Discovering Lake Champlain’s Underwater Abundance
A powerful, dark striped body. Blood-red eyes. The ability to entice, enrage and elate. These are the properties of the smallmouth bass, one of the most sought after game fish in Lake Champlain and one that many anglers devote themselves to absolutely.
However, these are not the only fish worth chasing in Champlain’s waters. In this 125-mile-long lake, an abundant resource swims beneath the surface: one that offers endless opportunities for good times, good food and great friends. All one needs is a fishing pole.
Lake Champlain is a renowned fishing destination, coveted for its ability to produce great numbers of large fish. Of its 93 species, 15 of which are non-native, bass are the most heavily targeted. The bass in Lake Champlain, both largemouth and smallmouth, draw the attention of many anglers, including professionals such as Paul Elias and Kevin VanDam. Elias, a member of the Major League Fishing Bass Pro Tour, holds eight career wins and 56 Top 10 placements. VanDam holds 26 wins and 122 Top 10s.
Jim Jeffries of Rouses Point, New York, an experienced angler and the founder and owner of Lake Champlain Fish Company, knows where the fish are.
“I had Paul Elias here … I showed him some stuff right out in front of King’s Bay. I told him this whole area is just full of smallmouths,” Jeffries said. “Kevin VanDam wound up fishing the same area I told (Elias) about, and Kevin won the tournament.”
Beyond Champlain’s ability to lure in pro bass anglers, the lake offers an abundance of other fish species, many that are not targeted for sport. Jeffries moved to Rouses Point from Syracuse, New York, in 1985 to make a living off of these fish. He started Lake Champlain Fish Co. the same year, buying fish from anglers to sell to local restaurants and the community. The most popular, perch, sees its boom in the winter months when ice anglers catch them by the dozens.
“Weather has a lot to do with it,” Jeffries said. “It’s sort of a winter-time thing around here, perch dinners.”
Not only do perch bite consistently, but they are great in number and accessible for even the most novice angler. Perch is a staple of American freshwater cuisine, typically battered and fried to a crisp golden-brown. The green and yellow tiger-striped panfish are also a common target for family outings. They make an excellent fish for initiation into fishing and eating wild food.
Chasing perch, though, does not offer the same kind of high octane thrill that comes from hooking bigger game fish. Pike, one of the most ferocious fish in Lake Champlain, are well known for their voracious appetite and fighting power. In Rouses Point, the massive pillars of the Route 2 bridge to Vermont are a popular place to fish for these wolf-faced predators.
“There’s been some big pike caught here,” Jeffries recalled. “I remember one year they had quite a few. One guy had a 21-pounder.”
Then, of course, there is the legendary bass fishing of Lake Champlain. However, today things are not as they once were.
“The lake has changed in the last 20 years,” Jeffries said, referencing the 1993 invasion of zebra mussels, an aggressively expanding mollusk.
Zebra mussels are filter feeders. Each individual mollusk is able to filter one liter of water per day while feeding. Zebra mussels’ feeding cleans the water around them. This allows far more sunlight to penetrate the water and grass to proliferate, creating more habitat for bass. As a result, rotifers, small planktonic organisms at the bottom of the food chain, have decreased by 70%. Before the invasion, good grass beds were hard to find in the south end of the lake.
“The zebra mussels have cleaned the water up so much that now it’s just all grass beds down there,” Jefferies said.
Dr. Tim Mihuc observes that climate change is another destructive event that benefits bass and other warm-water species, which can breed more easily in rising temperatures.
“As we go to a warmer lake, we’ll transition to more biomass in the warm-water fish communities,” said Mihuc, director of the Lake Champlain Research Institute and SUNY Plattsburgh ecology professor. Though warm-water species will benefit, cold-water species, like trout and salmon, will suffer. Jeffries already sees a difference in the bass fishery.
“It’s improved the fishing down in the south end of the lake,” he said. Jeffries has the experience to see the change; he has been fishing in bass tournaments since 1989 and has made between 12 and 14 state teams in both New York and Vermont.
There’s more to bass fishing than competition, however. There exists a mutual interest in helping others find success. According to Jeffries, most anglers have no problem offering advice on the day’s best spots or tackle.
“I was never afraid to tell anybody where I was fishing and what I was catching,” Jeffries said.
Fishing has given Jeffries more than a business and more than a sport to compete in. It’s given him close friendships. Jeffries said fishing can, “bring perfect strangers together and (they) wind up being friends when the tournament is over.”
One such friendship, with fellow angler George Yund, came about after a random pairing for a tournament, one that led to Jeffries taking an accidental swim. The two were fishing through tall cattails when Yund, who was hooked into a bass on the other side of the reeds, urged Jeffries to push the boat with his homemade push pole. Pushing caused Jeffries to fall off the back of the boat. When Jeffries resurfaced and clammered back in, Yund was laughing.
“I took my shirt and my pants off and hung them up in the boat. He gave me his jacket, and I put that on. We had a good day, and we wound up being friends.” After a long pause, Jeffries added, “That’s what bass fishing does. It’s about the camaraderie.”
Story and photos by Oliver Reil