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No Fish in Devils Lake


Anyone who knows anything about fishing knows that Devils Lake is one of the premier fishing lakes in our region. In fact, the Devils Lake website proclaims it has “world class fishing.” Strangely, it was not always this way, for there was a time when no game fish lived in Devils Lake, only miserable minnows – but not when the railroad reached Devils Lake in 1883. At that time, word spread that the big lake, Dakota’s largest, was a paradise for anglers. Boosters compared Devils Lake to Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota, except that Devils Lake was considered “ much larger and deeper.” As for fishing, it was said that the “supply of extra fine fish is inexhaustible.”

Devils Lake was filled with northern pike and not much else, according to reports from the time. But the numbers of northern pike declined rapidly. The reason was partly geographic, for Devils Lake had been formed during the time of the great glacial sheet that scraped the land. The basin filled with water and the Sheyenne River connected Devils Lake to the Red River. But the waters receded, closing off the Sheyenne outlet.

When a dry period came, evaporation exceeded rainfall. By 1889, the Mauvais Coulee link to fresher lakes to the north dried up, along with the marshes, making high-water spring spawning impossible. With no inlets and no outlet, the alkaline waters stagnated. Devils Lake slowly changed from “fresh to salt.”

There were no northern pike that survived after 1889. Only minnows lived in there for the next 15 years. But a glimmer of hope for the Lake began in 1905. It was on this date that the Grand Forks Herald discussed the conditions at Devils Lake, noting that the lake’s waters were a “few inches higher,” raising chances that stocking the lake could be “feasible.”

In 1907, newspaper headlines announced: “Devils Lake To Be Stocked With Fish,” and by 1912 the word was out: “Fish Can Live In Devils Lake.”

Experimental re-stocking with black bass, perch, and catfish began, a project that succeeded. Still, it took the return of higher waters to allow northern pike to proliferate, restoring the lake as a “world class” fishery.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.

Sources: “Fish For North Dakota,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, September 9, 1905, p. 8.

“World Class,” "http://tourism.devilslakend.com/devils-lake-fishing/" http://tourism.devilslakend.com/devils-lake-fishing/ , accessed on August 13, 2015.

“Fish Will Thrive in Brine of Devils Lake,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, August 19, 1911, p. 2.

“Fish Will Live,” Bismarck Tribune, August 3, 1907, p. 6.

“Interesting Change,” Bismarck Tribune, April 30, 1902, p. 2

“Our ‘Minnetonka,’” Devils Lake Inter-Ocean, August 29, 1885, p. 1.

“Fish Can Live In Devils Lake,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, August 10, 1912, p. 8.

“Devils Lake To Be Stocked With Fish,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, August 29, 1907, p. 3.

“Dean Brannon Away For Year,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, August 26, 1911, p. 8.

Thomas E.B. Pope, Devils Lake, N.D.: A Study of Physical and Biological Conditions With a View to the Acclimatization of Fish (Washington, D.C.: G.P.O., 1908), p. 17, 19-22.