Even with all of the gear and gadgets–not to mention a crew of anglers with decades of experience between them–it’s Mother Nature who calls the shots when it comes to winter fishing on Devils Lake and adjacent bodies of water.
The fish — like the weather — don’t always cooperate. But as anyone who ice fishes will attest, it’s all about getting out there, embracing winter and having some fun.
That was the back story for an ice fishing event Devils Lake Tourism hosted last week for a group of media and fishing industry types who came from across the Upper Midwest to sample what the big lake has to offer.
From Stump Lake and East Devils Lake at one end of the basin, to Lake Alice — the national wildlife refuge body of water open to ice fishing for the first time this winter — at the other, there’s miles and miles of ice to explore.
Two days doesn’t even begin to do justice to that kind of opportunity, but as the old saying goes, you’ve got to start somewhere.
So many stories. So little time.
That’s why we’re here.
“We’ve found that content marketing is the way for us to go,” said Suzie Kenner, executive director of Devils Lake Tourism. “People like to read things rather than just look at ads, so every year a couple of times throughout the season, we get a group together–different media types along with sponsors if we can–to showcase some different products and showcase what the area has to offer.”
Meeting of minds
Last week’s ice fishing excursion brought together representatives from companies such as 13 Fishing, Eskimo, Striker, Custom Jigs and Spins and Fish Addictions along with outdoor communicators from Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota. Besides sampling the Lake Region’s fishing opportunities, there were chances to try out new ice fishing gear such as the battery-powered ION ice auger and thermal shelters such as Eskimo’s insulated hub-style houses.
Wind chills might have approached 20 below zero the first day of the excursion, but staying warm wasn’t a problem.
Special intrigue for many anglers was the chance to fish the virginal waters of Lake Alice. The national wildlife refuge lake had been off limits to anglers before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to open the lake to ice fishing this winter.
At the same time, fishing on adjacent Lake Irvine — which looks like the same body of water if not for the refuge boundaries — has served up fast walleye and pike action in recent years.
“Irvine the last two summers has been phenomenal,” said Tanner Cherney, who coordinates visitor services and outdoor media for Devils Lake Tourism. “On the other side of Alice is Mike’s Lake. That’s just as good as Irvine, but you need a 16-foot boat or less you can throw off a trailer into a ditch to get up there.
“There’s some healthy fish up there.”
Cold … and wind
Cold front conditions typically mean challenging fishing, but that didn’t chill the enthusiasm for the crew that set out — some by snowmobile, others by four-wheel drive pickup — across Lake Irvine to Lake Alice on the first morning of the excursion.
Fishing outside on a bucket — the image of ice fishing still held by the uninitiated — would have been unbearable.
Before the cold front and its double-whammy of subzero temperatures and 20-plus-mph winds, anglers who had been scouting Lake Alice in advance of the fishing excursion had encountered strong walleye action throughout the day in 5 to 8 feet of water.
The cold front fish weren’t as active, but the crew of some 16 anglers still managed to coax up enough walleyes and pike throughout the day to keep things interesting. Just being out on the ice–and fishing in comfort–was a moral victory, of sorts, under such extreme conditions.
The blustery weather also provided an opportunity for Kaitie Firkus of KMOT-TV in Minot to get her first taste of ice fishing when the Texas native and station intern Alex Coleman spent part of the first afternoon talking to some of the anglers and embracing a winter experience that was new to both of them for a segment that aired on the evening’s newscast.
“It’s not as scary as I thought it would be,” said Firkus, who didn’t fish but willingly posed with a walleye for a photo. “I’m not afraid of anything. I’m from the South. We can’t be afraid.”
Irvine and Alice both are shallow and last week had a solid 16 inches of ice, enough to support the weight of larger vehicles, but the drifts made for bumpy going, at times.
After one of the latest freeze-ups in memory, winter fishing finally was in full swing.
The cold, in the way of human nature, was a source of complaining among at least some of the crew, but the onset of solid ice came none too soon for those who depend on the economic benefits winter fishing provides. After agriculture, fishing is the Lake Region’s biggest economic driver, Cherney said.
He said the late freeze-up was tough for the whole area.
“A lot of people were down in the dumps for most of December because people were canceling trips,” Cherney said. “The whole Midwest was in the same boat, but things are picking up now.”
Getting a taste
The second day of the excursion ushered in warmer temperatures and no wind, and everyone fished outside, a concept that would have been incomprehensible just a day earlier.
People who had arrived as strangers left as friends, which is another of the benefits fishing provides. If only a taste, they’d at least sampled the extensive menu of fishing opportunities the Lake Region has to offer.
Jim Kalkofen, a veteran outdoor communicator from Baxter, Minn., and 2008 inductee into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, says he tries to visit Devils Lake two or three times a year, despite the abundance of fishing opportunities he has closer to home.
Kalkofen, who was executive director of the Professional Walleye Trail back in the tournament’s heydays, has seen the changes that have occurred since 1992, when Devils Lake was more than 20 feet lower–and thousands of acres smaller — than it is today.
The lake’s diversity, both in terms of fish species and fishing presentations, is a big part of the attraction, Kalkofen says.
“There’s no other place I know of in the country where you fish (flooded) road beds, so I love this,” he said. “It’s just amazing, and now it’s come down a couple of feet and it’s different, and then it might go up another couple of feet this summer — who knows?”
Kalkofen had spent a few hours before the recent excursion catching up with a friend in Devils Lake and landing several jumbo perch and walleyes in a different, deeper part of the lake.
“It’s just so much fun,” said Kalkofen, who with Al and Ron Lindner helped launch the Target Walleye website less than a year ago. “Every time you come, it’s a challenge, and you learn something new. Not only about the lake, but about yourself.”
He might have had the chance to fish a previously untapped water in Lake Alice, but in many ways, Kalkofen says, every excursion to Devils Lake is a new adventure.
“You might pick a shoreline that nobody has fished for a month, so it’s like new water — virgin water,” Kalkofen said. “That’s just an interesting way to look at it.”