Trip report 2011 – Lake Vermilion, Minnesota
The dog days of summer offer difficult fishing conditions in the south. Good fishing is still available for those who adapt. But it’s common for temperatures to soar to heights that make any outdoor activity during daylight hours a sweltering chore. So when the chance to travel north and explore new waters arises, late summer is when I prefer to go. This year I was offered a chance to visit friends on Lake Vermilion in Minnesota for some multispecies fishing and gladly accepted the invitation. We chose the last two weeks of August because it permitted us to fish through a new moon phase. Muskies, walleyes, northern pike, and smallmouth bass were on the list of possibilities so I packed a selection of tackle and lures and headed north. After traveling thirteen hundred miles across parts of seven states, with a brief stop in Dayton Ohio to pick up my good friend Bill Hummel and his Crestliner boat, we arrived on the eastern shore of Lake Vermilion at Glenwood Lodge. We transported our gear by boat to another friend’s home on the eastern tip of Pine Island and set up camp. My first impression of the lake was enhanced by the clear dark water, plentiful weeds, islands and other structure and a lone bald eagle that dipped its wings as it glided overhead. I sensed it was going to be an exciting trip.
Lake Vermilion is a much shallower lake than those I fish in the south. The eastern half of this 40,000 acre lake must average about fifteen feet with huge expanses less than ten. Water temperatures were in the mid- to low-70’s when we began our search, an ideal range for the game fish present. To start, we used a topo map to find where water depth was greater than twenty feet and began casting small inline spinners, topwater lures and soft plastics along shoreline structure and adjacent shallow reefs searching for smallmouth bass and pike. We also tossed Double Cowgirls, large topwater lures, and a few other favorites to see if we could raise a muskie. After the first day, we decided the fish must be shallower and moved to explore some of the large weed-filled bays. Late on the second day of fishing, Bill hooked a fifty-inch class muskie on a small #4 Mepp’s spinner in the back of a shallow windblown bay. I clearly saw the monstrous fish turn and streak away after grabbing the lure. The muskie covered thirty feet in the blink of an eye, leaped clear of the water and at the top of the jump, fish and lure parted company. Among my circle of close fishing companions, we call such an encounter a tail-whippin’. Actually, based on the size of the fish, the intensity and duration of the battle, and any damage inflicted, there are a variety of titles we use. But because this is a “G” rated report, I’ll use tail-whippin’ to describe the incident and a mighty fine one it was, though it lacked much on the battle portion with no damage to equipment or angler. After that brief encounter, we muskie fished every evening until well past dark and anytime heavy cloud cover darkened the sky. We managed only one more muskie strike when an impressive boil rose beneath a TopRaider at dusk one evening. After many days of presenting proven lures on prime structures at peak times without as much as a follow, we knew we were missing something. We don’t consider ourselves muskie fishing experts but between us we’ve landed many nice fish; my largest a fifty-incher and Bill’s a fifty-seven-and-a-half-inch giant. We learned later from a local angler there had been a muskie tournament on the lake two weeks before we arrived. According to a report I found on the Internet, fifty-three contestants caught and entered nine muskies during the tournament, the largest a fifty-inch trophy. The report said the winner caught two more muskies so I’m sure many more were caught, or hooked and lost, and more saw dozens of lures presented. There’s one thing I’ve learned about muskies in my limited time fishing for them; even where fishing pressure is low, they are hard to catch. It’s a classic example of the effect fishing pressure can have on a fishery. Excuses? Maybe. But it didn’t matter to Bill and me because we muskie fished under the best conditions through the last minute we were on the lake. No regrets; we gave it our best and enjoyed fishing for them.
When we weren’t hunting muskies, our success rate on other species improved quickly. After we moved into shallow weed-filled bays, we found fish that were eager to strike lures. We caught some nice smallmouth bass, though we didn’t change lures or methods of presentation to target them. Most bass we caught weighed between three and four pounds and came along transitions where shallow weed growth met deeper open water; points at the mouths of bays and along the edges of the first large weed bed going in are two examples. But the best and most exciting fishing we found was inside larger weed-filled bays where we discovered Lake Vermilion is full of feisty northern pike. We began catching pike on small inline spinners and Zara Spooks but it quickly became obvious that spinners and hard baits with treble hooks wouldn’t allow us to present lures where many fish were holding. Most of our strikes came along weed edges or in areas with submerged weed growth. Bill searched through his on-board tackle and found two old versions of a Mepp’s spinner called a Combo Killer with size #4 silver blades, Mister Twister Keeper Hooks and white four-inch curly-tailed grubs rigged weedless on the hooks. Soon we were both casting one and found them good tools for probing through the dense weed growth. The silver flash of the #4 blade and the enticing swimming action of the curly-tailed grub proved irresistible to pike. And the combination was so weedless we could cast and retrieve it through many types of weeds with few hang-ups. Our number of strikes and fish caught increased quickly after we found a way to present lures in places pike were holding. I continued to throw Zara Spooks where conditions permitted and caught several nice fish on them. But I soon retired them because the weedless spinners were much better tools for covering water and could be presented almost anywhere. Before the day was over, the pike had destroyed the few four-inch grubs we had with us so we changed to smaller hooks and began using three-inch grubs. Three-inch grubs caught many fish but the four-inch sizes were more durable, weedless and matched well with larger, heavier hooks. A thorough search through stacks of tackle back in camp netted a pack each of four-inch grubs in white and chartreuse and a single orange grub. So the next morning we headed for Ely to pick up a few more spinners and a supply of curly-tails. We bought several #4 Mepp’s spinners with silver blades though all we found had plain or dressed treble hooks. However, we had a pair of cutters, splint rings and hooks so we could quickly modify them. But I chose the wrong trip to leave my grub box at home. I didn’t think I would need them and couldn’t take all my tackle without renting a U-Haul. Lesson learned again; never go on a multi-species fishing trip to a new fishing destination without a good supply of curly-tailed grubs. We found only one pack of four-inch grubs in all of Ely; YUM F2 walleye grubs in black with a silver-glitter tail. I had several soft-plastic marking pens and knew I could change the tail to a range of colors, so I bought them. We caught many pike using white grubs but found chartreuse and orange also worked well. With an orange marking pen, we could transform white grubs quickly. Depending on time of day, cloud cover and water clarity, one color worked better than others. So each day we experimented with grub colors to find the best choice under changing conditions. And with a limited supply of grubs, we used each until it was torn in half.
