VPR Cafe: Delicious Fish From Lake Champlain

Jan 30, 2015

Some might be hesitant to eat fish caught in Lake Champlain, but Candace Page, food writer for the Burlington Free Press, says there are a variety of fabulous eating fish in the lake.

Page explains that although the strong tradition of eating fish from the lake died out in the 20th century, many anglers eat fish from Lake Champlain on a regular basis. “Anybody who catches a lake trout or a salmon or a walleye may very well bring it home and eat it,” Page says.

Page says that many people have the misconception that with the lake water being polluted, the fish are not good to eat. “This is not true,” she explains. “The lake’s big problem is phosphorous levels, which has no impact on the fish whatsoever.”

New York, Vermont and Quebec have posted fish consumption advisories for the lake due to mercury levels. But they pertain mainly to children and pregnant women, and the mercury levels are declining.

"The lake's big problem is phosphorous levels, which has no impact on the fish whatsoever.” - Candace Page, food writer for the "Burlington Free Press"

So why don’t we see freshwater fish from Lake Champlain in local markets or restaurants? Page says there are several reasons. She explains that it’s illegal to sell any game fish in Vermont, so most of the fish that are available are yellow and white perch. Having grown up on the shores of Lake Champlain, Page says, “A freshly-caught yellow perch, fileted and quick fried is as good as any fish you’ll ever eat.”

"The fish that's allowed for sale is pan fish, which tend to be lower on the food chain, and it’s fish that men and women catch with a hook and a line."

Another reason why we don’t see many freshwater fish from the lake for sale is there is no commercial fishery allowed on Lake Champlain. “So the fish that’s allowed for sale is pan fish, which tend to be lower on the food chain, and it’s fish that men and women catch with a hook and a line,” Page says. Even if people catch 100 yellow perch in a day, it’s hard to accumulate the kinds of volume of fish to sell, she explains.

Despite the limitations on commercial fishing on Lake Champlain, Page says that upwards of a half a million pounds of yellow perch are caught and sold out of the lake. These are sold to outlets in the Midwest and Canada, where there is a very strong tradition of eating freshwater fish. “There is only one main dealer in Vermont — that’s Ray's Seafood in Burlington. And they do, in fact, buy a lot of fish. They filet some that they sell in their own stores and to a small, but perhaps growing, number of restaurant chefs. The rest of it goes out of state,” she says.

Lake Champlain International, an environmental and fisherman’s organization, is trying to encourage people to catch and eat more fish from the lake. They are hosting a fish chowder competition where local cooks can submit their chowder and will get extra points for using local fish.

A bowl of chowder made by Doug Paine, executive chef at Hotel Vermont in Burlington. Lake Champlain International, an environmental and fisherman's organization, is hosting a local fish chowder competition.
Credit Doug Paine

Page is one of the judges of the fish chowder competition and has a few tips on what kind of fish to use. “If you’re an angler, possibly you have some salmon in the freezer from your fishing trips last summer, or you’ve caught one through the ice. I would think salmon or trout would be the way to start,” she says.

To learn more about how to enter the chowder contest from Lake Champlain International, visit their website.

The VPR Cafe is produced in collaboration with the Burlington Free Press and is made possible on VPR by City Market in Burlington.

Broadcast on Feb. 1, 2015.