Trip Report: The Jumbo Perch of Devils Lake

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I don’t keep a bucket list. If I did, one of the items on it going into 2020 would have been ice fishing Devils Lake. When that opportunity recently landed in my lap, I couldn’t resist. It was a “Communicator Camp,” arranged by the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers (AGLOW), where Devils Lake Tourism and Clam Outdoors hosted several media professionals like myself. 

We assembled the first night, and were given a warm welcome (and the game plan) by Devils Lake Tourism’s Suzie Kenner and Tanner Cherney. Two members of the Clam Outdoors Ice Team– Thayne Jensen and Tony Mariotti- also gave us an overview of all the equipment we’d be using. Everything sounded so good until the conversation turned to the weather. 

Conditions had not been good as of late, and weren’t expected to improve while we were there. I didn’t care. I was confident we were in good hands, and that I would definitely catch more fish than if I’d been stumbling around on that huge lake all on my own. I couldn’t wait; the next 10 hours couldn’t pass fast enough. 

Day One: Getting to Know Devils Lake

Devils Lake pressure ridgeI woke up that first morning a full hour before my alarm; it seemed I couldn’t escape my excitement, even in an unconscious state. When we had all assembled, we headed through town and across the lake. The snow drifts were sometimes impressive, but not ultimately impassable. Just a few hundred yards short of our destination, we encountered an ice ridge that was too long to circumvent. Previous tracks showed where somebody got very stuck when they tried to cross it, so I was fine with taking the long way around. 

When we finally got some holes drilled and things unloaded, I hopped into a Yukon XL Thermal shelter and started catching walleyes immediately. They were active but not eager biters, so Tony helped me refine my presentation. That made a difference. We sat in that spot several hours and picked off fish here and there as they came through. While many were small, the numbers of fish were impressive. We received word that perch were stacked up in another spot, so we headed out about 1:00. 

Devils Lake jumbo perchThose fish must have heard I was coming. They were scarce when we arrived; only a handful were scattered about in that spot, which was over 40 feet deep. Since chances were few and the perch were biting lightly if at all, it was crucial to detect those bites when they occurred. The incredibly thin, straight-hanging Frost Ice braided line helped me feel those tiny taps and pull a couple small perch up. I tried a few different lures and hopped around to different holes, trying to make something happen. The chunky perch ultimately gave me the slip that afternoon. Some in our group did connect with a couple nice ones, which indicated we were doing something right. 

The last spot of the day was a classic Devils Lake location: in about 20 feet of water, over submerged trees. Branches could be seen on my sonar screen there, and my hooks stuck to them a time or two. We were expecting walleyes and a few showed up- just not for me. I did, however, hook my own Devils Lake jumbo perch. It felt good to get that monkey off my back. Proz LakesideWe capped off the day by having supper at Proz Lakeside– a great spot right on the lake. 

Day Two: The Same, But Different

The next morning we fished in rental houses from Woodland Resort, in Creel Bay. The first location was on a break where walleyes were expected. A few small ones gave us some action, but nothing we were hoping for. The rest of our time was spent a short distance away, over the mud in about 43 feet of water. Unlike the previous day, we could see fish on our Vexilars most of the time. However, they were in the same apprehensive mood. 

I shared a house that day with Dave Mull, an outdoor writer from Michigan. For a while, some perch would come through and we would both have a few moments of activity. Many fish gave the impression that they would bite, but few did. I managed to set the hook on a couple nice perch, which were promptly tossed out the door and onto the snow. 

Devils Lake perchI wondered if a simple hook-and-minnow might get some looks, so I rigged that up and dangled it in one of the empty holes. No fish came up on that rod, but it seemed that when the perch came around they would linger a bit longer. My little “decoy” may have held their interest momentarily, or they may have been slowing down- it’s hard to say. Either way, I’m glad I tried it; switching lures seemed to have no effect that morning. 

By the end of our time there, Dave had caught two fat perch and I had caught four. It was truly a pleasure to finally lay hands on a few jumbo perch. 

Lessons learned

Whether I’m out for two hours or two days, each fishing outing teaches me something. I came away from Devils Lake with new memories, new skills, and a whole lot to think about. Here are a few thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head ever since. 

