Business on Lake Vermilion no doubt picked up this weekend with the start of the annual muskie season, which opened Saturday and runs through Dec 1.
Sure, the lake has been plenty busy thus far with walleye anglers taking advantage of great weather over the past few weeks to chase the state’s official fish, but June brings a whole different breed of fishermen and women to the table.
And it’s easy to tell who’s who once the chase begins – muskie anglers are the ones casting those giant lures from their big boats nonstop from sunrise to sunset and beyond.
According to Matt Hennen, a large lake biologist for Lake Vermilion out the Tower Minnesota Department of National Resources office, recent survey results show 15 percent of anglers on the lake target muskie annually.
That’s impressive considering muskie aren’t native to Lake Vermilion. Records show that the DNR dabbled in stocking the lake as far back as the late 1960s, but it wasn’t until the late 1980s that officials got serious about it and started stocking Vermilion annually with fingerlings from Leech Lake.
The muskellunge population was established in Lake Vermilion with the goal of providing a low density, high quality fishery, Hennen said.
“The Lake Vermilion Fisheries Management Plan goal is to support a muskellunge population that provides opportunity to catch trophy fish (50 inches or larger),” he said.
That goal has been met and then some.
“Lake Vermilion provides a solid opportunity to catch fish with a relatively large average size and the potential for a trophy fish,” Hennen said.
In the most recent assessment conducted in 2019, a total of 715 muskellunge were captured and inserted with passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags, which allow for identification of individual fish. Of the fish captured, 567 were in East Vermilion and 148 in West Vermilion. Additional information collected included length, weight, sex, and maturity.
Hennen said that overall, muskellunge ranged in length from 24.2 to 54.1 inches with an average of 44.7 inches. Fish from 39 to 51 inches were most common.
About 11% of the fish caught were 50 inches or longer. The average length of fish sampled in West Vermilion (45.7 inches) was slightly longer than the average length in East Vermilion (44.5 inches). West Vermilion also had a slightly higher percentage of fish larger than 50 inches (14%) compared to East Vermilion (10%).
Brian Johnson, an avid muskie angler whose parents own the Whispering Winds Resort on the Cook end of the lake, said there is a reason for that.
“The habitat on the West End of Vermilion really gives a muskie angler all different types of structure and habitat. It’s much more diverse than a lot of other muskie fisheries in Minnesota in that way,” he said. “For a large lake, many parts of (Vermilion) can be fished as though it’s many small little lakes, it’s easy to get out on in even the most adverse weather and wind in many places.”
That isn’t the case on other large muskie lakes in the state, many of which are more wide-open.
Not only has the management plan worked to create a steady producer, but it has also led to a lake filled with potential monster fish, like the one Corey Kitzmann of Davenport, Iowa caught in 2019 – a 57 1.4-inch beast, with a 25 1/2-inch girth, weighing an estimated 47 pounds that is now the state record for a catch-and-release muskellunge.
“All of the lakes I fish have true trophy potential and probably all of them at some point have had fish large enough to set a state record if caught, or better said, if an angler was lucky enough and actually wanted to try to break the record,” Johnson said. “In Minnesota, the current record likely could have been broken numerous times, but all of those fish were released to fight another day.”
That said, Johnson believes Vermilion likely has the most trophy potential and possibly the highest number of 50 plus inch fish in the state.
“I’ve seen fish I don’t want to estimate the size of, and I’ve been in the boat for fish up to 55 inches caught. I chased one around in a tournament for a few days - didn’t catch it, but someone else did a few days later - that was verified to be 58.5 inches long,” he said.
He maintains that even with fishing pressure on Vermilion growing exponentially over the years, which makes catching a trophy more difficult, landing a big one is just a matter of finding the right technique and location to search.
“It’s still very good although there are always people complaining and wanting more fish put in, which may not hurt, but we have to remember muskie’s are an apex predator and aren’t going to become highly populated or easy to catch not matter what,” Johnson said. “As an angler who wants to remain successful, there are ways. Break out of the old routines, try different tactics, lures, depth, locations and get away from the crowds or community spots and success can still come pretty easily on Vermilion.”
Lake Vermilion isn’t the only body of water in the state where the fish is managed, The DNR has similar programs in nearly 99 lakes (which make up about 21 percent of the total surface waters managed by the DNR in the state).
Presently, pure-strain muskies are descended from the fish that lived here historically and are referred to as the Mississippi River or Leech Lake strain. The state also has a small number of waters with smaller-growing native muskie from Shoepack Lake in what’s now Voyageurs National Park, although this strain has not been stocked since the 1980s.
Finally, tiger muskies are hybrids of northern pike and muskie.
Some other well-known muskie lakes include Leech, Cass, Winnibigoshish, Mille Lacs, and the St. Louis River estuary. Muskies are also found on many smaller lakes.
In any given year, about 30,000 fingerlings are stocked across the state.