This huge northeastern North Dakota lake is heaven for walleye ice-fishers. locals' tips will put you on the right path to success. (December 2009)
Author Jason Mitchell used a spoon to jig this walleye to the bite on the 150,000-acre Devils Lake.
Photo courtesy of Jason Mitchell.
Devils Lake in northeastern North Dakota has become a massive body of water with several unique characteristics. Over the past 20 years, this natural lake formed by glacier deposit has risen over 25 feet and has more than tripled in size. It now has about 150,000 surface acres. If one word summarizes Devils Lake, this one word would be "change."
Productive fishing locations, lake size and even tactics are constantly changing as both fish and anglers adapt to the new water. Shorelines feature miles of flooded timber and don't be surprised to find flooded barns, silos, farm equipment and other buildings in the water.
Once known far and wide as a top winter fishery for jumbo perch, the lake has quietly earned a new and different reputation over the past decade.
"Anglers still catch perch, and they catch big perch, but we don't see the numbers of fish that we did in the past," said Kyle Blanchfield from Woodland Resort.
"We just have so many walleyes and pike in the system right now," said Blanchfield. "The walleye fishing we have right now in particular is the best it has ever been."
Walleyes here often bite all winter long, with the morning and evening hours often most productive, said Devils Lake guide, Steve "Zippy" Dahl of Devils Lake's famous Perch Patrol Guide Service.
"We don't see much after dark as far as a walleye bite, but the first three hours and last three hours of daylight are often most productive," said Dahl. "There are times, however, when we will catch walleyes all day long even in shallow water."
Ice-anglers often find walleyes relating to several different patterns. Perhaps the most notorious pattern on Devils Lake is the flooded timber.
Anglers often find fish relating to shorelines that have flooded timber in 5 to 15 feet of water. Classic shoreline-orientated structure will especially hold walleyes at first and last ice. But Dahl also said anglers sometimes find fish shallow long after tradition dictates.
"There is a general rule of thumb that the fish move toward the basin of the lake and onto structure in deeper water away from shore as the winter wears on. That is somewhat true," said the guide. "But we will also find fish shallow most of the winter, so keep an open mind."
Flooded timber is always worth checking all winter long. Also, don't be afraid to fish some holes in 8 feet of water or less, particularly during the morning and evening.
"Some of our best bites each winter are usually in less than 10 feet of water," said Dahl.
Fishing this shallow water might take a different mindset. Both guides said sometimes you'll have to drill a lot of holes until you find fish. Also, crowds of anglers and fishing pressure disperse these shallow fish quickly. Work the edges of crowds or stay away from other anglers to be most productive. These pods of fish will spook out of the area with too much commotion.
"There are times when you can actually sight-fish for walleyes, which is a great education," said Dahl.
When word gets out on a hot bite and a crowd develops, that spot is finished. Go find fresh ice and keep noise to a minimum.
Another noted winter pattern on Devils Lake are the deep rocks. Devils Lake is what many anglers refer to as a "dishpan lake" where the shoreline drops into a flat basin that is typically mud or silt. Rockpiles are rare. But if you can find them, they usually hold fish.
Many of the deeper rockpiles are on the south end of the main lake basin. But you'll find productive rockpiles all over the lake.
Some rockpiles were formed by farmers during the low-water years. Other piles were formed by duck hunters who piled rocks up along the points and shorelines to create makeshift blinds back when the lake was much lower than it is now.
Rockpiles on Rocky Point, Cactus Point, Lost Jig and Bird Island are all relatively easy to find with a GPS.
These locations all boast large, complex rockpiles that can hold fish.
According to guide Zippy Dahl, "The beauty of these deeper rockpiles is that they often produce walleyes all day long, and perch can sometimes be caught mixed right in with the walleyes."
For anglers who aren't familiar with the lake, here is a tip to determining bottom contour. Drill holes in the ice over the tops of structure, like points and sunken humps. Use a flasher like a Vexilar and set your range high so that you can see a second or even triple echo below the bottom reading.
In 20 feet of water, for example over a soft, muck bottom, you will not see a second echo below the bottom reading. As the bottom gets harder, turning into sand or small rocks, a second echo appears below the bottom reading.
On a real hard bottom of larger rocks, a third echo will appear. As an example, if you find a rockpile in 20 feet of water, you will get a bottom reading at 20 feet but also a second echo at 40 feet and a third echo at 60 feet. This is caused by the fact that the sonar beam will actually bounce off rock and harder surfaces.
Many of these humps can often be found with many of the new lake chips that are available for Devils Lake, such as Lakemaster and Navionics. According to guides, Lakemaster has the most detail.
On the very tops of the humps, the rocks are often the largest and the rock typically gets smaller down the deeper edges of the structure. Some of the boulders are large, up to or surpassing 4 feet in diameter. Anglers often find fish along the sides of the rockpiles where the smaller rocks adjoin the larger boulders.
When trying to catch walleyes within boulders and rock, fish above the rock. In other words, fish high enough off the bottom so that you can see your lure on the Vexilar separate from the rocks down below. This allows more fish to see your presentation from a greater distance.
ing or banging the lure or spoon off the tops of the rocks also seems to work great for attracting fish.
Other structure that will hold walleyes at some point during the winter include deep flats, sandbars and gravel points along with current or bottle-neck areas formed by causeways and bridges.
A word of caution when ice-fishing Devils Lake: The bridges are often very productive because there is water moving under the bridges and walleyes are attracted to this current, but these areas are also notorious for bad ice.
