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This muskellunge (muskie) was captured during the 2019 Lake Vermilion lake assessment. Submitted photos.
Lake Vermilion continues to be a solid multispecies fishery that provides both catch and harvest opportunities for several species. The annual DNR survey in 2020 indicated that walleye abundance is near record highs throughout the lake despite the seemingly higher than normal fishing pressure that occurred.
The high walleye abundance is due to recent strong year-classes that were mostly under 15 inches in fall 2020. These fish should provide ample catch and harvest opportunities in 2021 and beyond. Also, an abundance of walleyes over 20 inches will continue to provide memorable catch opportunities throughout the lake while also ensuring plenty of broodstock.
Anglers seeking muskellunge (muskies) will find opportunities for fish with trophy potential as a significant portion of the population are 50 inches or larger. Anglers targeting smallmouth bass should find them throughout the lake.
East Vermilion has fewer (but on average larger) fish than West Vermilion, which has higher numbers of smaller fish. Additionally, largemouth bass can be found in low numbers overall, but certain areas of West Vermilion provide the best catch opportunities.
Although Lake Vermilion’s northern pike population has been declining, the sizes of fish caught has increased.
Although low in abundance overall, northern pike can be found in specific areas providing catch and harvest opportunities with the possibility to catch fish up to 40 inches. Additionally, black crappie and bluegill will continue to provide angling opportunities. Whitefish and cisco (tullibee) offer harvest opportunities primarily during the fall sport gill-netting season.
Anglers are reminded that a special regulation exists for walleyes where all fish 20 – 26 inches must be immediately released. There is a four-walleye possession limit with only one fish over 26 inches allowed. Anglers are also reminded that since 2019, northern pike are managed under the northeast zone regulation requiring release of all fish 30 – 40 inches long, only one allowed over 40 inches, and a two fish possession limit.
For darkhouse spearing, you are allowed two pike but only one may be over 26 inches. All other fish species are managed under current statewide fishing regulations.
Lake Vermilion is comprised of two major basins, East Vermilion (east of Oak Narrows) and West Vermilion (west of Oak Narrows), that are significantly different in terms of habitat and fish communities. The lake is part of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Large Lake Monitoring Program which includes annual fisheries population assessments, water quality monitoring, zooplankton monitoring, aquatic invasive species surveillance, and regularly scheduled creel surveys on the 10 largest lakes in Minnesota.
Since 1984, standardized fish population assessments have included a variety of sampling gears to collect various fish species at different life stages. The gears include gill nets, trap nets, shoreline seines, and electrofishing boats. Fisheries assessments are standardized so that the same sampling gear is used at the same locations during the same time of year to best track population trends over time. Length, weight, age, and other data are collected for fish of management concern.
The current management plan for Lake Vermilion was designed to guide fisheries management for a six-year period from 2017 to 2022. Since 1971, DNR has annually operated the walleye spawn take and hatchery at the Pike River, a major tributary to Lake Vermilion.
A small portion of the walleye fry produced annually at the Pike River Hatchery are put back into Lake Vermilion. In the previous 10 years, between 5 and 15 million fry have been stocked annually. DNR’s walleye spawn take operations were suspended in 2020 due to COVID-19 safety concerns, resulting in no walleye fry being stocked. However, natural reproduction of wild walleye fry is high in Lake Vermilion and one year without “put back” stocking will likely be unnoticeable to anglers.
A muskellunge stocking program began in 1987 with the goal of establishing a low density, high quality muskie population in Lake Vermilion. The most recent management plan calls for a base stocking quota of 3,000 fingerlings annually with up to 2,000 surplus fingerlings per two-year period, as available.
DNR’s muskellunge spawn take operations were also suspended in 2020 due to COVID-19 safety concerns. Therefore, no muskellunge fingerlings were stocked into Lake Vermilion in 2020 due to a lack of availability statewide. Recent surplus stocking along with natural reproduction should help offset any negative impacts from the missed stocking event.
In 2020, the DNR’s annual fall gill-net survey produced the highest lakewide walleye catch rate in the 37 years of standardized sampling in Lake Vermilion at 20.4 fish/net. High catch rates were observed throughout the lake even after substantial fishing pressure had occurred during the spring and summer of 2020 based on anecdotal observations. The significant increase in catch rates from the previous two years was driven by recent strong recruitment.
