On the Top of Every Bucket List
Devils Lake, North Dakota
On the Top of Every Bucket List
by Steve “Zippy” Dahl
If you are either considering a trip to Devils Lake, North Dakota this winter or have already made the journey and you are wondering where to start and what to do to make your trip a success, this article is for you.
For many, the opportunity to ice fish on Devils Lake, ND, is a bucket list adventure. Over the past two decades, this fishery has been featured on numerous outdoor television shows, articles in fishing magazines and in outdoor sections of nearly every major newspaper in the Midwest. Anyone who is an avid fisherman, has either heard about the fishing on Devils Lake or knows someone who has been here and experienced it. A lot of anglers enjoyed success and come back every winter.
There are a number of different options that you need to consider when planning a trip to ice fish Devils Lake. What species do you want to catch? If you are like most, the jumbo perch are most likely the highest on your list followed by walleye, and then the northern pike. The beauty of this fishery is that it has all three of those species and at times throughout the winter, each one of those species will shine a little brighter.
There are numerous guide services that operate on Devils Lake. Over the past decade, the number of fishing guides that claim to make their living on this fishery has probably quadrupled. Some of them are what I would consider probably the best in the industry and to have 4 or 5 them on Devils Lake speaks volumes about the fishery that has attracted such talented guides.
Hiring the right guide is all about saving time and maximizing your opportunity during the short 2, 3, or 4 days that you are going to be fishing Devils Lake. The right guide service should relieve you of the stressful decisions about where you should be fishing and how to get there. They will have the proper vehicles and equipment to get you places no matter what the conditions. They will know about the danger areas on the ice such as cracks and pressure ridges, thin ice spots that were kept open earlier in the year by snow geese, and current areas that are always dangerous.
They will know where fish are biting and best of all, they will scout for new locations while you are fishing. It is these fresh finds that will make the difference in you having a good trip or an outstanding trip that you will never forget.
Most of the guide services practice mobility. They will start the day by taking you to a part of the lake that they feel most confident in. They will be willing to make moves to other parts of the lake when plan “A” doesn’t work. They will also be willing to fish multiple species and will recommend to you other options when the one you are targeting has lock jaw.
Hiring the right guide service is definitely a must if you have never been to Devils Lake before. At least hire one for your first day of your trip if not all of the days. The most successful trips that anglers have experienced more than likely had a guide service helping them.
Before run and gun guide services came along this was what most resorts in the Midwest offered and are still the most common method industry wide. Many anglers talk about the memories of the bombardier ride across the ice to their heated fish house where they would fish for the day. You won’t see a lot of this on Devils Lake but there are a few resorts and guide services that offer this option.
Woodland Resort has the largest fleet of rental houses on Devils Lake and they have a full-time ice crew that services them. There is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes that often goes unnoticed. Plowing trails to these houses and keeping the trails open, moving these permanent style fish houses to different locations, drilling holes, removing the slush, banking the house, keeping propane tanks filled to name a few. They try their best to keep these houses on good fishing but they are often limited to fishing areas in the vicinity of the resort and heavy snow pack will limit how often these houses can be moved.
A common misconception made by anglers is they confuse this with a fully guided trip offered by a guide service. The two types of service are drastically different and are priced accordingly. Think back to your college days when you rented an apartment or a house to live in. You paid the rent once a month and maybe the heat was included but they certainly didn’t clean your house, do the dishes, and take out the trash.
The same can be applied here. The anglers that rent a fish house that have enjoyed the most success will use the rented fish house as a “base camp” to take a break from fishing mid-day when the bite is typically slower and then go back to using their portables and being mobile during the prime fishing hours in the morning or right before dark.
You are in total control of your destiny. You alone will determine how successful your time on the ice will be. I will offer my best advice to you and recommend some things you definitely will want to consider.
One of the first pieces of advice I will give you is to pay a visit to a local bait shop in the city of Devils Lake or at a resort on Devils Lake. Buy yourself a good lake map, one that has the details of contour lines, flooded roads, points, reefs, sunken islands, etc.
Ask the sales clerk for some information on how the bite has been, what lures are working, what has been the best colors, etc. Ask if there is any dangerous ice to be aware of and what areas of the lake to avoid. Ask about cracks and pressure ridges, slush pockets, ice thickness, and lake access on different parts of the lake.
