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As fishing season nears, so does 'muskie fever' season for area anglers

Cruising the depths of sprawling Lake Vermilion is a special fish -- a large, rare trophy that has been called the underwater equivalent of the grizzly bear.

Cruising the depths of sprawling Lake Vermilion is a special fish -- a large, rare trophy that has been called the underwater equivalent of the grizzly bear.
Reaching weights of more than 50 pounds, the muskellunge or muskie, is a legend in Midwest waters. And a successful Department of Natural Resources stocking program is making Vermilion a destination for anglers seeking to tangle with the ferocious fish.
Saturday kicks off a season of walleye, northern pike and lake trout angling statewide in most lakes. But June 3, the muskie opener, has been circled on more than a few calendars. And for many who consider themselves a die-hard muskie angler, the destination will be Lake Vermilion.
What started with occasional stockings in the late 1960s and early '70s has grown into a more closely managed fishery that Department of Natural Resources officials say is showing signs of becoming a self-sustaining population.
"Vermilion is getting a reputation as one of the better muskie lakes in the state," said Ely-region DNR Large Lake Specialist Duane Williams. "We've gotten calls from anglers from different parts of the country inquiring about it. I don't fish for them myself, but you can tell from talking to these guys that it is a passion."
After the scattered stockings in the '70s, Williams said the DNR stocked 1,500 fish in the lake in 1984, then followed with 1,000 in 1985. Those fish came from a native population in Shoepack Lake in Voyageurs National Park, a strain that Williams said did not produce fish of an effective size in Vermilion.
"The DNR found out over time that fish from that strain didn't achieve the size of other lakes," Williams said. "So in the 1980s, they shifted to the Leech Lake strain."
Those fish seemed to fit the bill as DNR research confirmed that muskies from different lakes were genetically distinguishable. Research also pointed to the Leech Lake strain as one that grew to a larger size, survived better than other muskies and, because it also had evolved with northern pike, made it better able to compete with its cousin.
"I guess things really kicked off for Lake Vermilion in 1987," said Williams, adding that the DNR increased the quota to 5,000 fish annually. "From 1987 to '94 through assessment netting, we knew we had established a successful population."
Since 1994, the lake has been stocked every other year, still at a 5,000-fish quota.
Williams said that Lake Vermilion's success relies on two major factors: Its size and the availability of preferred muskie forage.
"Muskie prefer forage with soft fins like white suckers and ciscos," Williams said. "And the size of a lake like Vermilion gives them an advantage. Muskies in many smaller lakes just don't attain trophy potential."
And the label "trophy potential" can be affixed to Vermilion. Williams said the last muskie population assessment in 1998 yielded fish with an average length of 42 inches with some as large as 49.
"We know we've got fish in the mid- to high-40 (inch) range," Williams said. "And there are larger fish in there over 50 (inches.)"
Angling for muskies requires sturdier gear, and the popularity of fishing for the species has not gotten lost on local outfitters. Virginia Surplus owner Doug Ellis said muskie fishing on Vermilion is making the lake a top destination in Minnesota.
"The growth of the (muskie) population is making things exciting," Ellis said. "I've seen a three-fold increase in interest for that type of gear and now am donating part of my store to stocking it. The guys with muskie fever make it a passion and everything else takes second."

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