The 2020 East Vermilion walleye catch rate of 23.3 fish/net ranked as the third highest catch rate historically in that basin. The West Vermilion catch rate of 16.0 fish/net ranked as the second highest catch rate historically in that basin.
The average length of walleyes captured in the fall 2020 gill-net survey was about 14 inches. It was the smallest average size since 2008, which can be attributed to the recent strong year classes that produced exceptionally high catches of fish under 15 inches throughout the lake. These fish should provide substantial catch and harvest opportunities over the next several years.
Additionally, high catch rates of fish 20 inches and larger will continue to provide memorable catch opportunities throughout the lake while also ensuring plenty of broodstock.
Walleyes captured in gill nets in 2020 ranged from 0 to 23 years old. Lakewide catch rates of age-0 (2020 year-class), age-1 (2019 year-class), age-2 (2018 year-class), age-4 (2016 year-class), age-5 (2015 year-class), age-7 (2013 yearclass), and ages-8 and older fish were at or above historical averages. The catch rate of age-2 fish was the highest ever observed for an age-2 cohort. This follows an above-average catch rate of that yearclass as an age-1 cohort in 2019, suggesting strong recruitment.
The catch rate of fish ages 8 and older exceeded the 75th percentile for the second consecutive year and for the 10th time in 11 years. Following implementation of size protective walleye regulations in 2006, the catch rate of these older fish has drastically increased.
The most recent strong walleye yearclass was produced lakewide in 2016 and preliminary estimates indicate 2018 and 2019 could also be strong year-classes. The most recent weak year-class occurred lakewide in 2017. In East Vermilion, the most recent strong year-class was produced in 2016 and preliminary estimates indicate 2019 could be strong.
The last weak year-class was produced in 2017. In West Vermilion, consistent moderate to strong recruitment has occurred annually since the last weak year-class in 2013. The 2018 cohort will likely be the first strong year-class in West Vermilion since 2014 and a potential banner year-class overall.
Fall electrofishing provides useful information on abundance and growth of young-of-the-year (YOY) walleyes near the end of their first growing season. In Lake Vermilion, both the catch rate of YOY walleyes and average length of fish captured help predict future year-class strength.
In 2020, the lakewide catch rate of YOY walleyes of 72.0 fish/hour fell below the 25th percentile of previous surveys. Below average catches of YOY fish occurred in East Vermilion while catches below the 25th percentile were recorded in West Vermilion. The average length of fish captured lakewide was 6.3 inches, which was the highest average size ever recorded.
Muskies provide an important catchand release sport fishery on Lake Vermilion. The muskie population was established via a stocking program that began in the late 1980s with the goal of providing a low density, high quality fishery.
In 2020, DNR had planned to conduct the second year of a two-year effort to get a population estimate of adult muskies in Lake Vermilion. Due to safety concerns with the COVID-19 pandemic, that assessment was not completed. Options for obtaining population estimates in the future are being evaluated. During the most recent assessment conducted in 2019, muskies averaged 44.7 inches in length and over 10 percent of the fish sampled were 50 inches or larger.
Smallmouth bass are found throughout Lake Vermilion and they provide an important fishery. Spring electrofishing targeting primarily smallmouth bass habitat has been conducted almost annually since 1989 as the primary assessment of the population. Based on survey results, smallmouth bass abundance has generally increased over the last three decades.
Recent surveys indicate that the trend in increasing numbers continues in West
Vermilion, but abundance has stabilized in East Vermilion. Abundance and size structure are very different between the two basins, as West Vermilion tends to 7have higher numbers with much smaller fish on average when compared to East Vermilion.
During the most recent management planning process, it was decided that bass assessment frequency could be reduced to once every three years and still adequately monitor the population. However, due in part to recent stakeholder concerns, sampling was conducted in 2020 for the second time in three years.
The lakewide catch rate of smallmouth bass during spring electrofishing in 2020 was 60.3 fish/hour. This was a slight decline from 2018, but near the average for catch rates in the five surveys since 2014. The East Vermilion catch rate of 44.0 fish/ hour was similar to the 2018 survey and near the average of surveys since 2014.
