Off the point of Gull Island in the Van Hook Arm of Lake Sakakawea, a worn and well-traveled highway has formed across the ice. Driving along this road is a strange sensation, especially since it is along a similar a path many traveled by boat just a few months before. Several small ice houses with pickups parked beside dot this "roadside," reminiscent of small farm houses that line a country road. A few miles off at the end of the road, more ice houses are clustered together resembling a small village on the frozen lake.
This is more so upon reaching the houses and seeing the hub of activity. Some anglers stand outside, bundled up against the cold and chat as they watch the many tip-ups that rest across dozens of drilled holes. The rookies jump at the pop or crack of the ice and eye the nearest shore. A veteran assures them that that's a good sign; it means the ice is growing, not breaking.
Meanwhile, out of the corner of his eye, another angler catches the bright orange flash of a flag pop up on one of the tip-ups, a signal that a fish has taken the bait. They go sprinting to the tip-up, drop down on their knees and begin pulling the line up. Whoops and hollers erupt when they hear the shout "Get the gaff!" a signal that the fish is a larger one. More shouts are heard as the fish's large head is pulled through the hole and the fish is flopped down upon the ice.
Other fishermen curiously come out from their houses, look at the fish and run back inside or to alert their neighbors. More anglers come from the permanent houses, and they are usually underdressed, but upon entering one of the houses, the reason is clear.
Short sleeves and 70 degrees
Inside, the temperature is a comfortable 70 degrees, and fishermen sit around in short sleeves, playing cards or watching TV. Like the anglers outside, they check their lines at least once an hour, but otherwise pay no heed to their ice holes until they hear their own indicator that a fish is on the line.
For them, it is the whir of a rattle reel mounted on the ceiling as a fish takes hold of the bait and flees. Like the fishermen outside, they simply grab hold of the line and begin pulling it up. Inside these permanent houses, some of which are equipped with plumbing, satellite TVs, heaters, bunk beds and stoves, the winter could not be further away. Many of these anglers will stay the night here, hoping to be awakened by the rattle reel of a fish feeding at 2 a.m.
The portable tent-like houses scattered along the outside of this village are just as cozy as the large permanent houses, if not as roomy. Space heaters warm up the tent as one or two anglers sit inside, waiting for the Vexilar fish finder to flash red, an indicator that a fish is swimming beneath. Although there usually are no rattle reels or tip-ups here, a sinking bobber and the red flash on the Vexilar are all an angler inside one of these portable houses needs to know there is a fish on the line. Some sit and concentrate on jigging to further entice the fish to take the bait. Often, however, these anglers will stay in this little village for only a short time before folding up their house and moving to another spot. For them, ice fishing is not so much about the camaraderie as actually finding the fish - and finding fish requires mobility.
A misunderstood sport
This little village proves that the world of ice fishing is a versatile one. It offers anglers the choice of enjoying the outdoors or seemingly fishing from the comfort of their own homes; testing the latest in ice fishing technology, or relying only on a small bobber to tell of a fish's presence. For others, it is simply a unique getaway and intimate gathering of friends.
For those who have not tried this North Dakota tradition, however, it is also a misunderstood sport. This is prevalent when hardcore anglers ease out onto two-inch thick ice in mid-November to drill their first holes of the season, leaving many to wonder why they take the chance. For Matt Williamson of Minot, the answer is simple: he loves to fish. Even though one of his fishing exploits on thin ice ended with a pickup in the water, Williamson still insists on going out when others might consider hanging it up. "I enjoy the sport so much I didn't let it deter me," he says. "It's just made me a more cautious." After all, according to him, it's getting out on the thin ice that guarantees the best fishing. "The worse the ice, the better the fishing," he says. "At least, that's how it seems to me."
Chris Augustin, a grad student at the North Dakota State University, is another of these fishermen who enjoys fishing too much to give it up because of ice. But, like Williamson, he has had to learn caution through experience. Eager to try out his new power ice auger, he and his friends ventured out onto two inch thick ice on Brewer Lake, a small lake northwest of Fargo.
