By Bradley Carleton
I am sitting under a bright red tent at Shelburne Shipyard during the LCI Derby held over Father’s Day weekend. A very gentle breeze is blowing around the southern point and circulating relatively cool air under the tent. Outside it is 94 degrees and the sun is beating down ruthlessly on the fishermen who are plying the waters of the bay in search of a derby-winning fish. With prizes getting upward of $10,000 for record fish, even placing in a species category can mean anywhere between $500 and $3,000, their hopes are high. Total available prizes run into the $100,000 mark.
I have been here for three days now and gotten to know a few of the best fishermen and women on this lake. There are several teams made up of fishing families. It brings great pleasure to see three generations of a family fishing together. “Grandma” Cheryl Slayton, of East Ryegate, is in fourth place in the lake trout category with 13.55-pound fish. Her boys trail behind her and tease her about being first to the grab the rod when it releases from the downriggers. A very polite but passionate young man named Riley Hatch, of Groton, is in second place in the junior lake trout category with an 11.66-pound fish.
Then…wait a minute! Who is this in first place in the Atlantic landlocked salmon category? It’s one of our own boys from Charlotte – Kevin Bothwell! He landed a 9.12-pound salmon and is easily above the next-largest fish weighing 7.5 pounds. Will he hang on to his lead? Today, Monday, is the final day of the derby and it’s only 10:30 a.m. As I scribe this column, he is what derby contestants call “in the money.” He and teammate Lucas Sweeney are in the lead for Coldwater Team category as well. We are all pulling for them as the derby winds up on this final dreadfully hot day. As an excellent example of family- featured fishing, I had the honor of meeting the Solomon family, Mike, Malayna and Myles, also of Charlotte, who docked and came up to the station all smiles with a nice 18-inch, 3.03-pound smallmouth bass that, although it didn’t quite make the cut in the standings, it was clearly a big win for the family to share the excitement of being in the derby.
My point of writing about this event that is now in the past is to emphasize the importance of getting outside and sharing it with family and friends. Yes, they do come in to the weigh station, many wearing masks and using hand sanitizer provided by my station, and you can see the painful restraint when teammates and families want to shake hands or hug one another in jubilant celebration. No matter the constraints of COVID, the contestants are glowing with excitement.
The LCI Derby is all about Family, Friends and Fishing and its mission is to raise money and awareness of how important fishing and lake tourism is to our economy. The LCI works to educate the public on water quality issues like municipal wastewater discharges—both legal and illegal—farm runoff and invasive species like zebra mussels, Eurasian milfoil and spiny water fleas. These and things like massive phosphorous-generated blue-green algae blooms are changing the ecosystem that we all rely upon for our economy and recreation.
So, the next time you see one of those rigged-out fishing boats, know that they are not in it only for the money. It is the money that they spend on licenses, derby entry fees, accommodations, gas, food and local products and services that drive our tourism business. Therefore, at the fishing accesses in the state, fisherman take priority over recreational boaters, kayakers and canoes. Although each of them contributes to our economy, no one does more to promote the lake’s health than fishermen, whether they be the solitary soul in his little tin boat or the family with the big rig with downriggers and fish-finder equipment. It is all really about all of us getting close to our lake and embracing its joy and serenity.
And if you are not a fan of the lake, take a drive up into the mountains where it all starts. The feeder streams of the bigger rivers—the Winooski, the Otter, the New Haven, Lamoille or Missisquoi—are where you can immerse yourself in the clear cool waters that the miraculous native brook trout reside. But we will save that story for next month. For the month of July, celebrate our independence and your right to pursue and enjoy our magnificent Lake Champlain.
Bradley Carleton is executive director of Sacred Hunter, a nonprofit that seeks to educate the public on the spiritual connection of man to nature.