By Vic Attardo
Vlad the Impaler earned his moniker on this night.
The barbed arrow shot out of Jamie Vladyka’s compound bow with a twang and a zing and entered the water with a fizz and a sizzle, then went on, in the blink of an eye, to hit the 20-inch white sucker just behind the head piercing both gills diagonally.
The large sucker bucked underwater, spun around then dashed off, but connected to a 50-pound test orange string, it couldn’t reach the end of the line before Vladyka gave the rope a yank and pulled the unhappy fish back to the boat.
Humongous Lake Champlain was a breezy void with stars from horizon to sky-top. A thin, horned moon seemed pasted low in place. In a 21-foot flat-bottomed johnboat decked out with bows, barbed arrows and enough rope to scale a small mountain, if this wasn’t both awesome and risky, I’m not human.
There was only room for one vampire in the bow this night and Vladyka was working from his compound bow coffin. The white suckers and steel-plated carp didn’t stand a chance.
At night, seeing is everything, and everything is tougher to see. Fish identification is paramount. You can’t go shooting at every fin that swims – it’s against the law – so key indicators are important to learn and master. Eight rectangular LED panels pushing out white light around the railing, brightened this world on a 12-volt battery system connected to the trolling motor. Looking almost straight down in the artificial light, you identified the fish by the color of their backs and fins as much as by their shape.
Sheepshead, that we couldn’t shoot, were quickly identified by their white-edged pectorals; suckers were gray-backed with a heavy longitudinal body but didn’t have the fin’s white edge; carp were black or olive-backed and have a bulky-headed and snouty shape, a real standout; bowfins and catfish were actually confusing and since catfish are illegal to shoot we didn’t take a chance on either.
Of course, largemouths were distinctly bass shaped and moved through the water with a certain laziness but when the bass were swimming straight away you might confuse them with something until you saw the distinct black edge of their caudal fin as a warning sign. Smallmouths only needed a pimento in their mouths to be a ripe green olive in color. But no amount of verbal description will make identification rock solid until you get out on the night water and see for yourself. Here’s a lawful bet: don’t shoot at what you’re not sure about.
On this night we worked water mostly 18 inches up to 3-foot deep, in areas with a combination of a soft bottom, cobble and sparse weeds. That’s where the majority of fish were – at least those we could see. Often we spooked them out of small clumps of weeds, and there the fish made good targets against the grassy background. Other areas, 4-foot deep with a soft bottom, where too churned, brown from the top down, and impossible to see through or even further than the surface. Perhaps the carp were there mucking up the bottom but we wouldn’t know.
I was surprised to see that the approach of our lights, a hard white on the dark green surface, did not spook the shallow fish, except the bass. Carp and suckers moved away slow and calm, but when the boat’s shadow crawled beneath them, they fled with a spurting panic. These rough fish were definitely looking down. The bowfins and catfish – what ever they were – stayed locked in place, mostly beside small piles of rocks. If you wanted a fish to dash away – and why would you – you made a sudden movement on the deck that interrupted the light field: the fish definitely noticed this.
There was so much magic, so much awe in the air, even when you weren’t spotting fish and taking shots, your mind stayed alert and primed, despite the time being way past the witching hour.
Like an ancient mariner, Vladyka (fishhoundsoutdoors.com) actually used the stars to guide us to certain land masses and shallow waters that lay off the main shore – the advantage of having lived his entire 40 years around these waters. After 1 a.m. he looked for a small island in a wide, dark bay and found it by heading toward the bowl of the Big Dipper, going right up the center of the bottom two stars.
We reached our destination as the island’s tree tops appeared as dark, curly blotches against the black velvet. I learned not to look for the low shorelines when hunting for a wooded island – you don’t see the shore until you’re just about on it – instead go for the tree tops that meld with the horizon’s stars.
On this night there were things that even Vladyka had never seen. Around the point of a land mass we encountered a flock of Canada geese.
But the night belonged to the snap of the bow and the twang of the arrow. When Vladyka shot, the bright orange connecting chord was like the tail of a meteor tracking the sky. The arrow plunked the water and its bent trajectory sped it to an unsuspecting fish.
For quick handling, he used a light-weight, 2.8-pound Velocity Archery Bow with a short 28-inch axle-to-axle length and 55-pound draw weight. The composite bow was teamed with the elements of an AMS Bowfishing Kit consisting of an arrow rest and a brace holding the reel and line. The arrow, part of the kit, had blunt barbs designed to plunge into the target, then unfold like a grappling hook.
When we spotted a target fish, Vladyka practically skipped across the bow deck following the mark with a spreading and slanting weapon. Even if the fish did not present a perfect shot, it was worth the chance of putting the arrow in the water.
We went that way for more than four hours, then in the low hours of the morning the rich band of the Milky Way appeared like a sugar streak in the sky, and eventually, exhausted by the fascination and spectacle, we thought of breakfast.