By SAM COOK, Duluth News Tribune
DULUTH, Minn. (AP) — Fishing had been tough on the west end of Lake Vermilion for some time. Walleye reproduction had been fair to poor for a string of years, and the number of younger fish in the population was down.
"It got to the point where people were having a hard time catching eater-size fish," said Duane Williams, large-lake specialist on Lake Vermilion for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
That was a problem, especially at resorts where out-of-state anglers like to take home some walleye fillets to share with their families. Resort owner Ed Tausk at Vermilion Dam Lodge on the west end of the lake said he remembers talking to one group from Indiana this past summer their last night at his resort.
"They said, 'You've got a great resort. We love the lake; it's beautiful. But we have to be honest. We're not coming back next year,' " Tausk said.
The reason: They claimed they hadn't caught a single walleye less than 17 inches long. The slot limit on Vermilion, implemented in 2006, required anglers to throw back any walleye from 17 to 26 inches long.
"It's become really clear in the past couple of years on the west end of the lake: The walleye fishing is still good. You can go out and catch a lot of big fish. The economic impact comes from the inability for people to take fish home," Tausk said.
So stakeholders on the lake — anglers, resort owners and others — began talking to the DNR about changing the slot limit. The result, announced recently, is a new protected slot limit from 18 to 26 inches that will take effect with the May 12 fishing opener. The daily limit remains at four fish.
"The number of 17-inch fish out there is well above average, so there will be some benefits," Williams said. "But they're still going to have to throw back a lot of fish."
Not everyone is upset about the decline of smaller fish on the west end of Lake Vermilion. Plenty of anglers are happy to catch and release the abundant larger walleyes in the west end of the lake, said fishing guide Phil Bakken of Soudan.
"If I can go out and catch three, four, five fish over 22 or 23 inches, that's a good day," Bakken said. "I take some of my clients to the west end and they're happy as heck. I think it's phenomenal."
Typically, when the DNR imposes a slot limit on a lake, the rule is left in place for 10 years before review. But in this case, DNR fisheries officials agreed with local residents that the rule should be evaluated sooner.
Williams isn't sure why reproduction has been below average for several years on the west end of the lake.
"We had very strong 2002 and 2003 year classes across the lake and especially on the west end," he said. "But basically we've had fair- to poor-year classes (on the west end) since '02 and '03. We've ended up with a walleye population that became dominated by big fish."
In re-evaluating the slot limit, the DNR considered a more liberal 20- to 26-inch slot as well as the 18- to 26-inch slot limit. Twenty-nine percent of public comments favored the 20- to 26-inch slot, which would have allowed anglers to keep fish shorter than 20 inches. About 20 percent supported the 18- to 26-inch slot limit, Williams said. Twenty-five percent wanted to keep the 17- to 26-inch slot limit.
But population modeling by the DNR showed that the 20- to 26-inch slot would not have protected enough fish, Williams said.
So, the DNR settled on the 18- to 26-inch limit.
That should help those who want to catch eater walleyes on the west end, Bakken said.
"That's another inch they could keep," he said. "That will make some people a little happier. On the east end, it doesn't make that much difference. There's no difficulty in catching eater fish."
Mel Hintz, president of the Sportsmen's Club of Lake Vermilion, said his group supports the slot-limit change.
"We'll defer to whatever makes sense from a fisheries standpoint," Hintz said.
The DNR's Williams says that many wild walleye fry (tiny first-year fish) on the east and west ends of the lake aren't growing up to become larger fish.
"We have substantial wild fry being produced on both ends of the lake," he said. "It's just poor survival."
The causes of that drop-off in survival aren't known. Walleye fry from the Pike River Hatchery on Lake Vermilion also are stocked annually in the lake. A program to mark those stocked fry started in 2009 and is ongoing. Through electro-fishing each fall, the DNR can determine survival rates for stocked and wild fry.
That study will continue, Williams said.
"We approached the DNR about stocking fingerlings instead of fry," Hintz said. "But there are some real problems with doing that from a biological standpoint. They're not predator-wary. They're very costly to raise. Sometimes the results aren't what you'd anticipate."
Tausk calls the modification of the slot limit a "short-term fix." "It doesn't solve the long-term problem that in the west end of the lake, the fish aren't making it from fingerlings to bigger adult fish."
Hintz and Tausk also brought up the growing cormorant population on Lake Vermilion. Cormorant populations have increased in recent years because DDT, banned in 1972, no longer is in the environment. Cormorant control is practiced on Leech Lake, where the birds were thought to be having an effect on the fish population.
Nesting pairs of cormorants have risen on Lake Vermilion from 34 in 2004 to 338 last summer, Hintz said.
"But nothing can be done to reduce the population until you can show they're doing damage," he said.
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Information from: Duluth News Tribune
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)