Devils Lake has been one of the hottest ice fishing destinations for decades. Within the ice fishing world, there is agreement that many advancements and modern-day tactics originated on this overgrown “pond” that’s now about 170,000 acres.
In the early 1990s, Devils Lake occupied about 40,000 acres. It grew and grew with incoming water and no outlet. As the lake expanded, so did fishing opportunities -- and anglers tackling it with innovative ideas.
The local Devils Lake ice fishing hotshots of 20 to 30 years ago didn’t brag. Rather, they shared and educated other hard-water anglers.
TV show host and former fishing and hunting guide Jason Mitchell was fortunate to have been there. Mark Bry of Bry’s Guide Service was also involved early on.
Those lessons really make a difference today.
Never gloating about his involvement, Mitchell talked about “popularizing” the sport. He was guiding all seasons, and in winter he joined his friend Steve “Zippy” Dahl of the Perch Patrol Guide Service. Later, Dahl joined Mitchell and expanded his guiding full-time to include open-water.
“We worked together even before we formed our guiding group,” Mitchell said. “Our goal was to help each other and our clients catch fish.”
They had to learn quickly how to break down big water. That meant being mobile. GPS technology was in its infancy when they were getting started. Mitchell installed his boat’s GPS onto his truck’s dash (yes, screws and glue) and mounted the GPS antenna to the top of his truck. He added bait and rod holders to his truck – after all, it was his on-ice “boat.”
“My wife would kill me if I did that to my truck,” was an often-heard comment.
Eventually this gave way to a side-by-side vehicle with the same equipment.
“A GPS with a 7-inch screen is mandatory when on big water,” Mitchell said. “I fish many summer spots for walleyes and can find the exact ‘X’ easily in winter.”
Mobility remains a key. Bry and Mitchell both agree: On small lakes, making small moves and drilling lots of holes is fine.
Different story on big water.
“Instead of getting bogged down, drill a couple holes, check things out,” Bry said. “If nothing shows up after 15 minutes, make a move. Don’t get hung up on one spot.”
“If perch are in the area, they will show themselves,” Mitchell added. “They move; so should you.”
Mitchell suggests making quarter-mile moves and repeating the process.
“For success, we needed to find big schools of perch and stay with them,” he said.
When on the fish, drilling more holes makes sense.
If one or two people are on a big perch school, the chances of picking away at them all day is good. When other anglers move in and fishing becomes tougher, “go to the edge of the crowd,” Mitchell advises. “Punch holes and see if that’s the direction the school is headed. If so, move ahead of them and keep catching.”
Bry recalls the first day he ran into Dave Genz, widely renowned as the godfather of modern ice fishing.
“I was on Stump Bay, and this guy drove his snow machine out,” Bry said. “He stopped and started drilling … and drilling … and drilling. Then he stopped and started fishing. I thought I was doing OK, but he put on a clinic. I had to meet him. What a revolutionary fisherman!”
This huge shift – from just fishing and waiting for a bite – to going to find fish owes a big thanks to Genz, Bry says, adding his guests tell him they never imagined they would climb into and out of his Sno Bears five to 12 times as they moved to locate fish.
In large basins, Mitchell said he learned to read bottom movement on his electronics. In 30 to 40 feet of water, a 19-degree transducer cone angle covers about 10 feet of bottom -- a circle 10 feet in diameter.
“I found out that when the bottom ‘flutters,’ it was fish on the edge of the cone angle,” Mitchell said. “They were in the area, but not coming to my presentation.
“That’s when I would aggressively pound bottom or snap my rod tip harder to bring them close. Devils Lake perch are well fed on freshwater shrimp, so they don’t have to chase their food.”
Look at the mouths of Great Lakes perch that chase down minnows, Mitchell says; their mouths are bigger than the same-sized Devils Lake perch.
“They also have a different temperament, and we figured that out early on,” he said.
Works for walleyes, too
The aggressive mode also proved extremely effective on walleyes. Devils Lake regs allow four rods in the winter, but running and gunning means one rod and an electronics unit.
Being aggressive with artificial lures such as Chubby Darters, Live Target Rattle Baits, Northland Puppet Minnows, Jigging Raps and rattle spoons with soft plastics often outperformed live bait, Mitchell said.
“We didn’t just sit with four dead rods out -- we moved,” he said. “This was counter to what most people were doing at the time. More and more ice fishermen have adopted this tactic. And, the lure companies have really created great products for this method.”
Bry says each of his clients has full use of a Vexilar.
“Electronics are the key to success,” he said. “We teach guests to read the moods of the fish and react accordingly. Without a depth finder, it’s like pheasant hunting without a dog.”
When he started bluegill and crappie fishing in Minnesota, Bry says he dropped his bait below a big bobber. When the bobber dipped, he grabbed the rod and ran until the fish was flopping on the ice. Now, the rods and reels are made specifically for the tactics needed.
“In fact, the lures, tackle, line and gear is made so people can catch fish,” he said.
Added Mitchell: “We weren’t the only ones building rods to our specs back then. Devils Lake friends like Clint DeVier were converting the tips of Ugly Sticks to rods with backbones. The ‘noodley’ tip showed them the bites because in 40 feet, you can’t feel bites even with graphite rods.”
These rods were introduced 10 years ago by Clam Corp., and they quickly became favorites, Mitchell says.
“They’re called Jason Mitchell Meat Sticks, and have been copied by most all manufacturers,” he said. “That’s because they work.”
Minor adaptations such as using braided line with a swivel and a couple feet of mono or fluorocarbon leader prevented line and lure twist with Jigging Raps.
“Fish won’t hit a lure that is twisting,” Mitchell said. “Same with spoons. We were managing line twist with these super productive lures. Before long, this became a standard ice tactic.”
With the lessons taught about reading electronics, tackle, jigging methods, being aggressive, mobility and more, the Devils Lake guides became popular and their business exploded. Part of that success, Mitchell said, was the advent of guide services that could handle large family or corporate groups at once.
“Mostly ice guides were lone wolves 20 to 30 years ago,” Mitchell said. “But with Zippy and a few others, we networked and let our guide friends know where the fish were active. This revolutionized the guiding business. Now it is the norm.”
Most visiting winter anglers want to catch perch, but the Devils Lake walleye population is doing well, and the northern pike fishery keeps getting better. With generous limits and lots of toothy critters, more anglers are taking home some of these tasty fish.
Bry’s Guide Service: brysguideservice.com.
Devils Lake Tourism: devilslakend.com.