DEVILS LAKE — It’s not supposed to be like this, we muttered to ourselves collectively as we drove, six anglers in three pickups, onto a frozen lake with more than 3 feet of ice that showed no sign of deteriorating.
Not in April.
As January days go, this bright, sunny day with light wind and a temperature in the 20s — Fahrenheit, unfortunately and not Celsius — would have been downright pleasant. But not April 7.
Instead, it felt more like the 97th of January.
This was just wrong.
And so it went last weekend, when a crew of us hit a familiar stretch of Six-Mile Bay to chase northern pike for what we all hoped would be the last ice fishing trip of the year. Typically held the last weekend in March, the annual “Pike Party” — as it’s come to be known — has been a late winter tradition for upwards of a decade.
More than a few of those get-togethers have been canceled because the ice either had melted or wasn’t safe. Not this year. This year, the threat of a raging blizzard forced us to postpone the event from the original date — the weekend of March 24 — until last weekend, providing the ice conditions would be safe.
That wouldn’t be an issue.
Our host for this reluctant ice fishing rendezvous of friends and longtime fishing partners was Brad Durick of Grand Forks, who has a getaway on Devils Lake. Also on hand were Durick’s son, Braden, a second-grader and seasoned pike fishing veteran at the ripe young age of 8; Jason Laumb of Grand Forks, who was marking his 43rd birthday; and Jon Falch and Josh Andrews of Larimore.
I rounded out the crew, though like everyone else, I’ll admit I’d rather have spent the weekend in a boat soaking in the warm sun.
That’s still a few weeks off.
No big hurry
None of us had been in a particular hurry to hit the ice last Saturday morning, opting instead to enjoy an extra cup of coffee or three as we waited for the temperature to crawl out of the single digits.
We left the cabin at the crack of 10 a.m. and ventured into the cold, trucks loaded with augers and extensions and enough tip-ups to ensure no pike in the vicinity could resist the smelt and cheap hot dogs we’d dangle for bait in depths ranging from 1 foot to 2 feet under the thick layer of ice.
Most years, the ice by early April has started to honeycomb, and augering a hole is like drilling through a giant snow cone. This year, the augers and those of us wielding them got a good workout.
We’d never have gotten through the ice without extensions.
Despite the favorable ice conditions, the big lake was quiet for a weekend. Aside from a handful of trucks several hundred yards away, we had the area to ourselves.
Most anglers were winter-weary, we concluded, tired of ice fishing like us and willing to wait until they could get back in a boat again.
Whenever that might be.
It wasn’t long before holes were drilled and lines were set. With four lines each allowed for ice fishing in North Dakota, we had quite a spread of tip-ups in the water.
Then we waited; for a fish to strike and pull line from a submerged reel on one the tip-ups, in turn tripping a flag to signal the bite.
“Flaaaggg!” someone then would yell, and the race would be on to get to the tip-up first and pull in the fish.
That, in a nutshell, is tip-up fishing. Part social affair, occasional contact sport.
In a normal year, skeins of snow geese would have been passing overhead en route to their Arctic breeding grounds. In a normal year, we’d look up and marvel at the sight.
This year, most of the snow geese remained in South Dakota south of the snow line. Aside from the occasional Canada goose in search of elusive open water, the skies were quiet.
We hadn’t been fishing long when the first flag popped. Slow but steady, the action continued in spurts until early afternoon, by which time we’d had maybe 20 flags and landed six or eight pike.
Then, for reasons that defied logic — much like the weather this spring — the flags quit flying.
“Usually about 1 p.m., you can set your clock for a flurry,” Durick said. “This year, it shut off.”
Despite the winter-like conditions and slow afternoon fishing, being outdoors was pleasant. Laumb grilled up elk burgers and venison brats on the tailgate of his truck for lunch, and we passed the time between bites swapping stories of trips gone by and excursions yet to come.
That night, we’d dine on rockfish Laumb had brought home from a summer fishing trip to Alaska.
We’d spend a few hours on the ice the next day, which was cold and breezy; as before, the fish quit biting at 1 p.m.
That was enough of that, so we packed up and went home.
As late as this spring seems, it’s not unprecedented, a point Randy Hiltner, northeast district fisheries supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Devils Lake, made Monday night during the District 4 spring meeting of the Game and Fish Advisory Board in Park River, N.D.
Game and Fish is mandated to hold the public meetings twice a year in each of the state’s eight advisory board districts.
Spring also was slow to arrive in 2013, a year Hiltner recalls people walking out and ice fishing on Devils Lake in early May.
Like it or not, that opportunity just might present itself again this year.
“I read that we’re in the top 25 percent of coldest Marches and Aprils, and their projection says May will be the same,” Durick said.
Laumb said he had ice fished on his birthday twice before last weekend, 2013 being one of those times.
All were on Devils Lake.
“I never want to drive a truck on the lake on your birthday again,” Durick said with a laugh.
To which Laumb replied: “I don’t want to drive one on the lake on yours.”
For the record, that’s in mid-May.
The way this spring has been, who knows?