Whitefish gaining strength in Lake Champlain
OFF SHELBURNE POINT — Hand over hand, Seth Herbst hauls in a dripping fish net from deep water at the mouth of Shelburne Bay. He wrestles a silvery 3-pound fish from its mesh — 3 pounds of gamefish, 3 pounds of good eating, 3 pounds of fish sought after by anglers from Manitoba to Maine.
Three pounds of a fish most Lake Champlain anglers never have fished for and wouldn’t recognize if it came up on their lines.
Commercial fishermen once hauled in 32 tons a year of Lake Champlain whitefish, a favorite of Midwestern fish fries and city delicatessens. Today, the lake’s anglers, fisheries managers and university biologists know almost nothing about this relative of salmon and trout.
“We thought they were extinct,” Steve Martell of Bayside Bait and Tackle at St. Albans Bay said this week. “We used to catch ’em by the burlap bagful, but I hadn’t seen or heard of one in 20 years.”
It might be time for whitefish to make a comeback. Lamprey, the eel-like creatures that prey on whitefish as they do on salmon and trout, are being controlled by chemical treatment of the lake’s tributaries. Ice fishermen have brought a few whitefish in to Martell’s store. Knowledge of the fish is spreading slowly.
That’s where Herbst comes in. A University of Vermont graduate student in aquatic ecology, he is working with fisheries professor Ellen Marsden on the first study of the abundance and health of Lake Champlain’s whitefish population since 1930.
And the news is good. During the course of two seasons, Herbst and Marsden have caught about 500 whitefish and found the wide range of size and age that indicates a healthy population.
“Up around Grand Isle we’re finding very, very high densities of larval whitefish in the spring, and that’s reassuring, too,” Herbst said as the UVM research vessel Melosira cut through the water of Burlington harbor one rainy October morning.
He, Marsden and a crew of volunteers were headed out to haul four 450-foot-long gill nets they had set before dawn. The nets unwind like woven walls above the bottom where whitefish feed on fish eggs, other fish, shrimp-like crustaceans and snails.
The morning’s haul would include a dozen healthy lake trout — quickly slipped back overboard — and four fat whitefish. Although related to trout, whitefish don’t look much like their streamlined, sleek-skinned cousins, being both bulkier and clothed in big, silvery scales.
Herbst weighed and measured each whitefish, extracted its stomach for later analysis of the contents, and delicately excised its pair of otoliths, an ear bone, used to determine the age of the fish.
The rest of the fish went into a big freezer. Often, the researchers fillet the fish for the frying pan or the fish smoker.
“I brine them with brown sugar or maple syrup and smoke them over maple chips,” said angler Bill Lowell, who was spending the morning aboard the Melosira. “They’re delicious.”
'Close us down, guys'
In the 1800s, commercial fishermen in Missisquoi Bay and at Larrabees Point in Shoreham set seine nets during whitefish-spawning season in November and December. In 1912, the final year before commercial fishing was shut down, 64 licensed fishermen caught 70,000 pounds of whitefish.
“The old documents are intriguing,” Marsden said recently. “It was the fishermen themselves who were saying in the early 1900s, ‘The market harvest is nice, but is this best use of the fishery? Wouldn’t this be a better resource for tourists and the sportsman?’ In essence, they said, ‘Close us down, guys.’”
Ice fishermen once took home long strings of whitefish, said Martell, the bait-shop manager. Martell, 60, remembers fishing through the ice with decoys to catch whitefish in his younger days. The angler would dangle a painted wooden fish above the bottom, then pull it toward the surface. As the whitefish approached the hole, the angler would drop a line baited with a shiny white collar button.
“You’d use a tiny, tiny button that would make a flash in the water,” he said. Whitefish struck at that flash. “We’d catch them in the bay off Georgia Shore. There’d be 20-30 shanties out there 30 years ago.”
Angling for whitefish during the summer and fall never caught on. Whitefish like cold, deep water, so they generally can’t be fished from shore. They have small mouths, so lures that catch salmon and lake trout won’t take a whitefish.
“You have to jig for them, which means you have to sit still in deep water, and that’s hard to do because of our currents,” said fishing-charter captain Rich Greenough of Essex. “Most people don’t even know what they are.”
On a lake where anglers search for salmon, trout and walleye, “Whitefish has never been part of the recreational fishing culture here,” Marsden added.
Where did they go?
So what happened to the lake’s whitefish in the 1970s and 1980s, when few fishermen reported catching them?
“Either they weren’t there, or we weren’t fishing for them,” said Mike King, 63, an angler from East Highgate. Like others, he remembers his father ice fishing for whitefish, but never fished for them himself.
Marsden can’t answer the question either, since no one was studying whitefish in Lake Champlain in the late 20th century. But in Missisquoi Bay and at Larrabees Point, once important spawning areas, the fish are entirely absent, her research shows. Instead, the fish appear to be spawning all along the shore of the main lake.
In the Great Lakes, where whitefish have been highly prized, their numbers and health have been in decline. The fish’s primary food, a crustacean the size of a grain of rice, has all but disappeared from areas of the Great Lakes; scientists suspect the invasion of zebra mussels might be to blame. In any case, whitefish have switched from eating the energy-dense shrimp to crunching the nutritionally poor mussels.
“It’s like a switch from eating cornflakes to eating the cornflakes box,” Marsden said.
One discovery Herbst and Marsden have made: Whitefish in Lake Champlain haven’t switched their diet to the mussel.
“Out of 500 fish we’ve caught, I’d say only about four had any zebra mussels in their stomachs,” Herbst said. Instead, the fish eat high-energy food like fish eggs.
Managing the future
Greenough, the charter-boat captain, said he believes lamprey predation is one reason ice fishermen failed to catch many whitefish in the past few decades, although there is no research to confirm that speculation. As lamprey decline, whitefish will recover along with salmon and trout populations, Greenough said.
“They’re coming back. It’s going to be a good fishery,” he said.
There are no state limits on whitefish angling on Lake Champlain. A recent statewide survey of fishermen found that less than 5 percent of those surveyed even mentioned whitefish as a target species. The state record for whitefish, a 9-pound fish, has stood for 11 years.
Herbst said he hopes the basic information he is gathering for his master’s thesis will help state fisheries managers if and when whitefish become a prized species here.
“How can we manage in the future,” he asked, “if we don’t know the characteristics of the population?”
Contact Candace Page at 660-1865 or email@example.com. To have Free Press headlines delivered free to your e-mail, sign up at burlingtonfreepress.com/newsletters.