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A hidden gem for outdoor enthusiasts

Rivers and recreation go hand in hand, no matter where you are. The Vermillion River is no different. All along its length, people have been getting away and having fun on the Vermillion in all sorts of ways for years.

In this series, we take a look at the span of the Vermillion River from Farmington to Hastings. This week, it’s all about having fun. And in many ways, the Vermillion River offers some of the best recreation to be found anywhere around the Twin Cities.

Fishing

In Farmington, recreation on the Vermillion is all about the fish.

The Farmington portion of the Vermillion provides a spot close to home for those in the east metro area to fish for brown and rainbow trout along the stream. The DNR has documented the river as a trophy trout stream.

On April 13 this year, the Minnesota DNR stocked the Vermillion River with about 3,000 rainbow trout near Rambling River Park in Farmington, according to T.J. DeBates, area supervisor of the East Metro Area Fisheries. This year, they also stocked trout at three other locations between Farmington and the east side of Highway 52 along the DNR’s Aquatic Management Areas (AMA’s), DeBates said.

Also new this year, the DNR now allows fishers to keep any rainbow trout caught anywhere along the Vermillion. Previously, rainbow trout were only allowed to be kept if they were caught within Farmington.

“Rainbow trout are pretty migratory,” DeBates said. “Three weeks later, they could be halfways down to Hastings, so we thought, ‘why don’t we just change it?’”

In past seasons, DeBates and his team have only stocked about 1,000 rainbow trout before the season opener, but with the change that allows fishers to keep any rainbow trout they catch, the DNR increased that number, DeBates said.

Brown trout remain only catch and release, meaning that fishers cannot keep the brown trout they catch.

Since the fishing opener on April 16, DeBates, a trout fisherman himself, said he has noticed an increase in fishers due to the rainbow trout policy change.

“It was really a successful opener and I think people are really utilizing us stocking a lot of those AMA’s,” DeBates said.

DeBates and his family took advantage of the beautiful weather on opening day and made it a family occasion.

“Our 2-year-old son caught a nice little 10-inch rainbow trout and we had a blast,” DeBates said.

The trout range from 11-13 inches and weigh about a half a pound, DeBates said.

The rainbow trout can be particularly fun for the kids to catch because they often become “aerial” when being caught, according to DeBates.

In addition to fishing, hunting and birdwatching are other alternatives that give residents further downstream options to get out and enjoy the summer air.

Either way, with a weekend activity so close to the metro, it shouldn’t be too much of a sacrifice for east metro families to give up that long car ride to another fish stream when they have the Vermillion just a short trip away.

“We want to see parents getting kids out fishing and making it a family event,” DeBates said. “It’s nice that folks have an opportunity so close to such a natural environment to fish on.”

The trout fishing season runs through mid-September with an additional catch-and-release period during the first two weeks of October.

Trout fishing tends to be most popular west of Highway 52, said Kevin Smith, president of the Hastings Environmental Protectors (HEP).

“By the time you get to Hastings, the water is warmed up so the trout don’t do so well,” Smith said.

However, it’s not unheard of to see trout farther downstream. Smith said that some fishers have caught the occasional trout below the falls in Hastings.

Fishing below the falls is better for crappie. In fact, the Vermillion River Bottoms is where the state’s largest black crappie was caught. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, that particular fish weighed 5 pounds and was 21 inches long. It was caught in 1940.

“It’s still the biggest black crappie that was ever caught in Minnesota,” Smith said.

Josh Fischer paddles through a wave in the Vermillion River.Whitewater kayaking

The Vermillion River just below the falls in Hastings is a hidden gem for whitewater enthusiasts. The half-mile stretch of river between the falls and the Old Mill Ruins contains a number of pits, bowls, waves and other river features that make it ideal for whitewater kayaking.

“It’s a destination location,” said Josh Fischer, a Minneapolis kayaker.

Fischer has been kayaking the “Verm” for more than 20 years, and paddles the river here on a regular basis. He’s not the only one, either. Fischer is part of a group called Rapids Riders. The group has about 900 members, he said, and the Vermillion River is a prime spot for Twin Cities whitewater. The next closest whitewater river is the Kettle River in Banning State Park. The Vermillion is the best location within an hour of the Twin Cities, said Kevin Lorang, another Minneapolis kayaker who frequents the Vermillion.

Kayakers usually carry their boats down a trail to the base of the falls to put in and take their boats out of the water at the Old Mill Ruins.

The river itself features enough to keep all skill levels busy. Fischer said the river can handle people using boogie boards and stand-up paddleboards as well as whitewater kayaks.

The features make for good “playboating,” Lorang said, and kayakers sometimes line up by their feature of choice for their turn to practice their tricks.

“Everything you would do on a wave on the west coast (or) east coast can be done here on the Vermillion River,” Fischer said.

It’s a river that can handle all whitewater skill levels, also. It all depends on the water flow.

“This is a great river to have fun and to learn on,” Lorang said.

At the same time, the river is best left to the experts after heavy rain events or storms, he said.