Ice fishing gear has come a long way in 20 years. 

Clam portable sheltersFrom 2000 to 2002, I worked in retail selling fishing goods, including what was available for ice fishing at the time (which wasn’t all that much). The number of ice fishing companies and their products have exploded since. Some of what’s out there is worth buying, and a lot of it is not. The essential items remain constant, but they continue to evolve and improve. Portable houses are a good example.

The Fish Traps were relatively new in the early 2000s, and it was a big deal when they changed fabrics and seat styles. I owned one for over 10 years, and became very acquainted with it. As I sat in the comfort of the Yukon XL, I realized almost no aspect of Clam’s flip-over houses has remain unchanged. From the outer fabric to the seats, it’s obvious Clam has been re-examining and re-designing to make their products better to use. The system for managing the support poles is about a thousand percent better than it was back in the day, which is enough to make me want a house of that style again. Unfortunately, I can only haul hub-style shelters right now, so that’s how it’s going to be for a while. 

Using good ice fishing line makes a difference. 

I’ve used braided line through the ice for years, but never took it seriously and didn’t know how far it has come. Clam set us up on this trip with great rod/reel combos (Jason Mitchell Gen8), strung with Frost Ice line (some fluorocarbon, some braid). I had 6# braided line, and was immediately impressed by its small diameter, how limp it was, and its low visibility. These are all great assets for ice line, especially when the bite is weak and every opportunity for a hookup is precious. I was so impressed by the Frost braid, when I got home I bought some 3# Frost fluorocarbon and one of the Genz in-line reels to put it on. I’ve already put it to work a couple times and there are many trout and panfish days ahead of me yet this year. I will be posting a season-end evaluation of my experiences with those lines, so watch for that. 

Even an outstanding fishery like Devils Lake will make you work. 

Devils Lake perchIce fishing at Devils Lake is downright legendary, and tales of buckets full of fish are all over digital and print media. But it’s not always a cake walk, as we found out. Even though we were clearly in the right places for almost the entire two days, the fish were not in the mood to bite. Sunny skies apparently would have changed the mood of the perch. Unfortunately, that is one component that we humans will never have control over. It was frustrating, but there was nothing to do but fish hard and make the most of it. Sure, it would have been nice to come home having caught limits of walleye and perch, but I was happy to have caught what I did. Besides, catching a few walleyes and several jumbo perch would be considered a triumph in most other places.

An outstanding fishery like Devils Lake will reward you and make you a better angler. 

Yes, no matter where you fish, you can always be victim to non-optimal weather conditions. Those are the times to use all your knowledge and best skills, and crank up the determination. In rising to the challenge, bold moves may be necessary. There’s always something you can do differently, for example, whether it’s moving to a different spot, changing baits, or overhauling your bait presentation. 

When I get discouraged, it’s sometimes hard to motivate myself to make those kinds of changes. But doing nothing is rarely the right choice. In a place like Devils Lake, you know good fish are out there, and in large numbers. If you’re willing to pursue them, they will teach you lessons and make you a better angler. I know I learned those kinds of lessons on this trip. 

If I have to work hard to catch a few fish, they will always bring me more satisfaction than a pile of fish that practically jumped out of the hole. I also love a challenge and learning new things. And there is no end to my enthusiasm for learning about a lake and building on previous experiences. For those reasons and because there’s always a chance for crazy-good ice fishing there, Devils Lake hasn’t seen the last of me. 

 

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I dropped into the bait shop at Woodland Resort to pick up an assortment of the Clam lures we were using, just to give them away! Sign into YouTube and comment for your chance to win:

 

 

 

Tullibees and Happy Kids on Mille Lacs Lake

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Nobody smiles at 4:40 am. Nobody at my house, anyway. But Friday morning, I woke my kids up that early, knowing they would be smiling a lot that day- eventually. They had the day off from school, and we had a big day planned at Mille Lacs Lake. 

