Lake Vermilion is one of Minnesota's largest lakes - and one of its best. It offers anglers walleyes, bass and toothy muskies, all in a wilderness setting near the Canadian border.


By Staff Writer Doug Smith

Lake Vermilion's walleyes were playing hard to get.
A flotilla of 20 fishing boats bobbed like a flock of mallards in a narrow channel bordered by tall pines one crisp morning last week.
It was a well-known walleye hot-spot, but on Minnesota's opening weekend of fishing, the walleyes were mostly no-shows.
``Pretty slow,'' one angler said to another as their boats drifted past.
``Yup,'' came the response. ``But they've gotta be down there.''
No doubt they were. Vermilion - one of Minnesota's largest and prettiest lakes, has an impressive population of walleyes. Fishing in recent years has been excellent, and this year is expected to be no exception.
But with a cold spring and water temperatures in the mid 40s, our group of seven anglers found Vermilion's walleyes tough to entice.
``At least it's not raining,'' said Mike Porter of Minneapolis, bundled in a jacket and rain gear to stay warm. He finally landed our first walleye after three hours of futility.
Fortunately for us, Vermilion has more than just walleyes. It's a diverse fishery with smallmouth and largemouth bass, muskies, northerns and panfish. Though only a few walleyes responded to our opening weekend invitation, the bass weren't as shy.
``Get the net,'' said Mike Pashalek of Minneapolis, his rod bent in half. ``Whoa. It's a nice one.''
After a short battle, he landed a dandy 4-pound smallmouth, then slid it back into the water. ``I always let the big ones go,'' said Pashalek, who has been fishing Vermilion for 18 years and spends several weeks there each summer.
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A sparkling gem
At a whopping 40,000 acres, Vermilion is Minnesota's seventh largest lake behind only Lake of the Woods, Leech, Mille Lacs, Rainy, Red and Winnibigoshish.
Vermilion stretches 24 miles across the Arrowhead Region. It's a classic northwoods gem with granite ridges, pine-studded shores and amber waters. It resembles lakes in the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Some 365 islands dot its waters, and with 313 miles of shoreline, Vermilion is a maze of bays, channels and points that offers a bewildering number of fishing opportunities.
``That's what makes Vermilion unique, it's a diverse body of water,'' said Ed Tausk, co-owner of Vermilion Dam Lodge, where we stayed. ``There are narrow channels with strong currents, so it's almost like fishing a river, and there are large bays.''
Tausk's resort overlooks the lake's only water outlet and the Vermilion Dam, a small concrete wall at mouth of the Vermilion River. (A sign out front declares it's the ``best resort by a dam site.'')
Tausk said the place is a former logging camp that evolved into a hunting lodge, then a resort. It reportedly is the oldest one on Vermilion.
The swift-moving water near the dam is conducive for bass fishing, and we caught several there, both smallmouth and largemouth.
``Vermilion has always been noted as a good smallmouth bass lake,'' Tausk said. ``What's really coming on strong is the largemouth bass - we're seeing some excellent largemouth fishing.''
I fooled a nice 2-pound bucketmouth with an orange Rapala, and Porter caught a half-dozen largemouth and smallmouth on a white Mister Twister. He also landed 19-inch and 22-inch walleyes on leeches, and clearly out-fished the rest of the group.
``I'm hot,'' he said with a grin.
A couple hundred yards behind us, a bald eagle swooped down on outstretched wings, gracefully snatched a fish from the water's surface, and flew off with dinner.
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Muskie mania
While Vermilion's walleyes and bass are well-known, more anglers are showing up on the lake these days to search for muskies.
The lake likely had some natural production, but muskie stocking by the Department of Natural Resources in the mid-1980s has established a solid population that anglers have noticed.
``It's really become a phenomenon,'' said Duane Williams, DNR large lake specialist for Lake Vermilion. ``Five or six years ago, it was off people's radar. Now people from all over the country come here to fish muskies.''
Last year, 14 percent of anglers on the lake fished for muskies, according to a DNR survey. ``It has been discovered,'' Williams said.
In 2002 the DNR netted muskies to assess the population.
``We caught a lot of muskies in the mid to upper 40 inches; the largest we saw was 54 inches,'' Williams said. There is some natural reproduction occurring.
He said fears by some anglers that muskies might harm the walleye population have been unfounded. ``As muskie fishing has developed, we've had record walleye numbers,'' Williams said.
Near sunset one evening, as a strong, cold southwest wind buffeted our boats, we drifted for walleyes off a rocky point, using minnows, leeches and crawlers.
``Got one,'' Jack Rendulich of Duluth told his fishing partner, Dennis Luxem of Woodbury. ``This one has some shoulders,'' he said as his rod bent nearly 90 degrees. ``I don't know what it is.''
It was evident it wasn't a 2-pound walleye - or even a 6-pound northern.
After a seven-minute struggle using 6-pound test line, Rendulich reeled in a eye-popping muskie - we guessed perhaps 45 to 48 inches long - then quickly released it. (Muskie season doesn't open until June 5.)
``I've never caught a fish that big,'' said a still-bewildered Rendulich.
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Slow fishing
At the end of a long day, our group had averaged only about one walleye apiece, but we hooked 14 bass, a decent northern and the inadvertent muskie.
For many anglers - us included - slow fishing doesn't put much of a damper on the opener. It's a time to relax, get back on the water, renew friendships, play some cards - and eat.
Some groups undoubtedly caught more fish than we did, but none ate better.
We gobbled down stewed pheasant, wild rice and baked potatoes for a pre-opener dinner Friday, and ate grilled marinated duck and pheasant, deep-fried fish and potato slices Saturday night. Then, after fishing for a few hours Sunday, we had more fried fish along with scrambled eggs, bacon and hash browns for brunch.
We had hoped the walleyes would be more active, but we weren't alone in our fishing frustration. We saw few fish boated.
``From the reports I heard, it sounded pretty slow,'' Williams said after opening weekend. ``We've had a lot of cold weather up here, and the water hasn't warmed up much. Often we see better fishing around Memorial Day weekend.''
But some anglers did OK. Two at our resort returned with six walleyes, and we heard reports of others on the southern end of the lake doing better.
Tausk said the first week of June can be excellent for walleyes, as can the second week of September. June and late August are great times to catch smallmouth bass on Vermilion.
``But we see action here all summer,'' he said.
Bluegills in the lake can provide some hot summer action for kids, he said.
Said Williams: ``The fish are a little small - 6 to 7 inches. But they are abundant. In the next few years, there should be some pretty good bluegill fishing.''
To go along with some pretty good walleye, bass and muskie fishing.
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Doug Smith is at dsmith@startribune.com.