Dennis Anderson
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It's a big lake with a legendary fishing tradition that today has walleye population challenges. Guides and resort owners disagree with the Department of Natural Resources over how to rekindle its fishery. And the Chippewa will set nets in its waters in coming weeks.

Mille Lacs?

No, Lake Vermilion, the huge body of sky-blue northeastern Minnesota water surrounded by statuesque pines.

Vermilion also is the lake where Gov. Mark Dayton and other top elected officials opened the fishing season last spring, catching and releasing multitudes of walleyes in the process.

So, what's the problem?

Start by understanding that while Vermilion appears to the casual observer to be one giant lake, at its bottom it's actually two, one comprising the lake's east end, the other the west, each its own unique "basin."

Concern about the lake's walleyes is focused on the west end, where sufficient numbers of big fish exist, but fewer small ones.

One reason might be the lake's 18- to 26-inch protected slot, which the DNR placed on the lake in 2006. Fisheries managers now believe west-end walleyes grow disproportionately quickly, pushing many into the length range anglers can't keep.

Combine this with recent substandard walleye production seasons, and the number of keeper-size walleyes in the western basin seems low — this even though DNR surveys affirm both basins are flush with walleyes, compared to many other Minnesota lakes.

None of which is particularly unusual. Lakes continually change, and with them the fish they support.

Still, it's widely believed west-end keeper-size walleyes could use a boost.

"We'd like to see some action to address it," said Ed Tausk, owner of Vermilion Dam Lodge and a Lake Vermilion stakeholder group leader.

Added Tausk: "There's no problem with total walleye biomass on the west end, the DNR survey nettings show that. But we're missing some recent year classes of walleyes there that now would be keeper-size. Whether the problem is predation of walleye fry by bigger fish, or whatever, we don't know."

In addition to walleyes, Vermilion boasts excellent bass and muskie populations, and these, along with the lake's postcard-like scenery, attract tens of thousands of anglers and other vacationers each summer.

Area residents and business owners want to keep it that way.

"I'm on the lake every day in summer, and on some parts of the lake walleye fishermen are doing fantastic," said Bob Benson, a Vermilion cabin owner and summer fishing guide. "But walleye recruitment from fry to fingerling stages on the west end has been a problem in recent years, and we'd like the DNR to stock walleye fingerlings there, not fry. We think fingerlings in the 4- to 5-inch range could help bring walleyes back in the west end."

DNR disagrees on tactics

DNR area fisheries manager Edie Evarts, stationed in Tower, agrees Vermilion's west end has walleye issues, but says stocking fingerlings isn't the answer.

"There are plenty of walleyes in the west end," she said. "But fish in that end of the lake seem to grow faster than in the east, which is something we didn't anticipate when we started the protected slot in 2006."

Added Evarts: "Fingerling stocking is not a very good tool to supplement walleyes on a very large body of water like Vermilion. Fingerling stocking is better for smaller lakes."

A better option, Evarts said, would be to tighten the lake's protected slot so more fish would be available for anglers. Last fall's test netting results, she said, show that more walleyes across a larger size spectrum can be safely harvested from the lake.

But changing harvest restrictions on Vermilion can't occur until next year at the earliest, after a required DNR rule-making process is complete.

Spring netting planned

Members of the Bois Fort ("strong wood") band of Chippewa have netted Lake Vermilion in spring as long as anyone can recall.

The harvest has caused virtually no discontent in the area, in part because band members set their nets using canoes, as their ancestors did, not with motorboats. Also the band's total harvest is believed to be nominal.

Additionally, Bois Fort band members, area resort owners and other area businesses and residents have long worked cooperatively with one another, to everyone's benefit.

With about 3,400 total members, Bois Fort has about 1,000 reservation residents, most living at nearby Nett Lake and the remainder in the community of Vermilion.

Last year another Chippewa band, the Fond du Lac, whose reservation is nearer to Duluth, declared its intent to net Lake Vermilion, a right it has under an 1854 treaty.

Typically, Fond du Lac members net Mille Lacs in spring. But only a small walleye quota was allotted there last year and this spring to Fond du Lac and seven other Chippewa bands — one reason, perhaps, Fond du Lac has set its sights on Vermilion. (Tribal leaders couldn't be reached for comment.)

Last year, Bois Fort members objected strongly to Fond du Lac's netting declaration, and successfully convinced the band to reconsider.

"Never have we had a situation where someone was that bold as to come into our resource area," Bois Fort Chairman Kevin Leecy told the Timberjay newspaper last year after meeting with Fond du Lac leaders. "We feel this is a serious issue, and I think we got our point across."

This year Fond du Lac has again declared it will net Vermilion, saying it plans to take 2,500 pounds of walleyes from the lake's west end. Whether that will occur is unknown.

Also unknown is whether, or when, fingerlings will be stocked in Vermilion, or if its 18- to 26-inch protected slot will be tightened, allowing anglers to keep more walleyes.

What is known is that Vermilion, one of the state's most beautiful lakes, remains as prized today as it always has been by people from all walks of life who are enchanted by its splendor, charmed by its tall pines …

And drawn to its fish.

Dennis Anderson •