Our little Ford Escape slinked down the resort ramp between rumbling trucks and wheelhouses, out onto the white expanse. It was a few minutes before sunrise, but we wouldn’t see the sun that day due to thick cloud cover. Temps were expected to rise about ten degrees to near 30 by day’s end. It wasn’t a picture-perfect day, but it could have been a lot worse. 

Mille Lacs tullibeesThe plan was to visit a mud hole where I’d had good action on tullibees two years ago. It sits between several surrounding mud flats, and is about 35 feet deep at its deepest. If we didn’t encounter many tullibees, I had another spot nearby to try. As it was, we had that hole to ourselves, so I felt good about our chances. 

My expectations were low, as far as catching fish was concerned. When I go out myself, my goal is usually to catch something. When I take my kids, however, having fun is the prime mission. We soon had the house set up and holes drilled. I made sure they had places to sit and rods in their hands. It was a good thing, too, because it didn’t take long for my daughter to hook into the first tullibee. It was a fine specimen, about 14 inches. There’s nothing like catching good fish to set the right mood. 

Over the next few hours, tullibees would cycle in and out, but the first flurry of action seemed to be the best. When the fish cooled off a bit, my son started losing interest. I offered to put a minnow on his bobber rig so he wouldn’t have to keep jigging. I had no idea if a tullibee would eat a minnow, but found a tiny one and sent it down the hole. It turns out tullibees will indeed eat minnows, and that next fish was the biggest so far- about 15 and a half inches long. That put a smile on my boy’s face, all right. He wasn’t catching as many fish as his sister, but being able to claim the biggest one seemed to make up for it. 

We never felt the impetus to leave that spot. The fish kept coming back and we kept picking off one or two every once in a while. The kids kept warm in our hub house, which kept them engaged. Abundant food also did its part in keeping them happy. Not once did they ask to leave early, which was a sure sign they were having a great time. But they could not have had as good a day if the tullibees didn’t do their part. 

Mille Lacs tullibeeIn all, they caught 15 nice-sized tullibees between the two of them. Those fish were definitely turned on that day. I know we got lucky, and I’m not overlooking that fact. But I also know that if I’d insisted we spend the whole time trying to find walleyes, it would not have been the same. There’s no way I could have arranged for them to catch as many walleyes as they did tullibees. Plus, they already knew how good those fish would taste smoked, and every time one came through the hole somebody would say how much they were looking forward to eating it. 

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: kids love eating the fish they catch. I believe it’s a powerful recruitment tool that is, sadly, rarely mentioned. It gives kids a sense of ownership and pride in their experience that ties into their life at home. After all, everybody has to eat. But I believe it’s not just a utilitarian thing; finding and gathering our food is a primal urge that tugs at each of us, no matter how far removed we are from our food source. 

But I digress. 

With about an hour and a half to go before sunset, we packed up and headed about half a mile to the top edge of a nearby mud flat. Since the snow was reasonably deep, it wasn’t hard to find a spot away from trucks and houses and commotion. 

It was clear my kids were getting tired and I didn’t want to overstay our welcome and fray the edges of their enthusiasm. So I promised we wouldn’t stay too long before heading to the pizza joint, and set them up in the house with the sonar and jigging rods while I set out tip-ups. They did a great job of staying engaged despite not seeing any fish come through on the sonar. I think the memory of those vigorous, hard-fighting tullibees was enough to keep them going. 

Mille Lake walleye ice fishingWhen I was done with tip-ups, I picked up a rod and took it outside to probe some of the extra holes we had drilled. Within a minute at the first hole, I heard a bell ring from one of the tip-ups. The kids came out of the house in time to see me set the hook and pull up a nice walleye of 22 inches- right in the middle of the slot. There was no question we would keep that fish. After all, this big kid loves to eat the fish he catches. 

 

See my Video Log entry from that day:

 

 

New Year, New Adventures

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I’m not a new-year’s-resolution kind of person. Rare are the times I am moved to state such aspirations formally, and rarer yet are the years when they survive to see the next changing of the calendar. Still, I will frequently look back on the past 12 months as that milestone approaches each year. My reflections have been more rewarding than usual this time around.  Continue reading “New Year, New Adventures”

Do Something New: Harvest Your Own Christmas Tree

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Normally, I wouldn’t be thinking about our Christmas tree in October. In fact, we’ve had a hand-me-down artificial tree for about the last 15 years, so it wouldn’t occur to me at all. But some relatives were telling us they’d be at the cabin this year for Christmas, and I suggested they get a permit to take their tree from the woods for the occasion. So in the interest of encouraging others into the outdoors, I snooped around for information from Minnesota DNR and the Forest Service, and emailed them some web links. 

