If you associate hardwater fishing with staring slack-jawed at a hole in the ice for hours on end, Steve “Zippy” Dahl has this to say: you’re doing it wrong. Dahl, who started his Perch Patrol business 28 years ago, guides on the sprawling expanse of North Dakota’s Devil’s Lake for perch, walleye, and northern pike and is never content to wait for action to happen.
“In the old days, people guided ice-fishermen by hauling them to a permanent shack, dropping them off, and saying ‘see ya at dusk’” he says. “We actually want our clients to catch fish and have fun. And one of the keys to that is staying mobile.”
Here are five top tips for having the best ice fishing experience of your life, from a guide who stays busy from mid-December through mid-March on one of the best lakes in the country.
Invest in a Portable Ice-Fishing Shelter
According to Dahl, one key to mobility is a collapsible shelter that sets up quickly and still protects you and your buddies from the elements. “We use Clamshell shelters. They’re easy to deploy, and they have a thermal fabric that keeps the cold and wind out,” he says. “Most of our clients start out in bibs and parkas, but are stripping down to bibs before too long. Stick a good portable heater in there and two guys can fish comfortably for as long as the fish are biting.”
Keep Scouting and Stay Away From Other Anglers
“As soon as my guides set clients up, they are off and scouting for the next hotspot,” Dahl says. “And they are constantly sharing information. We have fantastic perch populations here, but as a species, perch are nomadic and like to roam. In addition, they’re sensitive to noise and fishing pressure. So if there’s a lot of vehicle traffic or other noise nearby, or if other fishermen are setting up close to us, we just move and keep looking for the next hot bite.”
Get Close to Fish With Good Electronics
Technology advancements have led to higher success rates, especially when Dahl’s clients are enticing sluggish perch. “Not long ago, electronics would tell you when your bait was within two feet of a fish,” he says. “These days they’re sensitive enough to get you within inches. This is critical information here, as we have an incredible forage base of freshwater shrimp, which are our best friend and worst enemy. Those shrimp make our perch grow long and fat, but it also means they’re rarely hungry. So electronics like the Vexilar FLX-28 allow my guys to get a bait right in front of fish, then use a constant jigging motion to trigger strikes. Most of the time our perch don’t bite because they’re hungry, they bite out of predatory instinct. Triggering that instinct means getting close, and that only happens with good electronics.”
Keep Track Of Good Spots With a GPS
Devil’s Lake is massive, requiring Dahl and his guides to explore and mark thousands of acres of potential habitat. “In the late 1980’s we entered a decade-long wet spell that expanded the lake in a huge way,” he says. “We went from 48,000 acres in 1986 to over 250,000 acres in 2011. That influx was sad in one aspect, as hundreds of lakeside homes were either moved or destroyed. But it also created an incredible fishery of flooded grass that was ideal spawning habitat for several species.
“We are continually exploring new water, learning new hotspots, and marking depths, contour lines, and the timing and conditions of good bites using GPS technology. It’s an integral part of our aggressive approach. There’s not a lot of head-scratching when the bite is slow in one spot. We just pick up and go to another where the action was good in similar situations, all the while searching for new spots to add to the list.”
Be Willing to Adapt to Different Species
While Dahl named his business after the plump perch that are the signature species of Devil’s Lake, he is not married to them when it comes to angling efforts. “We get lots of clients from across the Midwest, and while most of them come for perch, walleyes are never far from their mind,” he says. “In fact, a lot of them ask ‘Are we going to start with walleyes and then move to perch?’. And the fact is, we just try to focus our effort on whatever species will bite best under the conditions.
“If it’s a dark, cloudy day, the walleye bite will be good, especially in the morning. But bright and sunny is the kiss of death for ‘eyes, and we go right after perch. March is actually one of our good times, when melting snow on the lake creates a checkerboard of snow and ice that actually creates its own ‘structure.’ March is also when many species start schooling up for spring. We can also have an incredible bite for northern pike, especially in the shallow, weedy sections of the lake during that time of year. The key to ice-fishing success for us has always been to be adaptable and stay aggressive.”