DEVILS LAKE - She's a dandy. There's no arguing that. Devils Lake is a remarkable fishery. Even those who fish it regularly wonder how it could possibly get any better.
Walleyes abound in Devils Lake. So too do northern pike, white bass and perch. Multiple year classes of each species are present. Forage is abundant. It is a perfect environment for fish and fishermen and a marvelous destination for both serious and recreational anglers.
The diversity of Devils Lake has been driven by several consecutive years of rising water. Lakes that formerly stood alone - Pelican Lake, Dry Lake and Stump Lake, are now all part of a much larger Devils Lake. It has been an astonishing and costly natural takeover that has disrupted lives and livelihoods, and threatens even more costly flooding to points downstream, but with each rise in water comes an explosion of fish eager to feed and reproduce in flooded vegetation. It is as near to a perfect environment for fish as naturally possible.
Devils Lake is teeming with northern pike of several year classes, like this one caught by fishing pro Johnnie Candle of Devils Lake. There are times on Devils Lake when the pike action is phenomenal.
"For sure, there is a lot of negativity with the flooding," said Johnnie Candle, a professional fisherman and resident of Creel Bay. "There's road building and construction, but you come out on the water and there is life everywhere. There's minnows, freshwater shrimp, gamefish that we're catching, ducks and geese. It is so incredible."
Randy Hiltner, North Dakota Game and Fish Department biologist at Devils Lake, routinely samples fish at various locations on the state's largest natural lake. He continually looks for signs of trouble brewing in the fishery but, to date, acknowledges the fish are doing very well.
"Pike have really been coming on for several years. The high water produced a perfect nursery area for pike," said Hiltner. "My netting surveys show less 15- to 20-inch walleyes than 2006 to 2008, down a bit from what it was in the peak years. That being said, it is still at the 21-year average. It's not like we're short on walleyes."
Candle, Noble named All-American Anglers
The fishing team of Johnnie Candle, Devils Lake; and Dave Noble, Dixon, Ill., placed third out of 125 teams at the Masters Walleye Circuit event held June 1 at Mille Lacs Lake, Minn. The following day the angling duo finished 10th out of 213 teams competing in the Cabela's National Team Championship. For their efforts, the fishing tandem earned All-American status for 2012.
The tourneys were the first of the season for Candle and Noble. The veteran anglers are scheduled to compete later this year at Lake Winnebago, Wis., Lake Oahe, S.D., and at Cass Lake, Minn. Candle and Noble teamed up to win the World Walleye Championship in 2010.
"It is the way it is supposed to be, a pyramid with big fish at the top and smaller fish at the bottom," said Candle. "There are very, very strong year classes coming up. There's no doubt about it. That's the way it is supposed to be."
Other fishermen have taken notice of Devils Lake too, locally and nationally. More fish has led to more fishing pressure. A recent creel survey placed the number of angling hours per year on Devils Lake at 1 million. Those anglers crowd shorelines and boat ramps because fishing Devils Lake can produce some phenomenal catches.
"It is incredible," said Candle after spending a few hours on the water one day last week. "When you come here and have a day like we did, catching fish on 30 casts in a row, that's unbelievable. Look across the country. At some of the greatest fisheries on the planet you don't get bit on every cast for 30 in a row."
As a professional tournament angler and guide, Candle fishes a variety of vaunted fisheries each year, yet Devils Lake never loses its appeal for him - not just because it is his home water, but because the fishing has been incomparable.
"A couple of summers ago I had a mom and dad and two kids, age 10 and 12, in the boat. I asked them if they had ever caught 100 fish in a day. I told them I wanted them to count the fish they caught that day," laughed Candle. "I remember it well. At 12:43 they announced their 100th walleye. You can't do that anywhere else in the country. It's just an incredible fishery."
