SOMEWHERE ON DEVILS LAKE, N.D. -- Big John is really giving 'er now, bouncing across the frozen lake through drifts and occasional pockets of slush in his red Chevy four-wheel-drive.
It's either that or risk getting stuck before we reach a fishing spot -- somewhere out there in the white expanse -- that has been producing the kind of jumbo perch for which Devils Lake is famous.
"Are you nervous?" he asks Brad Durick, his front-seat passenger, with a laugh.
"Nope," Durick, of Grand Forks, replies. "We're not in my truck."
Besides, Durick adds, he's got a score to settle with these Devils Lake perch that have gotten the best of him the past several winters.
That should be doable, Big John assures.
Big John is John Adams, 50, owner of Big John's Guide Service and one of the new kids on the block among Devils Lake fishing guides. The big perch have been cooperating so far, Adams says, and the cold front that has descended has only been a minor detriment.
"They get a little negative so you have to downsize your presentations," Adams explains. "They're still really finicky, but they'll take it if you're patient with them."
Without getting too specific, the spot Adams is taking us qualifies as being off the beaten path. No fish house cities here -- just an expansive horizon of ice and snow.
"There is a lot of snow out here," he says as we rumble toward our destination. "There's been a little bit of slush out here the last couple of days, too. Some pretty good drifts on the ice in places.
"I haven't seen this for two days, so don't be surprised if we hit the skids fairly quick."
There's that jolly Big John laugh again.
There'd be no skids to hit, no red Chevys to push, on this morning, though, and minutes later Adams is rolling up to a GPS waypoint that marks the location of a brush pile some 19 feet below the ice.
Just like so many other Devils Lake fishermen, Adams has a GPS unit and an electronic depth finder -- in this case a Vexilar FLX-28 color flasher -- mounted on the dash of his truck. That allows him to cover ice the same way he'd cover water with a boat.
"I knew the place was going to hold fish," he said. "It held fish in the fall. I'll kind of pre-fish for the winter in late fall, and it had fish on it then, so I figured they weren't going to move too much ... at least first ice."
The subzero temperature coupled with a brisk northwest wind is cold enough to freeze skin in minutes, and there's no dilly-dallying as we unload Durick's new Frabill side-entry portable fish house and scramble to set it up.
The shelter, which features entry doors on each side, enables access without having to trip over heaters, depth finders and other gear, a longtime problem with traditional front-entry portables. Quilted fabric provides insulation that in turn reduces the build-up of frost that creates mini-rainstorms inside the shelter as it melts.
The new portable will get a good workout on this day.
Despite the cold, Adams coaxes his ice auger to life without difficulty and pops four holes through about 20 inches of ice that Durick and I will fish inside the new shelter. The hiss of the propane heater is a welcome sound as we bait small jigs with spikes -- a fancy word for maggots -- and lower our lines into the depths.
It's toasty inside the portable. Bring on the perch.
A Medora, N.D., native, Adams spent about 15 years in the hotel business and ran a convenience store in Minot for seven years before moving to Devils Lake, where he and his wife, Jane, have lived the past four years.
"She decided she wanted a change in her job, and we talked about Bismarck and talked about going west," Adams said. "I said, 'any job you want to get, go ahead and take it, I can survive.' But I said it has to be east, and it has to be on water."
So, when his wife landed a job as a school counselor in Devils Lake, all of the requirements had been met.
Adams said he'd fished Devils Lake for about a decade, staying at different places in a motor home he'd gotten from his parents and renting boats or fishing from shore. He got serious about learning the big lake about three years ago, he says, and spent several thousand dollars hiring guides and learning what they had to teach.
"It's such a big body of water," he said. "I guess it's changed from 90,000 or 96,000 acres when I first started fishing it, and today it's sitting at 220,000 acres, and it's loaded with perch, it's loaded with walleyes, it's loaded with white bass, and the pike are as aggressive as can be.
"It's just an all-round great fishery."
Last summer was his first season guiding, Adams said, and he spent 72 days on the water.
"We had a lot of fun," he said. "I was really fortunate. I was as busy as I wanted to be.
"This is something I've always enjoyed doing, just taking people out fishing and having fun and learning and sharing a few laughs.
"It's a lot of fun to get out and be able to have the opportunity to do this even at my age."
No doubt, he said, the winter fishing season is off to a good start on Devils Lake. Summer surveys by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department documented record perch hatches and adult fish, and the jumbo perch that are the backbone of Devils Lake's winter fishing industry have mostly been cooperative.
"It's fairly common to get 20 to 40 fish for two guys in a day," Adams said.
As a one-man operation, Adams said he won't take more than four people ice fishing at a time. He supplies the gear, the shelters and the know-how, along with a hot lunch on the ice that varies from soup to hot beef sandwiches or sloppy Joes.
Once he's got his clients set up and fishing, Adams then will fish from the cab of his truck or hole-troll in search of more active fish.
"If I go into a house, and the customers are saying, 'geez, it's so slow, we're not catching anything,' then I can say, 'well, here's another spot for us, let's pull up and go,'" Adams said. "I like the run-and-gun type of fishing."
There'd be no need to run and gun on this day, and we land about 20 big perch, along with a half-dozen bonus walleyes, in about 51/2 hours of fishing.
The hot lure was a one-sixteenth-ounce gold tungsten "Duckbill Drop Jig" baited with three or four spikes. At times, we'd watch the perch on our electronics literally race off the bottom to pound the bait.
We see very few, if any, freshwater shrimp, invertebrates on which Devils Lake fish feed heavily. Perhaps, we surmise, that's why the fishing is so good this winter, and why Durick finally settled his score with the perch that had eluded him for years.
Durick's new fish house also passed the test on this cold day.
"I had a great time," he said later. "Those perch and I were on a hate relationship for a lot of years. By my standards, I thought it was great. It's been a long time since I've seen perch hit that hard."
That's worth a bouncy ride across the ice any day of the week.
-- On the Web:
Big John's Guide Service: fishingguidedevilslake.com.
Devils Lake Tourism: devilslakend.com.
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