A 50-Year Record of Progress at Lake Vermilion

The history of the Vermilion Lake Association began in 1968.

Our Founders’ Vision and Energy

Edited from “Legends of Lake Vermilion: In the Beginning,” an article by Tom Morrow in the August 2005 issue of The Vermilion Sportsman

They had no idea that it would end up like this: nearly 2,000 members; a respected voice for the interests of people who live, work and play on Lake Vermilion; an outfit with a fancy newsletter with pictures!

Back in 1968, the fishing on Lake Vermilion was lousy. In those days before 4-lane expressways and spectacular lake “cabins,” almost every boat on Lake Vermilion carried two guys and their fishing tackle. Those fishermen were probably staying in one of the 30 or so resorts on Vermilion, and if the fishing didn’t improve, life would be pretty tough.

In January 1968, the columns of the Cook News-Herald began to carry stories about a bunch of resorters who had decided to do something. It started with Jay Mault, who owned Vermilion Dam Lodge. He called on his fellow resorters Bob Mann (Mann’s Resort, now Voyageur Cove) and Theodore Anderson (Anderson’s Resort, now Head of Lake) and others; Val Cook of Cold Springs, Inc.; Elton Olson of the Tower Chamber of Commerce; Bill Ellison of Minnesota Power; John Aronson of Aronson Boat Works; and Abel Anderson to solve the problem. They set up shop as the “Sportsmen’s Club of Lake Vermilion” and got to work. They called for others around the lake to join the club, at annual dues of $3. The dues were kept low because they understood that, as Jay said, “We don’t need money, we need a voice.” According to the Cook News-Herald, the first memberships received were from Ed Wallace of Elgin, Illinois, and the Marshall Batchelder family. By the time the club held its first annual meeting in August, membership had grown to 1700 and the The Vermilion Sportsman newsletter had been launched.

One of the group’s first concerns was to build up the walleye population. The fish hatchery in Pike Bay had been closed in 1946, at least in part because some believed that the Department of Fisheries was taking fish out of Vermilion. For more than 20 years, no eggs were harvested or walleyes stocked in Lake Vermilion. By 1968, fishermen and their resort hosts were feeling the effects. Val Cook recalled recently that the group first asked local Fisheries officials to stock the lake. When they didn’t get any action, they decided to just do the work themselves. Cook had been in the bait business since 1955, and supplied all of the resorts with minnows. He knew what it took to get from eggs to adult fish, and he had the equipment to do it. In talking about those days, Cook displayed the attitude that typified the men who founded the SCLV: “The resort guys weren’t just my customers, they were my friends. As long as I was their bait man, I wanted to help out.”

suckertrapping_e2At first, local Fisheries officials fought the club’s plan to do their own stocking, even to the point of threatening to throw them in jail if they went through with the plan to stock the lake with walleyes hatched in Cook’s tanks. In February 1968, a group led by Mault met with Conservation Commissioner Jarle Leirfallom, equivalent to the current DNR Commissioner. Leirfallom agreed to issue permits so that the group could trap suckers and other rough fish that were believed to cut into walleye populations, and he assigned a team of biologists to figure out why the fishing was so poor.

Stories from that spring’s sucker trapping ranged from back-breaking labor to high comedy. Fifteen rivers and creeks were selected for trapping. Most of the traps were made by the Orr High School shop class. The board members and other volunteers put in hours of work setting nets, pulling them out and disposing of the suckers. You’re not likely to find white suckers on the menu of your favorite restaurant anytime soon, but they’re not bad smoked or pickled. So most of the catch ended up on local tables. Val Cook remembered a woman from Tower who pulled up to a group of men dumping suckers into buckets and said she’d take three bucketfuls. They asked if she had plastic bags or buckets to carry them, and she said, “No, just throw them in the trunk.” She popped the trunk of her Chrysler Imperial (for pre-baby boomers, today’s equivalent might be a Lexus), and the men dutifully dumped three buckets of suckers inside. Sucker slime makes northerns look positively clean, so one can only imagine what her trunk smelled like later that summer. That story reminded Bob Mann of a group of young people from Virginia who came by in a Corvair. They loaded their trunk with so many suckers that they broke the axle on a frost heave not far down the road. Anyway, the project succeeded in getting the sucker population under control.

The persistent efforts of the SCLV board and the support of a few legislators helped convince the Department of Fisheries to reopen the hatchery, which it did in 1972. Our founders had their hands full with their businesses and families. The easy course would have been to disband once the suckers were vanquished and the hatchery fight was won. Instead, they decided to continue working to improve the lake and its fishing.

Over the years, those eight men and the board members who followed them have led the club in dozens of projects to benefit the lake. The club has become the “voice” Jay Mault intended. Those eight men helped transform Lake Vermilion into a lake that could proudly host the Governor’s fishing opener almost 40 years later. Everyone who uses Lake Vermilion will be forever in their debt.

Help, Please!  A Search for Old Newsletters

If you’re a long-term member who’s been a bit of a pack-rat over the years, the Sportsmen’s Club is looking for you.

Actually, we’re looking for your cache of old club newsletters, The Vermilion Sportsman. Please contact Board Member/Communications Leader Lori Ptak at lori@ptak.org if you have some to donate.