MANAGEMENT: Walleye sampled at rate of 15.2 fish per lift in gillnets, which is above the historical average for this lake; the bulk of the sample measured 10 to 16 inches; catch dominated by strong 1994 and 1995 year classes, which began producing good angling opportunities in 1997; poor reproduction in 1992 and 1993 for most species, probably because of cool summer weather.
Northern Pine sampled at .8 fish per net, which is near the historical average; most sampled Pike were 20 to 25 inches, though larger fish noted; strong 1994 year class offers good angling opportunities.
The Muskellunge trapnet catch was .5 fish per lift, more than double the .2 fish per lift catch rate in 1993; fish to 46 inches captured; the bulk of the catch measured 34 to 43 inches; this species is not native to Lake Vermilion, though a significant population has been established via a stocking program initiated in 1985.
Black Crappie catch rate of .4 fish per net lift was the lowest since sampling began in 1987; numbers of this species have been below average for several years, due to lack of a strong year class after the very strong 1987 hatch; fair year classes produced in 1991 and 1994; the bulk of the sample measured 6 to 9 inches.
Smallmouth Bass sampled by electrofishing at rate of 26.3 fish per hour, which is near the historical average for this species in Lake Vermilion; most sampled fish measured 6 to 14 inches, though larger fish noted; catch consisted mainly of fish fropm the 1991, 1994 and 1995 year classes.
Bluegill numbers slightly below historical average at 17.7 fish per net lift; catch much higher in West Vermilion than in East Vermilion; most sampled fish measured 6 to 8 inches; strong 1991, 1994 and 1995 year classes; population has been relatively stable the last several years.
Yellow Perch catch near historical average at 24.8 fish per net lift; most fish measured 5 to 9 inches and tend to be larger in the Big Bay area of the lake, where 47 percent of sampled fish measured 9 inches or more; gillnet catch dominated by 1994 and 1995 year classes.
FISHING INFORMATION: A number of years back, one of the best-known magazines in North America– perhaps the world – listed Lake Vermilion as one of the 10 most-scenic lakes in the U.S. With good reason. This big, sprawling water has something like 1,200 miles of shoreline lined with white pines, upland hardwoods, spruce and aspen. Here you’ll find sandy beaches, myriad weeded bays, and even rocky cliffs at the shorelines. Too, there are so many islands located in these 40,557 acres of water, that it’d take you a full year to vist all of them at a rate of one per day. That’s right: there are 365 islands, and they range in size from outcrops barely large enough to eat shore lunch on up to big chunks of land holding several resorts and cabins. The Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) abut this 27-mile-long lake, and the natural scenery is simply breathtaking. That’s especially true in the fall, when when the maples, birches and aspens don their bright-hued finery.
But big Lake Vermilion is known for more than its scenic beauty. It’s a recreational lake par excellence, a destination for hordes of vacationers from all over the country. Looking to get away from the rodent race for a couple of weeks each year, these tourists fill the many resorts to overflowing during the peak summer months. They fill the gaming tables and take over the slots at the nearby casino. And, of course, they pile into boats, pontoons and jetskis and head out onto the water. Many locals, meanwhile, have built summer cabins or year-around homes on this lake, extensively developing the shorelines. Not surprisingly, property values are on the rise, along with taxes. And the locals, of course, place their own demands on the lake. They, too, have their runabouts, big pontoons, canoes, and fishing boats. And they like to use them on those nice sunny days.
Given the numbers of people who visit Lake Vermilion in the summer, you’d think there’d barely be room enough for the jet skiers and ski boats, not to mention wind-surfing rigs and the pontoons which cruise the shorelines. But that’s not the case. This is a BIG lake. It’s 27 miles long and covers 76 square miles. It’s divided into a number of bays, which are distinctly separate from each other. Consequently, this lake can handle several hundred recreational boats on a summer afternoon and still have room for a fishing rig or two. Or 50. Or 100. Rest assured: you won’t get run over on this lake.
That’s fortunate, of course, for Lake Vermilion is a must-visit for anglers wanting to try their luck in northeastern Minnesota. Put simply, this lake offers one of the best fisheries in an area well-known for its angling excellence.
The big lake built its reputation on Walleyes. It’s known as perhaps the “Walleye Capital of St. Louis County,” and for good reason. Anglers have taken scads of these great-eating fish out of the lake. And lots more remain. In fact, at the DNR’s sampling in 1998, fisheries personnel found Walleye numbers above the historical average for this lake. In part, this is due to heavy fry stocking by DNR crews. But natural reproduction contributes significantly to the population, and a strong 1994 year class will contribute good numbers of quality-size fish to anglers’ catches in the year 2000 and beyond. At this writing in early 2000, the bulk of the Walleye population was in the 13- to 16-inch range, but there were good numbers of fish up to 20 inches, and the DNR had sampled fish on up to 30 inches.
But Walleyes aren’t the only species in this lake. There are good-size Northern Pike, nice numbers of average-size panfish, and pretty fair numbers of middling- to nice-size smallies. More about these species – and the Walleyes – later.
