LAKE VERMILION, Minn. – Jeremy Maslowski zeroed the line counter on his oversized baitcasting reel and nudged the trolling motor to produce a consistent speed of 2.4 mph.
“This should do it,” he said. “Go ahead.”
Bulky, Dacron-sheathed fishing line rolled into the water, pulled by the resistance of small, artificial lures. Each 30-foot section of line sank into the lake in colored sequence. First red, then purple, then orange and so on — until the crankbaits were 115 feet behind us.
Our hand-held rods were set. They jutted out from opposite sides of the boat in trawler style. As easy as that, we were ready for walleyes to strike.
Lead core fishing sounded more complicated than it was. As a first-timer, I had envisioned awkward, expensive rigging. But aside from the sheer beef of the rods and reels, it was a lot like trolling for walleyes or northerns using spincast equipment. The big difference between the approaches is a flexible ribbon of lead housed inside the sheathing. The weight drops wooden lures that normally can’t reach bottom to just above the deep mud.
“I grew up bobber fishing, so this was something different,” said Maslowski, a 30-year-old fisheries and wildlife ecologist who lives in a small cabin on Vermilion’s Pike Bay.
While the method still is foreign to many anglers, lead core trolling isn’t new. Maslowski learned it from a friendly neighbor in Tower. He was told it’s a way to pick off walleyes when they are otherwise hard to catch. For Maslowski and others, it’s been a successful late-season option after Labor Day.
“He told me it was the method of choice out here in the fall,” Maslowski said. “If you are marking fish you are probably going to catch them.”
Not more than a mile into our cruise, south of Ely Island, Maslowski reeled in a quick measure of credibility. The walleye was small, but promising. Earlier in the day, our regular crew of fall walleye chasers was shut out while deploying live minnows on jigs. We arrived more than a week during the dawn of a stiff cold front and our live well was empty. At our resort, all the fish-cleaning pails were spotless.
“Must have been lockjaw,” Maslowski jabbed. “There’s definitely fish around.”
In his young career as a natural resource manager, Maslowski has counted ducks in the backwaters of the Mississippi Delta, worked on conservation projects in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, studied deer-moose interactions in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region and assisted with fisheries management in the ceded territory of the 1854 Treaty Authority in northeastern Minnesota.
Raised in Little Falls, he’s now an assistant area wildlife manager for the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in Tower and a big fan of tree-lined Lake Vermilion. Under DNR management and in cooperation with a highly regarded local lake association and a statewide group of stakeholders, Vermilion’s walleye fishery is prospering.
Starting this spring, the DNR eased fishing restrictions on the lake to require the release of walleyes from 20 to 26 inches in length (allowing one walleye over 26 inches). The new slot is less restrictive than the old protection of walleyes that measured 18- to 26-inches. And while a four-fish bag limit has remained, 2017’s fall test-netting survey showed greater walleye abundance in the lake than a year ago, Maslowski said.
Not for everyone
Maslowski has heard other anglers knock lead core fishing as boring. It’s a method that requires little agility. You’re hoping for active walleyes to snap at your flashing lure, hooking themselves. The only trick once they’re hooked is to reel in without yanking the treble hooks out of the fish’s mouth.
But “pulling lead” is tactical and challenging in other ways — namely by finding willing fish that have congregated along an evenly deep contour that’s free of plants, underwater debris or snaggy substrate. It also requires a little math and steady boatsmanship to maneuver around humps. You’ve got to keep the plugs pulsing without interruption near the bottom.
In our case, using a certain brand of 18-pound test fishing line, the crankbaits would drop about 6 feet down for every 30 feet of line released from the reel while traveling at 2.4 mph (give or take minor speed variations caused by wind or waves). You can approximate the length of line released by tracking the color changes, but Maslowski has found it easier to use a line counter reel.
The upside to lead core trolling on Vermilion, he said, is catching walleyes while gazing at the picturesque shores.
“The shorelines here are pretty serene and this way you’re not going to miss seeing that bald eagle near the top of a white pine tree,” Maslowski said.
The rewards on our outing improved when we moved from flats that were 18 or 19 feet deep to a basin four feet deeper near the newly opened Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park. The 12- to 13- inch walleyes that we caught in shallower water were replaced by keepers ranging from 14 to nearly 18 inches in length.
The balsa lures we trailed were painted in perch colors and each bait was only 2.5 inches long. We wondered if larger lures would catch bigger fish, but that would require some tinkering with our dive curve and we were happy to be catching dinner-sized walleyes when the bite was still non-existent for our comrades fishing with jigs and minnows.
With seven keepers in our live well, we hit a wall. The fish stopped biting. Rather than try a new spot, Maslowski handed me one of his favorite crankbaits of the same size. Ten minutes later, after spending about four hours on the water, I reeled in the last keeper and biggest of the day.
At the fish house back at the resort, Maslowski was peppered with questions by envious strangers who had been stymied by the cold front.
“Just tell me how you caught ’em,” one of the men blurted.
“By the lips,” Maslowski said.