MN GOVERNOR’S FISHING OPENER: Mining Lake Vermilion For Walleyes

BWO---Web-Ad Story and Photos By Bret Amundson

Guide Buck Lescarbeau holds a walleye recently caught by Governor Dayton
Guide Buck Lescarbeau holds a walleye recently caught by Governor Dayton – photo courtesy of Explore Minnesota

“When you catch 9 fish and you come in last, it’s been a good day fishing,” said Governor Mark Dayton after stepping off the Tracker boat that was designated for dignitaries during the 2015 Governor’s Fishing Opener on Lake Vermilion.

Dayton wouldn’t be the only politician on board.  In a show of “hands across the aisle”, Senator Tim Bakk (DFL – Virginia) and Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt (R District 31A) all joined the Governor on the water. “Everyone asked if we were going to solve the State’s budget while we were out there, but the fishing was too good,” Daudt said laughing. “We’ve got a little work to do, but it was fun.”

35 fish would come out of Lake Vermilion’s cool waters between the 3, guided by Best Bet Guide Service’s Buck Lescarbeau who was expectedly feeling the butterflies before the day started. “The pressure is off,” Buck said. “Lake Vermilion came through again, like I knew she would.”

Based on the two previous Governor’s Opener’s that MNSJ has been a part of, getting the fish to bite hasn’t always been easy.  Park Rapids in 2013 still had ice on area lakes and the cold weather in Brainerd slowed the bite last year.  The cold front that moved through northeastern Minnesota this week hung around today, cooling the waters down to a brisk 51 – 55 degrees.  We wondered if the walleyes would cooperate. “He (Dayton) caught the first one within 5 minutes, so the pressure was off.  Then it was back on because we were going for a new record,” Buck explained. “Then he caught one about 5 minutes later, so we had a new record!”

Majority Leader Tim Bakk, Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt, and Governor Mark Dayton enjoy a post-opener celebratory cigar.
Majority Leader Tim Bakk, Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt, and Governor Mark Dayton enjoy a post-opener celebratory cigar.

Ten minutes in, Governor Dayton has two walleyes in the boat and from there it was time for limits, laughs and big cigars. I’d be sharing a boat with Chris Niskanen, Communications Director for the Minnesota DNR and Jamie Dietman from What’s Up Outdoors.  Our guide would be Buck’s brother, Todd Lescarbeau. When we found out we’d be with the brother of the Governor’s guide, our confidence rose.  We hit the water just after 7 am and it wasn’t long before Niskanen snapped a good eater-sized walleye.  Shortly after, my line straightened and another walleye in the mid-teens tugged on the other end.  With a 17″-26″ slot limit, 14″-16″ fish are highly-sought after for the frying pan and they’re not hard to find on Vermilion.

Lake Vermilion State Park Campground groundbreaking
Lake Vermilion State Park Campground groundbreaking – photo courtesy of Explore Minnesota

While the fishing takes the center stage, the Governor’s Fishing Opener shines a spotlight on the local host community.  The city of Tower was on display with a parade, picnic and live music on Friday afternoon, along with two other features for the area:  the Lake Vermilion State Park Campground groundbreaking, and a tour of the historic Soudan iron ore mine. We jumped at the chance to descend a 1/2 mile below the rocky terrain and see how a mineral found in abundance here helped shape the industrial revolution.  The Soudan mine was Minnesota’s first iron ore mine and opened in 1882.  The dense ore was unique and quickly became a hot commodity.  This led to high prices and by the 1960s, cheaper alternatives were arriving.  In 1962, the mine closed, with 27 levels of excavation work.  The 27th level, 2341 feet below the surface has been preserved to offer a glimpse into the past and that’s where the “wow factor” takes place:

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The 27th level of the Soudan mine, preserved as it was when the mine closed 1962.

As remarkable as our contribution to the nation’s steel production was, the fact that the public can drop down a long, dark shaft in a “man cage” supported by a 90-ton cable, ride an underground train and walk among the minerals in their natural state may be just as impressive.  While mines can be hampered by safety issues, the Soudan mine is often called the “Cadillac” of mines because of the relative safety that remains to this day.  30,000 visitors tour the mine each year with 500 per day during the busy season.  Recently they celebrated 50 years of tours and I asked our tour guide, Charlie Weidenhoft how long this mine would be able to support public tours.  (Public tours begin Saturday May 23rd.)

“(The mine) is very well maintained, “Weidenhoft explained. “The guys here are (working on) the hoist system constantly.   Hopefully this park remains forever.  It’s a huge part of our history in this area and of the state and the country as well.  Hopefully we keep these historical places around so younger generations can learn what it was like before and what it took to get to where they are now.”

The tour guides look the part, complete with overalls, hard hats and a wealth of information of how the world worked multiple generations before ours.   Combine their presentation with this facility and you have a living, breathing lesson plan that would be tough to replicate in a classroom. “(Keeping the mine tours going forever) would be a great contribution back to our society,” Weidenhoft continued. “We don’t have a whole lot of hands on knowledge that you can see about our past and this is one of the few places you can actually get in and see exactly how things worked.  Whereas you could read (about it) in a book and it gives you kind of an idea, (while) here you get to experience the whole thing.”

Not every part of the mine is frozen in the past.  A modern, futuristic surprise laid hidden behind a wire-mesh gate that we quickly ducked through, eyes wide and giddy like school girls at the chance to see a science project on a major scale. The Soudan Underground Laboratory, operated by the University of Minnesota is a physics lab resembling a backdrop of the ending scene in a James Bond movie, just before Bond rescues the girl from the evil antagonist and saves the world.  The lab is “designed to explore fundamental questions about the structure of our universe” according to this website here.  Neutrinos and dark matter are explored here, in a deep-underground environment that is needed to conduct sensitive experiments like this.  To learn more about how to visit, click here.

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Inside the Soudan Underground Physics Lab. This mural was created by Joseph Giannetti

Another opener is in the books, and we’re about to head home, with a cooler full of walleye filets and a newfound awareness of a legendary Minnesota success story.  Hear more from our trip on the upcoming Minnesota Sporting Journal Radio show, with guests including Buck Lescarbeau, Todd Lescarbeau, Charlie Weidenhoft and more. See more pictures here:

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