After we were well stocked with modified spinners, good pike fishing became routine. As we worked to fine tune our presentations, we learned more and larger pike were most plentiful along the edges of specific types of weeds. Larger stands of bulrushes and submerged broad-leaf cabbage held the most fish though there were many types of aquatic weeds present. With the modified spinners, we could cast thirty feet or more into a patch of bulrushes, drop the rod tip and easily reel the spinner through pockets and sparse stands of weeds. The spinner would often strike and climb a bulrush stalk, rise out of the water, then drop and resume spinning forward. The added splash and movement seemed to attract pike. A fast retrieve in open areas caused the lure to bulge the surface and each time the lure would strike a weed stalk, it would dart to the side, blade still spinning. The pike couldn’t stand it and would rush to smash our lures. Many times the water would suddenly explode, or we’d see a pike streak through the weeds at the lure, an exciting visual style of fishing much like topwater fishing. We also caught pike slow rolling spinners after they broke through the weeds into open, deeper water but the most productive presentation was casting into bulrushes and guiding the spinner through the weeds stalks. Where boat position permitted, casting parallel to the weed edge was also effective. In bays with large beds of submerged broad-leaf cabbage, slow rolling spinners along edges, through openings in the weeds, or fast retrieves above dense patches were also productive and produced many nice pike. The leading edge of a huge broad-leaf cabbage bed at the entrance to a big bay produced our largest pike of the trip, a thirty-eight-inch dandy with a head like a small alligator.
After we found the best choice in lures and where pike were holding, we began eliminating water. Each day we expanded our search for new bays with the right mixture of weed types with water deep enough to fish them. I believe we could have fished a new weed-filled bay every day, Vermilion is full of them, but we often revisited those we confirmed held many pike. By the end of the first week, we started each day with three questions; how many pike will we catch today, what will be the largest pike we catch, and how many times will we get our tails whipped, which was frequently most days. With medium-heavy baitcasting tackle and forty-pound test braided line, it was impossible to drag every pike out of the weeds into open water. Pike are ambush predators with incredible speed and power when they strike so it was common for the fish to be several feet further into weed growth before the rod bowed from the hook set. The speed and savagery of a pike strike in shallow water has always impressed me. Losing four- and five-pound pike was a common occurrence so it kept our focus and intensity level high. There was no time to gloat over the nice fish you just caught because in the next few minutes a neighboring fish might make you look like a rank amateur.
When I visit a new fishing destination, I always learn something new about fishing. As I learn more about tackle, lures, methods of presentation, or fish location preferences, I consider how I can apply that knowledge to other fishing situations. On this trip I had the opportunity to test a lure new to me by combining an inline spinner with a curly-tailed grub, two of the most effective multi-species lures ever made. These lures are available preassembled and ready to fish in Mepp’s Black Fury Combo Killers and Terminator Weedless In-Line Spinners. Modifying other inline spinners or buying components and building customized versions opens another wealth of possibilities. This combination could be fished at any depth at various speeds in an endless array of sizes, colors and blade styles depending on the components used. With their slender profile and single hook buried in plastic, they are much more weedless than safety-pin shaped spinnerbaits. Considering they fish so well in heavy cover and can be dressed with a variety of soft plastics, the potential for new applications is wide open. Fishing for summer smallmouth bass in weed-filled rivers or brown trout in streams at night, among others, comes to mind. As time permits I’ll test some of these applications and when I discover something new, I will share it with you here.
Each day through the remainder of my late-summer visit to Lake Vermilion was filled with excitement and fascination. The star-filled skies under the new moon were amazing, especially so one night when we were blessed with a brief showing of the northern lights. The trip was further complimented by the company of a close friend, mild weather, and the beautiful wilderness setting. Eagles, loons and other wildlife were ever present companions and this late in the season, black flies were nothing more than a minor nuisance. The taste of fresh pike fillets was an added bonus I rarely have the chance to enjoy. And I finally learned how to remove the “Y” bones when filleting pike, validated by the fact there wasn’t a single bone in the package of fillets I carried home. We released most pike we caught but kept enough smaller fish for supper one night in camp and a wonderful meal with my wife back in Tennessee. I know I missed some good fishing because we didn’t focus on the walleye and smallmouth bass this lake holds. So many fish, so little time. But good fishing for walleyes and smallmouth bass is plentiful in Tennessee where fishing opportunities for muskies and pike are limited. Perhaps I’ll come back and enjoy them on Lake Vermilion another time.