DEVILS LAKE - Dustin Larson had a game plan to put walleyes in the boat on this early June morning: Pitch jigs and soft plastic tails along the edge of a shallow flooded shoreline and cover water.
If that didn’t work, he’d cover even more water by putting the motor in gear and trolling crankbaits.
The fish never gave him a chance to get past the first part of his plan. No point in leaving fish to find fish, after all, and when the first two casts produced either strikes or bite-offs - a sure sign of toothy northern pike - Larson knew he was in the right area.
Somewhere in this plethora of pike, there had to be a few walleyes, and he found what he was looking for a few casts later.
“There’s a walleye,” Larson said, and the words had barely left his mouth when the fish shook free, staying hooked just long enough to offer a tantalizing glance.
“Oh Dustin!” he said, talking to himself in the way fishermen sometimes talk to themselves when they lose a fish. “Why do I suck at that?”
He wasn’t the only exasperated angler to mutter those words in the next few action-packed hours, but that was no fault of the fish.
Windy weed line
A guide for Bry’s Guide Service on Devils Lake, Larson, 27, was probing some familiar water on this breezy Wednesday. The morning had started sunny but quickly gave way to clouds, and the conditions were perfect for pitching jigs and dunking slip bobbers near the edge of a windswept weed line.
As the first couple of casts confirmed, the pike were voracious in 3 feet of water in front of the shallow reeds. By working the drop-off in 6 to 8 feet of water, the odds of hitting walleyes improved substantially.
It didn’t take long for Larson to figure out the pattern, drop the anchor and throw out a pair of slip bobbers.
It didn’t take long for the bobbers to start sinking, either.
If ever there was a sight that never gets old, it’s a sinking bobber - especially when there’s an 18- to 22-inch walleye at the end of the line.
“That’s just fun,” Larson said, and who could blame him for sounding giddy?
These are the kind of days that keep anglers coming back for more.
Fishing success didn’t come early to Larson. As a kid, he lived a few years in Jamestown, N.D., where he and his dad tried their luck on Spiritwood Lake and other area waters.
“We didn’t catch much,” Larson said. “We learned how not to fish, I guess. He still wonders why I like to fish, I guess, or why I got into it as hard as I did.”
Moving to Cando, N.D., about the time fishing in the flooded Devils Lake Basin began to explode likely had something to do with it, but the passion runs deeper than catching fish, Larson says.
“I think it stems from the experience,” he said. “It’s not so much catching fish. It’s time on the water, the building rapport, building relationships with the people you fish with, and the challenge. Every day is different. The conditions change, and therefore the fish change, and it just makes you hungrier and hungrier.”
In 2010, Larson and fishing partner Rod Troftgruben won the 34th annual Devils Lake Chamber Walleye Tournament, one of the biggest locally run competitions in North Dakota and a showcase for some of the region’s top anglers.
“That was a special time for me,” Larson said. “It just reinforced the idea that I had a clue of what I was doing on the water.”
Still, Larson said he was scared when Mark Bry approached him about joining Bry’s growing guide service. A Grand Forks Middle School teacher, Bry trades the classroom for the big lake in the summer and now has a fleet of some eight guides to spread out the workload during the busiest times.
Despite that initial apprehension, Larson tested the waters and found guiding to his liking; he now is in his third season with Bry’s Guide Service. It’s been a perfect bridge, he says, between college and graduate school. With a bachelor’s degree in psychology and social work from UND, Larson now is working on a master’s degree in social work and hopes to land an internship this fall.
In the meantime, he’s helping others land more fish and exploring the ever-growing expanse of Devils Lake’s flooded nooks and crannies on his days off.
“It only made sense,” Larson said. “I like taking people out fishing and showing them a good time, and I was going fishing anyway so it worked out.”
When he’s not fishing for work, Larson’s fishing for fun and says he learns every day on the water, whether it’s new spots, boat control or the multitude of techniques that work for catching fish on Devils Lake.
Bry’s teaching, Larson says, extends beyond the classroom.
“That’s how you learn,” Larson said. “Somebody enables you initially, but then you start applying tactics you learn to different parts of the lake, and pretty soon you’ve got a pattern going you can look for at specific times of the year, and that’s what I’ve learned with Mark.
“I thought I was a pretty good fisherman when I first started guiding. I (was) 10 times the fisherman the second year as I was the first and I’m probably 20 times better now than I was the first year.”
On this day, the first part of Larson’s game plan works to near-perfection, and he and a fishing partner land more than 20 walleyes and 40 to 50 northern pike - including a 36-inch beauty - in about four hours on the water and all in an area of a few hundred square feet.
Typically, Larson says, walleyes this time of year will be in shallow water up against the weeds on a tapering shoreline. This particular shoreline, by comparison, had a steeper drop-off, and the walleyes were holding on the ledge.
Once he figured that out and moved a couple of boat lengths farther from the weed line to 8 feet of water, the walleye catch improved, and the pike became less pesky.
The plans to cover water would have to keep for another day.
“It’s tough to move when you’re sticking fish - especially on bobbers,” Larson said. “That was pretty easy fishing. The first spot we go to and - bingo-bango - they’re in there.
“It doesn’t happen like that all the time.”
Maybe not, but it sure is fun when they do.
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