"My buddies were further out on the ice, and they were catching fish. I wasn't so I went further out. I'd just got the auger started and attacked the ice when the ice split between my legs and the crack went across the lake. I grabbed the auger and ran as fast as I could-holding onto my power auger," he adds. "I can float. It can't!"
Like Williamson, Augustin would not abandon the sport and is still one of the first people out on the ice, although now he stresses safety first. "If you do it right, it's not an issue," he says. "Since then, I've been pretty adamant about wearing a life jacket early in the season and always carrying picks and rope for pulling myself or others out."
While this kind of confidence and calm demeanor is usually present in most veteran ice fishermen, it sometimes takes a lot of reassurance for rookies to venture out onto the ice. After one trip, however, it isn't just the fish that are hooked.
"I've taken friends who had gone before but weren't really into ice fishing," says Augustin. "Once I took them out, however, they got addicted and started going all the time." This, says Steve "Zippy" Dahl, a guide for the Perch Patrol Guide Service in Devils Lake, seems to only increase when they begin to use the many gadgets that go with ice fishing, including the Vexilar, underwater cameras, depth finders, and the more. "You can learn a lot," says Dahl. "With underwater cameras and Vexilar flashers, you can see the fish coming right into your lure and take it. It's kind of like a video game. At Perch Patrol, we stress teaching them to use the vital electronics and once they get it down, it's addicting and really fun."
While Williamson agrees and uses the electronic equipment to make him a better angler on the ice, he also says the sport can be as basic as you want it to be, which is often why it is alluring. While the equipment is there, you only really need something to drill a hole and a fishing pole. "With that, you can really start to enjoy something like ice fishing," he says. "From there you can evolve into a higher level of equipment, but you can make it as basic as you want it to be. That's the cool thing about it." But once you've learned the ropes, there is always more that goes into perfecting the art of ice fishing.
For the avid outdoorsmen, ice fishing presents new challenges to their beloved sport. The fish tend to be more finicky, says Williamson, which makes it more difficult to get a fish to bite. For Augustin, ice fishing also requires entirely different methods than open water fishing. The fish can be more difficult to find and this requires mobility. Often, when he goes out with his friends, each will drive their vehicles to a different location keeping in contact with one another via cell phones or radios. "If someone starts catching fish, we all meet up and set up our houses there," says Augustin. For the Perch Patrol, mobility is also the key for finding fish and keeping their clients on them. "Sometimes we move 20 feet, sometimes 20 miles," says Dahl. "We just spend a lot of time being mobile and moving to where the fish are."
Exploring smaller lakes
Ice fishing also opens up new opportunities to explore smaller lakes that might not have boat landings or access during open water season. These lakes, says Mark Zimmerman, who works to promote the outdoors for North Dakota Tourism, often offer up some of the best fishing. "There's not a lot of fishing pressure on them and not so much competition, so you can enjoy yourself and catch some fish. We often joke that you can't get out to some little lakes during the summer because they're in the middle of a corn or wheat field." These sloughs can provide some excellent fishing, say both Zimmerman and Augustin, providing numerous opportunities for anglers looking to discover the undiscovered fishing hole.
Regardless of the size of the lake, however, they all offer the same thing - the excitement of pulling a whopper through the hole, and for some, it does not require fishing to share in that excitement, but merely watching. "The best time I've had ice fishing is when I was a Boy Scout leader. It's so much fun to see the young guys get a Northern Pike and pull that big old northern up through the ice and it looks like it's not going to fit," he says. "They get excited and dance around on the ice and it's just as much fun to watch them as it is for me to do it. They aren't out there to limit out. They're just out there to fish."