The West Vermilion catch rate of 93.0 fish/hour was down from the record high in 2018 (145.0 fish/hour), but was average over the past five surveys. The average length of fish captured in West Vermilion was 7.4 inches and no fish over 13 inches were sampled.
In contrast, the average length of fish sampled in East Vermilion was 10.8 inches and about one-fourth were over 13 inches. The fish ranged from 1 to 15 years old and each year class from age-1 (2019 year-class) to age-10 (2010 year-class) was represented in the sample indicating consistent recruitment.
Overall, the smallmouth bass population in Lake Vermilion displays a stable to increasing trend in abundance based on electrofishing, gill net, seine, and creel data. Length and age distributions of fish indicate that recruitment to the fishery should continue to bolster the population in the near future. Abundance continues to remain higher in West Vermilion, but fish are smaller on average due to slower growth compared to East Vermilion.
Largemouth bass are a minor component of the Lake Vermilion fishery and are primarily found in West Vermilion. They do provide fishing opportunities and typically have low harvest rates. Spring electrofishing is the standard assessment technique to assess largemouth bass populations in Minnesota. However, Lake Vermilion surveys have historically targeted smallmouth bass habitat because it is much more abundant in the lake.
Largemouth bass were first captured during the standard electrofishing survey in West Vermilion in 2013 and have continued to be rarely encountered. However, in 2020, the West Vermilion catch rate was 2.0 fish/hour for the second consecutive survey. Largemouth bass are not abundant and are limited to specific areas of preferred habitat in the lake. However, DNR electrofishing, gill net, and creel data suggests a stable or increasing population primarily in West Vermilion.
Northern pike are generally found in relatively low numbers in Lake Vermilion but are an important gamefish for some anglers. Ice-out trap-net surveys have been done periodically to obtain size structure information on the northern pike population and additional data is collected during annual fall gill-net assessments.
Ice-out trap netting was not conducted in 2020, however 12 northern pike (0.6 fish/net) ranging in length from 22.2 to 38.4 inches were captured in gill nets. The gill-net catch rate was at the 25th percentile of previous catches in Lake Vermilion. Overall, a declining trend in northern pike abundance has been observed lakewide over the past three decades.
At the same time, the size structure has shifted towards larger fish which can partially be attributed to protected slot limit regulations that have been in place since 2003.
Yellow perch are a primary forage species in Lake Vermilion that also provide some incidental angler harvest. The 2020 lakewide gill-net catch rate of 34.9 fish/ net was the highest catch rate observed since 2013 and also surpassed the historic 75th percentile. However, there continues to be a notable difference in catch rates when comparing the basins.
The 2020 East Vermilion catch rate of 15.6 fish/net was an improvement from 2019 (10.7 fish/net) and slightly above the 25th percentile for that basin. In contrast, the West Vermilion catch rate of 63.8 fish/ net was the second highest ever observed in that basin. Overall, East Vermilion yellow perch catch rates have displayed a decreasing trend since the early 1990s which is likely due to a combination of factors including habitat loss and increased predation.
On the other hand, West Vermilion catch rates have displayed an increasing trend and have also continued to fluctuate cyclically typical of perch populations. The average length of yellow perch captured in 2020 was relatively small at 7.2 inches compared to historic averages. This was driven by very high numbers of 5 and 6-inch fish captured primarily in West Vermilion.
The catch rate of fish 9 inches and larger, which are typically the size anglers prefer to harvest, was below average. Fish captured in gill nets ranged from 1 to 11 years old. A high proportion of fish from age-2 to age-4 in the sample indicate consistent recruitment in recent years which may continue to bolster gill-net catch rates in the future.
Bluegill and black crappie
Bluegills provide significant catch and harvest opportunities in Lake Vermilion, while black crappies are generally a minor component of the fishery that can on occasion produce very good fishing. Trap-net catches and creel data indicate greater abundance of both species in West Vermilion compared to East Vermilion.
Summer trap-netting targeting panfish did not occur in 2020 because sampling frequency was reduced in the current management plan. Alternative sampling methods are being evaluated to provide useful data on relative abundance and size structure of panfish populations.
Matt Hennen is the Lake Vermilion large lake specialist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ Tower office.
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