DEVILS LAKE: From boredom to kaboom!
SOMEWHERE ON DEVILS LAKE -- Mark Bry had already been fishing a couple of hours, and the day was off to a great start. The football-sized perch in the back of his vehicle were proof. He'd been on the ice at first light, but the fun didn't start u...
SOMEWHERE ON DEVILS LAKE -- Mark Bry had already been fishing a couple of hours, and the day was off to a great start.
The football-sized perch in the back of his vehicle were proof. He'd been on the ice at first light, but the fun didn't start until about 8:30 a.m. In the next hour, Bry and two buddies, Jeremy Worden of Grand Forks and Chad Satterlund of Grafton, N.D., had landed upwards of two dozen perch and a half-dozen walleyes.
"The perch bite was one of the better ones I've had in two or three years," Bry, 32, said. "You'd drop the jig down, and they were there. It was a good bite."
The morning perch run was just a warm-up for what Bry had on his plate, though. Owner of Bry's Guide Service on Devils Lake, the Grand Forks middle school teacher was ready to do battle with a northern pike or two.
After that, the agenda would return to perch and, at twilight, walleyes.
This wasn't to be your typical pike fishing excursion, though; Bry's plan was to "sight fish" for pike through a 2x3-foot hole in the ice inside a 6x8-foot pop-up fish house that blocked out the light.
Think of it as darkhouse spearing -- without the spear.
"It's fun to watch fish," Bry said. "You can learn a lot in a few hours of doing this. Some of them absolutely destroy it, but some of them are really finicky."
Time was -- and not that many years ago -- when fishing through a hole larger than 12 inches was illegal in North Dakota. Then, in 2001, the North Dakota Legislature legalized darkhouse spearing for pike.
That required cutting a larger hole, and in 2008, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department expanded the law to allow angling through any size hole, providing that holes larger than 10 inches are marked when not in use.
Making a splash
While a larger hole offers the opportunity to see the fish, getting a 10-plus-pound pike out of the water can be a real adventure, Bry said.
Pike, after all, are notorious for thrashing and splashing when they come to the surface.
Bry keeps a small landing net by his side just in case.
"There are some real tanks down there," Bry said. The biggest pike he's released this winter weighed about 15 pounds.
According to Bry, the key to sight fishing for pike is finding clear water, and the spot where he'd set up this January morning was ideal. The bottom of the lake about 10 feet below was easy to see, and a large weed bed off to the side just out of view offered a perfect place for a large pike to hide in ambush.
Bry lowered a white and chartreuse-colored airplane jig and worked it like a puppeteer would work a puppet. The lure jumped and danced in response.
He used no bait, relying instead on the action of the jig.
Often, Bry said, pike will hit when the jig is motionless. The action can switch from monotony to mayhem in seconds.
"When you see a big fish come in, it's a lot of fun -- it just flat-out is," Bry said. "It's a lot of boredom and then ... kaboom! It really is that."
There's little time for boredom, and Bry had been fishing maybe 10 minutes when a brutish pike cruised into the hole. Things seemed to happen in slow motion, but the pike engulfed the jig within seconds.
The pike, which seemed to come out of nowhere, made three or four strong runs before Bry could steer it back to the hole. Then -- swoosh! -- the fish was out of the water, driven mostly by forward momentum, no net required.
Bry didn't measure the pike, but it was wide across the back with striking yellow-white spots on its flanks. It easily was 35 inches, perhaps even longer, and Bry estimated the fish weighed 12 pounds.
He removed the hook and sent the pike on its way after a couple of quick photos. The fish showed its gratitude with a tail splash that showered Bry in a spray of icy-cold water.
"That's why I hate northerns," he said with a laugh.
Bry has done his share of darkhouse spearing since North Dakota started offering the opportunity but said he's really gotten into sight fishing the past couple of years.
Watching a big pike come in and hit a lure, it's easy to see why.
"Spearing is fun, but that fish would be dead," Bry said. "That's the appealing thing about this. I don't want to keep them. That's the reason I got on these pike. It's action; it's entertainment. It's fun when they come in."
The fast start was encouraging, but there's more boredom than "kaboom!" the next couple of hours, which pass without another sighting.
Worden and Satterlund, fishing nearby, weren't doing any better.
The perch were calling.
Bry's job as a teacher allows him to spend every day in the summer on the water. Worden and Satterlund are among a handful of guides who help out when the workload is especially hectic.
During the winter, though, Bry said he only guides weekends, mainly for regular summer customers.
"I do a little bit here and there," he said. "I've got to be selective with my groups. I can only take so many."
Fishing on the big lake has been good this winter, Bry said, and the lack of snow on the ice means getting around is easy. Anglers driving out in larger vehicles have to use caution, though, especially near pressure ridges.
Bry said he's heard of a handful of vehicles that have gone through the ice this winter, and he suspects there'll be more.
Shifting gears from pike to perch, Bry and his fishing partners head across the bay to the spot where they'd started the morning. The perch had gone deeper -- 20 to 25 feet instead of 15 feet -- but they're not far from the morning flurry.
Bry has his best luck with a Northland Buckshot Rattle Spoon tipped with a minnow head.
Perch for years were the bread-and-butter of Devils Lake's ice fishing industry, but they grew harder to find as the lake rose and expanded. Anglers, especially those who fish perch, have faced some challenging winters in the past decade, but the fishing this winter reflects what fisheries biologists saw last summer during test-netting surveys.
Randy Hiltner, eastern district fisheries supervisor for the Game and Fish Department in Devils Lake, said test nets last summer produced the best perch catches since 2003.
"Actually, the perch population is looking pretty good," Hiltner said. "From our netting survey, the perch varied from 6 inches up to 15 inches. We had a pretty good catch of that 10- to 12-inch perch length group, too, so those are dandies."
On the move
The perch Bry and his partners caught on this January day ranged from marginal eaters to a pound and a half or more. Staying on the fish meant staying mobile, though; action often was steady in one hole but dead just a few yards away.
Light snow fell, but there was little wind, and moving around was easy.
"On Devils Lake, you'd be pretty lucky to drill a hole and have a bunch of perch under you," Hiltner said. "There's a little more to it than that. You have to do some serious looking with your electronics and get over a school and make decisions from there."
Typical of perch fishing, the action slowed as daylight waned, and Bry and his fishing partners moved closer to shore and set up for walleyes in shallower water.
There'd be no trophies, but the walleyes were cooperating, and they caught several eaters.
A nice change, Bry said, from the deep snow and slush that hampered fishing the past couple of winters.
"It's just good right now," he said.
On this day, at least, that certainly was the case.
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