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Williams reflects on DNR career as Lake Vermilion specialist

Duane Williams

Duane Williams, longtime Minnesota Department of Natural Resources large-lake specialist for Lake Vermilion, retired Monday. He had held the position, based in Tower, for the past 28 years. In all, Williams had spent 39 years with the DNR, starting his career as a fisheries specialist at Waterville, Minn., from 1976 to 1987.

No replacement has been named to take Williams’ position yet, said Edie Evarts, DNR area fisheries supervisor at Tower.

During Williams’ tenure at Tower, a walleye slot limit was imposed on Lake Vermilion in 2006, requiring anglers to throw back walleyes from 17 to 26 inches long and setting the possession limit at four. In 2012, that slot limit was modified, requiring anglers to release walleyes from 18 to 26 inches long.

The News Tribune asked Williams to reflect on the Lake Vermilion fishery before he departed.

Q: Can you give us a quick state-of-the-lake assessment?

A: I think, overall, most fish species are similar to what they were when I came up here. Overall, walleye numbers have been good. We saw some decline in the perch population two years ago and started with cormorant control. I think we have a higher population of smallmouth bass than when I came here.

Q: And the muskie population has really come on in that time.

A: We started stocking the Leech Lake strain in 1987. It certainly has been a big success. (Lake Vermilion) is one of the premier muskie lakes in Minnesota now. The biggest I’ve measured myself in assessments was 55 inches. There have been some pretty credible reports of fish in the 56-inch area.

Q: What has happened with fishing pressure on Lake Vermilion over the past three decades?

A: The big change has been not the amount of fishing pressure but the type. The change in technology and equipment — size of boats, depth finders, fishing forums, the Internet. Even though fishing pressure has been relatively stable in recent creel surveys, the fishing pressure is more effective than it used to be.

Q: What led to establishing a walleye slot limit on Vermilion?

A: Fishing pressure really spiked in 2002 and 2003, and the walleye harvest really spiked. The harvest was above where we wanted to see it. We had people pushing for a (slot) regulation even before that, just as a conservation measure. We couldn’t justify it until we saw those high walleye harvests in 2002 and 2003.

Q: Talk about the presence of invasive species in the lake.

A: One of the bigger changes on the lake has been with invasive species — not just on Lake Vermilion. It’s everywhere. We’ve got some curly-leaf pondweed in a couple areas. Spiny water fleas were found last year. Chinese mystery snails (in 2011). Rusty crayfish were present when I came up here but certainly have exploded since then.

Q: Do you think anglers’ expectations have changed over the years?

A: I think there’s less emphasis on getting that limit and stockpiling a bunch of fish, especially among younger anglers now. And there’s a greater appreciation for some of the other species out there. Smallmouth bass were ignored before.

Q: Do you think the DNR’s rapport with anglers is better than it once was?

A: We certainly reach out to the public much more than we used to. Now, almost everything we do involves a fairly significant amount of public input. You don’t always make everyone happy, but we’re certainly working harder as an organization to do more and better outreach.