Let the fishing season begin

Fishing boats dot the surface of Lake Vermilion near Tower for the start of the 2019 fishing season Saturday morning.

Walleye fishing should be good on Lake Vermilion this season.

Even as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) this week canceled fish egg collection operations across the state – including the DNR's Pike River Hatchery at Lake Vermilion — local experts say walleye fishing on Lake Vermilion will be sound in 2020.

“I expect little to no impact on Vermilion walleye fishing or the success of walleye reproduction,” said Edie Evarts, DNR area fisheries supervisor in Tower. “The number of mature female spawners on Lake Vermilion is at a historic high and recruitment of year classes has generally been good for the last few years.”

Lake Vermilion is one of the state's top fisheries.

Its 40,557 acres contain a wide variety of species including walleye, northern pike, smallmouth and largemouth bass, bluegills, muskellunge, crappie, whitefish and tullibee.

A DNR net survey completed in 2019 found 12 walleye per gill net, said Evarts.

While that number is lower than in some recent years, it's still good, she said.

“There should be lot of 12-16-inch fish of harvestable size and a bunch of smaller fish that should grow into a size that anglers like to keep over the summer,” said Evarts.

Terry Grosshauser, president of the Vermilion Lake Association and member of a statewide walleye work group, says cancellation of the egg collection won't have a noticeable impact on the Vermilion walleye population.

“I don't see a major impact for the lake from not doing the egg taking,” said Grosshauser. “We have a higher level of 19-26-inch spawners than any time than we've had for 20 years. There's enough walleye to create a great spawn.”

The collection of walleye eggs at the DNR Pike River Hatchery has been a longstanding spring tradition.

However, it's been canceled across the state this year due to COVID-19 social distancing guidelines aimed at keeping DNR staff safe.

At the hatchery, the DNR collects walleye eggs to hatch and raise into fry. The fry are then released back into Lake Vermilion and other lakes designated for the Pike River strain. Those lakes are mostly northeast lakes where the fish are a close genetic match, said Evarts.

The Pike River Hatchery has recently been producing about 25-30 million fry per year.

The hatchery was established in 1885. It did not operate from 1947 to 1970, except for an emergency egg take in 1950, according to the DNR. The current hatchery was built in 1971.

Fry put back into Vermilion essentially replaces fry that would have hatched from the eggs that are taken.

A Lake Vermilion Management Plan currently calls for five million fry to be put back into the lake annually. Less than one percent of the fry put back into the lake survive through a year, said Grosshauser.

The main factor in the survival of walleye during their first year is connected to environmental factors such as water temperature and length of the growing season, said Evarts.

However, even without stocking the lake with new fry, walleye reproduction remains strong, said Evarts.

Research shows that Lake Vermilion produces plenty of fry on its own, she said. The amount of fry stocked is just a small fraction of what occurs naturally, she said.

“It never really needs restocking,” said Evarts. “It's been self-sustaining on its own.”

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