“Great Bear Lake is one that is on my list. Tazin Lake was (on the list) and I spent a number of years on Wollaston Lake. But after what I’ve seen here, I definitely want to come back,” said Trevor Montgomery, after wrapping up the first day on his bucket-list destination trip to Devils Lake.
Devils Lake is one of those sought-after destinations for anglers all over the world and it didn’t matter if this angler lived within 90 minutes of another popular body of water, Tobin Lake. It also didn’t matter that he liked Tazin Lake so much that he became an owner of Tazin Lake Lodge. He still had that urge to come to the States and fish over flooded roadbeds and old tree groves in search of those famous Devils Lake jumbo perch.
I saw a video when I was in my early teens, that showed some of the different fishing options for down here (in the U.S.),” Montgomery, a Saskatchewan resident explained. The video featured Devils Lake. “Just the size of the fish, especially the world-class perch. After I watched that video, I realized that it was definitely on my bucket list.”
Four of us from different points on the map met up at Haybale Heights Campground and Resort, located on East Bay of Devils Lake, for two days of fishing. Montgomery and his wife, Beth, of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, would be making their first trip along with another first-timer, Tony Crotty of Milan, Minnesota.
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“When you think of North Dakota and fishing, you think of Devils Lake,” Crotty said. “There aren’t very many places around that you can catch the number of big perch and quality walleyes. Devils Lake is known to produce 15-inch perch and for a guy like me from Minnesota, that’s exciting.”
We’d been looking forward to the trip and knew the forecast called for cold weather, but the near-blizzard conditions that greeted us on Highway 2 were a surprise. This type of weather event doesn’t always bode well for good fishing, but even more troubling is what a winter full of this weather means for travel on the lake. Fewer people have been able to get to their favorite spots because of a thick, heavy blanket of snow sitting atop the ice.
“We do have a Lake Access Committee here in Devils Lake that does try to clear off all our public boat ramps to get you on to the lake,” Taylor said. “But we don’t have plowed trails.” They’ve tried to plow roads on the lake in the past, only to have snowstorm after snowstorm cover them up.
Thankfully we’d be spending the majority of our time on the ice from the warm side of the double-paned glass windows of a SnoBear. SnoBears are hybrid machines of sorts: part fish house, part tracked snow machine. The crew at Haybale Heights employs a small fleet of them.
“We’ve got more snow this year than the last two years combined,” Lucas Mertens, the owner of Haybale Heights said. “That’s making it challenging to get around. You’ve got to have some tracks or SnoBears. Those SnoBears are great, whether it’s 40 below or 30 above, it goes where you want it to go.”
When we met the crew at Haybale Heights for the first time, guide Matt Taylor was furiously working his electric filet knife on a stack of 50 perch that shined like bars of gold. Fishing had been good before the storm, hopefully the bite would continue.
We awoke to -48 wind chills and felt fortunate to be fishing inside the warm and cozy Snobear. As the wind whistled outside, the fishing was heating up. Crotty would strike first and second, hooking into an eater perch and then a bonus walleye. Only on Devils Lake is there a tinge of disappointment at seeing walleyes instead of perch. And only on Devils Lake do you fish where there used to be a wooded grove.
“Fishing in these trees it’s kind of a hodgepodge,” Taylor said. “You might catch a limit of walleyes and ten to twelve perch all out of the same hole. And of course these big pike are rolling through and messing things up sometimes, but they’re fun to catch too.”
Trevor Montgomery would be next, setting the hook on his first Devils Lake perch, finally checking that off the list of fishing “to-dos” that was written 30 years ago. But the real winner on this trip was Beth Montgomery. She quickly abandoned the FLX-28 that Haybale Heights supplied, for a more traditional fishing experience: Just a jigging spoon and a woman’s touch.
“It’s the touch,“ she said laughing. “I don’t know, you guys are all using electronics and I’m just sitting here old school, like my Grandpa taught me. That’s how it goes, play like a girl, right?”
Not using electronics can have its advantages on a fishery like Devils Lake. For instance, you only need to fish on the bottom.
“The difference out here is that we don’t have a baitfish population like those other lakes where they have shiners or shad up in the water column,” Taylor said. “So our fish have no reason to be more than one or two feet off the bottom.”
The main forage base in Devils Lake is freshwater shrimp. They eat the plankton that comes out of the clay on the bottom so perch spend all their time down there getting fat and happy. Those perch and other small fish, in turn, attract the bigger fish.
“There’s no reason for anything to come off the bottom ever,” Taylor said.
The storm may have slowed the perch bite during our stay, though it didn’t shut it down completely. While winter fishing for this species will always be a draw, the walleyes shouldn’t be counted out in the hard water season and each evening we moved up onto structure, tied on rattle spoons tipped with a minnow head and had no problems finding them ranging from 14-inches to 22-inches.
Staying mobile for perch is key, so having a tracked machine like the SnoBear made all the difference for us, although it doesn’t hurt to watch flashers other than your own. I set rod down to talk to Beth about a fish she had just caught when Crotty saw a red line appear on my MarCum.
“I looked down and saw a mark and it didn’t even cross my mind not to pick your rod and try to catch that fish,” Crotty said laughing. “I gave it a couple jigs and ‘wham’ it was there!”
He may have caught it on my gear out of my hole, but I’m okay with that. These first-time travelers to the ever-changing lake in northeast North Dakota left with enough stories to want to come back. In fact, it didn’t take long for us to agree after Mertens suggested we make this trip to Devils Lake an annual tradition. Although I’d be okay with it being a little bit warmer next time.