America's Strange History of Rifle Hunting for Pike

America's Strange History of Rifle Hunting for Pike

Vermont is the only state in the Union where you can legally use guns to hunt fish.

No, we’re not talking about mounting a deer rifle atop your skiff and firing miniature harpoons like a deck cannon on a whaling boat. That’s a bit much for northern pike, the primary prey of armed anglers who hunt Lake Champlain’s 120-mile shoreline and backwaters in western Vermont each spring after ice-out.

Vermont lets hunters use firearms to shoot pike, pickerel, gar, carp, shad, bowfin, mullet, suckers, bullheads, and other “cull” fishes from March 25 to May 25 along Champlain’s flooded woodlands and marshes. The main attraction in this annual “pickerel shoot,” however, is pike, which typically make themselves vulnerable for a week or so during the species’ spawning run.

Vermont doesn’t specify minimum or maximum rifle calibers or shotgun bores for fish hunting. Nor does it restrict slug weights, pellet sizes, or their metal components—toxic or nontoxic. Simply bring whatever rifle, shotgun, handgun, or muzzleloader you prefer as you wade, stalk a shoreline, post in a treestand, sit atop a deck-mounted ladder, or "ride shotgun" in the bow of a canoe. Whether you’re a resident or nonresident, simply buy a Vermont-issued hunting license or combo hunting-fishing license and you can gun for fish with anything from a .22 autoloader to a .410 shotgun or a .460 Weatherby.

As with hook-and-line fishing, pike shooters must comply with Vermont’s five-fish limit and 20-inch minimum length. Spoiler alert: Fish managers and conservation wardens with Vermont’s Fish and Wildlife Department say few people ever shoot their daily bag limit of pike.

A Sociological Issue Most FWD officials preface their comments by noting the fish-hunting season doesn’t biologically harm Vermont’s fisheries resources. They consider the activity a sociological issue, but also note it’s not a popular recreational activity among Vermont’s hunters and anglers. Most estimates say only a few hundred fish-hunters participate each spring. Low floodwaters some years effectively cancel or heavily restrict the season if pike struggle to reach Champlain’s backwaters to spawn.

Those disruptions and uncertainties hurt year-to-year planning and long-term participation. That might help explain why so many Vermont hunter-anglers say they tried pike hunting once or twice as teenagers or young adults but now say, “That was 20, 30, 40, or 50 years ago,” depending on who’s quoted.

Greg Boglioli, 62, owner and operator of Vermont Field Sports in Middlebury, said his store has been selling guns, ammo, archery gear, fishing tackle, and outdoor clothing and footwear since 1997. Boglioli, however, hasn’t hunted pike with a gun since going twice in the 1990s. He recalls spending more time fishing for bullheads on those trips while friends hunted pike nearby.

“It didn’t do much for me,” Boglioli said. “My buddy used to eat a lot of pike, so he’d do it, and I just went along. The season is still on the books, but I hear little about it. People around 40 will ask, ‘Do they still do that?’ If anyone’s doing it, they’re probably 65 to 70, or maybe a teenager who’s curious because his grandfather used to do it. They don’t shoot many. Most people get one or two. That’s about it.”

In fact, opponents and supporters alike have predicted the past half-century that “pickerel shooting” would die on its own when the current generation of aging pike shooters passed on. The old-timers who said that in the 1980s, of course, have been gone for decades. Their offspring still repeat the prediction when lamenting how few carry on the tradition.

Even so, no politician, fish manager, conservation warden, or agency administrator is pushing for Vermont to euthanize the pike-hunting season. Boglioli said most native Vermonters know better.

“That kind of talk gets little traction,” he said. “We’ve been debating a whole array of changes over coyote hunting in recent years, and so no one wants to tackle another issue that would stop an activity that involves people using guns.”

