Lake Champlain Father’s Day Derby tests fishermen and water quality management

On Father’s Day, dads pass on wisdom, sons and daughters show appreciation, and off the shores of Lake Champlain, Vermonters catch a whole lot of fish.
Beginning Friday, June 19, more than 5,000 people will drop a line in Lake Champlain with the hope of catching a $10,000 record fish, taking home the grand prize of a pontoon boat, or winning one of more than 150 other prizes as part of this weekend’s 34th annual Lake Champlain International Father’s Day Derby.
Paul and Brian Dunkling will be among them.
While the Derby is an annual ritual for many, few father/son duos are more tightly tied to fishing this lake than Paul and his son Brian. On an early June morning the two move around their boat, the Sure Strike II, in quiet synchronicity as they set lines.
Their charter today is composed of a handful of reporters and James Ehlers, executive director of the nonprofit Lake Champlain International. Part of Ehlers’ role with the organization is to run the Derby and other events. The other part is to help improve the quality of the lake and its surrounding watershed. That’s the issue he and the Dunklings are focused on today.
It is 6 a.m. and already wind ruffles the waters of Shelburne Bay as the Dunklings set their lines and the boat chugs toward the broad lake.
“We’ve never won much in the Derby,” says Brian as he drops a hook down 55 feet to where the larger lake trout and salmon are swimming, sending up blips on the boat’s electronic fish finder. “But that doesn’t matter, we catch fish out here pretty much every day of the season.”
For the Dunklings, who run Sure Strike Charters, fishing is a business that goes back generations. “My grandfather was a lobsterman in Maine and my father, Ray, started Ray’s Seafood Market in Essex in 1951, so I guess it’s in my blood,” says Paul.
The first seafood retailer in the state, Ray’s remains one of the largest with outlets in Burlington and Essex, and a mobile van that comes to Bristol on Fridays. Ray’s also provides wholesale deliveries to restaurants around the northern part of the state. While much of its seafood comes fresh from Maine or Massachusetts, Ray’s increasingly buys and sells local fishermen’s non-game catch, such as Lake Champlain perch. (There are no commercial fisheries in Lake Champlain and it is illegal to sell game fish, such as lake trout or salmon.)
“People don’t realize how good-eating the fish from Lake Champlain really are,” says Ehlers. “In many ways, the lake is healthier than it’s been in years. The fish are totally safe to eat.”
Chefs are starting to agree. Meghan Sheridan, a Middlebury resident who runs the Vermont Fresh Network, has been working with Ehlers and local chefs to raise awareness of the value and taste of local fish. This past January, the VFN and LCI held the first annual Fish Chowder Championships, and gave extra points to chefs who used local fish.
In the 1700s, there were so many wild salmon swimming in Lake Champlain and its tributaries that signs warned horsemen crossing the streams where they spawned not to let their horses slip on the fish. Records show you could trade two barrels of salmon for a third of a cow. With development the fishery changed. Dams began to block access to the spawning grounds. By 1800, wild Atlantic salmon were gone from the lake. A century later, lake trout were almost extirpated as well.
CAPTAIN PAUL DUNKLING, left, and his son Brian are licensed captains of Sure Strike Charters based out of the Shelburne Shipyard, and are second- and third-generation Vermonters tied closely to fishing in Lake Champlain. Paul’s parents and family members started and still operate Essex-based Ray’s Seafood.
Independent photo/Angelo Lynn
Since then, the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife has taken measures to both restock and protect the current populations. Each year, it raises and releases more than a million fish in an effort to keep the populations growing. In 2015, that included salmon and lake trout. With lake cleanup efforts in effect and programs to control the predatory cormorants and lamprey (parasitic fish that attach themselves to other fish), sport fishing on Lake Champlain has rebounded.
“No question, even six or seven years ago you wouldn’t have seen this many lake trout,” says Dunkling, as he helped a guest land a 27-inch lake trout, the fifth in an hour.
Ehlers agrees.
“The fishery is the healthiest it has probably been in the past 100 years. But it wouldn’t be that way if we weren’t raising millions of trout and salmon in concrete runways. If that didn’t happen, there’s no way we’d be out here catching trout today.”
