By Nick Simonson
Even as one of the last waters in the state to totally freeze up, Devils Lake remains one of the first places people think of when it comes to ice fishing in North Dakota. With abundant walleye, perch and pike populations, even in off years, mni wakan or “spirit water” as it is known in indigenous lore, also embodies the spirit of the state’s ideal destination for hardwater angling each winter.
With a reloading walleye population and abundant young fish available, anglers will likely find steady action this ice season for the lake’s most popular species, according to North Dakota Game and Fish Department (NDG&F) Fisheries Biologist Todd Caspers, and overall conditions are good on Devils Lake as ice-up occurs.
“Overall numbers are just right around average according to our test netting that we do,” Caspers relates, adding, “the sizes that most people will run into, there will probably be a lot of those 12-to-maybe-15-inch fish; the 15-to-20-inch-range fish are a little below average right now and will probably be a little harder to catch than most anglers are used to.”
Caspers cites a tough stretch of reproduction for walleyes in the Devils Lake system from 2013 to 2015 and poor recruitment as the limiting factor in finding those mid-range specimens, deeming the output from that timeframe mediocre at best. Though having a tough run for three springs was an outlier, as the lake rarely has such a bad go year-after-year of spawning as seen during that stretch. He is excited, however, at the future prospects of the lake with the up-and-coming year classes that followed the trough from 2013 to 2015, which will make up the walleyes anglers are likely to encounter more frequently through the ice this season.
“It shouldn’t be anything in particular to really worry about, as those fish grow they’ll get older and they’ll start to get bigger and bigger,” Caspers advises, “we’ve had some fair to pretty good reproduction all the years after that [stretch from 2013 to 2015],” he concludes.
Once known for its jumbo perch fishery that brought anglers from across the country to the hardwater of Devils Lake after excessive flooding and strong reproduction in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the system is showing a bit of a slowdown heading into the winter of 2021. While populations of various year classes are still regularly encountered, turning the well-fed perch lurking below the lake’s ice this winter may require some added finesse.
“On perch, that’ll probably be a little slower than anglers are used to. Our netting showed the overall numbers weren’t so bad, they were a little bit below average, but those jumbo perch that people really like a lot were below average according to our nets, some of the smaller ones are closer to being at their average numbers, kind of like the walleyes,” Caspers stated, suggesting that forage for these fish remains strong in the form of scuds and minnows in the system, and that downsizing from walleye-sized offerings may be necessary to trigger a bite when schools of perch aren’t on a feeding binge.
Following the trends affecting walleyes and perch, northern pike numbers are off a bit for the fishery that spawned some amazing angling – and some of the state’s earliest liberal limits – for the species over the past two decades. While size structure will be similar with a lot of good opportunities to catch northerns in that 20-to-30-inch range, there just weren’t as many pike showing up in the agency’s test netting efforts earlier in 2020.
“They aren’t going to be as prevalent as they have been the last several years,” Caspers warns, “overall, there’s going to be pike to fish for, but you might not be chasing flags all the time if you’re running tip-ups,” he finishes.
One species anglers will likely encounter more frequently on Devils Lake this winter is the white bass. While not a predominant species in ice fishermen’s creels, the sheer number of white bass and the large roving schools they teem in may result in more catches by hardwater anglers in the winter of 2021. Currently, Caspers figures that the hard-charging silver panfish are running about three times more than average when compared against historical trends and may even produce fast action in the coming winter months.
“White bass are the opposite of what the other fish are doing right now, the other fish species are right around average or a little below, but white bass are actually really high in comparison to their average abundance,” Caspers explains, “and they’re running anywhere from 13-to-16 inches probably, so they’re getting to be pretty good sized,” he suggests.
Access on Devils Lake remains good and levels have been fairly stable, off slightly from the highwater mark in 2011, providing anglers with excellent opportunities to get on the lake’s more than 200,000 acres. With northern reaches and connections expanding in the last decade, fishing opportunities across the basin remain excellent and there are plenty of areas to explore this winter. While numbers may be off slightly for the most popular game fish, a down year on Devils Lake can often produce better fishing than on most other waters in the region, as could be the case for the upcoming winter.
Featured Photo: Ice anglers will find walleyes more abundant in that 12-to-15-inch range this winter following tough recruitment years in 2013-2015. Simonson Photo.