Preparing Lake Champlain Fish
Which Fish: Lake Champlain is a source of delicious fish for both personal and commercial use. The commercially available fish are primarily yellow perch, along with white perch, freshwater drum (or sheepshead), sunfish (or pumpkinseed), bluegills, rock bass, crappies, catfish, and (less frequently) the non-native species carp. Fishermen can also catch salmon, trout, lake trout, northern pike, walleye and black bass. On Lake Champlain, you must immediately release the protected species muskellunge, sturgeon, and sauger. Details on open seasons, catch limits, and size requirements, along with identification guides, can be found on the Department of Fish & Wildlife’s website vtfishandwildlife.com.
Health Advisories: Water pollution in Vermont has many detrimental health effects. However, impact on the quality of fish eaten from our waterways tends to be indirect, as the pollution affects their habitat but not the meat itself. There are some exceptions. Fish can accumulate certain toxins in their flesh, in particular mercury and PCB’s. Some Lake Champlain fish have advisories limiting the quantity you should eat in a month and larger fish tend to have more restrictions, which are summarized on the Lake Champlain Basin Program scorecard.
Cleaning Fish: The Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife has compiled some helpful videos showing how to clean and fillet your fish.
Preparing Fish: Chef Doug Paine prepares a lot of fish, much of it local, at his restaurants Bleu Northeast Seafood and Juniper at Hotel Vermont. He gave a quick rundown of commonly prepared Lake Champlain fish:
Yellow perch - This is the most abundant fish available from Lake Champlain. It is flaky and light flavored. It usually comes filleted with the bones taken out so it is easy to coat in a light seasoned flour and fry it. We serve fried perch at Bleu and Juniper.
White perch - Very similar to yellow perch in flavor and texture. They grow larger than yellow perch and have a better yield. They are not as readily available as yellow perch.
Sunfish/Pumpkinseed - These are probably the easiest fish to catch in Vermont. They taste great and cook quickly. They are usually too small to fillet easily, so cooking them whole is the best option. They can be a little bony this way but the bones are so small you hardly notice them. (Note: These are often referred to as panfish. Others are rock bass, bluegill and crappie. . . as you might guess, pan frying them is a good plan).
Sheepshead or Drum - This is one lake fish that is very similar to an ocean fish. It has a firm meaty texture but is relatively mild in flavor. It is great smoked or in chowder.
Lake Trout - Arguably the best fish in the lake. It is very versatile and they can grow quite large. Use them like you would salmon. The options are endless, smoked, pan seared, ceviche, you name it. They are a deeper water fish so they can be tricky to target.
Lake Salmon - Right up there with trout in it's uses and flavor. Maybe a little more delicate than lake trout. It seems like they are not as abundant.
Carp - These non-native fish can grow very large. It is used a lot in Asian cuisines. When you cut it up be sure to take out the blood line in the fillet - that part can have a very "muddy" flavor.
For details on cooking with fish you catch, check out Hank Shaw’s award winning blog Hunter-Angler-Gardener-Cook at https://honest-food.net/. Or ask the folks at Ray’s Seafood, who have been selling Lake Champlain fish for generations raysseafoodmarket.com/.