DEVILS LAKE, N.D. – Back in the mid-1990s, I wrote a short article for Field & Stream Magazine about the wintertime Perch Express, which was a packaged train-ride, ice-fishing deal put together by a guide on Devils Lake in North Dakota. People climbed aboard Amtrak’s Empire Builder in Chicago and got off at Devils Lake to ice fish, mainly for the giant yellow perch for which the lake was becoming famous.
I wanted to go, but never found the time back then. The trip stayed on my bucket list until this week.
The Devils Lake Convention & Visitors Bureau teamed with ice-gear maker Clam Outdoors and invited several outdoor media folks for a couple of days of ice fishing. All we had to do was get there. Although the Perch Express package ceased to exist about four years ago, I was still set on taking Amtrak.
Then I ordered my ticket – and my Amtrak itinerary looked positively brutal. It called for about 21 hours of travel starting in Kalamazoo on Sunday morning at 9:30, changing trains in Chicago, and ending with my arrival in Devils Lake the next morning at 6:02. The return trip, as I write this Thursday afternoon, is scheduled to start in about eight hours at 11:37 p.m. and get me back to Kalamazoo shortly before 9 p.m. Friday night. The round-trip ticket cost $290.
Although on paper this trip looked simply awful, looks can be deceiving. The trip to the town of Devils Lake was thoroughly pleasant and relaxing. For one, Amtrak has seating with lots of leg room on the upper deck of its passenger cars. The seats recline way back and an extension slides out from underneath the seat pad to support your legs. I slept well for about six hours before I awoke an hour before the train was due to arrive in Devils Lake. Believe it or not, the train arrived at exactly 6:02 a.m., too.
My friend, Michigan writer, TV host and charter captain Dean Cushman, had arrived via airplane into Grand Forks the day before and rented a truck. Dean offered to pick me up at the train station, which was nice as apparently there is no Uber in this town of just 7,000 permanent residents. When we got to the Cobblestone Hotel and Suites, a room was ready for me to occupy at 7 a.m. Talk about accommodating.
Hopefully the return trip will be as genteel as the trip out. Last Sunday afternoon, the conductor took dinner reservations for the dining car, and I made mine for 7:15 p.m. When the time came, I was seated with three fellow travelers, and had one of the most entertaining and informative dinner conversations ever. Enough about Amtrak. What about the fishing at Devils Lake?
Next week’s column will offer more details, but suffice to say, my time on the ice did nothing to improve my reputation of not catching many fish through a hole. Tuesday, our first day of fishing, we drove a convoy of a Jeep and several pickup trucks out on the lake and set up five portable Clam shelters of different shapes and sizes. We were over 17 feet of water about two miles from shore. I had a two-person, insulated shanty to myself at first and I almost immediately caught a small walleye on a Clam Jointed Pin Minnow sweetened with a minnow head on its treble hook. About two hours later I caught another one. Both were about 11 inches long – but fat from gorging on the abundant freshwater shrimp in this big lake. Those two little walleyes were all I could muster the first day, although other members in the group, fishing nearby and even in the same shelter, caught more. Of course they did.
The second day was even more frustrating. We all had Vexilar electronic flashers that allowed us to see where our baits were in relationship to the bottom. These multi-color flashers also showed fish as thick, red bands on the round sonar screen as they approached our baits. Again, we first targeted walleyes in the early morning darkness in 15 feet of water. This time we fished from roomy, hard-sided fish-houses with floors, folding chairs and propane heaters courtesy of Woodland Resort. After a few small walleyes, we moved to another fish house over 45-foot depths to try to catch perch.
My shelter mate, Minnesota writer Roy Heilman, caught four dandy perch while I just watched these red bands on the screen apparently sniffing my bait before fading away. After hours of this, raising and lowering my bait, jiggling it about nine hundred different ways to see if anything could make these fish bite, I did finally catch two big perch. By then it was time to head back to the hotel.
Next week I’ll discuss some lessons learned about ice fishing, driving vehicles on ice, reading a flasher and working baits. I’ll also talk about what makes this 160,000-acre lake and the little town on its shore a great year-round vacation destination.
Although I caught just four fish in two days after 21 hours worth of Amtrak travel, with an equally long return trip starting this evening, the Devils Lake experience was worth it. I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.