Feb 14, 2012

Cold North Dakota Hot

My good friends Tyler and Mary have been living in North Dakota for several years now and I had been planning on visiting them via the Amtrak 'Perch Express' the entire time. And the Winter of 2012 allowed me the opportunity to follow through on that, so I did. On February 8 I boarded the Empire Builder in Tomah, and after twelve hours of drinking smuggled wine and reading and a quick nap, I arrived in Devils Lake, North Dakota. Ty was waiting for me in the pre-dawn darkness, truck idling. The Prairie.  I was wide awake and hungry.

We went out for breakfast, where I got the 'Cedar Sausage Breakfast' (which is one big sausage the size of a large brat, delicious, dippy eggs and potatoes, coffee and toast) - a good start to the trip. "This whole part of town is below the lake," Ty said as we drove to get bait, pointing out the 'lake level' markers on the street light poles, 12 to 15 feet off the ground. Huh. Devils Lake is filling up like a clogged bathtub, and when the water reaches the edge, they simply build a new levy and move the shoreline back. They can't let out as much as they are taking in, otherwise Fargo would flood downstream. So the shoreline of this lake is very odd... Roads just disappear into the lake... Old farms are now surrounded by ice and fishermen. Sunken timber from the old shoreline is found throughout the lake. This is all happening on a super-massive scale. Devils Lake is already well over 100,000 acres and it's growing every year, and from what Ty tells me, they don't really have a long-term plan. I was unsettled by this, just as I was unsettled to see lakes six feet below usual levels up north of Ely in October. On the one hand, I like things that cannot be tamed, but I don't like seeing big trees and street signs sticking out of the ice and I don't like seeing rocks exposed that have been submerged for centuries. For as much as I enjoy fishing and exploring waterways, I guess I'm uneasy about depths in the same way I am about gravity.

We had three full days of fishing until my return train's scheduled departure, and the first morning served up the best weather of the trip. The temperatures were mild by North Dakota February standards, and the wind was calm. But an hour after setting up camp the wind howled and the clouds moved in... some flurries appeared... the thermometer dropped into the single digits and exposed fingers quickly froze solid. Days two and three were sunny, but ultimately, even colder. Both of my big trips out of state this winter have reminded me what a real winter should feel like and I believe there is something inherently good in confronting frostbite.

I expected North Dakota to be more desolate, flatter, but in many ways it reminded me of large portions of Wisconsin - big snow-dusted fields rowed with scrub trees covered with the subtle pink light of winter, the deer are like our deer, the people, too. Other than the wind-chill and the insane size of the lake, the other main differences in the fishing is you get four lines per person, which is the most I've found. However, they don't allow any big live bait. If you want something bigger than a fathead, you must deploy deadbait, and in this role we cast Blue Herring from Puget Sound. This required some tweaks in rigs and strategy, but overall the pike seemed happy with our offerings. Also, the lake's food chain is all built around these tiny freshwater shrimp, which is why the famous Devils Lake perch get so fat. Which is also why the pike get so monstrous. Most tourist fishermen who visit Los Diablos (as I was calling it for some reason) chase these 'jumbo perch' but it's no secret I am only interested in the biggest fish in the lake so we basically set out as many big blue herring as possible the entire weekend, with one rod dedicated to jigging in the shanty.

Day two was pretty slow fishing and we only managed one fish iced with a few more nice pike lost to underwater snags (likely timber). Ty had something gigantic on that ran into some sort of tangle-den, so even the slow day had exciting moments. The first and third days, on the other hand, were simply excellent. We had lots of action despite the cold and the fish were all fat and healthy. Around noon on Saturday I was jigging a minnow head on a spoon and I caught a decent pike, the first one I ever caught jigging, and I screamed the entire time I was reeling it up (I usually don't have the patience for this tactic).

The highlight of the trip happened at the end of the first day, when we each caught our best fish of the year within a five minute window. Both pike were truly trophy fish, but the way we caught them made this a truly memorable five minutes. We had one hole that had already caught a few fish, and about a half hour after I caught a nice 30-incher nearby, that 'hot hole' went up and Ty caught a 35-incher with something huge in it's gut. As that fish was pulled on the ice, the line snapped, so after getting a picture and releasing the giant, we grabbed a nearby tip-up and stuck that in the hot hole. I started de-icing some other traps, but only minutes later I turned around and the hot hole was up again. I ran over and suddenly the entire trap jumped sideways in the hole. I knew that meant the line was snagged on the trap somehow, so I just grabbed the line and the fight was on. I had no way to give the fish more line so I basically had ten feet of line between my frozen hand and an angry, beast pike. Luckily the rig held and I caught my best fish of the winter - a ridiculous 37-incher. We couldn't believe what had just happened and I still can't... I've gone entire winters without a 35-inch fish, so to see one that big and an even bigger fish caught from the same hole within five minutes was simply mind-boggling.

So we fished during the day and at night we celebrated and I caught up with Ty and Mary and their cats and new dog, and it was a very good visit. I said how glad I was to have visited finally, and they agreed. I said how relieved I was that I didn't have to drive back. Too often, the looming drive back home seeps into the end of a visit... That thought takes time away from enjoying the company of friends you don't see enough, and without that thought lingering we just laughed right up 'til the end. And on Saturday night they drove me to the station and I hopped back on the Empire Builder... I think I said 'Au revoir' and did a dramatic wave before hopping aboard, or maybe I imagined I did. I finished whatever wine was left in my nalgene and watched the speckled lights of farms floating by on black waves. No stress. Bliss. When I awoke the sun was up and the Mississippi was wobbling by the big window to my left, bluffs of the driftless towering up beyond the windows on the right. It looked warm out again and the thought of spring trout streams tickled my neck. Did that all just really happen? My camera battery was dead. We crossed back into Wisconsin and then I was home and I slept for a long time.


You can view more pictures and the official stats from the trip in my Wild Almanac logbook.