Use extreme caution if attempting to fish around any of the bridges. The ice directly below the bridges is poor all winter.
Another unique and productive structure on Devils Lake are the many flooded roads. Some of these roads are covered by more than 20 feet of water. The most well-known flooded road, dubbed the "Golden Highway," spans across the Minnewauken Flats. It's more than four miles of asphalt highway that is now 12 feet under water.
Anglers often find walleyes cruising the tops of the flooded roads during the low-light hours of morning and evening.
Devils Lake anglers often use aggressively jigged spoons and other lures. In fact, few anglers use tip-ups or dead rods.
"We typically catch most of our fish close to the bottom and, we often have to really pound the lure to bring fish in," said Dahl.
Guide Jeff Dosch also taps jigs for success.
"These fish are often just cruising just off the bottom, and jigging triggers the most fish."
According to Dosch, the rule of thumb is to hold the lure about 6 inches from the bottom and pound the lure in 6-inch strokes.
"The jigging motion itself should be hard and tight, imagine yourself jigging in a 6-inch window," he said.
These walleyes will often come in and really smack the lure hard. Almost all of the more successful anglers are using electronics like a Vexilar to show the presence of fish and for monitoring the lure.
"The Vexilar is key," said Dosch, "You'll know if fish are coming in and not hitting what you are using."
Both Dahl and Dosch usually tip their spoons and lures with a minnow head. When fish come into the spoon and just hover next to the spoon without committing, Dosch recommends that anglers slowly lift the fish off the bottom. While you are lifting the fish from the bottom, just rock the spoon slightly to cause the treble hooks to dance. This slow rise is a deadly presentational ploy that works especially well on walleye.
Often with the electronics, walleye fishing is a game of cat and mouse because you can watch how fish interact with your presentation.
"These fish are just cruising through these areas, and pounding the spoon or lure hard will often bring fish in," said Dosch.
Think of jigging as attracting fish into the cone angle of your electronics. But a hard pound just off the bottom also works to trigger a bite.
"These fish often hammer the lure while it's getting pounded, so don't stop when a fish arrives, just keep jigging," said Dahl.
If the fish doesn't hit after 4 or 5 seconds, than you can soften the jigging motion and make the presentation more subtle. The worst thing you can usually do with a lure or spoon is to stop the lure so it hangs still. These fish usually want the lure rocking or pounding.
Several lures work well to catch walleyes on Devils Lake. Traditional jigging spoons are extremely versatile and effective. Anglers are usually tipping the spoon with just a pinched-off minnow head. One of the better spoons the past 10 years has been a Northland Buck Shot Rattle Spoon. Other good lures include Acme Kastmasters, Northland Forage Minnows and similar lead spoons in 1/4- to 3/16-ounce sizes. Swim lures that slide and vibrate in a circular glide below the ice are also extremely productive.
Perhaps the best-known swim lure in ice-fishing circles is the original Jigging Rapala. But Devils Lake walleyes seem to prefer a fatter, more beefed-up profile.
"Two great swim lures on Devils Lake are the Salmo Chubby Darter and the Rapala Jigging Shad Rap," said Dahl.
The Chubby Darters have an amazing action for drawing the attention of aggressive walleyes. Both of these lures have a wider perch-shaped profile. Young-of-the-year perch and white bass are often found in the stomachs of these winter walleyes.
Several color patterns dominate on Devils Lake for walleyes. Traditional perch, gold and fire tiger patterns can be especially productive. Whites, chrome and blue in combinations are also worth having in the box.
"In all honesty, color is probably the least important part of the presentation," said Dosch. "Most anglers worry too much about color and not enough about marking fish with their electronics or using the right jig stroke."
These guides do see particular colors shine on certain days, but the first thing these anglers experiment with is jig stroke.
Typically, anglers will also encounter Northern pike mixed in with walleyes, especially when fishing shallow structure and flooded timber. Devils Lake has produced some very big Northern pike in the past through the ice, with at least two fish topping 28 pounds.
Because of the combination of a healthy Northern pike population and flooded timber, ice-anglers are often using a braided line instead of traditional monofilament line.
"These fish are scrappy, even the walleyes will try and wrap up around branches," said Dahl. "The durability of braid is important for wrestling these fish up out of the cover."
The best braided line for ice-fishing is a line called Vicious Braid because the line absorbs much less water than traditional braids and is easy to manage in cold temperatures.
"These fish aren't line-shy and this isn't a game of finesse, especially in the timber," said Dahl.
Think of this style of walleye fishing as hand-to-hand combat where anglers often have to fight extremely aggressive fish through tangles of tree branches.
Snow conditions on Devils Lake vary. A local lake-access club, along with a few resorts, plow winter trails on the ice. Many years, access is reasonable with a four-wheel-drive vehicle, but heavy snow does hamper access some winters.
Check out updated lake reports at www.devilslakend.com.
During winters of heavy snow cover, a snowmobile or tracked vehicle like a
Sno Bear give anglers more options.
Several fishing packages are also available where anglers can rent fish houses or be guided by experienced guides who provide all of the equipment. Perhaps the most well-known package in the area is the "Perch Express" where adventurous anglers ride the Amtrak Train into Devils Lake. Get more information online at www.woodlandresort.com.
Because of concerns with invasive aquatic species that could potentially harm Devils Lake, North Dakota law prohibits the transport of bait. Do not bring your own bait if you are planning to fish Devils Lake.