Wed, May 12, 2004 - Page 16 News List

US hunters insist on right to bear arms against fish

It may be unsportsmanlike and dangerous, but Americans are not going to stop shooting fish anytime soon


Kyle Paquette fires at a fish in Guay's Marsh in St. Albans Bay, Vermont. Fish shooting is a sport in Vermont and every spring, hunters break out their artillery and head to the marshes to exercise their right to shoot fish. It is a controversial pastime and Vermont's fish-and-wildlife regulators have repeatedly tried to ban it.


The hunter's prey darted into the shadows, just out of reach of Henry Demar's gun.

"Come on, stand up and be counted," Demar muttered. "There was a ripple that came out of the weeds. There's something out there."

Dressed in camouflage, gripping his .357-caliber Magnum, 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-47s -- 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 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. Every spring, fixated fish hunters climb into trees overhanging the water 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 ...."

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 Paquette, 31, who started shooting at age six. "It's a challenge. I think that's why people do it."

Her 87-year-old great uncle, Earl Picard, is so hooked that, against the better judgment of his relatives, he frequently drives 1000km from his home in Newport to Lake Champlain. 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. Most fish hunters do not want to shoot the actual fish, because then "you can't really eat them," Paquette said. "They just kind of shatter."

Instead, said Demar, "you try to shoot just in front of the fish's nose or head." The bullet torpedoes to the marsh 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," Paquette said.

Permitted from March 25 to May 25, and only on Lake Champlain, fish shooting has probably existed for a century. (Picard was 10 when he started.) It also used to be legal in the state of New York, which also borders the huge apostrophe-shaped lake.

State officials 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 minimum length for northern pike. Marcelle recently found 18 dead fish left to rot.

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