May 11, 2004
Gone Fishing, With a Firearm: A Cherished Sport in Vermont
By PAM BELLUCK
ST. ALBANS BAY, Vt. ? The hunter's prey darted into the shadows, just out of
reach of Henry Demar's gun.
"Come on, stand up and be counted," Mr. Demar whispered excitedly. "There was a
ripple that came out of the weeds. There's something out there."
Dressed in camouflage, gripping his .357 Magnum, Mr. Demar was primed to shoot.
But this time, no such luck. With a flick of its tail, his quarry ? a slick
silvery fish ? was gone.
Fish shooting is a sport in Vermont, and every spring, hunters break out their
artillery ? high-caliber pistols, shotguns, even AK-47's ? and head to the
marshes to exercise their right to bear arms against fish.
It is a controversial pastime, and Vermont's fish and wildlife regulators have
repeatedly tried to ban it. They call it unsportsmanlike and dangerous, warning
that a bullet striking water can ricochet across the water like a skipping stone.
But fish shooting has survived, a cherished tradition for some Vermont families
and a novelty to some teenagers and twenty-somethings. Fixated fish hunters
climb into trees overhanging the water (some even build "fish blinds" to sit in),
sail in small skiffs or perch on the banks of marshes that lace Lake Champlain,
on Vermont's northwest border.
"They call us crazy, I guess, to go sit in a tree and wait for fish to come out,"
said Dean Paquette, 66, as he struggled to describe the fish-shooting rush. "It's
something that once you've done it . . ."
Mr. Paquette, a retired locomotive engineer, has passed fish shooting on to his
children and grandchildren, including his daughter, Nicki, a nurse.
"You have to be a good shot," said Ms. Paquette, 31, who started shooting at age
6. "It's a challenge. I think that's why people do it."
Her 87-year-old great-uncle, Earl Picard, is so enthusiastic that, against the
better judgment of his relatives, he frequently drives 75 miles from his home in
Newport to Lake Champlain. Mr. Picard still climbs trees, although "most of the
trees that I used to climb in are gone," he said. "You can sit up there in the
sun and the birds will come and perch on your hat and look you in the eye."
There is art, or at least science, to shooting fish, aficionados say, and it has
nothing to do with a barrel. Most fish hunters do not want to shoot the actual
fish, because then "you can't really eat them," Ms. Paquette said. "They just
kind of shatter."
Instead, said Mr. Demar, "you try to shoot just in front of the fish's nose or
head." The bullet torpedoes to the bottom and creates "enough concussion that it
breaks the fish's air bladder and it floats to the surface."
Often the target is a female fish come to spawn in shallow water, accompanied by
several male acolytes who might also be killed, or stunned, by the concussion.
"If you shoot a high-powered rifle, you can get a big mare and six or seven
little bucks," Mr. Paquette said.
Permitted from March 25 to May 25, only on Lake Champlain, fish shooting has
probably existed for a century. It also used to be legal in New York, which
borders the huge apostrophe-shaped lake.
Virginia used to have several fish-shooting areas, said Alan Weaver, a fish
biologist with Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Now, Mr. Weaver
said, the only place is the Clinch River in remote Scott County, where, six
weeks a year, people can shoot bottom-feeders like "quill-back suckers and red-horse
suckers." Virginia is the only other state where fish shooting is still legal,
Vermont officials said.
In 1969, fish and wildlife officials in New York and Vermont banned fish
shooting. But Vermonters were loath to sever the primal link between fish and
firearm, so in 1970, the Legislature not only reinstated the sport, it also
added fish like carp and shad to the target list, bringing the number to 10.
Since then, there have been several efforts to halt fish shooting. But they have
been stopped by noisy objections from a small but dedicated bunch.
Advocates crossed the state in a near-blizzard to one public hearing in the late
1980's, recalled John Hall, a spokesman for Vermont's Department of Fish and
Wildlife. In 1994, fish-shooters "outnumbered the people who spoke against it by
about four to one," said Brian Chipman, a state fisheries biologist.
State officials say shooters' claims that theirs is a fading tradition that will
die out on its own have not proved true.
"We even think that some of the publicizing of this issue through efforts to
pass laws against it has brought it more into the forefront," Mr. Chipman said.
The issue is apparently touchy enough that Howard Dean, governor from 1991 to
2003, "has no interest in going on the record on that subject," said Walker
Waugh, a spokesman.
Hunters like Mr. Demar, 45, joined recently by his half brother, Calvin Rushford,
56, and Calvin's 9-year-old grandson, Cody, say they make sure that their
bullets hit the water no more than 10 feet from where they stand. That way, said
Mr. Rushford, who like Mr. Demar is a disabled former construction worker, "you'll
have no problem because the bullet won't ricochet."
Indeed, state officials say they know of no gunshot injuries from the sport. Bob
Sampson, who allows occasional fish shooting on his marsh, remembers only one.
"I think he got shot in the stomach area," Mr. Sampson said of a shooting that
he believes took place about 40 years ago.
Most hunters say the worst they have seen is people falling out of trees into
frigid water. Mr. Demar said his brother Peter once "shot, lost control and did
a nose dive." "He was purple when he come up out of the water," Mr. Demar said.
But Gordon Marcelle, a Vermont game warden who shot fish as a teenager, said
every hunter safety course taught that shooting at water was "one of the
State officials also say that fish shooting disturbs nesting birds and that
killing spawning females could endanger the northern pike population (although
so far there is no evidence it has).
Worst of all, state officials say, many shooters do not retrieve all the fish
they kill. They leave behind fish they cannot find or do not want to wade after
and fish that exceed the state's five-pike-a-day limit or fall under the 20-inch
minimum length for northern pike. Mr. Marcelle recently found 18 dead fish left
Two dead fish recently greeted Mr. Demar and his companions at the marsh, a
species he called mudfish. There were some frolicking muskrats, chickadees in
the ash and willow trees plus shell casings from an 8-millimeter Mauser. ("Oh,
that's made for blowing them out of the water," Mr. Rushford said.)
There were not, however, enough live fish to shoot. So Mr. Demar tested his gun
on a log in the water, and spray shot up.
"I got a little water on my sunglasses," he said sheepishly. "That's the thing
about pickerel shooting. Afterward, you have to turn away, or you get sprayed in
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
I've always wanted to try it on pike. I've shot sunfish with a pellet gun when I was in HS. I've seen people get carp with bow and arrow.