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It all started by accident in 1988 when a fish stocking crew delivered a batch of rainbow trout to Yawkey Mine Lake, a 14-acre canyon of cold water near Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area outside of Crosby, Minn.

Mistakenly included in the load were a number of baby lake trout. No one knows how many. Years later, when those "lakers" started showing up on local fish stringers, word got around. Accordingly, when the Department of Natural Resources surveyed Yawkey's anglers during the winter of 2016, fisheries managers learned that 39% of the lake's ice fishing effort was aimed at catching lake trout. One year earlier, the DNR had lifted a winter trout fishing ban on area mine lakes.

The Yawkey creel survey estimated the total catch of lake trout at 77 for the winter, with 26 harvested and 51 released. The keepers ranged in size from 11 to 18 inches, proof that Yawkey's surprise game fish population had been reproducing on its own.

"The creel showed us there was a real desire to have more lake trout fishing," said Marc Bacigalupi, DNR fisheries supervisor for the Brainerd area.

The agency has responded by introducing lake trout to a few other mine lakes in the area while also amending fishing regulations to protect spawners and foster natural reproduction. Those changes — a bag limit of one laker over 20 inches with a bait restriction of no live minnows — could be adopted as early as next month before winter lake trout season ends March 31.

"It'll protect the fish until they are mature and of spawning age and people will have a quality-sized fish to keep," Bacigalupi said. "We've heard reports of some big ones" caught in Yawkey.

The DNR has long maintained a popular rainbow trout stocking program in certain lakes around Brainerd and Crosby-Ironton, but those yearly hatchery-supported efforts are considered "put and take" with no natural reproduction.

Bacigalupi said the cold, deep waters of certain mine lakes — if they also provide a decent forage base — are capable of growing sustainable lake trout populations on the species' southernmost habitat range in Minnesota. The plan is to stock them every other year with yearling lake trout, adding small bunches of mature brood stock lake trout retired from the Peterson State Fish Hatchery.

"It's generating a lot of excitement," said Jesse Williams, manager of Oars-N-Mine Bait & Tackle in Crosby. "There's not a lot of lake trout options around so this is really cool."

He said the legend of Yawkey's accidental lake trout population gets amplified every time someone catches a lunker — sometimes while fishing for rainbows.

"I think people will be pretty pleased when this all gets going," Williams said.

State Fisheries Chief Brad Parsons said the Crosby area lake trout initiative is one of two notable lake trout expansion programs under way at the DNR. The second is a reintroduction of the native species to Little Trout Lake inside Voyageurs National Park.

Reachable only by portage trail, Little Trout won't be open for lake trout fishing until fisheries managers assess how well the stocking program is working. The first batch of lake trout from a genetic strain of the species that is native to northern Minnesota was introduced last fall. Kevin Peterson, DNR area fisheries supervisor in International Falls, said more lakers will be stocked by helicopter around May 1, followed by at least six or seven years of annual supplements.

"We'll need time … to see how they are doing," Peterson said.

In the 1960s, lake trout were the primary predators in Little Trout, but the population faded out for reasons not totally understood after smallmouth bass and walleye found their way into the lake. The National Park Service is a partner in the revitalization project.

"The lake has all the right stuff for lake trout, so we'll see," Peterson said. "There's a question mark hanging over the whole thing."

As part of the Crosby area lake trout project, DNR crews in the spring of 2019 introduced 3,340 lake trout fingerlings into the Pennington-Mahnomen-Alstead-Arco mine lake chain in Crosby-Ironton. In the fall of that year, the agency added 328 "brooders," those mature lakers taken from the surplus spawning stock at the hatchery.

Similarly, Sagamore Mine Lake between Crosby and Brainerd received 1,270 fingerlings in the spring of 2019 and 112 surplus brood stock lakers in the fall of that year. Both water bodies are scheduled for more stocking this year. In addition, the DNR plans to stock ciscoes, aka tullibees, to augment the forage base for newly stocked lake trout in those lakes.

The DNR in Brainerd also has been stocking lake trout since 1979 in Big Trout Lake, 128 feet deep and part of the Whitefish chain. Those efforts are ongoing.

Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213