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."
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.