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Champlain's Cornucopia

The big lake's diversity provides a wide array of hardwater options.

Champlain's Cornucopia

Big pike are available in numbers and size from beneath a frozen Lake Champlain.

When he peers out over the ice and sees one of the flags of his tip-ups flapping in the winter breeze, veteran Lake Champlain ice fisherman Brad Hanson begins to get curious.

"It certainly keeps the excitement level up when you see that flag go up and wonder what is waiting for you at the other end of the line," Hanson said. "You just never know."

He's been fishing on Lake Champlain—that 120-mile ribbon of water between New York and Vermont—for over 40 years. Among the lessons he's learned is that you should always expect the unexpected when on Lake Champlain.

"We've had days where we've iced pike, pickerel, perch, crappie, bass, lake trout, and catfish all from the same tip-up," he said. "The amount and variety of fish in Champlain make it a challenge to target one particular species. Which is a great problem to have."

With more than 90 species of fish swimming in Champlain's waters, a resurgence in populations of several popular game species, and good public access points up and down the lake, there are plenty of "great problems" for hardwater anglers on the big lake.

"The biggest challenge on Champlain," said Hanson, "might be trying to target one particular species."

Two On The Rise

During the open water months, Lake Champlain's spectacular bass fishing often grabs the national spotlight. For good reason. There are only a handful of other spots on the professional tournament calendar that beat Champlain's smallmouth fishery. But Vermont and New York's fishing regulations dissuade ice fishing for bass on the lake, and anglers turn their attention to other species.

As luck would have it, a couple of other popular fish species are enjoying a resurgence in their numbers: Lake trout and walleye.

"People have found the fun in jigging for lake trout," said Shawn Good, an avid angler and a fisheries biologist for the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. "Everybody seems to be catching lakers."




lake trout caught from beneath the ice of Lake Champlain
Lake trout are also available and quite abundant while ice fishing at Lake Champlain.

The reason for that, he said, is a combination of a strong lake trout stocking program and a generation of sea lamprey control efforts. The lamprey control program has significantly reduced the amount of the fish-killing nuisance species that prey on Champlain's salmon and trout. The lake trout that are stocked are living longer and even starting to naturally reproduce in some parts of the lake.

Champlain's lake trout populations are not evenly distributed. The best fishing for them, when there's plenty of safe ice, can be found from Shelburne Bay south to the Crown Point Bridge area.

Another species that's been re-established and reinvigorated by the anglers who want to target them is walleyes.

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"The walleye population was in a real decline in the 1990s and early 2000s," he said. "But we started an aggressive stocking program, one that's become so successful that we have other state agencies coming to visit our hatchery to see how we run the program. The results have been remarkable."

Good said anglers on the southern end of the lake are catching lots of winter walleye near Benson Landing north to Larrabees Point.

On the northern end, good walleye fishing is found near West Swanton and parts of the Inland Sea.

"Throughout the lake, the walleye fishery is really having a resurgence," he continued. "There are plenty of fish and angler success rates are high. It's better than it's been in 30 years."

One note: It's not all positive news for fish species in Lake Champlain. Rainbow smelt, which supported a vibrant fishery for decades, is in a slow decline, likely brought on by the invasion of alewives that began in the early 2000s. While you can still catch smelt in places like St. Albans Bay and Shelburne Bay, the average size and quantity is down considerably.

lake trout caught from beneath the ice of Lake Champlain
Lake trout are also available and quite abundant while ice fishing at Lake Champlain.

"It's not that the smelt are gone by any means," he said, "we just don't have the numbers like we used to."

North To Adventure

At the far northeastern end of Lake Champlain sits Missisquoi Bay, which is cut almost in half by the international border with Quebec. Shallow, and with plenty of access points, Missisquoi Bay is almost always the first bay to freeze and is super popular with the ice-fishing crowd.

At Martin's General Store in Highgate Springs, Capt. Gilbert Gagner parks the bass boat he uses during the warmer months Bronzeback Guide Service and pulls out a rental fleet of ice shanties. Besides the 15 shanties he has available, he sells bait, plows roads out onto the bay to enable motor vehicle access and puts people on to some of the best pan-fishing in all of New England.

Missisquoi has yellow perch, white perch, sunfish, and crappie. Northern pike and pickerel are popular there, too.

"No question there can be some excellent perch fishing here," Gagner said. "One of the things that makes Missisquoi Bay attractive is all the different fish you can catch, and the fact that you can go pretty much all over the bay and find fish."

A Caveat

The species of fish aren't the only unpredictable variable when ice fishing on Lake Champlain. In February 2023, after a string of warm weather, three ice fishermen perished after falling through the ice in two separate incidents. The deaths and unsafe ice conditions prompted Vermont public safety officials to warn people to stay off for much of the 2023 season.

Big perch at lake champlain
Numbers of "eater" size yellow perch also swim the waters of Lake Champlain.

"I canceled several trips I had scheduled last winter," said Capt. Matt Trombley at 3rd Alarm Charters, who fishes for walleye and perch on the southern end of the lake. "All I can do for this year is cross my fingers and hope we have a winter that will be close to normal."

And if there is a normal year of ice fishing on Lake Champlain, anglers can expect to catch anything from 4-inch yellow perch to 40-inch northern pike.

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