People & Places

Then Again: Lake Champlain long a magnet for anglers

Fitch painting
Sport fishing on Lake Champlain has been popular since the mid-1800s. One of the most popular areas has been the Split Rock Channel in the southern part of the lake, seen here in an 1875 painting by John Lee Fitch. Photo by Mark Bushnell

(“Then Again” is Mark Bushnell’s column about Vermont history.)

As human activities in Vermont go, you can’t find one much older than fishing. Archaeologists believe that people started fishing here soon after they arrived some 13,000 years ago.

But sport fishing — that is, for fun rather than food — is a much more recent phenomenon. When people started sport fishing, they also began writing poetically about their experiences. Being out on the lake, wetting a line, was good for the soul, they declared.

An early example of this lyrical take on fishing came from Samuel H. Hammond and Lewis W. Mansfield’s 1855 book, “Country Margins and Rambles of a Journalist,” in which they described the joys of fishing on Lake Champlain. One of the authors, it is unclear which, described how the early morning light caught the peaks of the distant Adirondacks, then extended onto the lake’s waters.

“I saw (rays of light) when they first glanced across the surface of the lake, making it shine like molten silver as the fresh morning breeze swept over it,” he wrote. Any fish he might catch were clearly second to this transcendent experience. “I haled in some three or four noble fish on my way to the light-house island … It was a glorious morning; the breeze was so fresh and the air so bracing, that I was tempted to shout and hurrah with gladness, as I floated over the water. It made me young again.”

After the Civil War, sport fishing boomed on Lake Champlain. War veterans, perhaps hoping to recapture the innocence of youth, began gathering at summer fishing camps along the lakeshore. In 1868, a large fishing party assembled at Thompson’s Point in Charlotte. By noon, a newspaper reported, the 44 anglers had caught 75 pike. After lunch, two or three of the men decided to try to make it an even 100, and succeeded.

The most celebrated section of the lake was Split Rock Channel, of which Thompson’s Point was a part. The 12-mile-long Split Rock Channel also includes such landmarks as Split Rock Mountain, Westport and Whallons Bay in New York, and Basin Harbor and Otter Creek in Vermont. The area drew particular attention from national fishing writers, attracting anglers from as far away as Texas. “The natives of this region live upon fish and strangers,” one such stranger ruefully remarked.

National magazines, including Forest and Stream and The American Angler, began trumpeting Lake Champlain as one of the country’s premier fishing destinations, according to a history of fishing on the lake by Morris Glenn and Katherine Teetor.

The lake’s fishing might have been exceptional, but its various fish species were far from equal. Mercer Backus, of The American Angler, wrote that yellow perch were abundant and “(e)ating them is a joy.” As opposed to the pike which should be “parboiling 20 minutes in a half-and-half of vinegar and water, and after stuffing, spicing, reboiling, and serving with a rich sauce; it should be fed to the cat!”

Murray Hoyt, a fisherman and writer, felt similarly about the lake’s mullet population, which he claimed had “three more bones than a 1890s corset factory. Eating them was like trying to get nourishment out of a pin-cushion.”

In contrast, the bass, particularly the small-mouth variety, was “the fish that now holds first place in the waters of the lake,” according to A. Nelson Cheney of Glens Falls, New York, a friend of fishing legend Charles Orvis. Cheney loved Lake Champlain. In 1890, he noted that “to the angler familiar with (Champlain’s) waters it is often surprising that its fish and its fishing have been passed over with scant courtesy.”

Others thought differently. A Vermont governmental report issued in 1886 viewed Champlain as a boon for the local economy, since it attracted the rich. “This lake is the finest sheet of water in New England,” the report declared. “… The capitalists of Boston and New York are buying the islands and building summer residences, as well as filling the hotels in summer. … The greatest attraction, doubtless, is the excellent hook and line fishing.”

Sport fishing proved so popular that some took to the lake even if it meant fishing through the ice.

Ice fishing dated back centuries, perhaps millennia. Native Americans fished the ice, using evergreen branches as wind blocks. During the French and Indian Wars and the American Revolution, soldiers from the lake’s various forts occasionally ventured onto the ice to fish. They weren’t really sport fishermen, however. Their situation was too disparate for such leisure. They fished to augment their diet, which was monotonous at best, meager at worst. Commanders ordered soldiers not to stray far from the fort, for fear they would be easy prey for the enemy.

Conflicts of another sort continued after armed hostilities ended. In 1880, an ice fisherman is said to have stormed into a lawyer’s office, claiming that another angler had usurped his fishing holes on Lake Champlain. The lawyer, or perhaps it was the judge, put off the case for weeks, by which time the ice had melted, and with it the angry fisherman’s case.

The lake’s popularity hurt its fish population. By the late-1800s, many species were in decline. Sport fishermen blamed a new type of fishermen, ones who fished for profit rather than for fun or their own nourishment, of depleting fish stocks. With trout and salmon disappearing from the lake, sport fishermen lobbied the Legislature to regulate commercial fishing. They wanted seines and other nets banned.

It wasn’t a new argument. As early as 1815, Vermont fishermen petitioned for seines to be regulated. That year, 71 residents of the town of Georgia asked the Legislature to outlaw the use of seines between mid-April and mid-June on all Lake Champlain tributaries.

In fact, the state started regulating Vermont’s fisheries in 1787 with an act outlawing the blocking of the state’s rivers, “except (with) dams for necessary mills.” The law empowered anyone in the state to destroy such obstacles and called for fines for anyone who built one.

Over the years, the Legislature had regulated the use of nets, but commercial fishermen suffered a particularly hard blow in 1878 when lawmakers banned the use of seines and other nets. Perhaps legislators were motivated by stories like the one carried in The Burlington Free Press in 1877 that detailed how a fisherman using a seine had in a single haul netted 2,630 bullpouts, which are a type of catfish.

Some legislators had defended the use of nets, arguing that they were traditional fishing tools used by poor people who depended on the fish for sustenance.

The ban apparently helped the fishery, at least in the eyes of the Albany Evening Journal, which declared in 1890 that “(t)he phenomenal increase in Champlain’s popularity during the past five years is without a parallel on any angling waters in our country. To the lover of nature and angling this superb lake is verily a terrestrial Eden.”

But there was trouble in paradise. Four years later, the Vermont Legislature dropped the net ban. Perhaps lawmakers were swayed by the argument about traditional fishing methods.
Lake Champlain became America’s largest inland commercial fishery outside the Great Lakes.

But the fishery was soon shut down. Noticing the decline in fish stocks that they had feared, sportsmen pushed for a renewed ban. The decline might have been the fault of commercial fishing, but pollution and habitat loss likely played underappreciated roles as well. By 1912, both Vermont and New York had enacted regulations that essentially banned commercial fishing on Lake Champlain.

Today, commercial fishing is again allowed, though with strict limits. And the lake remains a magnet for anglers serious about sport fishing.

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