DEVILS LAKE, N.D. — On the misery scale, this cold, blustery Tuesday in January had all the makings of a solid 8, with 10 being the worst.
That wasn’t an issue for Tom Rost. As wind whipped the icy horizon into a snowy froth and the mercury plummeted, Rost was seated at the helm of a SnoBear — think of it as a mobile fish house on tracks — watching his electronics while he tried to coax finicky fish into biting.
No jacket, no gloves, no need.
The thermostat was set at a comfortable 70 degrees.
And so it went on this January day that delivered almost everything winter in North Dakota has to offer as Rost and two fishing partners, including longtime friend and retired North Dakota Game and Fish Department fisheries biologist Lynn Schlueter, tested the waters to see what they could catch.
Moving was as simple as starting the SnoBear, pushing a button to raise the vehicle from the surface of the ice and heading for a new spot.
In a pursuit where mobility can be a challenge — especially on cold, blustery days — ice fishing in a SnoBear is about as close to fishing in a boat as you can get.
“It doesn’t take long at all,” Rost said. “When we go to move, you stay inside here, we lift up, set down in a new spot, drill the holes and you’re back fishing in minutes.
“No reason to go outside.”
‘Unique way to fish’
Manager of Newby’s Ace Hardware Bait and Tackle in Devils Lake, Rost, 57, got his North Dakota guiding license last year and occasionally hits the ice as a fill-in guide and SnoBear operator for John Bouvette of Lake Country Guide Services.
“Tommy Toolbox,” Schlueter, 68, calls Rost, a fitting name for a hardware store manager.
Newby’s has two SnoBears, and Bouvette runs one of them most days throughout the winter, Rost says. The vehicles can fish four anglers, but three is ideal.
Catching fish never is a guarantee, but fishing in climate-controlled comfort is never a challenge.
“It’s a unique way to fish,” Rost said. “We had one SnoBear last year, and John ran that. This year, the boss wanted a second one, so we have two out there.”
Rost’s job as hardware store manager limits his guiding time, and he prefers it that way. But when things get too busy, he takes an occasional turn in the second SnoBear.
An avid outdoorsman, Rost also is a member of the Lake Region Anglers Association and a certified hunter education instructor.
“I want to be the absolute last guy,” Rost said. “We’re supposed to have three guides kind of lined up to run this ‘Bear, and I said I want to be the last guy. I’ve got a store to run.”
But if he’s going to guide, he might as well be comfortable.
“We’ve got a weekend coming up where the high is going to be 9 below,” Rost said. “I know my clients are going to be very happy sitting in something like this.”
On the move
A typical day in the SnoBear has Rost setting up in shallow water for walleyes at daybreak, moving out deeper for perch in the middle of the day, and then back in shallow again before dusk.
Some days he’s a hero, other days he’s a zero, Rost jokes. That’s fishing.
The previous Friday, Rost says he drilled 40 to 50 holes and moved several times just to scratch out a few fish. The next day in a new spot, he lowered the SnoBear to ice level, drilled four holes and didn’t move the whole day.
That day’s catch included a “grand slam” — walleyes, perch, pike and even a white bass.
“We caught three to four fish an hour except for 2 to 3 p.m., it was dead, and after that it picked up again,” Rost said.
Rather than chase perch, the plan on this day was to fish the same spot and see what our luck would bring. Leaving Newby’s, trailer and SnoBear in tow, at the crack of 10:30 a.m., we were on the ice, set up and fishing before noon.
Within minutes, Rost had lowered the SnoBear to ice level, removed the covers from the openings in the floor and drilled four holes in the ice with a battery-powered K-Drill auger.
No noise, no exhaust fumes; if we needed to move, we could be on our way in minutes.
Made for mobility
Devils Lake is an ideal venue for the wintertime mobility a SnoBear provides. That’s especially true for perch, which tend to roam in schools and can be thick in a spot one day, yet gone the next.
No wonder, then, the unique-looking vehicles with skis and tracks dot the horizon of the big lake throughout the winter, even with a price tag that’s on the north side of $60,000.
“We’re seeing more and more people travel pulling them,” Rost said. “John (Bouvette) will be out on the lake working with different guide services, and he knows each one has a little bit different-looking rig. But then you get all these other ones, and they’ll have South Dakota license plates on them, Minnesota — and then there are a lot of guys just in Devils Lake now that are getting them.”
We marked fish immediately, but getting them to bite was another story. They’d rise up to the jig on the electronics only to stop short of biting.
Might have been the weather, might have been the time of day, might have been the wrong jig.
No matter that. The company was good, the surroundings were warm and, sooner or later, some of those fish would have to get in the biting mood, we figured.
“Sometimes, you’re on fish but they’re not biting,” Rost said. “You might give them a little bit longer. Then they’ll get active and you catch 10-15 fish all of a sudden. Within a half hour if you haven’t marked a fish, we’re going.”
There didn’t seem to be much reason to move, though, given the number of fish on the depth finder screen and the signs of interest they showed.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Rost said. “Last year at this time, our perch bite was really good. All through January, it was almost a limit every day. This year, it’s been different. That means you’re out there drilling — you move 10 times, four holes each time — there’s 40 holes, and it’s nothing to move 10 to 15 times a day if you’re not on fish.”
Calmer and colder
The blustery weather that had rolled in exactly as predicted began to subside later in the afternoon, and sun peeked through the wall of clouds as the mercury dipped below zero.
Similar to Rost’s previous trip to the spot, fish became less abundant on the depth finder screen by mid-afternoon, so he made a short move.
A big blip on the depth finder screen that most likely was a northern pike raced up and bit off a jigging spoon, but that was the only action we encountered.
It was time to head back where we started as the “witching hour” — the late afternoon period when walleyes bite best — approached.
As expected, the fish became more active, and by the time the sun dipped below the western horizon, we’d put three “eater” walleyes in the bucket, including one chunky fish that didn’t hesitate to slam a Northland Buckshot Rattle Spoon and might have pushed 20 inches.
We lost or missed a few others and had two pike bite-offs.
Reluctantly, we reeled up, and Rost steered the SnoBear back to shore. Packing up was that simple.
“That’s fishing,” Rost said. “But you’re in a climate-controlled area, you’re always warm, and you’re out of the wind.
“This is the way to go.”