Being a serious walleye guy from the Great Lakes, I've often heard tales of the fantastic fishing to be had in the sprawling walleye Meccas of North Dakota, specifically Lake Sakakawea, Lake Oahe, and Devils Lake. I had the opportunity to sample the 'eye fishing at Devils just a few weeks ago, fishing with guide Jason Mitchell.
And at 135,000 acres — North Dakota's largest natural lake — Devils Lake did not disappoint.
"The lake is predominately shallow and, as a result, very fertile," said Mitchell. "The deepest part of the lake is just over 50 feet deep. In that kind of environment, there's plenty of forage, mainly freshwater shrimp, and walleyes grow fast."
Surprisingly enough, Devils Lake has tripled in size in recent years, rising some 25 feet because of a wet cycle that settled over the northern Prairie Pothole Region beginning in 1993. Record snowfall and rain produced record flooding, but what was hurtful for humans turned out to be wonderful for walleyes.
Thousands of inundated trees along the shoreline created quality habitat, which in turn produced record year classes of walleyes and other game fish, including yellow perch, northern pike, and white bass.
One of the most productive ways of fishing the standing trees for walleyes is by slip-bobbering, a technique we tried for the first hour or two of our trip: From an anchored boat, we skewered a live leech (hooked just once through the head to keep it alive) on a single hook and cast to about 12 feet of water.
Wind is nearly a constant on North Dakota's prairie lakes, and for an hour or so we watched our slip-bobbers dance in the one-foot waves. But leeches didn't seem to be on the walleye menu that morning, so after catching only a fish or two, Mitchell decided it was time to make a move.
Motoring across the lake to a shoreline where two-foot waves pounded into shallow water, we switched our offerings to crankbaits (#5 Rapala Shad Raps and Salmo Hornets) and began casting toward shore.
The cranks landed in about 5 feet of water, and using a slow, stop-and-go retrieve, Mitchell soon hooked the first 'eye. About a 2-pound fish, he fought it to the net — and the three others of us aboard took note and began copying the technique.
What ensued were several hours of nearly constant walleye action, resulting in everyone catching his five-fish limit. Big fish of the day weighed about 3 1/2 pounds.
The great walleye fishing at Devils Lake can be experienced nearly year-round, so it's not too late to plan a trip yet this summer.
But if ice fishing is more your style, Devils is known not only for walleyes, but also its giant yellow perch caught through the ice. And I do mean giant, as 1-pound-plus perch are common.
Woodland Resort is the only full-service resort located at the water's edge of Devils Lake. Regarded as one of the premier fishing resorts in the upper Midwest, it offers a lodge, motel, lakeside cabins, restaurant and bar, bait and tackle shop, even an air-conditioned fishing cleaning house, complete with freezer.
If you want to save a few bucks and don't mind roughing it a bit, try camping at Grahams Island State Park. My wife and I tent-camped there the night we stayed at Devils Lake, finding the campgrounds well maintained. There is also a wide, modern boat ramp, fish-cleaning facilities, and plenty of space at campsites to park a boat and trailer. In short, the campground is very angler-friendly.
And while at Devils Lake, take some time to wildlife watch. Because of all the shallow water, the area is a magnet for waterfowl and other water birds. Sully's Hill National Game Preserve is located next to the lake along State Route 57. The two-dollar entry fee for the drive-it-yourself tour is more than worth it, as you'll see native North Dakota wildlife up close: buffalo, elk, deer, wild turkeys, and prairie dogs.
Jason Mitchell (Mitchell's Guide Service) operates the largest guide service on the lake, so if he's personally already booked for the day(s) you want to fish, he will line you up with another competent guide.
"Devils Lake is one of the top walleye destinations in all of North America," said Mitchell. "And for many professional walleye anglers who fish both the PWT and FLW walleye tours, Devils is a favorite."
I've experienced the best walleye fishing the Great Lakes have to offer, and Devils Lake is more than comparable. I'll be going back...
W. H. "Chip" Gross is a professional outdoors writer/photographer and walleye enthusiast from Fredericktown, Ohio. For more information, visit his Web site.