A coulee runs through it

RURAL CANDO -- The dozens of anglers lined up on shore and anchored in small boats looked almost out of place next to the huge farm equipment just a lure's cast away as farmers scrambled to catch up with fieldwork delayed by a spring that was slo...

Jerry Bertelson
FNS Photo by Brad Dokken Jerry Bertelson, right, of Buffalo, Minn., plays a northern pike while fishing partner Roger Henky of Plymouth, Minn., looks on last week. The pair were among a group of fishermen targeting walleyes along a coulee that flows into Devils Lake but were mostly catching northern pike.

RURAL CANDO -- The dozens of anglers lined up on shore and anchored in small boats looked almost out of place next to the huge farm equipment just a lure's cast away as farmers scrambled to catch up with fieldwork delayed by a spring that was slow in arriving.

This time of year, though, fishing and farming often converge as anglers flock to the coulees and ditches that flow into Devils Lake. They might not offer the most pristine settings, but that's of little consequence to the pike and walleyes that run upstream to spawn.

The runs are strongest during springs with ample runoff such as this one. Current attracts pike and walleyes.

It's been that way as long as there've been pike and walleyes.

"It's kind of unique fishing," said Todd Caspers, district fisheries biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Devils Lake. "If there's runoff, they catch fish. If there's not, they don't catch too many."


On a recent May evening, Caspers was making the rounds surveying anglers along upstream stretches of the Mauvais Coulee, which originates north of Rock Lake and flows into Pelican Lake on the west side of Devils Lake.

Every road crossing along the way attracted anglers, and just about every one of those anglers was catching fish.

Pike dominated the catch for most, but a few of the lucky ones were catching walleyes.

Some had driven hundreds of miles for the opportunity.

Roger Henke of Plymouth, Minn., and Jerry Bertelson of Buffalo, Minn., were plopped by a culvert north of Mike's Lake and catching pike almost as fast as they could get their jigs tipped with Gulp! plastic leeches into the water.

"I don't think there's a shortage of northern pike," Bertelson said. "I got two walleyes yesterday. Today, I don't have any walleyes, but I've caught 20 to 25 northerns."

They'd arrived the previous day, Bertelson said, but how long they stayed would depend on the fishing.

"We'd like to get our walleyes," he said.


Informal survey

Caspers, too, was most interested in walleyes, but he wasn't fishing. Instead, he was measuring walleyes anglers had kept as part of a survey the North Dakota Game and Fish Department is conducting. The survey of spring fishing along the coulees isn't as extensive as a creel survey now under way on Devils Lake and Stump Lake, Caspers said, but it's a way for the department to keep tabs on what's happening.

"I'm just doing a snapshot survey to see if things are roughly the same as when we had dedicated creel surveys," he said.

In 2010, another year with heavy runoff and strong current, Game and Fish funded a monthlong spring creel survey in the same area, focusing on six bridges along the Mauvais Coulee east and southeast of Cando.

That spring, anglers kept an estimated 8,125 walleyes and 2,390 northern pike and logged about 28,600 hours of fishing pressure, most of it from shore.

Like the farmers working nearby, the fish this year are behind schedule, and the run got a later start.

"We'll survey as long as the walleyes are up there in good numbers," Caspers said of this year's effort. "After that tails off, we'll quit.

"There's been a fair amount of people fishing," he said. "They've been having fair luck for northern pike and a few walleyes, as well."


Scott Lindgren of Grand Forks and buddy Bruce Hovland of Bismarck were loading a small flat-bottom boat back on the trailer as farm equipment chugged nearby. They had spent the past six hours anchored and jigging with leeches, Lindgren said, landing about 80 walleyes up to 5½ pounds.

They'd released all but a limit of the smallest walleyes.

"It's a timing deal," Lindgren said. "The better the weather, the better the fishing. We caught a lot of nice male walleyes that were too big to keep."

'Weird place'

Lindgren, who began hunting geese in the same area back in the 1970s, said the coulee and others like it were barely a trickle in those days. That all changed with the beginning of a wet cycle in the early '90s that hasn't yet subsided, if recent heavy rain is any indication.

"If someone had told you that you were going to be catching walleyes out here, you would have said, 'Oh, you're crazy,'" Lindgren said.

Not anymore.

"It's a weird place to catch fish," said Hovland, who was driving back to Bismarck that night. "But it was a lot of fun -- great weather and lots of fish."


For whatever reason, the anglers in boats were hogging the action for walleyes at this particular crossing, while anglers fishing from shore contented themselves with catching pike just about every cast.

Lonnie Unruh of Grafton, certainly wasn't complaining. He and buddy Andy Rapson, also of Grafton, had caught a few walleyes "the other day." They hadn't been fishing very long on this near-perfect spring evening, but they already had a half-dozen pike on the stringer.

"This could add up in a hurry," Unruh said, grabbing the net to help Rapson land yet another northern.

Like Caspers making the rounds on his survey, a few of the anglers were hopping from one crossing to the next trying to find walleyes.

Caspers encountered the best shoreline walleye reports from anglers fishing farther up the coulee.

Bruce Klingenberg of Cando already had a dandy walleye swimming at his feet on a stringer, and he'd been fishing only a few minutes.

"I got off at 5, put an air conditioner in for my aunt, and this guy called and said, 'Let's go fishing,'" Klingenberg said, motioning to a buddy fishing about 50 yards down the shoreline. "It's pretty nice to be able to go out and catch fish like this a few minutes from home."

Nathan Duncan, Leeds, was casting a jig and a plastic twister tail on the other side of the crossing and having similar success.


Fishing was "pretty good," Duncan said with a smile. The three golden-bronze walleyes on his stringer confirmed it.

Just don't tell anyone, he said.

Considering the fishing and the near-perfect weather, Caspers said he was surprised he didn't encounter more anglers, even though he'd conducted nearly 30 interviews on this May evening.

The busiest days, he said, can be a real circus.

"If you come to some of these places expecting you're going to have a lot of elbow room, sometimes, you're going to be mistaken," Caspers said. "Anywhere there's some water and a road coming up to it, people are probably going to be fishing.

"If you've got a little slack water, you'll probably have a few fish."

What To Read Next
Get Local