And several anglers share those sentiments. As early as August, patrons of Fishing Buddy, an outdoors Web site, were already anticipating ice fishing season, sharing what they love most about the sport on online forums. One regular patron, Josh Clawson, who signs in under the name "Gillgetter," started a forum in anticipation of the ice season in October, just days before North Dakota's finicky climate proffered a few more 70 degree days before plunging into the normal seasonal temperatures. "Who else out there is getting an itch for some good old North Dakota hard water fishing?" he asked. "I know I can't wait." And many others agreed, though the reason for their anticipation may have varied.
For many, it's the challenge and the feeling of accomplishment in seeing the flag of the tip-up pop or watching the Vexilar turn red. For others it is simply the love of the outdoors. Another ice fisherman believes it's all of it combined.
"It's the trip home after a full day on the frozen pond with only two 14-inch walleyes to show for it. Getting home and crawling into bed with your long johns and wool socks on because you are too beat to worry about a shower. And finally, that moment right before you fall asleep where you wonder why your stomach hurts so bad, and you grin when you realize it is because you were laughing all day. Some people go to a spa, some people go shopping, me ... just give me a frozen lake."
Perch Patrol and Perch Express get anglers on the fast track to fish
With hundreds of fishing holes available in North Dakota, especially in the winter, finding the fish might be difficult for inexperienced anglers, especially those who come from out of state to partake in this North Dakota tradition. The Perch Patrol Guide Service in Devils Lake, however, is there to help them get on the fast track to fish.
Perch Patrol is the ice fishing guide service in Devils Lake that is made up of six full-time guides. Voted North Dakota's best tourism package in 2006, the Perch Patrol is one of the most popular ice fishing packages in the industry, offering clients a comprehensive package that includes transportation via the Perch Express train, lodging at the Woodland Resort, meals, guiding services and all the equipment needed to catch the whoppers.
Guests can catch the train throughout various Amtrak stations in Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota and arrive in Devils Lake at 6:30 a.m. Employees from the Woodland Resort pick the guests up, get them checked in, help them get their licenses and serve them a hot breakfast before the Perch Patrol takes them out for their first day of fishing.
The Patrol usually begins the season around December 15 and guide until April 1. During that time, the guides are busy nearly every day helping their guests, most who are from out of state, catch their limits of fish. According to Steve "Zippy" Dahl, the captain of the team, Perch Patrol works to cover as much of the lake as possible to help them meet that goal. "We want to put our clients on fish and keep them on the fish throughout the entire trip. We spend a lot of time moving to where the fish are."
The package has become a popular option for a chance to get out ice fishing or as getaways for corporate employees or customers. For Cathy Spicer, a field sales manager for U.S. Corrugated in Grand Forks, the vacation was the perfect way for her customers to experience a unique trip to North Dakota.
"I just wanted to take my customers out for a fun experience, and this was a great escape for them from the city," says Spicer. "So, we rented the two largest log cabins with a fireplace and we played cards, told stories and just enjoyed the camaraderie of it. In addition, it is absolutely beautiful out on the ice. The sunrises and sunsets are beautiful with nothing to get in the way. It was fun fishing without a dull moment. The fish were biting and we limited out, so that made it exciting."
The clients, however, do not just leave with a limit of fish-they leave with an unforgettable experience. "The whole experience of getting on a train and heading west in the doldrums of winter is kind of a neat vacation," says Dahl. "They don't have to worry about driving and everything is taken care of for them. In addition, they learn a lot. There's a lot that goes into ice fishing and it's exciting, it's addicting and really fun."
And as for the cold? The houses help out a lot, but there's always more to keep you warm. "When clients think of ice fishing, they think of being cold all the time," says Dahl. "But I don't care who you are. As long as you start catching a lot of fish-well, that keeps you warm, too!" And with the Perch Patrol's mission to keep you on fish, being cold shouldn't be a problem.
For more information about the Perch Patrol and the Perch Express, visit www.perchpatrol.com or call 701-DL1-FISH.