REGIONAL— Lake Vermilion’s walleye population looks strong ahead of the 2021 fishing season. Yet key stakeholders on the lake see warning signs ahead, and they’re proposing new …
REGIONAL— Lake Vermilion’s walleye population looks strong ahead of the 2021 fishing season. Yet key stakeholders on the lake see warning signs ahead, and they’re proposing new voluntary limits this year to help reduce the increasingly intense fishing pressure the lake is experiencing.
While one year ago, Vermilion resort owners and fishing guides were facing cancelations and an uncertain future as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the implementation of many indoor restrictions prompted the public to get outdoors. Rather than the empty cabins and boats they feared, area resort owners and guides had a banner year as people flocked to the North Country for an escape from the pandemic. In addition, the pandemic-related shutdown at the Canadian border limited anglers to American waters last summer, and that only brought more angler pressure to Vermilion.
“Every resort I talked to was full through September last year,” said Terry Grosshauser, past president of the Vermilion Lake Association, who has worked to promote new voluntary “conservation limits” for Vermilion this year.
Grosshauser said the difference from recent years was stark. “I was on Niles Bay the last week of September last fall,” recalls Grosshauser. “Normally, there might be three boats out there that time of year, but I counted 50. And they were all catching walleyes. That’s unbelieveable pressure.”
And it looks as though 2021 could be even busier on Vermilion, which is one reason that Grosshauser said he found broad support for his new conservation limits—which would cut the walleye limit from the current four to two daily— from both guides and resort owners. “Most are already full and they’re worried the lake is going to get hit hard again this year,” Grosshauser said.
So, the lake association, in cooperation with the Lake Vermilion Guides League and the Lake Vermilion Resort Association, are promoting the new limits this year, using 5x7-inch postcards that they’ll be distributing at area resorts, through area guides, and through lake association volunteers stationed at public landings. The new suggested limits include two walleye per day, between 12 and 18-inches. It also cuts the standard limit for other target species in half and would limit largemouth bass to catch-and-release only this year. Grosshauser said a die-off of largemouth bass two years ago has sharply reduced the numbers of this species, which has traditionally been relatively restricted on Vermilion.
Test netting may not tell the whole story
Test netting by the Department of Natural Resources last year captured an average of just over 20 walleyes per net, the highest number in more than three decades. Yet Grosshauser points out that the DNR does its netting in late August and September, which means the results don’t reflect the fishing pressure the lake experienced all fall, as well as higher than average ice fishing pressure this past winter.
It isn’t just that more anglers are plying Vermilion’s waters, notes Grosshauser. He said the increasing sophistication of imaging technology makes it easier for anglers to target and catch fish, which only increases the harvest unless anglers are going to voluntarily limit their harvest.
Grosshauser argues that the time to address the impact of such intense fishing pressure is before the lake experiences a sharp decline in fish populations. “If it gets pounded too hard, it can take 6-8 years to recover. It’s not a quick thing.”
For now, at least, Vermilion isn’t showing the signs of a fishery that’s struggling, according to Edie Evarts, Tower area fisheries manager, and not just because the test netting results were so strong this year. “When a fishery is fished too hard, you would see other characteristics as well, like faster growth rates. You’d also see young fish maturing earlier. We’ve seen those things on Red Lake, but not on Vermilion.”
Evarts agrees, however, that Vermilion does experience considerable fishing pressure and she’s aware of the reports of increased pressure in 2020. “The DNR does rank it pretty high up there in terms of angling pressure,” said Evarts, who notes that the lake’s fishery has held up in the past to periods of intensive harvest. The DNR considers 65,000 pounds to be a sustainable harvest on Vermilion, although it has experienced periods with substantially higher harvest levels. Back in 2003, a DNR creel survey estimated an open water harvest of 96,000 pounds of walleye on Vermilion, and that high level of harvest prompted the DNR to institute a protective slot limit, which helped to reduce the take. The most recent creel survey on the lake, conducted in 2014-15, put the harvest considerably lower, at 40,000-43,000 pounds.
Evarts said the DNR had planned to conduct a new creel survey last year but opted to hold off as a safety precaution with the pandemic. The agency now expects to conduct the new creel survey this summer and also next winter.
Evarts said the DNR has no objection if anglers want to voluntarily keep fewer fish. In fact, she notes, suggested limits proposed by the Vermilion groups are based on the limits attached to the conservation license that the DNR has sold to Minnesota residents for years.
Grosshauser said the broad support for the idea was critical for the lake association to move forward with the proposed new limits. “If we could not get support from guides, resorts and the Bois Forte, we would not have moved this forward,” he said.