Heilman

Roy Heilman shows one of four Devils Lake perch he landed while fishing in a heated shelter with writer Dave Mull.

This mostly brown, wet thing we’ve called winter in recent days has been tough on southwest Michigan ice anglers. Ice forms on area lakes just long enough for guys to get out and catch some fish. Then rain and 40-degree days come. The ice honeycombs and to find safe ice, anglers must drive about two hours north.

This week’s wintry blast of cold air and snow probably won’t help much since ice doesn’t form well under a blanket of insulating snow.

I took Amtrak to Devils Lake in North Dakota the last week of January. Although I would never call myself an ice fisherman, I enjoy doing it now and then. However, I rarely achieve any success. While I enjoyed the Devils Lake experience overall, I once again displayed a huge lack of ice-fishing talent.

Several members of the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers (AGLOW) convened for pizza and beverages the night before we were to head out on this storied 160,000-acre water a snowball’s throw away from the Canadian border. We all received an identical assortment of ice lures as well as a beanie and insulated gloves from Clam Outdoors. This Minnesota-based company, known primarily for ice-fishing gear, sponsored the event with the Devils Lake Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Next day after a warm continental breakfast at the Cobblestone Hotel & Suites, we drove out on the ice. I rode with Tanner Cherney and Suzie Kenner of the CVB in the back seat of Tanner’s Jeep. We led a caravan of five pickups, one with a trailer that housed a bunch of Clam portable ice-fishing shelters. It was a little creepy for this Michigander to be on ice in a Jeep, but those fears soon disappeared. The ice was at least two feet thick, yet easily cut through with Clam augers that were powered by a standard rechargeable drill.

First target was walleyes in shallow, 17-foot depths on the edge of a break into water about 45 feet deep. I ended up by myself in a two-person, folding shanty with seats so comfortable I’d set the thing up in my living room to watch TV.

Within 10 minutes of dropping my line down the hole I heard someone in a nearby shelter exclaim they had caught a walleye. And then I felt a bite, set the hook and reeled in a walleye of about 11 inches, which is a keeper on Devils Lake where there is no minimum size limit. It had eaten the Jointed Pinhead Jigging Mino I’d sweetened with a real minnow head. I let it go and caught my second walleye, which could have been the same one, about two hours later. Our group kept about 15 walleyes, releasing quite a few, before we drove out to deeper water for perch.

This is where my bad luck at ice fishing really shone brightly. Dean Cushman, a charter captain, writer and principal in the Teachin’ Fishin’ organization, joined me in the same two-man shelter. I’d tied on a Clam Drop-Kick, a compact, tungsten ice jig heavy enough to feel when jigging it in about 45 feet of water. Dean used a Hali Jig, a Finnish import with a small, fish-shaped spoon and about two inches of super-thin chain attached to a hook. We baited up with wax worms.

We both had Vexilar sonar flashers, and could watch fish appear as thick red bands near our baits on the sonars’ round displays. A couple of them, nice-sized perch, snapped up Dean’s offering. My Vexilar showed several looking long and hard at my Drop-Kick without so much as nipping it.

That night we went to the Woodland Resort for dinner in the bar, surrounded by other ice anglers. In the resorts impressive store, I found a Hali jig similar to Dean’s in a bargain bin (three lures for five bucks) and bought it.

Next day after briefly trying for walleyes in a different part of the lake, I fished with Roy Heilman, a writer and new AGLOW member who I’d met the day before. Woodland graciously let our group use several of the resort’s heated, comfortable shelters. Roy used a Drop-Kick, same size and same “glow red” color as the one I’d used without a nibble the day before. I tried the Hali that had worked for Dean. And Roy caught four jumbo perch before I had a bite. I switched back to the Drop-Kick and finally caught a couple of nice perch just before it was time to call it a day.

If you miss ice fishing in the course of our so-called winter, a trip to Devils Lake will be fun and fulfilling. Check out the CVB’s website at devilslakend.com.

Outdoors columnist Dave Mull lives in Paw Paw. Write to him at dave.sportfish.mull@gmail.com.