Walleye fishing on Lake Vermilion has never been better, fishing guides and resort owners say. The lake has lots of larger walleyes along with plenty of smaller fish good for the frying pan.
There’s just one catch. The sprawling, 40,000-acre lake that stretches from Tower to Cook consists of two main basins, east and west. On the east end, anglers find plenty of smaller walleyes — the 13- to 18-inch “eaters” that anglers favor for shore lunches and fish-fry dinners. The west end produces plenty of larger walleyes — 20 inches and up — but few smaller fish.
The current walleye regulations on the lake include a slot limit that requires anglers to immediately release all walleyes from 18 to 26 inches long. The possession limit is four fish, with just one over 26 inches allowed.
Because of that regulation, anglers on the west end of the lake find it difficult to catch fish small enough to eat.
“The far west end resorts are really feeling it,” said Ed Tausk, co-owner of Vermilion Dam Lodge. “In the spring and fall, they’ve lost a lot of fishermen. They can catch big walleyes, but they can’t catch harvestable walleyes. The east end — there’s great fishing down there.”
Now fisheries officials with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources are proposing changes in the lake’s walleye regulations that could provide some relief for anglers on the west end.
The DNR is offering three options for walleye regulations. In each case, the limit would remain at four. The options include:
- A slot limit requiring release of walleyes 18 to 22 inches long (with one over 26 inches allowed)
- A slot limit requiring release of walleyes 20 to 26 inches long (with one over 26 allowed)
- Allowing anglers to keep one walleye longer than 18 inches in a limit of four.
The agency will hold a public meeting from 6-8 p.m. Oct. 25 at the Tower Civic Center in Tower to gather public opinion on the proposals.
Surplus of walleyes
So-called “creel surveys” of anglers in 2014 and 2015 showed that the lake was well below its safe-harvest level for walleyes, said Edie Evarts, DNR area fisheries supervisor at Tower.
“If we didn’t have a surplus, we wouldn’t be able to change the regulation,” Evarts said. “It’s a good time to review the regulation and offer more fishing. That should definitely help on the west end. Anglers should be able to find fish to harvest. At the same time, we want to maintain the overall quality of the Vermilion walleye fishery.”
Evarts said that under all of these more liberal regulation options, the walleye harvest likely would remain under the safe harvest level.
“All our options do carry some risk of exceeding the safe harvest level,” Evarts said. “However, unless we see a large increase in the number of anglers on the lake, we are pretty comfortable that we will stay near the safe harvest with a less restrictive regulation.”
The annual safe harvest level for anglers from May through September is 65,000 pounds of walleyes, Evarts said. In 2014 and 2015, based on angler creel surveys, harvest was at or below 45,000 pounds.
In recent DNR surveys of walleye populations, walleye abundance continues to be strong, Evarts said.
Tausk said he favors the DNR’s proposed 20- to 26-inch protected slot limit option.
“That allows the 18s and 19s to get harvested,” Tausk said. “Most people don’t want to keep a fish over 20 or 21 inches.”
Fishing guide Tim “Buck” Lescarbeau also likes that option.
“The resorts on that end, that far west shoreline, are hurting,” Lescarbeau said. “That 20- to 26-inch slot would be economic relief for them.”
Vacationing anglers who fish Lake Vermilion count on having fish to eat at some point during their trip, said fishing guide Doug Knoer of Lake Vermilion Guide Service. Knoer said he prefers the one-over-18-inches regulation among the DNR’s proposals.
“If a tourist could go out and keep one and have a nice fish dinner, they’d go home happy,” Knoer said.
Evarts said walleyes in the west end of Lake Vermilion have always grown faster than those in the east end. Those fish were smaller at some point, of course, but they weren’t small for long, Evarts said.
“The size anglers want is 14 to 18 inches,” she said. “Those fish (in the west end) grow fast enough that they’re only there (in that size range) for about two years.”
In addition, a couple of weaker year-classes of walleyes compounded the problem.
“When you have a weaker year-class, you tend to notice it,” Evarts said.
More recently, the production of young walleyes has improved, she said.
A more liberal slot limit also would likely reduce fishing pressure on the east end of the lake, Lescarbeau said. Some guides and anglers make the 15-mile run from the west end to the east end just so they can catch smaller walleyes to eat, he said. Those who remain in the west end often switch to fishing for smallmouth bass or northern so they can have fish to eat, guides say.
Meanwhile, for fishing guide Casey Sunsdahl of Casey’s Guide Service, these are the good old days on Lake Vermilion. Sunsdahl guides primarily on the east end of the lake.
“The fishing has never been better than it is now,” Sunsdahl said. “Just about every year-class of fish is well represented. Our catch rate is as high as I can remember in my 11 years of guiding.”
After the Oct. 25 public meeting, a comment period will extend for 10 more days, closing on Nov. 4. Questions or comments may be directed to the Tower Area Fisheries Office, 650 Highway 169, Tower, MN 55790, by calling (218) 300-7803, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Additionally, an open house about this proposal and other fishing regulations under review is scheduled for 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday at the DNR Central Office, 500 Lafayette Road in St. Paul.