SI Vault
Robert F. Jones
June 10, 1985
Champlain's formidable history includes geologic twists and turns, revolutionary battles and tales of a mysterious monster that may—or may not—be hiding in its unspoiled depths
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June 10, 1985

The Sixth Great Lake

Champlain's formidable history includes geologic twists and turns, revolutionary battles and tales of a mysterious monster that may—or may not—be hiding in its unspoiled depths

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Things were not quiet the next morning. The Lake Champlain International Fishing Derby opened with more than 2,400 anglers entered. Most of them seemed to have congregated on the narrow waters at the Inland Sea's lower end, just north of the U.S. Route 2 bridge between Sand Bar State Park and South Hero. The Derby's top prize was to be $100,000 for either of two specially tagged fish—a walleye and a landlocked salmon—both recently released by Derby officials. Neither of the $100,000 fish was taken, but rumors of their capture crackled wildly over the CB circuits between the hundreds of boats crowding the lake throughout the three-day contest. However, $25,000 in other prizes was awarded, and the overall catch was impressive.

The biggest fish taken was a 12-pound, 8-ounce northern pike, but the one most admired was a chunky 11-pound, 4-ounce landlocked salmon caught off the Cow Banks, a reef near Sand Bar Park, early on the opening morning. James Berg of Jericho, Vt. hooked the trophy on a four-inch silver mooselook wobbler while trolling with down riggers in 25 feet of water.

After noon, as the fish sought cooler, darker depths, we ran back into Sand Bar Park. For the first time the lake took on the aspect of an American summertime playground. The long, sandy beach at the east end of the bridge was jammed with customers, a mini-Coney Island lacking only a Ferris wheel. Blue smoke rose into a blue sky from the burnt offerings of the barbecue set. Pallid Vermonters turned pink under the sun. Gaudy kites cracked their tails in a stiff breeze. Horseshoes clanked on steel posts. Back on shore we watched Vermont Fisheries biologist Dave Callum checking out the fish brought in by Derby contestants.

Champlain has few of the ecological problems so painfully common to other U.S. waters. The acid rain that has endangered fish life in many high Adirondack lakes (and some in Vermont's Green Mountains) has not yet noticeably affected the big lake. Some experts believe that it may be spared because the ruinous fallout is "combed out" by the high mountains on either side of Champlain. Massive sludge deposits from the International Paper Company plant at Ticonderoga, N.Y. have been reduced and more closely regulated, minimizing another pollution threat for the time being. However, the southern end of the lake—narrower, shallower and warmer than the austere upper reaches—is overgrown in spots with water chestnut and floating yellow heart, those hardy runaway weeds that not only ruin fishing, swimming and boating but cause silting and reduce overall oxygen levels in the water. Vermont is working to control the weeds by the use of mechanical "harvesters" that deal with the plants the way a farmer would deal with his corn crop.

To catch the flavor of the lake in another season I returned to North Hero in the dead of winter for ice fishing with Charlie Clark. The crowded summer beach at Sand Bar was now empty, ice-heaped and windswept under a cold gray sky. A few tattered crows flew over the icy marshes where hundreds of ducks and herons had flocked last spring. But the fish were still there in hungry plenitude. Jigging with minnows through holes Charlie had drilled in the foot-thick ice, we caught dozens of fat, bright yellow perch, some nearly a pound in weight. Less frequent but equally voracious were northern pike and chain pickerel. Charlie reported that a 12-pound salmon had been taken near Sand Bar a week before, along with a pike of almost 15 pounds. It was a sunny afternoon, and we fished in our shirtsleeves until a light breeze blew up and the lake turned instant Arctic. We dined that evening on deep-fried perch, and the winter-chilled flesh was firmer and sweeter than any trout, bass or salmon caught in summer.

The next day rain swept in on a warm south wind. The ice thinned measurably. Before long it would be gone, the water warming toward the temperature at which bass get active. Soon everything would be heading for the lake in season; the snowmelt from the Adirondacks coursing down gray rock into Champlain's big feeder rivers—the Missisquoi and the Winooski, the Ausable and the Bouquet, Otter Creek and Lewis Creek, the Lamoille and the Saranac. The wintering birds would return with spring. Sailboats hauled out of reach of the crushing ice would slide back into the water, fresh with new paint and glistening brightwork, and all four ferry lines would be making their crossings from Grand Isle to Plattsburgh, Burlington to Port Kent, Charlotte to Essex, Shoreham to Ticonderoga. And heavily laden cars and station wagons from places south where there are no great history-rich lakes would return full of fishermen and skin divers, boardsailers and people who just want to step into the easy lakeside life. Because Champlain is, as it has always been, a Great Lake in the finest sense of the word: one of those rare places from which both grand and simple blessings flow.

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