The country is flat, boggy, thick with second-growth hardwoods and spruce. To the east lies a marsh, and beyond it the highway, where 18-wheelers grumble their gear changes through long curves. Cottages rim the nearby lake shore, most of them empty in this chilly season. John Roy, 49, climbs a tree-stand and pulls his .30-06 Springfield—"my daddy's gun"—up after him. He settles against the oak bark and becomes suddenly invisible in his green-and-black-checked lumberjack shirt. Charles (Junior) Tourville, 58, wearing camouflage, disappears silently into the marsh, carrying a vintage .303 Lee-Enfield. Charlie Clark, 66, stands near a mossy blowdown at the marsh edge, as motionless as a great blue heron, his 12-gauge Browning loaded with rifled slugs.
For a long time, silence. Then Tourville's .303 roars, and the whole swamp shivers. One shot, a long pause, then another shot. Tourville comes back through the marsh, dragging his quarry.
But wait—this is April, not November. And the game Junior lugs from the marsh isn't a whitetail buck, but a northern pike as long as his leg.
Tourville, Roy and Clark are engaged in a controversial rite of spring. It's known locally as "pickerel shooting." Every year after ice-out, Vermonters along the 120-mile eastern shoreline of Lake Champlain go forth with spears and rifles to wage war on the fish Izaak Walton called "the Tyrant of the Rivers" and "the Fresh-water woolf."
April 23, 1989
From March 25 to May 25, the steely gray surface of Champlain erupts with miniature depth-charge explosions as bullets slam into the water. Now and then a fish rolls belly-up, its swim bladder ruptured by the impact of a bullet, but that is not the ideal shot in this historic form of hunting. The aim of frugal Vermoters is not to hit the fish but to shoot under it and stun it, so that the fish can be scooped up with no loss of meat. Gunners can legally shoot—in addition to chain pickerel and northern pike—carp, gar, bowfin, mullet, shad, suckers, bullheads (the prized "horned pout" of New England tables) and "other cull fish" undefined by Vermont's fish and wildlife laws. The only other spot in the U.S. where fish shooting is allowed is Scott County, Va., on the Clinch River. Even in Vermont, it is permitted only on Lake Champlain.
"We feel like we're out in leftfield," said State Representative Gino Sassi, who was chairman of Vermont's House Fish and Wildlife Committee two years ago when he led a fight to prohibit pickerel shooting. "It's just like shooting fish in a barrel." But when Sassi tried to push the antishooting bill through his committee, the legislature was hit with petitions from more than 700 proshooting supporters, many of whom had never gunned for pike but opposed the ban as yet another infringement of their traditional rights. Sassi surrendered, and when he lost his seat in the legislature last year, no other representative stepped forward to lead the fight.
Actually, Vermont's Fish and Wildlife Department has tried since 1969 to outlaw fish shooting as dangerous, anachronistic and somewhat embarrassing. The arguments against it are strong:
•The slugs and big-bore bullets favored by pike shooters can ricochet off the water, endangering other hunters and recreational users of the lake. Shooting into the water, for this reason, is one of the first things hunters are taught not to do in the state's mandatory firearms safety courses. Condoning it on Champlain is contradictory and confusing.
•The shock of a big round's impact can kill not only the big hen fish most sought by pike shooters but also the smaller males that swarm around her, eager to mate. As many as 10 fish can be killed with one shot.
•Other fish using the shallows—from baitfish such as dace, chub and smelt to yellow perch and walleyes—often get caught in the concussion of the blast, which adds to the body count and depletes a valuable tourist resource.
•Even when they don't kill their quarry, pike shooters slogging the early spring marshes disrupt the ecosystem at its most vulnerable period. "Silt gets kicked up, eggs get trampled. So you're killing the young fish as well as the adults," says Jon Anderson, a state Fish and Wildlife biologist for the Champlain district. "But our main concern is that the shooters are in the ideal spawning areas. When people are there, the fish won't come and so they spawn in deeper water. That means a much lower survival rate for the young."