Another gamefish deserves some attention first.
The DNR began stocking Muskellunge back in 1985, and it seems planting crews’ efforts are paying off. During the 1998 lake survey, DNR crews sampled Muskies at 2.5 TIMES the rate they did during the 1992 survey. This, says the DNR, indicates a “significant population” of Muskellunge has been established by the agency’s fingerling-stocking program.
Doug Ellis, owner of Virginia Surplus Store,105 N. 3rd Ave., Virginia (218) 741-0331, agrees. He sells a lot of tackle to Vermilion-bound anglers – and he uses a good deal of it himself on the big lake. He says the Muskie population “has been coming on real strong; in fact, it’s just about exploded” in the last few years. Now, he says, Vermilion is “certainly an excellent Muskie lake,” perhaps even a top-tier one. And it offers, he notes, “a chance at a 50-inch fish, although fish in the 40s are far more common.”
Ellis’ observations are borne out by the experience of Guide Dave Swenson, 7105 Comstock Lake Road, Cotton, (218) 482-5217. He says he knows of four 50-inch-plus fish which were taken from Vermilion in 1999. “The biggest I know of for sure,” says Swenson, “was 53 inches, and I don’t care where you fish – Leech Lake, Cass Lake, or Lake Vermilion – 53 inches is a monster.”
“Lake Vermilion is just awesome right now,” notes Swenson. “There are lots of tourists in the summer, lots of jetskis, but there are also lots of big Muskies. The DNR made a wise choice in beginning its stocking program. The fish are out there. They’re thriving; they’re healthy and they’re growing.”
Early in the season, look for Muskies in “huge weedbed” which virtually fills Van Ryper Bay, toward the northwest end of the big lake. Van Ryper is filled with cabbage, which, says Swenson, “gets thicker as the season progresses.” You’ll want to work the outside edge early with bucktails, says Swenson. And, from mid-July on, try the weed pockets with topwater gear. You might also try Fox Bay early in the season; work the weed edges with bucktails early, using a fast retrieve with a subtle pumping motion to flare the bucktail out a bit. And, as the season advances, fish the weed pockets with surface lures.
In summer – say from July 4 on – the Muskie action switches to the reefs and bars. One nice spot to try then is the shallow reef off the southern tip of Knotts Island in Wolf Bay. This spot is marked by a hazard buoy and can be fished successfully with a Bobbie, a Suick, or another of your favorite jerkbaits. Position your boat in 15 to 25 feet of water, and cast your lure on top of the rocks, working it back toward the dropoff. This area is known for producing big fish and is worth a couple of passes.
Also good from July 4 till fall is a series of rock humps off the north branch of the Y-shaped Fectos Point, near the entrance to Greenwood Bay. Several hazard buoys mark this popular big-fish spot. Again, start deep and cast to the shallows – right to the buoy markers, in fact. “Don’t be afraid to get your bait in shallow; you’ll lose fish if you don’t,” says Swenson.
Similarly, “Merry Go Round Reef,” located off Norwegian point in Wakemup Bay is a great mid- to late-season spot. It’s a long reef, well known to Muskie anglers, and it should be worked all around, keeping your boat in deeper water. If you don’t raise a fish then, move in and fish over the top. You can profitably spend an hour or two on this reef, and, if you aren’t having much success, head on over to “Stove Top Reef.” This mid-lake rise is located south and a little west of Merry Go Round, off the eastern end of Center Island. Two hazard buoys mark the site. Use the same presentations and techniques as on Merry Go Round. And, if “the stove” isn’t working out for you, move on over and work the shorelines of the island. Sooner or later you’re bound to tie into a Muskie big enough to make your Lake Vermilion visit unforgettable.
But, as noted, Vermilion’s reputation WAS made by Walleyes and other species.
Ellis says the Walleye fishing is as good now as it’s ever been, and that’s especially true in winter, when action can be hot and heavy for the larger fish – those 20 inches and up. Winter, too, is a nice time to catch the nice Perch you find in Lake Vermilion, and there’s good fishing, as well, for panfish, particularly Crappies.
According to Ellis, the Walleye fishing is “awesome” from ice-up to around mid December, when it begins to tail off. It remains at least adequate, though, right up to the end of the season. Right after freezup, the place to go, Ellis says, is off McKinley Park, just north of the City of Tower. Head right out onto the lake from the public landing, says Ellis, and fish in 8 to 10 feet of water with live bait. Be careful, though, of the ice, for it can’t really be trusted early on. Another good early-ice spot is Everett’s Bay, especially near the mouth, where the water begins to deepen. A jig/minnow combo here should produce good action. As the winter deepens, you’ll want to work farther out on Big Bay, fishing around the reefs and islands in 20 feet of water or more. Especially good this time of year, says Ellis, are the breaks off Ely and Birch Island, toward the eastern end of Big Bay. And don’t ignore the mouth of Stuntz Bay, off the eastern point of Long Island; this, too, is a good spot for Walleye fishing with live bait.
