early June day, and I was trying to take in my surroundings. It’s amazing what you can experience stream fishing if you just pay attention. On this outing, I had already seen a submerged duck egg, a huge, five-inch, clam shell and a colorful bird I didn’t recognize (it turned out to be a Common Merganser).
I was wading slowly upstream, heading back to the truck after catching and releasing two brook trout, when I noticed an odd shape in the water, just a few inches from my right foot. At first, I thought it was a shadow but its shape was too distinct. A shadow would have flickered under the moving water, and this object held its form. My second thought was that it was a pipe or some sort of discarded tool. It was long, and it tapered from several inches wide on one end to less than an inch on the other. It was dark gray with several splotches of lighter grey along its top.
As I watched, it rolled slightly in the current, and it dawned on me that it was hovering in the water, an inch or two above the stream bed. A pipe or tool wouldn’t do that. I also noticed that it had a line of holes in its side. The last of these holes, the one closest to the end, was larger than the rest and appeared to have a dot in the middle. Before I could get a closer look, it drifted a foot or so downstream and slowly righted itself.
There was something about that movement, that righting of itself, that gave me pause. My heart rate increased just a little. I was beginning to think it was something alive in the water, but what? I poked it with the end of my fishing rod and it rolled again. I bent over, putting my face close to the water to get a better look at those holes in its side. The largest one, the one with the spot in the middle, looked a lot like…
An eye! It was an eye staring back at me!
Yanking my rod, arm and face back, I nearly fell backwards into the water. All of the breath went out of me. The thing in the water, once again, drifted downstream and righted itself.
The chicken in me wanted to climb out of the stream and head straight home. The fisherman in me wanted to try to catch it. For clearly, this was some kind of fish. An eel maybe?
The fisherman won out. I dipped the tip of my rod into the water in front of it. No reaction. I nudged it with the rod. Still nothing. This thing clearly wasn’t going to strike a lure. If I was going to catch it, I would need to do it by hand.
So, inexplicably, that’s what I did. Heart pounding, I tentatively reached behind it. Still no movement I could discern. I grabbed onto the thin end and slowly lifted it from the water. As it stretched to its full length, I could feel pulses of life within it, but it made no attempt to escape. In a single motion, I began to lift it higher and turn my wrist so I could see its underside. A quarter-turn, and there was that eye again. Another quarter-turn and…
It coiled like a snake….
I honestly don’t remember if I screamed as I threw it on the bank, but you’d forgive me if I did. Lying bottom-up at my feet was one of the gnarliest creatures I have ever encountered. It seemed to be all mouth, with concentric circles of hooked teeth and a tongue tipped with needle-like appendages.
It was unmistakably a sea lamprey, also known as the vampire fish. A vampire fish in Salmon Brook? How could that be? Using my boot, I pushed the fish back into the stream and went home to do some research.
Sea lamprey have a complex lifecycle. In Connecticut, they start their lives in freshwater, feeding on microorganisms found at the bottom of rivers and streams. After three to five years, they transform into juvenile adults and migrate to the sea. Here is where they become vampires, feeding on the blood and bodily fluids of other fish. After another twelve to eighteen months, they become mature adults and return to freshwater to spawn. The cycle repeats itself each year, with mature adults entering the Connecticut River and its tributaries in early spring.
Mature adults do not feed, and once the spawning process is complete, they die. Salmon Brook is the outer reach of their range. The lampreys that get that far are almost completely spent.
So yes, there is a monster in Salmon Brook. Or at least there was. Sure, it’s a monster that was near death and no more interested in feeding on me than I was on it. But, if you should happen upon one next spring, I dare you to grab it by the tail, turn it over and take a close look at it.