Both Lorang and Fischer said that the Vermillion is a natural river that has the potential to host major events, such as a whitewater “rodeo.” The one thing holding it back, they said, is simply access. It would be difficult to accommodate an audience or even judges the way the landscape around the river is currently.

Whitewater kayaking is typically available in Hastings from March to November. It’s one of the first rivers in the area to open up in the spring, Fisher said, and this year he was able to paddle it every month of the year due to the warmer weather.

Canoeing

While whitewater lovers end their trip at Old Mill Park, that’s exactly where the smooth water starts, which is ideal for canoes. It’s called the Vermillion River Bottoms.

“There is opportunities to go canoeing in the lower Vermillion,” Smith said.

After the rapids, the river smooths out and runs roughly parallel to the Mississippi River almost all the way to Red Wing.

The National Park Service describes it this way on its website:

“Truly one of the most beautiful and untouched areas of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, the Vermillion River Bottoms is a spectacular example of floodplain forest as it must once have been from Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, canoeing or kayaking the bottoms, it is easy to be reminded of the bayous at the southern end of the river. There is an absence of houses and roads and an abundance of birds and other wildlife.

“Occasionally, the boater will pass through a landscape of trees whose roots are submerged for as far as the eye can see. Other times the landscape is characterized by grasses, shrubs and trees thriving just inches above water level. This habitat supports a variety of wildlife, including many hard-to-find birds, fish and mussels.”

While boaters could carry their canoes or kayaks to the river at Old Mill Park in Hastings, the more popular launch spot is farther downstream, at a place known as DuShane’s Landing, off Ravenna Trail just north of its intersection with Blackbird Trail.

Canoeing is possible between Farmington and Hastings, but made difficult by its proximity to private property. Canoers have been known to encounter fences extending into the water, debris that makes some areas impassable and erosion issues that create shallow spots.

Kevin Smith takes a closer look at some birds at the 180th Street Marsh in 2012.Birding

For those who don’t want to get their feet wet, the Vermillion River provides a corridor ideal for bird watching.

“The Vermillion River is definitely a migrant corridor along with the Mississippi River for birds that are migrating,” said Smith, an avid birder.

This time of year, birds are starting to migrate south. Recently, Smith said he saw migrating warblers near Lock and Dam 3 in the Vermillion River Bottoms. August is typically when birders see shore birds migrating through the area, and although they don’t use the Vermillion River ravine so much, they do stop at a number of flooded farm fields in the Vermillion River Watershed, Smith explained.

Farther upstream, closer to Farmington, there are sod growers that see plenty of bird variety during migration, “because that replicates some of the historic migration areas where birds feed,” Smith said.

During migration peaks, Smith said that birders stop regularly at known hotspots and post what they see to the Minnesota Birding Facebook page, the Minnesota Ornithologists Union’s listserv and eBird.com

Overall, September is the peak month for birding, while the spring peak usually happens in May.

Other activities

Beyond kayaking, canoeing, fishing and birding, the river and its falls serve as a recreational hub for sightseers, photographers, swimmers, walkers, runners and bicyclists as well.

With such a pretty face, the Vermillion Falls has been the star of many photos from people all around the state, making it a hot spot for photography.

For David Youngren, the project coordinator at the LeDuc Historic Estate and Hastings photographer, capturing the falls is nothing new, and for him, every photo of the falls is a story.

“As I go ahead and walk these trails today … I can hear the young kids that were hollering to each other, I can hear the laughter, I can hear the fun,” Youngren said, “so each photo that I take down there for me has a story and it might be the story that happened to me today, or it might be something that happened to me way back then.”

The most striking scene is set by the falls, hidden in Hastings right next to Highway 61.

“The waterfalls is always a hit for me,” Youngren said. “Whether it is late at night or in the morning, the sun hits it differently all year long.”

And in the winter, the falls creates an entirely different scenic background.

“It is literally a frost hole, and some days you’ll go down there and you feel like you’re in another city, like you’re in a movie,” Youngren said. “... Everything is all frosted over and it’s gorgeous.”

Just downstream of the falls, the Old Mill Ruins in Hastings create another scenic view. The mill burned in 1894, but the stone skeleton still stands tall.”

“This towering giant stands down there and I think if it was up on the hill, the wind would have knocked it over by now,” Youngren said, “but it just sits there with no breeze, no nothing and the water runs by it.”

The paved trails throughout the area make for easy walking, running or bicycling around the river. The Dakota County Historical Society with the LeDuc Historic Estate developed a formal Vermillion River Walking Tour, complete with a booklet outlining some of the features and history of the river between the falls and the LeDuc Historic Estate in Hastings.

Farmington also has a number of paved city trails providing pedestrian access to the river there.

This is the second part in a series about the Vermillion River in Farmington and Hastings. This story was written collaboratively between the Hastings Star Gazette and Farmington Independent. Authors of this article are Katrina Styx, Tyler Springer and Noura Elmanssy.

Next week, we’ll take a look at some of the environmental factors affecting the river and what’s being done to preserve it.

The first part of this series, published Aug. 25, stated that the Vermillion river begins in the Farmington area. To clarify, the river begins roughly 10 miles southwest of Farmington, near Elko New Market, in the eastern portion of Scott County.

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