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For Anglers in Lake Champlain Basin, Salmon Fishing is a Science

Most anglers remember their first catch: the tug on the line, the rush of adrenaline, the ear-to-ear grin in the keepsake photo.

In the 1970s, anglers in Lake Champlain and its tributaries started experiencing another memorable first: the first Atlantic salmon caught in the basin in more than a century.

Don Lee was a pilot at the Plattsburgh Air Force Base in New York when it happened to him.  “If I wasn’t flying, I’d sneak out at night to go fishing,” he recalled. “One night I caught a fish that looked like a brown trout, but didn’t act like a brown trout; it was jumping all over the river.”

Lee’s fishing buddy, a seasoned angler, said it looked like a salmon.

School of young salmon released in water.
To jumpstart recolonization, scientists stock tributaries to Lake Champlain with young salmon raised in state and Service hatcheries. Credit: USFWS

“I called a game warden and he confirmed: We haven’t told anybody yet, but we just started an experimental stocking program to reintroduce salmon.”

Over time, that experiment evolved into a long-term collaboration to restore Lake Champlain’s landlocked Atlantic salmon population and fishery involving the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the University of Vermont, and countless anglers like Lee who have contributed their time, knowledge, and passion to the effort.  

The support of people whose hobby requires tireless observation and patience has turned out to be invaluable for this species.

“Atlantic salmon have a complex life cycle,” explained Bill Ardren, senior fish scientist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Lake Champlain Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office. Adults must migrate to spawn in streams, where juveniles mature for two or three years before migrating to the ocean -- or in this case, the lake. “They go through several distinct phases, with  specific habitat needs and limiting factors,” he said.

In the 1800s, dams began popping up along the lake’s tributaries, blocking salmon from a key habitat need: spawning grounds. Unable to reproduce, salmon had disappeared by the end of the 19th century.

When reintroduced in the 1970s to a system from which they had long been absent, salmon faced unexpected problems. Chief among them has been sea lamprey, a parasitic fish that sucks the bodily fluids from salmon, and prevented most from reaching adulthood until lamprey control was put in place and maintained by the states and then the Service.

Salmons’ responsiveness to change makes it a meaningful indicator for the health of a system as a whole. What’s good for salmon is good for a range of other species, including lake trout, lake sturgeon, walleye, brook trout, and people.

A hand holding an adult salmon just right above water.
An adult male salmon caught in the Boquet River, a tributary that flows from the Adirondack Mountains into Lake Champlain. Credit: USFWS

Salmon helps guide strategic investments by the Service and states in hatchery culture, stocking (including fish raised at the Dwight D. Eisenhower and White River National Fish Hatcheries), assessment, research and and other management actions. Restoring riparian and headwater areas to protect spawning habitat results in cleaner water; controlling parasitic sea lamprey makes it possible for salmon and other species to survive and reproduce; removing aquatic barriers to increase fish passage for salmon opens up aquatic connectivity for other species and reduces flooding risks for communities.

It’s also an economic indicator. Renowned for its fight and flavor, salmon lure in anglers, causing a ripple effect in the local economy. The Lake Champlain fishery is valued at more than $200 million a year.

That’s why wherever, whatever, and whenever scientists have needed to monitor, sample, or intervene on behalf of salmon, anglers have had their backs -- advocating, sharing information, collecting data, or all of the above.

Anglers are the source of the best long-term fishery dataset available for the basin -- the Lake Champlain Angler Diary Cooperator Program, initiated at the outset of the restoration experiment in 1971 -- and participate in regular surveys conducted by Vermont and New York state to monitor fisheries through the eyes of those who know the resource best.

“A lot of the participants are repeat anglers who come out time and again to the same location,” said Lance Durfey, regional fisheries manager for New York Department of Environmental Conservation. He explained that the empirical data anglers provide on changing catch rates over time directly informs management decisions, as do their interests.

“We meet with anglers to talk about the proportion of species we stock, and we hear a preference for landlocked salmon,” Durfey said. “Lake trout can be pursued elsewhere; good landlocked salmon fishing is not that common.”

The allure

On a sunny afternoon in early June, Bill Lowell and Bill Jacobus slipped effortlessly between talking shop and reminiscing while motoring Jacobus’ boat Double Trouble in large loops between the Burlington boat dock and Shelburne Bay.

“Have you had luck with the Speedy for salmon?”

“What’s the water temp in here?”

“Does that lure have a dodger on it? I was noticing the action of it -- just bobbing there, I want to see it do something.”

Lowell pointed toward the mouth of Shelburne Bay. “We used to come down here looking for the gulls feeding like crazy, and we’d head in that direction.” He explained that the birds were drawn to schools of smelt -- a small forage fish -- that had been maimed by the salmon in their own feeding frenzy.

“You could see the salmon roiling beneath the surface, and we would go in there with lines on the surface and have a lot of fun,” he recalled.

Lowell and Jacobus have been paying close attention to the fishery since the 1970s, when salmon were few and far between.

“Back in the 70s and 80s, we never saw salmon that would grow to ten pounds with the consistency we do now,” said Jacobus. “Between the lamprey control being a success, and the success in hatchery production, we’ve seen nothing but improvement.”