What I found actually surprised me. As far as I could tell, the permit for harvesting a tree from Minnesota’s state forest lands would cost $25. That was a higher price than I expected. However, the permit for a tree from Chippewa National Forest costs only $5. 

Yes, FIVE DOLLARS.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Harvest Your Own Christmas Tree”

Product Review: Irish Setter VaprTrek Boot

It all started in 2014. A great pair of leather boots had given up the ghost and I needed something new. Another pair of leather boots seemed a good idea, but with all the walking I do in the bird hunting season, I didn’t want anything too heavy. One boot caught my attention, marketed as light in weight and tough as nails. I’d never owned anything in kangaroo leather before, so who was I to doubt their claims? 

Well, I should have. Astonishingly, I wore those boots out in just one October. The leather in the toes completely disintegrated, and the waterproof layer underneath could clearly be seen. I regret to this day I didn’t take pictures, but I was livid as I packed up the box. I just wanted them out of my sight. Ever since then, I’ve been in search of a boot that could stand up to the way I hunt.  Continue reading “Product Review: Irish Setter VaprTrek Boot”

Do Something New: Quarter and Pack Out a Deer

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I’ve long dreamed of hunting in the mountains, spending days climbing, glassing, and stalking. This kind of trip has always seemed quite accessible to me, except for one aspect: getting the meat out of the woods. It would be impractical to expect to drag a deer back to the truck. Foolish, really, and out of the question with an elk. So that would mean quartering and packing the animal out. This is nothing to the hunter on horseback, or even one who is accustomed to doing it. Continue reading “Do Something New: Quarter and Pack Out a Deer”

NAGC’s Best Adventurer Food, 2019

Read More Nordhem Karlstad MN

Even when you’re on the road, everybody’s gotta eat. There are the hidden gems, and there are the inevitable sore disappointments. On my adventures, I’ve found my share of each. In the interest of rewarding the proprietors of first-rate eateries, I would like to share some of my favorites with you. Hopefully this will also serve to help you avoid some of the duds lurking out there. The map below is interactive, so click on the icons to obtain addresses, phone numbers, and websites. Have at it, and let me know what you think!

Continue reading “NAGC’s Best Adventurer Food, 2019”

NAGC News, 2019 Highlights

Tribute to a Vizsla

Grouse hunting VizslaRoy’s article entitled “For The Good Times” was included in the March/April issue of the magazine Pointing Dog Journal. It was the narrative of the final hunt with his longtime hunting buddy, Johann. 13-year-old Johann is still with us, but his hunting days are, sadly, in the past. That hunt last November seemed like a perfect time to pay tribute to this hard-working, bird-crazy, lovable family dog, and the folks at PDJ were gracious to let the bird dog community read it. Thanks go out to Jake Smith and Pointing Dog Journal.  

Video Venture

Never A Goose Chase is now also available in video form! YouTube has been hosting an NAGC channel since March. Currently, there are 2 videos up: one from Roy’s maple syrup making venture, and one from Roy’s solo trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in May. Nut foraging videos are currently in production, and a video log is in the works. Subscribe to NAGC’s YouTube home so you don’t miss videos as they come out. 

Awards for Never A Goose Chase

Roy recently became a member of the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers (AGLOW), and attended the annual conference in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in September. It was a week rich in networking and story ideas, and he received Awards-In-Craft prizes for Never A Goose Chase content from the last year. The featured photo from “BWCA Entry Point 44: Ice-Out Lake Trout” won third place in the Photography division in the fishing category. That very blog post won second place in the Electronic Media/Blog division, fishing category. As if that wasn’t enough, Roy’s post “Do Something New: Spot & Stalk Duck Hunting” also won second place in the Electronic Media/Blog division, hunting category. He was pleased with his first showing, and that first AGLOW conference will not be his last. 

