While fishing the Vermillion on a summer evening several seasons ago, I cast my streamer into a likely run above one of my favorite holes.  The riffle wasn’t more than two feet deep, but there was an over-hanging tree and it was the perfect spot for a fish to come up out of the hole to feed.  My second cast through the hole, my fly stopped dead, and I lifted up expecting to be snagged up on the bottom.  Instead, I felt heavy headshakes and the fish bolted downstream into the pool.  I followed after it and was able to get it turned around before it could take off down the next riffle. 

I was able to coax it into shallow water and popped the fly out as I admired the fish.  It was a broad shouldered, hook-jaw male of maybe 22-23 inches, one of the larger trout I’ve caught on a fly rod in Minnesota.  Not every hookup on the Vermillion yields a trophy trout like this, but the potential for heart-pounding fights with these fish keeps me coming back to this river.

Many Midwest fly anglers travel across the country to places like Montana or Arkansas in search of monster brown trout.   Some even travel across the world to countries like New Zealand or Chile, hoping to catch and land a trophy brown over 30 inches.   Rivers that consistently hold fish this large are rare, so when an angler discovers such a jewel in his own back yard, you can imagine the excitement.  The Vermillion River, located in Minnesota just south of the town of Farmington, is just such a river.

The Vermillion has a self-sustaining population of wild, trophy-sized brown trout and rivals any free-flowing river in the country for consistently producing trophy trout.  It was originally a brook trout stream, but pollution and warming of the river eliminated the population.  Brown trout were first introduced to the river in the early 1990’s, after the water quality and oxygen levels had been improved to suitable levels.  The trout have since thrived, with the average size fish being right around 17-18 inches. 

 A seasoned angler has a good chance almost every time on the water to hook into a fish over 20 inches. Brown trout in the 25-26 inch range are fairly common and fish over 28 inches are caught every year.  As part of a put and take fishery, the river is also stocked with rainbow trout in the city of Farmington.  Occasionally a holdover rainbow in the 16-18 inch range is caught downriver.

The Vermillion definitely has its secrets and only time spent on the water will give up the locations of its larger fish.  The river has sporadic hatches in the summer, but the fish will rarely come to the surface to feed.  Minnows, creek chubs, suckers, and smaller trout make up the vast majority of these fish’s diets, which should give you a good idea how these trout get so large.  It should also give you an idea of the type of flies to throw at these fish.  The dry flies and nymphs that Midwest anglers are used to fishing won’t entice these larger trout to bite. 

In order to catch one of these monsters, this river should be almost exclusively be fished with streamers.   Favorite patterns include wooly buggers, conehead leeches, rabbit zonkers, and various sculpin patterns in black, olive, or brown colors, as well as a couple of local patterns.  The streamers should be worked close to streamside cover and in the fast flowing water at the heads of deeper pools.  Early in the morning or in the evening during low light periods are the best times to target these fish.  Night time fishing has also proved to be successful.

You’ll need a heavy rod to be able to turn these fish away from heavily cover and stop their scorching runs.  I prefer a 7 wt. rod and a large arbor reel, which will enable you to stay on top of the fish when they do run.  Floating lines with heavily weighted flies work well and sink tip lines have also produced their share of fish. 

In recent years, the continued existence of brown trout in the Vermillion River has been threatened.  The river’s close proximity to the Twin Cities has led to the continued urbanization of the surrounding area.  Water quality and habitat are two major issues that will have a huge affect on this river in the upcoming years. 

While many steps have been taken to improve the water quality, increasing water temperatures continue to threaten the trout.  With the continued urbanization, warm water run-off has become a new major threat to the river.  After rain storms, water runs from asphalt covered roads into tributaries and eventually into the river.  Row farming has reduced the amount of water and runoff that can be soaked into the ground before returning to the river through underground aquifers.  The widening of the river in open areas and lack of overhead tree cover has led to the warming of the river.  Fecal chloroform from past poor water practices remains an issue and can also still be found throughout the watershed. 

The streamside land has been degraded by past land practices, which have included the straightening of the river channel, cattle trampling the banks and grazing on surrounding vegetation, and invasive plant species taking over where native species once were.  The poor vegetation surrounding the river and unstable river banks have lead to significant erosion of silt and sand into the river.  The erosion in turn reduces the ability of the river to produce insect life that the younger trout and baitfish feed on.  It also can cover trout eggs preventing them from ever hatching.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and also the Trout Unlimited Twin Cities chapter have taken major steps towards saving this river.  Over the past couple of years, stream improvement and bank stabilization projects have been successfully completed.  Plans are currently underway to restore over 4,000 feet of river in 2009 and possibly up to 1.5 miles of another section of river in 2010.  The recent passage of an amendment for funding habitat and water quality improvements in Minnesota should enable these groups to get the funding necessary to improve the entire watershed and save the trout.

In the past, public fishing areas on the Vermillion have been limited.  The Minnesota DNR recently purchased two land parcels on the Vermillion, giving angers access to two of the prime sections of river.   The trophy section of this river starts below Highway 3 in Farmington and extends south of Hwy 52 down to the town of Vermillion.   Check with the Minnesota DNR for updated maps and public access areas to these areas.