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Lakes are busier than ever in Minnesota, so what does that mean for wildlife?

On Lake Vermilion, the local lake association is asking people to do "catch-and-release" to keep more walleye in the water.
Credit: KARE11

Brian Conner loves this time of year.

The Isanti native has fished on Lake Vermilion in northern Minnesota since he was in elementary school, and he always comes back to the same spot just down the road from Soudan for the spring fishing opener.

“It’s one of the most beautiful lakes I’ve ever been on in Minnesota,” Conner said. “It’s absolutely beautiful – it’s just the scenery, and getting away from the cities, and camping… it’s kind of, going back to roots a little bit. It’s just nice to have a getaway.”

But for the second year in a row, he has company.

Resorts are overflowing with visitors again as people flock to outdoor activities, including McKinley Park Campground, which Susan Chiabotti has managed for more than a decade.

“Last year, 2020, was the best year we ever had. And we were closed in May.” Chiabotti said. “I think people are just enjoying it. They’re coming out, fishing, relaxing, and getting away from the stress of the pandemic and enjoying this beautiful place.”

The Vermilion Lake Association loves to see the interest. Last year, boat inspections were up by 20 percent, according to vice president Dwight Warkentin.

But that does raise a concern about wildlife preservation. The record number of boaters and fishers could, over time, have an adverse impact on the lake, which is why the association has suggested a “catch-and-release” method with recommended limits on how many fish to keep.

For example, although the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources allows people to possess up to four walleye, the Vermilion Lake Association suggests keeping only two. Same goes for crappie, bluegill, perch, northern, and other types of fish – Warkentin said it would be helpful if people only kept half the regular amounts.

“Instead of holding on to a big string of walleyes and packing a cooler full of fish on their way back to the Twin Cities,” Warkentin said, “we ask that you take a conservative amount of fish back to your cabin, to have a nice fish fry but leave some of the fish in the lake for future generations.”

At Lake Vermilion, the recommendations are not actually enforceable, making it different than Mille Lacs where the DNR is mandating catch-and-release. But Warkentin hopes people will follow the suggestions voluntarily.

“We just want to be proactive,” Warkentin said, “because we are concerned that we might experience a decline in our fishery if we are not proactive.”

However, according to Warkentin, the association hasn’t experienced any pushback yet from resorts.

“I think it’s been really good – and really good for the lake,” said Susan Chiabotti over at McKinley Park Campgrounds.

And the people fishing seem receptive, too. Currently, the DNR is doing a "creel survey" through September to help them collect data about fishing pressure. 

“I think it’s definitely something we are going to think about,” Brian Conner said, “just with all the fishing pressure that’s gonna happen.”

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