 

 

 

Foraging in Minnesota: Focus on Black Cherry

Read More Minnesota black cherry

I’m sure you’ve heard of “black cherry,” either as a flavoring or as a type of wood. For me, the name evokes a certain flavor of candy. But did you know it’s a harvestable fruit here in Minnesota? Yes, it is. And this year’s harvest was outstanding. 

I’d been waiting several years for a good crop of these cherries- perhaps 4 or 5. They were not something I went out of my way for, but I usually checked on a couple different trees at least once toward the end of each summer. Well, this year, it was clear conditions were somehow just right. Branches were full of green clusters by July all over in my area.  Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Focus on Black Cherry”

How My Alma Mater Prepared Me To Sleep On The Ground

Read More Gustavus Adolphus College

Waking up somewhere cold and hard is not an occasional occurrence for me. Just a few weeks ago, I took my first solo trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area as the snow and ice receded from the landscape. Earlier this year, I slept a night on the ice of Lake Mille Lacs while I explored a lake that is still big and new to me. A couple months before that, I endured one late-October night (in a slightly leaky tent) while I tried my hand at netting whitefish in far northern Minnesota. I was fortunate enough to catch a modest number of fish each time, for which I was grateful, but everyone knows there are easier ways to bring food home for the table. So what makes me embrace physical exertion and discomfort doing these or any such things? 

Continue reading “How My Alma Mater Prepared Me To Sleep On The Ground”

BWCA Entry Point 44: Ice-Out Lake Trout

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Way up north, in the far reaches of Cook County, hundreds of deep cold lakes lie hidden in the hills and shaggy conifer forests. This is the stronghold of Minnesota’s lake trout population, with dozens of lakes hosting populations of one degree or another. There is a special place in my heart for lake trout, and an honored place on my table for any of the salmonid family. Since our trip to Crystal Lake last spring in the BWCA, I had been looking for my next opportunity to go after more of these delectable fatty fish. Also since last year, I had developed a deep burning desire to take a solo trip, which I had never done before. A permit for one person for Entry Point 44- with lake trout in Ram Lake and Little Trout Lake- seemed the perfect way to scratch both itches.  Continue reading “BWCA Entry Point 44: Ice-Out Lake Trout”

Do Something New: Smelt Netting

When I was growing up in the ’80s, the smelt boom on Lake Superior was already over and fading into collective memory, becoming legend. “Smelting” in its heyday was something everybody knew about and a great many rushed to the rivers to partake in. Nowadays, it’s almost exclusively a “used to” activity; you might have heard it too: “we used to go up there and fill up a barrel with smelt in half an hour.” In recent years, however, I’ve learned that the smelt still run and a select few still pursue them. 

Last Wednesday, I bought a smelt net from a guy on Craig’s List for 10 bucks. The next day I headed for Lake Superior with that net, hip waders, a 5 gallon bucket, what little information could be gleaned from the internet regarding current conditions, and a whole lot of hope. The plan was to start up the shore after sunset, and work my way down if I found nothing. The first stop was the booming metropolis of Knife River.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Smelt Netting”

The End of Their Era: When Our Outdoor Mentors Pass On

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My dad’s friend Larry was a staple of my formative years, a regular presence in our hunting endeavors in the late 80s and early 90s. His light, contagious demeanor was always welcome, and I won’t soon forget how his jokes and wise cracks punctuated the many car rides, duck blinds, and nights in the camper, not to mention his deft incitement of near-inappropriate moments at home and in the narthex of the church. I can still hear his crazy, half-wheezed, unfettered laugh, and I know I always will. 

He passed away last week, after a years-long tussle with cancer; this news was not unexpected, certainly, but its inevitability did not serve to mitigate its impact. His loss comes as yet another blow to constancy, a cold chipping away at my sense of youth and connection to the past. So it goes whenever a part of us seems gone forever and can only be kept alive in memory and stories. For me, it would be hard in this moment not to pause and remember the others that have gone on ahead.  Continue reading “The End of Their Era: When Our Outdoor Mentors Pass On”