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With a splash, Dennis Luxem of Woodbury netted a 22-inch walleye caught by Jack Rendulich of Duluth as a storm approached Lake Vermilion.

Doug Smith, Star Tribune

Dennis Luxem held a Lake Vermilion walleye he caught over the weekend. The fish was a keeper — just under the 18- to 26-inch protected slot limit.

Doug Smith, Star Tribune

Lake Vermilion's puzzle: Where are the walleye?

  • Article by: Doug Smith
  • Star Tribune
  • May 23, 2012 - 7:01 AM

LAKE VERMILION -- A balmy south wind whipped whitecaps through the rocky narrows, where we dragged minnows and leeches in search of walleyes.

Overhead, ominous dirt-gray clouds gathered, and the distant rumble of thunder indicated our time on Lake Vermilion was limited.

And, of course, the fish were biting.

A few minutes after I had reeled in a 16-inch walleye, friend Jack Rendulich set the hook and uttered those magic words: "Fish on. This feels like a good one.''

It was -- a 22-inch beauty. Unfortunately, it was well inside the lake's 18- to 26-inch protected slot, and we slipped it back into the choppy waters.

Just then, three of our fishing partners pulled up in their boat.

"Bad storm coming,'' shouted Tim McMullen of Delano. "They want us off the water.''

Reluctantly, we motored back to Vermilion Dam Lodge, and were hit with lightning, thunder and rain -- a storm that knocked out power to the resort for the night.

We were on the second of a three-day fishing trip to Lake Vermilion, a Minnesota jewel, with its rock outcrops and pine-studded shoreline and islands.

One attraction is its diverse fishery. Besides walleyes, there are muskies, smallmouth and largemouth bass, northerns and, in the western part of the lake, crappies.

Though the walleyes were mostly tight-lipped, we caught several, including some big ones we had to release. So we switched gears and caught a half-dozen keeper-size crappies, using slip bobbers and minnows in 2 feet of water. And some in our group tangled with feisty smallmouth and largemouth bass (the season is open in the north), casting lures in shallow water.

But it's the walleye situation on Vermilion that puzzles anglers, resort owners and the Department of Natural Resources. On the east end, walleyes are abundant and more are keeper size. In the west, walleyes are fewer, but the fish grow faster, and there are more big ones.

"On the far west end, walleye production have been poor for reasons we don't understand,'' said Duane Williams, DNR large lake specialist.

Cormorants have increased from 32 nesting pairs in 2004 to 338 last year. But most reside on the lake's east end, and there's no evidence they are hurting the walleye population, Williams said.

The DNR expanded by 1 inch the size of walleyes that can be kept this year, from 17 inches to 18. Some resorters had hoped to push the minimum size to 20 inches, but Williams said that might have hurt the walleye population.

Rusty crayfish invaded the lake years ago, but only now are showing up in the west, said Williams, and don't appear to be a factor. There is another suspect: "Largemouth bass numbers have gone up a lot on the west end,'' he said. "We're going to look at that.''

Said Williams: "It's been frustrating for us, but it's not all gloom or doom. Overall, things look good. There are decent walleye numbers out there.''

Resort owner Ed Tausk is among those concerned.

"Something is going on in the lake; we're not panicked, but we can't ignore it,'' he said.

Still, as the lake warms, Tausk expects fishing to improve. "I think we'll have a good year.''

Doug Smith • dsmith@startribune.com

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