More than seeing it, they’ve helped make it possible. Jacobus founded the Lake Champlain Sportfishing Alliance in 1981, and the following year helped conceive of an event to raise awareness and money for coldwater fisheries in the lake. The Lake Champlain International Father’s Day Fishing Derby, which just turned 37, now attracts about 5,000 anglers each June.

In 1984, Jacobus started the nonprofit Lake Champlain International (LCI) to advocate for the lake and oversee programming, including the derby. He ran LCI as a volunteer for 17 years, successfully campaigning for projects like Vermont Fish and Wildlife’s Ed Weed Fish Culture Station, built in Grand Isle, Vermont, in 1994.

Group of people standing in a vessel.
A group of anglers who joined a research trip aboard the University of Vermont research vessel the Melosira, or Melo. Credit: Rob Thorne

Lowell, for his part, was a long-time volunteer on the University of Vermont research vessel the Melosira -- known as the Melo -- as a deckhand for Captain Dick Furbish. When Furbish retired, Bill stepped in as captain of the Melo for a year while the university searched for someone to take the helm permanently.  

“Bill would always be in and out at the lab, and helping out on the boat,” said Ellen Marsden, a professor of fisheries at UVM. “He’s been a great resource because he crosses categories: he can see things from the standpoint of the anglers and the researchers.”

And he has helped connect the dots for others, like Rob Thorne. “We met fishing at a boat ramp, became friends, and year or so later, he invited me to come out on the Melo,” said Thorne, who manages the seafood department at a supermarket outside of Burlington, and runs charter trips on his boat the Cathie Jean on weekends.   

“I spent the day on the boat and documented the whole thing: The trawling process, the temperature survey, the device that measures the dissolved oxygen,” Thorne recalled. It was a memorable day for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was that in the last trawl of the day, they pulled up a snowmobile. Thorne posted his photos to an online Lake Champlain fishing forum -- the precedent to the Lake Champlain United anglers group -- and got an outpouring of responses.

The following year, Thorne reached out to Marsden to ask if he could organize a group of anglers to chip in to come aboard a research trip on the Melo.

“He brought groups out three times and it was so great,” Marsden said. “It gave us the opportunity to talk to anglers about what they know, and – this is going to sound funny -- they came away with the realization that: You do useful stuff!” she said, explaining: “We’re trying to better understand the fish population and manage it sustainably – stuff that will ultimately improve fishing.”

Over time, it has come to mean something more.

“It’s not just about the fishing; it’s about getting involved,” Thorne said. “I have developed great relationship with people up and down the lake – charter captains and scientists.”

Changing gear

Tony Curtis learned everything he knows about salmon fishing in Lake Champlain from his grandfather Richard Plant, an accountant who moonlighted as a charter fisherman. Plant couldn’t have said the same thing. When he was a boy in the 1930s, there were no salmon in the lake.

“For the first 15 years my grandfather chartered on the lake, it was considered a walleye lake,” Curtis said, while trolling for salmon between Converse Bay and Otter Creek on the Scuttlebutt, the boat his grandfather left him and he has since restored.

When the sea lamprey control program started in the early 1990s, allowing salmon and lake trout to survive to adulthood, Plant shifted his focus. That was just about the time when his grandson was old enough to join him. “From eight years old, I was on the boat with him, fighting fish,” Curtis said.

Plant had a scientific mind, exhaustively collecting data and creating his own bathymetry maps of the lake using Loran numbers – a World War II era radio navigational system -- and in addition to the Scuttlebutt, he passed down an analytical propensity to his grandson. Curtis studied environmental science and is now a biological technician for the Service.

And he is driven by the same passion that inspired his grandfather to change gear. “We have something here in our lake that is so special,” Curtis said. “There are only a dozen lakes in this country where it’s even possible to fish for Atlantic salmon, and Lake Champlain is the best place.”

Just as most anglers remember their first fish, most like Curtis remember who sparked their love of fishing.

For him, it was his grandfather. For Thorne, it was his dad. But for many school children in the Lake Champlain basin, it may just be Don Lee, the former pilot who caught the mysterious fish in Plattsburgh half a century ago.

Lee, who is a member and former president of the Lake Champlain chapter of Trout Unlimited, helps run their Salmon in the Classroom program. In the fall, they take kids to visit a hatchery, in the winter they deliver salmon eggs to classrooms in fish tanks, and in the spring, they release them into the wild together. “In fact, just today I just stocked the last tank with a group of fourth graders – we released about 300 salmon fry into the Saranac River,” Lee said.

A sea lamprey has left its mark on this lake trout, caught in Lake Champlain. Credit: Bridget Macdonald

Salmon still face challenges. Lamprey wounding rates have dropped significantly but ongoing assessment and control is needed to keep them in check, more work is needed to restore access to and quality of spawning and rearing habitat in tributaries, and new issues continue to surface.

For many anglers, the increasing number of cormorants in the area represent a potential threat; cormorants consume forage fish that salmon and other species rely upon -- about one pound per bird daily. While the Service has previously issued permits to control cormorants, which are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, that authority has been limited pending a review of impacts and alternatives for control.

But thanks to collaborative work in hatcheries and laboratories, on research vessels and private boats, the first Atlantic salmon an angler catches in the Lake Champlain basin today is no longer a curiosity. And it won’t be their last.