Circling the Wagons Vermont’s history also shows that even though pike shooters are relatively few in number and typically apathetic about participation, they rally loudly and fiercely when sensing threats to their recreation. In 1969, for example, the Vermont FWD killed the season through the agency’s rule-making process. A year later, lawmakers resuscitated the hunt after hearing from angry constituents. Lawmakers then anchored the regulations in statute and broadened their scope, expanding the legal bag beyond pike and pickerel to basically anything not listed in Vermont as a gamefish.

But nearly two decades later, the agency worked with lawmakers to rescind the law for good. Angelo Incerpi, then the Vermont FWD’s fisheries director, told the Associated Press in May 1987 that hunting fish with firearms had outlived its usefulness. “In the old days, they were doing it for a food resource,” Incerpi said. “Right now, it’s a sport and I think it’s time to change.”

Incerpi claimed that for every large female pike shot, four smaller males also died, with many left to rot. “It’s like shooting at a squirrel nest to see what falls out,” he said. Other critics chimed in, claiming the hunt disrupts spawning activity, reduces spawning success, disturbs waterfowl nesting, and hurts hunting’s reputation with nonhunters.

Many foes assumed the 1987 bill to kill “pickerel shooting” would sail through. After all, the gun-fishing season was generating nationwide ridicule, including from syndicated humorist Dave Barry and Field & Stream Magazine’s conservation editor, George Reiger.

But fish shooters rallied and presented lawmakers with a petition filled with 700 signatures. Even though most of the petition signers didn’t hunt the pike season, the legislature’s fish and wildlife committee let the bill die in its chamber rather than let the House discuss it. And when the bill’s chief author and fish/wildlife committee chairman—Rep. Gino Sassi ran for re-election in 1988, he lost his seat. Another attempt to kill the season in 1993 also ended in legislative futility after sparking loud opposition.

Therefore, Vermont’s pike hunt has seen little or no opposition the past three decades. Shawn Good, an FWD fisheries biologist in Rutland, said the agency wishes the hunt would go away. Jason Batchelder, the FWD’s chief conservation warden, put it this way: “We wouldn’t be heartbroken if it went away.”

But no one in the agency or legislature is working to make it so. They assume that’s a fool’s errand.

Fighting Threats “We’ve resigned ourselves to waiting for it to die on its own,” Good said. “It’s becoming less common all the time, but you still see a few kids trying it because they think it’s cool.”

Even so, Good doesn’t expect a quick death. He said Vermont residents are renowned for fighting any perceived outside threat to individual rights, even those originating in Montpelier, the state capital. Residents of the Green Mountain State put it this way: “If you want a Vermonter to do something, just tell him he can’t.”

Good also notes that Vermont enshrined hunting and fishing as constitutional guarantees long before most states made such legislation trendy the past 25 years. “Vermont protected citizens’ rights to hunt, fish, and trap by including them in the first draft of our state constitution in 1793,” he said. “So even though a tenet of hunter safety is to never shoot into water, and even though we typically protect fish and wildlife when and where they’re most vulnerable, we let people shoot at spawning fish with deer rifles on Lake Champlain’s marshes and backwaters.”

Boglioli concedes the fish-hunting season sounds unbelievable to anyone outside Vermont and understands why it’s ridiculed.

“It makes no sense as a fish-management practice to shoot the best fish in the best areas when those fish are spawning and most vulnerable,” he said. “But it’s getting harder to hunt many of those areas. There’s less shoreline accessible to walk, stalk, and wade, so you can’t claim it’s now causing more harm.”

Likewise, the season has enjoyed an impeccable safety record. Even though Vermont’s pike-shooting season conceivably began when colonists toted smoothbore muskets more than 200 years ago, Batchelder knows of no one being hurt or killed by slugs or patched round-balls ricocheting off the water. Boglioli, however, recalled hearing what he assumed were ricocheting .223 bullets buzzing overhead while bullhead fishing 25 years ago.

“As fast and loose as the activity might seem, the participants act responsibly and look after the resource,” Batchelder said. “I’ve never even heard of anyone writing a ticket for it. We seldom get complaints unless it’s about someone hunting at night and reflecting their lights onto someone’s property. We get more reports of guys getting hurt in treestand falls than we do of bullets ricocheting into houses or passing cars.”

