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About the Fishery

The Devils Lake area has been a popular recreational area for at least the last 120 years, and Devils Lake has been the main attraction for much of the recreation. Clason's No. Dakota Green Guide (Clason Map Company, 1920), distributed by the Commissioner of Immigration to attract residents, said of Devils Lake, "It is salty, but unlike the famous Great Salt Lake of Utah, its water is very similar to that of the ocean. Bathing here offers all the exhilaration of ocean bathing. The lake is used for sailing, and on its banks is the club house of the Devils Lake Yacht club, having a membership of over one hundred."

Steamboats, such as the Minnie H, carried cargo and passengers on Devils Lake from 1883 through 1909.

Minnie H. on Devils Lake
Photo courtesy North Dakota State Historical Society

Devils Lake also has been a productive sport fishing lake intermittently since settlers arrived in the early 1880's, and commercial fishing was conducted at Devils Lake in the 1880's. However, in 1888 a major fish kill greatly diminished the fishery of Devils Lake, and by 1905 the residents concerned with the lack of food and game fish in the lake convinced the Bureau of Fisheries, through repeated inquiries and requests to stock the lake, to investigate the physical and biological conditions of the lake in 1907. In a study published in 1908 and entitled "A Study of Physical and Biological Conditions, with a View to the Acclimatization of Fish" (Pope, 1908), the Bureau of Fisheries reported, "From all information available it appears that prior to 1889 Devils Lake was well stocked with pickerel. This was, perhaps, an influential factor in the selection of a reservation on its shore by the Sioux Indians, and also in the influx of people of Scandinavian origin."

The report describes the quality and quantity of pickerel formerly caught on the lake and states that "According to excellent authorities, these fish averaged from 5 to 6 pounds, a number of 17 or 18 pounds weight were caught, and one specimen, displayed in Devils Lake city, weighted 19 pounds. The average length was about 2 feet, the largest measured 3 feet, and those under 7 inches were rarely seen or caught. The flesh was reported to be firm and of fine flavor. No other species of fish was known to have been captured from this lake."

The Bureau of Fisheries study also included water-quality tests and attempts to introduce fish into the lake. Although all pickerel introduced to the lake died, experiments with yellow perch, black bass, and catfish were "highly satisfactory". The disappearance of the pickerel and their inability to survive when reintroduced was attributed to excessive evaporation that resulted in the "loss of vast spawning and feeding grounds for the pickerel", exhaustive fishing, and the increasing alkalinity of the water.

The study suggested that other species of fish could be introduced, but fresh water should be conveyed to the lake by means of a dam and gateway, a culvert, or a runway leading from Court or Spring Lake. According to the report, "Records of former years indicate that the level of the lake [Devils Lake] fluctuates to a considerable extent and a substantial increase may occur at any future date, but in view of the deficient precipitation disclosed by recent records for this section, the increasing development of surrounding territory, and the history of the lake for the past twenty-five years, it is extremely doubtful whether it will ever regain its former level."

The passage of time has resulted in a better understanding of Devils Lake. Because the recreational and fishery values of the lake are closely associated with the water-level fluctuations, various plans have been introduced to stabilize the water level and protect the recreational industry. In the late 1930's and early 1940's, various plans were developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to divert water from the Missouri River to stabilize the water level, but no lake stabilization plans were implemented. Then, from about 1969 through 1987, rising water levels resulted in an increase in recreational activity (especially fishing) and tourism. From 1987 to 1991, the water levels once again declined and provided the impetus for local organizations and State and Federal agencies to identify options that could be used to stabilize the water level for the growing tourist industry.

Currently water levels on Devils Lake are at an all time high.   Runoff  due to all the heavy precipitation (rain and snow) from 1993 to present day, Devils Lake has nearly tripled in size going from a 45,000 acre lake to nearly 140,000 acres.  Through this period of time Devils Lake has seen a tremendous amount of change.  Water levels have completely flooded and have engulfed our old shoreline and have given us new shorelines to explore.  Numerous flooded roads, trees, and pastures now hold fish like never before. 

Devils Lake first developed its reputation as the “Perch Capital of the World” back in the 1980s.  Huge schools of yellow perch provided fun for many during the winter months.  It wasn’t long for the word to travel.  Ice-fisherman from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, and Michigan flocked to Devils Lake by the thousands each winter to catch some of these famous “Jumbo Perch.”  The numbers and size of these perch were unmatched anywhere.

Although Devils Lake continues to produce huge perch, the numbers have fallen off recently due to lack of reproduction.   As the lake has nearly tripled in size since 1993, the perch population has somewhat declined.   Several factors such as scattered perch, loss of weed-lines, and a dramatic increase in predator fish (Northern Pike and Walleyes) all have played a role in declining perch numbers.

Because of the recent lake-level rise, fishing is a popular activity on Devils Lake and a boon to the tourism industry in the area.  Fish populations for Walleyes and Northern Pike have flourished like never before.   With all the new water the “salinity” or salt content has plummeted thus reproduction rates have never been higher.  Combine this with all the abundance of food, namely freshwater shrimp, the growth rates for fish are unmatched anywhere.  The city of Devils Lake styles itself as "North Dakota's Sportsman's Paradise", and with all the booming fish populations the proof is in the pudding.

Devils Lake has recently earned the respect of the professional anglers as many rank it has the top walleye fishery in the country.  The In-fisherman’s PWT (Professional Walleye Tour) and Walmart’s FLW consider Devils Lake as one of the top walleye fisheries on their circuits as they come back year after year.

How Devils Lake Got its Name

Devils Lake Map
Click Map for Larger Series of .pdf Maps

The name given the lake by Indians is “Minnewaukan,”  “Minnie” (which means water) and “Waukan” (which means spirit), or Spirit Lake.  The name has been misinterpreted by white people centuries ago. 

When the whites first came here the Indians told them “Minnewaukan Seche” – (which means “Spirit Lake” is bad), referring to the fact that the water is salty and not suitable for drinking, but the interpretation given it by the whites was “Bad Spirit Lake” or Devils Lake, and thus the name has come down to us, as an unfortunate translation. 

Devils Lake is in the neutral ground of the perpetual enemies, the Sioux and the Chippewas, and is regarded with superstitious dread by the Indians who have a legend that a terrific storm engulfed two large fleets of Sioux and Chippewas who were engaged in a fierce combat on its surface and all of the warriors were drowned. 

For many years the Indian man never ventured on the waters of the lake, though thousands of them lived on the reservation along its southern shore.


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