Are the perch in Lake Champlain getting bigger on average?
Just ask the alewives.
While fisheries biologists have their concerns about the long-term repercussions alewives will have on salmonoids like lake trout and landlocked salmon, in the short term they are making their presence known in the form of bigger sport fish.
Lake Champlain anglers are reporting larger fish on average across the board, and long-time records for the lake are being shattered every day.
In one recent outing, a buddy of mine landed a 14-inch perch that tipped the scale at a pound and three-quarters. That same day, three of us easily had 50 perch of 10 inches or better.
Personally, I've never seen it any better - and the fish are eating it up.
The catalyst for the change is pretty apparent. Cleaning one football-sized perch yesterday I counted 15 alewives in its stomach. And it probably burped up three or four more on the ice.
When biologists first identified the non-native Atlantic fish in Lake Champlain in 2008, many were quick to point out its potential negative effects. They die off in great numbers each spring, turning local beaches into a smelly mess of rotting fish.
They also contain a chemical that biologists say impacts the ability of salmonoids to reproduce - which has had a negative effect in the Great Lakes.
But the reality is no one can say with accuracy what the long-term effect will be on the Lake Champlain fishery. And no one will argue that the short-term effect has been bigger fish.
Norm St. Pierre, who owns Norm's Bait and Tackle in Crown Point, said anglers are happily reporting just that.
He said one perch fisherman brought in three, five-gallon buckets filled with perch to sell, and the average weight of each was over one pound.
"There is no doubt they are having a huge impact on the lake," St. Pierre said of the alewife population. "If people just wait a few years, I think you'll see some absolutely huge fish."
St. Pierre pointed to the state's recent effort to stock brown trout in Lake Champlain and said they are growing at the rate of a few pounds per year, now tipping the scale at 7 and 8 pounds.
He said lake trout and salmon are prospering as well. The average for each has gone up several pounds since alewives were introduced as a forage fish.
"The average salmon used to be just a few pounds, now it is more like 5 to 7 pounds, and now that they've broke the 18-pound mark with lakers, it is just a matter of time before someone lands a 20-pounder," St. Pierre said.
At the same time, St. Pierre believes the smelt population remains healthy. He said Mother Nature has forced them to adapt to live with alewives, forcing them deep in 100-200 feet of water where alewives don't like to go.
"People just don't fish for smelt there, which is why you don't see the type of catches we used to have," he said. "They are out in the main lake now, not in places where they were traditionally caught."
John Gereau is managing editor of Denton Publications and an avid outdoorsman. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org