Realize, too, that pike shooters typically fire at steep angles into the water, so the projectiles aren’t prone to ricochet. Further, shooters aren’t trying to execute surgical strikes to the fish’s head or vitals. They generally aim just below or alongside the fish to kill it through concussion, without striking skin or scale.

Deadly Shock Waves How close? Close enough to count in horseshoes or hand grenades, and close enough to “bark” a squirrel or “splash” a pike. The idea is to detonate a miniature “depth charge” that kills or stuns the fish with a shock wave, forcing it to the surface like a disabled submarine.

Underwater explosions are far deadlier on creatures than are airborne blasts of equal force. A person would likely survive a hand-grenade explosion at 5.5 yards if untouched by shrapnel. The same explosion at that distance in water, however, would be fatal.

That’s because blast waves dissipate rapidly in air and reflect more readily around a body when contacting it. In water, however, blast waves travel directly through a body, given the similar densities of water, flesh, and organs. In humans, for example, the brain and heart are composed of 73% water, and the lungs are about 83% water. The skin contains 64% water; muscles and kidneys are 79%; and bones, 31%.

Such water-borne blast waves—whose impacts vary by the detonation’s size and distance—can rupture a fish’s air bladder, intestines, stomach, and vital organs; disrupt internal gases; and shred gas-filled cavities. Therefore, even though rifle shots are potentially deadly at close range, they aren’t akin to fishing with dynamite. Neither is hunting fish with firearms the same as “shooting fish in a barrel,” given the size of Lake Champlain’s eastern shorelines and backwaters. YouTube videos show failed shots and temporarily stunned fish that shake it off and get away.

Concerns of “wounding loss” and mistakenly shooting one of Champlain’s cherished muskellunge spark discussions about threats to the season’s future. “It can be hard to identify your target when looking down into the water through grass, logs, and branches,” said Eric Palmer, Vermont’s fisheries director. “I haven’t heard complaints about muskies being killed by accident, but it could be challenging to quickly distinguish a muskie from a pike.”

Vermont legislator Wayne Laroche knows of no biological issues that could threaten the pike-shooting season. Laroche said he’s heard claims of non-target waste and mistaken-identity shootings, too, but said Lake Champlain’s pike and muskie populations remain strong. In fact, when congregating in late spring in adjacent ice-covered bays, pike likely face higher mortality rates. During late ice, they encounter “barricades” of ice fishing pressure, given that each angler can use up to 15 tip-ups.

“I’ve always opposed getting rid of the ‘pickerel season’ because all I’ve ever heard are assumptions about negative impacts on pike, muskies, and nesting birds,” Laroche said. “We shouldn’t get rid of something without actual evidence of harm. You can’t just speculate that you’re going to cause accidents or hurt the pike population. You need real science, real research, to prove those risks are real.”

The Future of Pike Shooting Laroche knows something about science and research. He used to work as a wildlife biologist with the Vermont FWD and served as the agency’s commissioner from 2003 to 2011. He also served as Pennsylvania’s wildlife director from 2015 to 2018 while leading the state’s fight against chronic wasting disease. Plus, he recalls hunting pike with a .30-30 during his youth in Vermont.

“I probably only went a half-dozen times through my early 20s, but that was 50 years ago,” Laroche said. “I saw it as kind of a novelty. My father was doing it as long as I remember. I also remember him spearing pike at night and lugging them around in a wet burlap bag.”

Despite Laroche’s affection for Vermont’s pike-hunting traditions, he doubts it’s a spring ritual that will endure.

“Vermont is changing,” he said. “There are more forces than ever trying to take things away from us. When I look around our legislature, 75 to 80% of the senators and representatives weren’t born in Vermont. A lot of them moved here from New Jersey, Massachusetts, and states south and west of us. You can’t expect them to understand something that’s not part of their background. Their grandfathers didn’t bring home pike in burlap bags.”

Feature graphic via Hunter Spencer.

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