Use your newly purchased lake map and have them show you and mark on your new map where some of these areas are located. Try to avoid asking them where the fish are. More than likely, the person working behind the counter is behind that counter every day and doesn’t get out fishing a whole lot to know where fish are biting.
Spend some time looking around the lake.
Naturally, you are going to spot people fishing and you are probably going to see areas where the crowd has gathered. You will want to go try these areas and fish the crowds, but as best as you can, resist that temptation and go where the crowd has NOT yet been.
On Devils Lake, you will find that the fish you locate on your own will be the fish that will bite the best. Keep in mind that those areas where crowds of fishermen have gathered is where the fishing WAS very good, but most likely a day or two ago.
Every vehicle that is sitting in that crowd made noise when they drove to that spot. Every hole that was drilled made noise on that location. Noise spooks fish and makes them scatter. If you are going to fish the crowd, start on the edges and work your way away from the crowd. Those fish went somewhere. The only way to find them again is to drill holes and fish each one. But don’t drill 30 holes and then start fishing. You will scare them away faster than you will find them.
This advice will be true for all of our species on Devils Lake. Above all, show courtesy to other anglers. Resist the temptation of drilling on top of other anglers and keep your distance. Respect goes a long way in ice fishing and other anglers will appreciate you and be a lot friendlier towards you if you do not make them feel threatened by drilling holes within 50 feet of where they are fishing.
Keep in mind, you may need help from one of these anglers when you get stuck.
When you are fishing on your own here are some general tidbits that will help you be successful for each species of fish in Devils Lake.
The prime time for fishing walleyes is usually during low light conditions such as right away in the morning or right before dark. Target walleyes on structure such as points, sunken islands, reefs, flooded road beds, etc. Shallow shorelines in 4 to 10 feet of water can also be productive if the walleyes are not relating to structure. If the day is going to bring bright sun the walleye bite will be very short 45 minutes to an hour. If the day is going to be overcast, foggy, or snowing, the walleye bite will last longer and sometimes can last all day long. Rattle spoons, jigging raps tipped with minnow heads are usually some of the better choices for lures to use.
The jumbo perch is what has made Devils Lake famous all these years and are our most sought-after species during the winter months. The over-abundance of fresh water shrimp in this fishery gives these perch the protein they need to achieve their high growth rates and their butter ball physique. But that does not make them easy to catch.
Because of all the food that is available, these perch rarely ever have to chase anything down to eat. Thus, they can become very lethargic and often become very light biters.
You will mark way more on your Vexilar than you will catch and you will have to figure out what they want and how they want it presented to them. Once you figure some things out and start catching a few, the others will follow suit.
The larger schools of perch are typically found in the deeper basin waters (30 to 50 feet) of the lake and the smaller pods of larger perch can be found fishing shallow waters (10 to 28 feet) in flooded timber and brush piles.
Perch fishing on Devils Lake often can be a boom or bust experience. Stormy conditions, high winds, and cold fronts do give these perch lock jaw and on those kind of days, you should really consider fishing walleyes and/or northern pike. Mornings and early afternoons are the prime times to fish perch throughout the day. Fishing on the move and being mobile are the best ways to find the perch and fishing quieter water is often where you will find the perch that are more aggressive.
The number of northern pike in the Devils Lake system is sometimes scary to think about. They seem to successfully reproduce every year and depending on where you are targeting pike, running for tip ups can be an exhausting adventure.
In the upper part of the Devils Lake basin, there are smaller lakes that have connected to these waters and all of them have shallow water with weeds that northern pike thrive in. These areas typically hold the smaller northern pike that generally run from 3 to 6 pounds which can be the best eating size.
The numbers of pike in these areas can be very overwhelming. To target the larger to trophy size northern pike, you will probably have to study that new lake map and identify some of the flat shallow areas of the main bodies of Devils Lake. It is not near as action packed but the size will be worth the wait between fish being caught.
There is lots to consider when you are planning a trip to ice fish on Devils Lake, North Dakota. No matter what species you decide to target or how you want to go about fishing them, the community of Devils Lake is happy you are here and want you to succeed. Enjoy our fishery, go home and tell others, come back and see us again. •