Though both the numbers and the size of fish have grown in recent years, the populations are still not reproducing in the wild at a sustainable rate. Scientists are not yet sure why.
But the biggest threat Ehlers and Dunkling see to the fishery today is not other predators or chemical pollutants, but two staples of the Vermont diet — dairy and meat.
“The first thing we need to do to help clean up our waters is to restrict the run-off from our farms,” Ehlers says.
As Sure Strike II moves out of the bay, Paul Dunkling points to a long line of brown water on the horizon off Burlington.
“See there, that’s all silt — runoff from farms and dirt roads that’s pouring into the lake from the Winooski.”
Heavy rains caused nearly two dozen sewage overflows in May and early June, and washed dirt and debris into rivers up and down the lake from the Otter Creek to the Missisquoi, including the LaPlatte, which feeds directly into Shelburne Bay.
“Brook trout, salmon and many other fish need clear, cold water,” says Ehlers. “We shouldn’t have rivers like the Otter Creek or Winooski running brown.”
The greatest impact of runoff comes from phosphorous, a naturally occurring nutrient that is released with soil erosion. In recent years, high amounts of phosphorous have caused algae growth, in particular the toxic blue-green algae blooms that have literally choked shallower waters in the southern end of Lake Champlain and in the north, particularly in Missisquoi Bay and St. Albans Bay, starving the water of oxygen.
LCI EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR James Ehlers speaks of the consquences of stormwater runoff and other pollutants to the lake’s water quality, as reporter Andrew Nemethy of the Times Argus and Vermont Digger takes notes.
Independent photo/Angelo Lynn
As part of the Clean Water Act, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has set new standards, known as Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL), for how much phosphorous Lake Champlain (and Long Island Sound, the other large body of water Vermont’s watershed feeds) can carry.
Vermont has some catching up to do; and if it does not voluntarily meet the new TMDLs, the EPA could mandate stricter laws on water quality that could affect everything from road building to farming to home renovations throughout the state. In response, the Vermont Legislature passed a water quality bill, H.35, this past session that essentially lays out a plan for how the state will reduce the phosphorous load so it can meet those standards. (See sidebar: Cleaning Up the Lake.) Governor Shumlin signed it into law on June. 16.
“But it’s more than just phosphorous that’s impacting our fishery,” says Ehlers. Silt alone slows the water flow in the spawning streams, lowers the oxygen level and raises the water temperature. The runoff also carries pesticides from farms and lawns, as well as other contaminants — oil and salt from roads, asbestos powder from brake linings, pharmaceuticals that have seeped into waste water from home use and even caffeine.
“Did you know that Burlington Bay is slightly caffeinated?” asks Ehlers.
If so, the trout the Sure Strike II takes in today don’t seem to have the jitters. By 11 a.m., nine good-sized lake trout are in the cooler.
“Overall, I’m really optimistic,” says Ehlers. “Ten years ago the largest trout we’d see caught at the Derby were 12 pounders. In recent years, they’ve just gotten bigger and more plentiful and we’re seeing more lake sturgeon, more muskies and a return of whitefish.”
The record catch for lake trout at last year’s Father’s Day Derby was 17.49 pounds. This year, the trout population has done so well that the Derby has raised its minimum length for a recorded trout from 24 inches to 28 inches. Derby fishermen may pull more than 3,000 fish from Lake Champlain this coming weekend, but many of those are weighed, measured and then released, hardly affecting populations.
For Paul and Brian Dunkling, the fishery rebound is good news for their livelihood and also for their family. Come Father’s Day, Brian’s children will be the fourth generation of Dunklings fishing Lake Champlain and he’s looking forward to teaching his kids the secrets of the lake, just as his grandfather and father have passed down that wisdom to him.
“I’m hopeful for the future,” says Ehlers, who has three children and a fourth on the way. “With all the science we have now, with all the awareness and the legislation, we have a chance to restore the lake. My hope is that my kids will be fishing for salmon and trout that were born in the wild. If we set our priorities right, that will happen.”

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