DEVILS LAKE - There are few places like it. Many say it has no comparison at all. Based on recent fishing success stories from Devils Lake, neither claim can be disputed.
Devils Lake has long been touted as a rival to Lake Sakakawea for bragging rights to the top fishery in North Dakota. Other lakes lay claim to that title from time to time too, but it is Devils Lake that has consistently attracted the attention of thousands of eager fisherman from throughout the Midwest.
In the summer they come to Devils Lake for walleye and white bass and northern pike. In the winter it is another species, yellow perch, that draws fishermen to Devils Lake from half a continent away. Fishermen don't make the trek for ordinary perch, they make it for jumbo Devils Lake perch - perch pushing 2 pounds. Jumbo perch are great fun on light tackle and great eating.
Devils Lake is known for producing jumbo perch. Here Jeff Katzer displays two examples, a 1.5-pounder and 1.8-pounder.
This winter has been an exceptional one on Devils Lake for enthusiastic perch fishermen. Many say the perch fishing has never been better than it has been this winter. Once an ice fisherman finds the perch, the angling fun can be fast and furious. Jeff Katzer drilled a hole this past Wednesday and discovered a large school of hungry perch. He hooked a limit of 20 jumbos in just 15 minutes. The largest weighed 1.8 pounds.
"This is the best year in the 25 years that we've seen for perch," claimed Katzer, ice boss and fishing guide for Woodland Resort. "We had one house kick out 160 perch in one day."
Katzer and three other wintertime guides spend their time seeking out the best fishing locations on Devils Lake. They welcome visiting anglers to 29 different fish houses on the lake, each one in a location chosen by a guide. Snow is plowed away atop the ice to make access to fish houses as easy as possible.
"All the holes are pre-drilled and the houses are heated so you can basically fish in a t-shirt and tennis shoes," remarked Katzer. "We drop fishermen off in the morning and check on them throughout the day, then we go search for more active pods of fish. If there's anybody having a rough day we try to move them into a more productive house."
Among those comfortably fishing from a cozy fish house this past week were Bob and Deb Ruland from Sioux City, Iowa. They experienced the ups and downs of fishing. Their first day was so-so but their second day on the ice greatly exceeded their expectations.
Devils Lake can do that.
"Today is just a wonderful day! I never expected to catch fish like this!" exclaimed Bob Ruland. "I mean giant, giant perch. I've been waiting, thinking about this for 10 years. This is heaven - heaven, I tell 'ya."
The comments put a smile on the face of Deb. She had purchased the Devils Lake trip for Bob's 70th birthday present. In between setting the hook and reeling up big perch, she had a few thoughts of her own about sitting on the ice at Devils Lake.
"I'm having a real good time. We came about 500 miles for this. It's great!" said Deb Ruland. "I didn't think I'd catch anything and I've caught quite a few."
Quite a few indeed. The Rulands said they were actually getting tired from reeling in jumbo perch and offered to let other fishermen move into their ice house and share the fun. Bob had stated loudly that five good perch would make his trip a success. He and his wife had a bucketful of jumbos to take to the cleaning station.
"They found 'em today and I'm glad they did," chuckled Bob.
Fishermen come from virtually everywhere in the U.S. to experience the thrill of catching jumbo perch from Devils Lake. According to Katzer, recent clients included people from Alaska, Hawaii and Vermont.
"We're really spoiled. We have a big, beautiful lake with lots of fish in it," added Kyle Blanchfield, owner of Woodland Resort. "Winter is a serious part of our business. It is not uncommon for guys to drive 10 or 12 hours to get here. To me, that's pretty special. If someone is going through that much effort to get here, that tells you a lot."
"We were on good perch about Christmas time and then we went on to an absolutely outstanding walleye bite which we've been on ever since," said Katzer. "It's a hit-and-miss thing, but we keep everybody on as many active fish as we can."
A few minutes later Katzer received a phone call from fellow guide Tom Shields. Shields said he was on his way in with a monster walleye. The fish tipped the scale at 12 pounds even.
"We've had an outstanding day," noted Katzer. "We got a 32-inch, 12-pound walleye out of, basically, the same hole they've been pulling jumbo perch."
Perch populations rise and fall. Devils Lake has seen some lean years for perch fishing success, but not recently. Quite the opposite. Blanchfield calls this winter the best for perch fishing he has experienced in 25 seasons.
"It's been crazy busy. It's the best winter we've ever had," said Blanchfield. "When you have a good bite going on the word spreads quickly throughout the Midwest pretty fast and the phone starts ringing."
Perch burst onto the scene at Devils Lake in the 1980s. That's when the word began to spread about huge perch growing in the picturesque North Dakota lake. The perch were fattening up quickly on fresh water shrimp. Since the '80s, Devils Lake has continued to expand. Jumbo perch appeared to fade away for a few years but now have returned in numbers rivaling the lake's finest fishing days.
Jason Mitchell, host of Jason Mitchell Outdoors and longtime Devils Lake fishing guide, has witnessed countless changes in Devils Lake over the past several years. He too thinks this winter is an exceptional one for fishermen.
"Overall I think we've probably seen the best ice fishing in at least the last 15 years," said Mitchell. "Not every day is great in the sense that you can expect a great day everyday, but our good days is as good as it gets - and we've had a lot of really good days this winter."
Whether a fisherman seeks perch, walleye, northern pike or white bass, Devils Lake is a desired destination - winter or summer. The lake boasts a variety of locations and species that can suit the expectations of countless fishermen.
In the winter though, it is big perch that are highly prized. Few lakes grow perch as big as those in Devils Lake and very few can rival Devils Lake in terms of the overall population of perch.
"Ours, when you see them, they look like footballs," said Blanchfield. "Ours grow so big and fat. That's what makes the whole reason to come here."