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Devils Lake Fueled Many Popular Ice Fishing Advancements

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 over-grown pond, now about 170,000 acres.

In the early 1990s, this north-central North Dakota 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 hot-shots of 20 to 30 years ago didn’t brag. Instead, 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, with Bry’s Guide Service (10 guides and lodging), was also involved early-on. Those lessons make a difference today.

Devils lake ice fishing
Devils lake ice fishing

Never gloating about his involvement, Jason talked about “popularizing” the sport. He was guiding all seasons, and in winter, he joined his friend Zippy Dahl. Later, Zippy joined Jason and expanded his guiding full-time to include open-water. “We worked together even before we formed our guiding group. Our goal was to help each other, and our clients catch fish,” Jason said.

They had to learn quickly how to break down big water. That meant being mobile. GPS technology was birthed about the time these men were getting started. Jason 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.” A comment heard often was, “My wife would kill me if I did that to my truck.”

Eventually, this gave way to a side-by-side with the same equipment. “A GPS with a 7-inch screen is mandatory when on big water. I fish many summer spots for walleyes, and can find the exact “X” easily in winter,” he explained.

Mobility remains key. Both Mark and Jason agreed: on small lakes making small moves, and drilling lots of holes is fine. On big water, Mark said, “Instead of getting bogged down, drill a couple of holes, check things out. If nothing shows up after 15 minutes, make a move. Don’t get hung up on one spot.”

ICE HELIX CHIRP / GPS
ICE HELIX CHIRP / GPS

Jason said, “If perch are in the area, they will show themselves. They move; so should you.” He suggested making quarter-mile moves and repeat. “For success, we needed to find big schools of perch and stay with them.” When on the fish, drilling more holes makes sense.

If one or two persons are on a big perch school, the chances of picking away at them all day is good. When people move in, and fishing becomes tougher, Jason advises, “Go to the edge of the crowd, punch holes and see if that’s the direction the school is headed. If so, move ahead of them and keep catching.”

Mark recounted the first day he ran into Pioneer and the Father of Ice Fishing Mobility (Grandfather??). Mark said, “I was on Stump Bay, and this guy drove his snowmachine out. 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 Dave.

Frabill Recruit Ice Shelter
Frabill Recruit Ice Shelter

Mark said his guests tell him they never imagined they would climb into and out of his Sno Bears 5 to 12 times as they moved to locate fish.

In large basins, Jason said he learned to read bottom movement on his electronics unit. In 30 to 40 feet of water, a 19-degree transducer cone angle covers about 10 feet of the 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. 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 fresh-water shrimp, so they don’t have to chase their food,” he said. Look at the mouths of Great Lakes perch that chase down minnows. Their mouths are bigger, he explained, than the same-sized Devils Lake perch. “They also have a different temperament, and we figured that out early on,” he said.

The aggressive mode also proved extremely effective on walleyes. Devils Lake regs allow four rods but running, and gunning mean one rod and an electronics unit. Being aggressive with artificial lures like Chubby Darters, Live Target Rattle Baits, Northland Puppet Minnows, Jigging Raps, and rattle spoons with soft plastics often outperformed live bait. “We didn’t just sit with four dead rods out. We moved. 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 created great products for this method,” Jason said.

LIVETARGET Golden Shiner Rattlebait shown in 210 Glow-Blue
LIVETARGET Golden Shiner Rattlebait shown in 210 Glow-Blue

Each of Mark’s clients has full use of a Vexilar. “Electronics are the key to success. 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,” he said.

Mark said when he started bluegill and crappie fishing in Minnesota, 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. “The lures, tackle, line, and gear is made so people can catch fish,” he said.

“We weren’t the only ones building rods to our specs back then,” Jason said, “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 ten years ago by CLAM, and they quickly became favorites. “They’re called Jason Mitchell Meat Sticks and have been copied by most manufacturers. That’s because they work,” he said.

Minor adaptations like using braided line with a swivel and a couple of feet of mono or fluoro leader prevented line and lure twist with Jigging Raps. “Fish won’t hit a lure that is twisting,” Jason 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, Jason 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,” Jason observed. “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.” Bry’s Guide Service also has lodging for up to 34 guests.

Both men repeated this phrase, “We want people to learn. It makes sense to provide the best for clients.”

Most visiting winter anglers want to catch perch, but the Devils Lake walleye population has exploded. 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.

Devils Lake guide services are featured on devilslakend.com, along with fishing and hunting reports, lake info, ice conditions, water levels, details about the community, lodging, restaurants, and so much more. Fishing is open year-round. Devils Lake questions will gladly be answered by a knowledgeable resident at 701-662-4903.

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