•Human activity and gunfire in the wetlands interrupt the mating and nesting of the ducks, geese, shorebirds and songbirds that throng Champlain's shallows each spring.
•Many concerned outdoorsmen worry that the image of gun-toting men blasting away at fish at near-point-blank range only adds ammunition to anti-hunting forces.
Yet for all their logic and persuasiveness, the arguments cut little ice with most native Vermonters. There's a saying in the Green Mountain State: "If you want a Vermonter to do something, just tell him he can't." Vermonters resent outside interference, even from their own state capital. "If that marsh out there were a trout stream," says Roy, "I'd have grown up a fly-fisherman. But it is a marsh, and it's all we had. So I grew up trapping muskrats, hunting ducks, fishing horned pout...and shooting pike. It's what we do here."
Roy, 49, is a second-generation dairyman whose farm is located on South Hero Island in Lake Champlain. He's also a selectman and a committee member of the Farmers Home Administration Board for the town of Essex Junction, and he has been elected chairman of the Agricultural Stabilization Conservation Committee for Grand Isle County. He once served briefly on the Vermont Fish and Game Board. He also is, as we have seen, a staunch defender of pike shooting.
"If the state hadn't made such a big deal out of this," Roy says of the pike-shooting flap, "it would probably have died of its own accord. I reckon there's only about 100 pickerel shooters on all of Champlain. At least that's all there were until the whole thing started getting all this publicity."
He places a sheaf of old newspaper and magazine clippings on the kitchen table in his farmhouse, LIKE SHOOTING FISH IN A BARREL reads a headline in the Seattle Times. THEY STILL SHOOT FISHES, DON'T THEY? asks Yankee magazine. "This one's my favorite, though," Roy says with a chuckle. He produces a front-page story from a yellowing edition of the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser showing him in overalls, pipe clenched between his teeth, knee-deep in a marsh with a carbine in his hands. Atop the picture runs a headline: ARGENTINE REBELS SURRENDER. But then you see that the banner goes with another story, the photo with the headline VERMONT OFFICIALS OUT TO END FISH SHOOTING. Inadvertently, the layout flub underscores the sense of siege and alienation many Vermonters feel when confronting the late-20th century.
As Roy replaces the clippings, a gunshot explodes from the edge of the nearby marsh. He yanks back the kitchen curtains and peers out. "Damn!" he says. "They just shot and drove away. Not local kids—I don't recognize the car. Let's go down and have a look-see."
Near the mouth of a culvert, a small northern pike—perhaps 15 inches, a "hammer-handle"—twitches in the water. It rights itself, fins weakly away, then goes belly-up.
"Swim bladder's busted," Roy says, shaking his head angrily. "Damn them. It almost makes you turn against it."
Roy crosses the road and points to the south, where the marsh extends in a seemingly endless sea of dried grass, cattails and winter-bleached tree trunks. "That was my world when I was a kid," he says. "I could get out there and stay forever, away from the cows and the chores and the real work—if my daddy would've let me."
We hike along the highway's shoulder, watching the edge of both marsh and lake for the telltale swirls and splashes of "playing"—i.e., mating—pike. "When I got out of the Navy in the early '60s, my dad was dying," Roy says. "I came up the front steps and he was sitting by the window, watching the marsh. 'John,' he said, 'they're playing down there. Get the gun.' I took the rifle and went down to the water—still in my dress blues, I remember—and shot a big pike. It made Dad happy."
That evening, while Roy is out catching a mess of horned pout with rod and reel, another Champlain native scouts the shallows for playing pickerel. Clark, who with his wife, Dorice, owns a fishing lodge on North Hero Island, gave up pickerel shooting long ago. "Old-timers used to think of pickerel and northerns as cull fish," he says. "Called them trash, said they killed more valuable fish like trout and bass and walleyes, and besides, they were too easy to catch, no fight in 'em. Well, darn it, every fish eats other fish, and a pickerel or northern on the right tackle is as sporty as darn near anything. And good eating, too.