Crappie fishing, too, can be good during winter months, especially shortly after freezeup. A jig/small minnow combination makes a good presentation. But finding a place to offer it can be tricky. The best spots, says Ellis, are around Oak Narrows. But there’s a current in this area, making the ice chancy at best. So Ellis advises extreme caution. “You can lose your life in this area,” Ellis says. He advises checking locally on ice conditions before venturing out.
Open water time, of course, is when the big lake gets the most use and the most fishing pressure. Fortunately it’s also when the fish are biting best. In spring, fishing comes alive first in the sheltered bays. Black Bay, especially, is a focus of Walleye activity early on, as its dark waters warm early, helping fish to be more active. Jig/minnow combinations are effective in this shallow area. Work the developing weeds, using a light jig on a low-stretch line to help your “feel.” Be sure to vary your retrieve until you discover the action fish prefer on any given day; then you can get down to serious fish-catching. Other good, early-season spots include Pike Bay, around Duffy Island; Stuntz Bay, and Cable Bay. And, Ellis says you don’t want to ignore the area below the Vermilion Dam on the north end of Wolf Bay. The bay’s entire northern arm offers “phenominal” spring action, Ellis asserts, all the way down to Knotts Island. Similarly, you’ll find good spring fishing through Oak Narrows, and in much of Norwegian Bay. But probably the best spring Walleye spot on the entire lake, says Ellis, is Armstrong Bay on the lake’s far-eastern end. He advises trolling with Rapalas, spinnerbaits or jig/minnow combinations or bobber-fishing with minnows at the emerging weedlines. And, as the season advances, you can stay in the same area, but move out to the surrounding reefs.
Speaking of reefs, there’s an abundance of them in Lake Vermilion. And that’s where you’ll find Walleyes in the summer. The goggle eyes begin moving out of the shallow bays to the deeper areas in June, and they use the reefs, in addition to the nearby islands, as feeding grounds right into fall. That means that in the lake’s eastern section, you’ll want to head out into Wakemup bay, looking for deepwater structure. You’ll find it between Center Island and Norwegian point. There lie two of the lake’s more famous reefs, Merry Go Round and Stove Top. These top out around 10 feet or less, and they attract Walleyes like magnets. Jig/minnow combinations worked around the 20-foot level are good producers, and, as noted earlier, you might even tie into a Muskie in these locations if you toss out a jerkbait on a heavier rig. While you’re in this area, don’t neglect the entire shoreline of Center Island, just to the west of Stove Top. And you’ll also want to head straight south of Stove Top to Boys Camp Reef, which lies just off the southern shore of Wakemup Bay. All these spots are top Walleye producers. Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a “bonus,” or are just tiring of Walleye fishing, head on over to “The Wash,” which lies between the southern prominence of Norwegian Point and the tiny island off its tip. This reef is covered with 4- to 6-inch rocks and is home to nice-size Smallmouth Bass. Toss spinnerbaits or small crankbaits into the shallows. Vary your retrieve until you find the right combination. And if the smallies aren’t hitting there, motor on over to Treasure Island. Large smallies inhabit the area between the island’s east shore and the white hazard buoy to the east. Spinnerbaits and small cranks will work in this area, too.
The reefs thin out as you head through Oak Narrows into the lake’s eastern portion, but that doesn’t mean the Walleye do. You’ll find them off the West shore of Fectos Point, nearly out to Duck Island, and the rocks off the point’s tip hold both Northern Pike and smallies. If you fish the windward shore of Fectos, you should have some luck with the latter. Navigating east, head on down to the area between Banana Island and Daisy Island, off the north shore of long, narrow Birch Point. The southern portion of this area in depths from 8 to 18 feet surrenders trophy Walleye, and occasionally a Muskie. Heading farther east, drop your jig/leech combo or crankbait into the water off the north sides of Potato, Taylor and Stonich Islands near the center of Big Bay. You’ll find not only Walleyes in the scattered boulders around these islands, but nice Perch as well. And if the fish aren’t hitting in this area, head northeast to the reefs straight out from the channel between Pine Island and Indian Point, where smallies, as well as Walleyes, await the angler. The southern shore of Raspberry Island is a good summer producer of Walleyes, says Ellis.
For Northern Pike, you’ll want to try Sunset Bay in the spring. The Pike utilize Sunset Creek as a spawning area, and, by mid- or late-May, they’re heading out into deeper water to feed. A similar area can be found farther east, in the farthest reaches of Daisy Bay, just off County Road 77. Red and white spoons or larger spinnerbaits can get good action. In summer, try the deep cabbage in Van Ryper Bay, off the end of Wolf bay, above Oak Narrows. Largemouth Bass, meanwhile, inhabit many of the weedy areas of this lake. Look for them in the back bays, casting topwater, shallow-running crankbaits or spinnerbaits to the slop.
And don’t neglect Lake Vermilion’s Crappies. Though they’re a cyclical resource – and the population is down at this writing (early 2000) – they can run pretty nice. In summer, look for them at the sharp break off the south shore of Wolf Bay. A jig and small minnow work well for this species.