Where to fish
Devils Lake has grown so much in the last several years that few are willing to guess at its current size. Mapmakers have struggled to keep up with the expansion. Enterprising fishermen discover new areas nearly every time they launch their boat. It is too much water to learn during a trip or two. A good approach for newcomers to Devils Lake is to break the lake down into manageable areas and begin fishing. Among the notable and popular areas are the Minnewaukan Flats, Grahams Island, Main Bay, Creel Bay and Six-Mile Bay.
"Try not to get intimidated. Just pick one of those bays and look at that," advises Candle. "You are going to find shallow structure, deep structure and find things that you'll feel comfortable fishing in those basins. Just concentrate on one at a time rather than try and learn the whole lake at once."
Unlike reservoirs where structure is sometimes limited and siltation has occurred, Devils Lake is a true "natural" lake. As it has expanded it has covered a variety of terrain, natural and man-made. Those irregularities are often fish magnets.
"Today we fished a flooded railroad grade. It's structure. It's hard on the top, rip-rap on the sides and transitions right into the mud basin on the bottom," said Candle. "If you went to Mille Lacs Lake in Minnesota, or anywhere else to fish, that's exactly what you'd look for on the map. It just wouldn't be man-made."
Flooded vegetation attracts forage fish and gamefish, and there is an abundance of newly flooded land surrounding Devils Lake. Fishermen find success fishing the outside edge of weedlines too, sometimes even over the top of submerged weeds. Anything that looks a bit different on Devils Lake is likely to produce fish at one time or another. Of course, Devils Lake is famous for flooded timber, another place where anglers often produce limits of fish.
"Flooded timber is easy to fish because it is visible," explained Candle. "If you keep a lure in the water long enough in Devils Lake you are going to catch fish. Come and learn it. Look around. Try not to get too impatient. Let it happen."
How, what to fish
What method is the best is the million-dollar question for fishermen everywhere. Fortunately, Devils Lake is so diverse that there is really no limit to the amount of presentations that might produce good numbers of fish on any given day.
Slip bobbers are popular. Under certain situations they are as effective as they are visibly enchanting. Trolling spinners and nightcrawlers works too, but so does casting crankbaits or pitching jigs.
"With my tournament background I try not to have favorites," said Candle. "My favorite is whatever is working. Casting lures is a great way and a fun way to fish. We get a lot of traffic to the lake because it is known for producing by casting. It is using bass techniques to catch fish that aren't bass and it is a riot!"
What works one day may not work the next, but something else almost surely will. That's the nature of Devils Lake. The fish tend to be shallower in the early part of the summer and more susceptible to casting techniques. Later the bite may move a bit deeper where spinners and bottom bouncers will prove effective. Some fishermen will employ lead-core line during the Dog Days of August. All are proven fish-catching presentations on Devils Lake.
Devils Lake built its reputation as a jumbo perch fishery. As the lake expanded walleyes thrived and commanded more and more attention. Northern pike have done exceptionally well. Schools of white bass can number in the thousands. All are great fish to catch on hook and line.
"You never know what you are going to set the hook into," said Candle. "The fishery is healthy. There's a lot of food for these fish. They are nice and plump and strong. As a guide I tell people they are going to catch a lot of fish, but I also tell them I don't know what they are going to be."
Candle is a proven walleye angler, but he also knows that anything tugging on a fishing line can make for a good day on the water. Catches of walleye, northern pike and white bass during a single outing is not unusual, often using the same lure or technique.
"You can do whatever you want in Devils Lake. We've got a phenomenal walleye population that everyone comes for," said Candle. "Today we went out for white bass, caught a limit of walleyes and the northern pike kept us very, very busy. All three species are desirable. A day like today, quite honestly, is what fishing is all about. It seemed every time the lure hit the water there was a fish."
Not all days on the water produce results that strains fishing equipment and tires anglers, but those who fish Devils Lake know it happens often enough. They also know that the lake seldom disappoints. There are many days when deciding what fish to keep, if any, is a more difficult task than finding aggressive fish.