"But the state's fish and wildlife laws go along with the old-timers. At Champlain, there's no closed fishing season on any of the pike family—not even muskellunge. But you can only take one muskie a day, and he has to be at least 30 inches. With chain pickerel and northerns, you can take up to 10 a day of any size."
Clark also learned to love pickerel shooting as a kid. "It was the first chance you got to get out on the marsh," he says. "Sure cure for cabin fever. You'd see the marsh coming back to life—spring migrants moving in, redwing blackbirds, herons, grackles, warblers, the first ospreys. And the pickerel playing. More often than not, I'd set the gun aside and just watch them chasing each other through the shallows. Sometimes they'd come right up to your feet."
We are prowling the edge of the marsh, sometimes ankle-deep in dark, icy water as Clark reminisces. Suddenly a big fish swirls near his feet, and the vee of its wake shoots out toward the cripple bushes that surround a big beaver lodge. "Wow," says Charlie, his eyes alight. "That's just what I mean!"
Before darkness chases us out of the marsh, we see at least half a dozen other big pike splashing in the shallows of this boggy point. Though he hasn't shot a pike in probably 20 years, Clark is caught by a remembered thrill of childhood. "We should have brought a gun," he says. "Why didn't we bring a gun? We could have had two or three of those big ones for sure!"
The following evening we're back in the marsh. Roy has joined us, along with Tourville, the road commissioner of South Hero for the past 25 years. Junior is a quiet, smiling man with an easy grace of movement that both belies his age and identifies a lifetime of experience in hunting and fishing.
There are other gunners in the marsh this evening, as ragged volleys of shots announce from time to time. At one point a loud, big-bore bang is followed by nine pops from a smaller-caliber piece, probably a .22 pistol. "Some guy finishing off the fish that went belly-up after his first shot," explains Clark. Just to the south of us, not more than a hundred yards, someone else is shooting—five times over the next hour. Roy comes on him in a tree-stand at the water's edge. He's got five pike, none of them huge, but all respectable fish. He's finished for the day and relinquishes his stand to Roy. But as the pike hunter starts to climb down, he slips and falls a good 10 feet, flat on his back against a beaver-chewed tree root. Roy helps him to his feet and the man, embarrassed, makes his way painfully from the marsh with his fish flopping over his back. "He'll be hurtin' good, come morning," says Roy. The hazards of pike shooting.
There are pike playing in the marsh weeds all around us, but none big enough to warrant a shot. Every time the others in the marsh shoot—some a good quarter of a mile away—shoals of minnows leap from the surface in instant synchrony with the distant bullet's impact, and the fish playing near us go quiet for 10 minutes or more. Finally, Tourville gets a shot.
"Got her with the first one," he explains later, "but she dove down and bit the bottom." He shows us the hen pike's mouth, clogged with mud and dead reeds.
"She was about spawned out," Roy says, pointing to the dribble of spawn still trickling from the vent of the five-pound hen. Really big northerns—in excess of 20 pounds—have been known to lay a quarter of a million eggs, but a fish this size might carry only 30,000 or less. Pike lay their eggs over a wide range of shallow waters. The eggs hatch quickly, a strategy aimed at getting the fry out of the shallows into safer, deeper water before the high waters of spring dry up and lake levels go down. Mortality is high—in excess of 98%—before the survivors reach sexual maturity. Yet those that survive grow swiftly into one of the fiercest of freshwater game fish.
That is the real rub of this antique sport. A female like this one, not shot but taken with a stiff-backed 8½-foot fly rod, especially in the snag-studded shallows pike like to frequent, would be a fish to remember. And memories of that sort are what bring fishermen back to a lake or pond or river year after year, pumping income into north-country economies that can ill afford the loss of a valuable tourist attraction. The late angling writer Ray Bergman summed it up many years ago: "In certain areas pike are so unpopular that they're killed and thrown back when caught. The time may come when anglers will suffer for such thoughtlessness."
Nostalgia and tradition notwithstanding, even John Roy and his compatriots must admit that the time is now.