How Lake Vermilion Became a Fishing Haven

Ludlow's Island Resort

May 4, 2023
May 4, 2023
min read

Once a thriving area for trade, lumber mills, and mining, Lake Vermilion has since transformed into a beloved vacation spot with dozens of resorts lining the shore. However, in the 1960s, the future of Lake Vermilion was up in the air, with uncertainty if it would continue to be a thriving place for vacationers and for those who called it home.

From Lumber Mills and Iron Ore to Relaxing on the Shore

Lake life around Lake Vermilion flourished since the discovery of iron ore initiated the mining industry boom. However, the industry had shifted around the lake, moving away from lumber and mining to tourism and recreation as the famous Soudan Mine officially closed its doors in 1962.

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The U.S. Steel Corporation donated the mine and surrounding lands to the State of Minnesota, transforming the area into a beautiful state park for guests to explore and enjoy. The mine also became a rich research spot for scientists who carried out the first physics experiment in the 1980s, observing proton decay, followed by additional research with a second experiment called Cryogenic Dark Matter Search. 

With the new Soudan Underground Mine State Park and dozens of resorts popping up along the shores, families, avid outdoor enthusiasts, and fishermen flocked to Lake Vermilion for summer vacations and recreation. 

But, back in the 1960s, the fishing on Lake Vermilion was absolutely terrible. Hard to imagine now as the lake is teeming with walleye, crappies, northern pike, muskie, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, and panfish like sunfish, perch, and bluegills.

So while the lake may look similar today with fishing boats dotting the water, cruising for the best fishing spot, in the 60s, avid fishermen weren’t reeling in much of anything.

Fishing Fails

Resorters around Lake Vermilion decided they needed to do something about the fish situation. Because without great fishing, their resorts would suffer.

In 1968, Jay Mault, owner of Vermilion Dam Lodge, recruited fellow resort owners Bob Mann who owned Mann’s Resort, now Voyageur Cove, Theodore Anderson, owner of Anderson’s Resort, now Head of Lake, and more, including Elton Olson from the Tower Chamber of Commerce, Bill Ellison of Minnesota Power, and John Aronson of Aronson Boat Works. 

Jay gathered others to create the “Sportsmen’s Club of Lake Vermilion,” and by their first meeting, they had grown to 1,700 members. The club’s first task? Build up the walleye population. 

Robbing of the Walleye

Lake Vermilion hadn’t been stocked with walleye or had walleye eggs harvested for more than 20 years. The State of Minnesota had been harvesting walleye spawn from the Pike River, cutting off the source for locals. For locals, the practice, to say the least, was controversial. 

A snippet from The Tower Weekly News reveals the animosity surrounding the practice: 

“Friday, April 2, 1915 — The nets, tents, and camp outfit for the state Fish & Game Commission has arrived as for thirty-odd years and are about to set up on the same old site of yore. Pike River is again to give up its quota of pike spawn once more and forever, it seems. The State Fish & Game Commission is a power and a law unto itself and not to be swerved by Divine Intervention, it would seem. The equipment will go up the ice and be made ready in time for the annual robbery of the lake.”

Years later, in 1946, the fish hatchery on the Pike River closed. Years later, the newly formed “Sportsmen’s Club of Lake Vermilion” took matters into their own hands and started their own walleye hatchery. However, this was met with pushback from local fisheries, threatening to throw the group in jail if they stocked the lake themselves. 

A compromise was made, and the DNR instead issued permits so the club could trap suckers, which were thought to be suppressing the walleye population. The season of the sucker began. You likely couldn’t find a table not serving suckers that year.

Men and women flooded the area asking for trunk loads of suckers, with a story of one group loading their trunk with so many suckers they broke an axle. 

After much lobbying, the Department of Fisheries reopened the hatchery in 1972, helping the lake and tourism thrive. 

So the next time you head out on the water to catch some walleye, you’ll know the hard-won battle it took to make Lake Vermilion the incredible fishing haven and vacation spot it is today.