A few years ago, I witnessed a mass killing from my porch overlooking the Five Mile River in Rowayton. I didn’t report it. But when I heard that it happened again this year, I decided to reveal, in detail, what I saw and learned on that fateful day in November:
The onset of autumn had crisped the air and chilled the sea, sending a signal to birds and fish to bulk up for winter’s migration. As a rising tide began to surge into rivers and bays along the coast of Long Island Sound, a large school of bunker — lobstermen’s favorite baitfish — eased past Scott’s Cove in Darien heading east toward the Norwalk Islands.
Whether it smelled the bunker or felt their vibration, a pack of bluefish homed in, circling the baitfish like wolves, herding them into the Five Mile River, a misnomer for a 1-mile strip of sea that meanders past downtown Rowayton, looking for its motherland somewhere to the north.
Once the bluefish chased their prey past the moored boats marking the channel, the bunker were trapped. No way out.
The voracious blues charged from below. With each strike the bunker rose as one, their fins and tails slicing the water’s surface in frantic flight. Hundreds leapt on shore, choosing death by suffocation to the razorlike teeth of a 20-pound blue. The river turned red with the blood of those that stayed behind.
Pound for pound, blues rank among the best fighting fish in the world. It is also one of the few species on land or in the sea that kills more than it can eat.
Neighbors ran to sheds and garages for fishing poles, hoping to snag a succulent-tasting blue for the patio grill. The river roiled not only with several hundred bunker and marauding blues, but now boatloads of anglers. Townspeople gathered on the river’s banks to witness this unique — for most, once-in-a-lifetime — spectacle.
An hour or two into the event, the tide mercifully reversed, taking with it the crimson water and a seemingly endless raft of dead floaters. The surviving bunker couldn’t catch a break: as the water receded, they drowned from lack of oxygen.
Twice daily, low tide transforms the Five Mile River into the size of a wet crack sluicing through mud flats. On this day the riverbed was wall-to-wall with dead and dying bunker. Corpses also lay hidden in the shorelines of cordgrass and on the manicured lawns of Connecticut’s waterfront houses. The putrid smell of death wafted over patios, swimming pools, and comfortable lawn furniture that provided front-row seats to nature’s theater.
News of the free-for-all traveled the crustacean grapevine up and down the coast. Lobstermen, like the blues, followed their noses to the bunker. Their rubber boots slurped in the riverbed as they stuffed the baitfish into oversize pails. The crime scene was expunged as hundreds of ever-opportunistic gulls, having hovered patiently throughout the event, now vied with lobstermen for the day’s easy pickings.
Our slender slice of wetland was wiped clean before the next high tide eased into the river with welcome quietude.
Prudence Brown Lev was the editor of Connecticut Magazine from 1975 to 1978. This is an excerpt from her forthcoming memoir.