Perhaps the best known North American winter perch fishery is nestled in north-central North Dakota. The Devils Lake walleye population (quantity and quality) also ranks among the best!
Many fishermen make plans early; others jump in the truck with a few buddies at the last minute with the next stop Devils Lake. The lake’s fishing guides, winter and summer, are legendary. They do it all. But, some folks prefer to strike out on their own. Here are tips that will make the DIY trip affordable and successful.
First, don’t discount hiring a guide for the first day at the lake. Lessons to be learned are depth, lure/bait combinations, travel, and general areas to consider. As a matter of ethical standards, do not return to the same exact spot as on the guide day.
Second, learn in advance or by visiting the local bait shops, the snow conditions which dictate drivability on ice. If heavy snowdrifts, access to fishing spots may require an ATV. The lake maps highlight access points.
Third, gather as much “social media” information as possible before or while driving. A good starting point is devilslakend.com. Don’t be bashful about reviewing the guide service websites featured here.
Fourth, since winter is about as busy in Devils Lake as during open water season, book lodging at any of the motels, resorts or casino. Many have heated fish cleaning stations. Ask when reserving. There is also a public fish-cleaning station in town by Ed’s Bait Shop. Be sure to check out all the excellent eateries in town and on the lake. Definitely something to look forward to after a day of fishing.
Fifth, order licenses online with North Dakota Game and Fish. Save time for fishing. Seasons are open year-round. Limits are generous: 20 perch per day, possession limit of 40; walleyes and pike are 5 daily and 10 in possession.
Sixth, know that the 2023 summer netting surveys were astounding. The 12-inch-plus perch results were double the long-term average. Walleyes bogged the nets at 32.4 per net, compared to the long-term average of 22 per net.
Seventh, most fishermen shoot for walleyes early and late in the day, then chase perch. Perch school. Sitting on a school may work somedays, but determining where they’re moving keeps anglers on top of the tastiest fresh water fish. When fishing, elect one friend to move 50 yards from the biters in all directions. This exploration can pay huge dividends.
Eighth, bring your A-game from home. Have rods rigged with new line. Most perchers prefer mono because it doesn’t ice-up like some of the non-stretch lines do. A favorite technique is to use a spoon for weight with a jig below. Electronics are essential. If not up to speed with the latest, add it to Santa’s list. Same with augers. Shelters are indispensable in North Dakota. The wind may blow – nothing stops or slows it down on the big lake. The temps may also dip to where you will be saying, “Colder than a …” Throw in a heater, also. But, that’s no different than in Wisconsin, Minnesota or anywhere in the ice fishing belt.
Ninth, the above paragraph is not meant to scare anybody. Ice fishing is ice fishing. The Boy Scout motto applies, “Be Prepared.” Some of the favorite guide client comments are from never-ice-fished southern friends who cannot believe they were walking on ice. And how much fun setting the hook and landing fish through an 8 or 10 inch hole really is.
Tenth, ice fishermen are gregarious. Meet, introduce yourselves, share what you’re doing, trade Wisconsin venison sausage for homemade Nebraska dandelion wine. You never know who you will meet. Or, fishing hotspots they reveal and invite you to join them.
OK, some bonus DIY tips. Devils Lake is swimming with perch and walleyes as noted above. Also present are white bass and northern pike. White bass feed throughout winter. They may be accidental catches, but after the first 4-pound whitey smacks your perch offering and tries to yank you down with him, you will want more. For those not familiar with big white bass, they fight like Dr. Frankenstein mated a giant bluegill with a smallmouth bass. White bass never give up. They roam in schools. They like spoons tipped with minnows and about anything that seems like food. Pike are present and tip-up sets can provide some exciting action.
Devils Lake possesses secrets. The spots where you find fish may be so out-of-the-way that no other anglers appear even on the horizon. This is one lake where it is not necessary to fish the crowds. Most first-time visitors take note of where and what others may be doing, but the best bet is to fish outside the group. Better yet, with knowledge of depth and lure details, move and find your own hotspot.
Whether you’ve fished Devils Lake previously or have it penciled on the calendar already, here are some “average” dates to keep in mind. Thanksgiving is usually the time of “walking-out” ice, perhaps even ATV ice. Mid-December often sees trucks on ice. Never assume these traditional dates mean anything. Always do your own research and check ice conditions when you arrive.
Again, the tourism website with all the details is devilslakend.com. Check it out. Decide now if this winter will be a DIY Devils Lake “explore” or if you will arrange several days with a guide. Either way, the fish are waiting.