DEVILS LAKE - Fishermen come from throughout the United States to try their luck at fishing Devils Lake, with good reason. The sprawling fishery continues to turn out impressive limits of multiple species of fish.
"I keep saying every year that it can't get any better, and it does," said Johnnie Candle, a 13-year veteran fishing guide on Devils Lake. "Fishermen come from everywhere. Most recently I've had fishermen from Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin. People come here and they see positive results. They go back home and tell their friends."
Henry Duray, manager of Grahams Island State Park, was watching a couple from Alaska clean fish at the park's cleaning station this past week. They had stayed as many days as the park allows, explained Duray, and didn't want to leave. Campsite occupancy is limited to no more than 14 days in any 30-day period.
"It's all about fishing. People from all over the country come here to fish," said Duray. "Three years ago we had visitors from 49 states. Last year, even with the road under construction, we had visitors from 43 states."
With that kind of attention and fishing pressure it would be understandable, even expected, that the fish population in Devils Lake would be in decline. It's not. The fishery, buoyed by high water, continues to flourish and expand. The lake abounds in small invertebrates, most notably freshwater shrimp, that provide plenty of forage for young fish. It is a nearly ideal environment for fish to grow.
"The smaller walleyes get all the energy they need from those invertebrates and chironomids, or bloodworms," explained Randy Hiltner, North Dakota Game and Fish Department fish biologist stationed at Devils Lake. "Their stomachs are packed with those at times. The walleyes, perch, white bass and even northerns use them to start their lives."
Johnnie Candle, professional fisherman and fishing guide, holds a nice Devils Lake walleye. Note the bottom bouncer and spinner which was tipped with a small Gulp!
As a fishing guide, Candle also knows the importance of keeping track of what fish are eating. In recent days, he says, presentations that are smaller than those used earlier in the year have been the most effective.
"They want that smaller presentation right now. You clean these fish and you find young of the year minnows," explained Candle. "They are 1 to 2 inches long at the most. I've been leaning more and more on Gulp! rather than half a nightcrawler that might get ripped off."
Gulp! is a version of artificial bait that is scented and mimics a real baitfish.
Pitching crankbaits or jigs into shallow water has long been a "go to" plan for fishermen early in the season on Devils Lake. While that bite was there this season, it proved to be less than what is normally expected. One of the latest ice-outs on record is often cited as the reason why.
Lately the shift in presentations has been to bottom bouncers and spinners tipped with a nightcrawler or artificial bait. Effective depth depends on the conditions and time day, but 10 to 12 feet is usually a good place to start for any summertime fisherman on Devils Lake.
"What has made a difference is that the stuff that was flooded years ago has all deteriorated, floated away or is uprooted. The snags are not nearly the issue they used to be," explained Candle while on the water this past week. "Today we pulled bottom bouncers and spinners outside of a weed edge. If we would have tried to do that five years ago, we would have been stuck in so many trees we'd never have been able to fish."
Almost no matter what tactic is used, Devils Lake tends to find a way to keep anglers happy. During a typical day or half-day on the water, it is not unusual to accomplish what Candle calls the Devils Lake grand slam - a walleye, perch, white bass and northern pike all during the same fishing session.
"We've got abundant walleyes in decent size. We've got big perch, white bass and we're getting more and more anglers coming here just to target northern pike," said Candle. "We've got an incredible class of walleyes from a few years ago that was, if I'm not mistaken, three times larger than any other in the history of Devils Lake. We're seeing those now. It was a great year class."
Indeed, the 2009 year class of walleyes on Devils Lake was prolific. While those fish are generally in the 15-inch range today, there were other recent hatches of walleyes that have contributed significantly to the overall population.
"We've had some very good hatches of walleyes," said Hiltner. "Last year was a very strong class, too."
Hiltner says most of the typical 15- to 16-inch walleyes in Devils Lake are 4 years old from the 2009 hatch. Although all of the numbers have yet to be summarized, Hiltner says recent netting is likely to confirm that the number of walleyes in Devils Lake remains very high. Perch and northern pike are doing well, too. If there is a species in decline, it would be white bass.
"They are not as dense as they were in 2008. That's when the netting catch rate peaked for white bass," said Hiltner. "We've got a strong number of 2-foot pike, roughly. Lots of those."
Not all fish grow at the same rate. Some have better genetics than others. Candle says finding fish to catch, good eating fish, is not difficult. However, hooking trophy-sized fish remains challenging.
"The big fish numbers are down a little bit," concluded Candle. "I'm talking the 7- and 8-pound walleyes. But if you hit the right spot on the right day, you wouldn't think that. They are still out there."
Hiltner says recent netting has turned up some 30-inch walleyes. Fish that size, in the 10-pound class, are rare. Depending on genetics, testing has shown walleyes that size may be 15 or more years old.
Devils Lake's has its share of large northern pike, too. While many are in the 3- to 5-pound category, Game and Fish nets have turned up a number of pike weighing 10 to 20 pounds despite not specifically targeting big pike.
"They are out there," agreed Candle. "You see them more through the ice. Every year there's some 20-pounders. Tens are more common."
On the circuit
Devils Lake is scheduled to host a Cabela's Masters Walleye Circuit event Aug. 2-4. Candle was the circuit World Champion in 2010. The Devils Lake stop will be his second event of the season.
"I qualified for another championship last year," said Candle. "I've got one event this year and three more to go. Another world title would be nice. I still enjoy the competition but it is getting harder and harder to leave home for a tournament where you don't catch as many fish as you do at home."
As for the upcoming MWC at Devils Lake, Candle says he needs to score some points to remain in contention on the circuit. However, he says, fishing at home is not always an advantage.
"What gets you on your home waters is that you know too much," said Candle. "At other tournaments I use what I learned through six days of pre-fishing. I do the same thing here, but in the back of my head I have 13 years of information. Sometimes that makes you pull into an old spot whether it is the right spot for the conditions or not."
The MWC event is scheduled to leave the dock at Grahams Island State Park at 7 a.m. Friday and Saturday, Aug. 2-3. If weather should cause postponement of either day, Sunday, Aug. 4, is an alternate date. Only artificial bait can be used during the tournament. Total payout is $54,000 with $15,000 for first place.