Published January 25, 2009, 12:00 AM

Trolling on the ice: Fishing with a SnoBear on Devils Lake

Whipped by windswept snow, Devils Lake could have passed for the surface of the moon as Jason Mitchell set off in the predawn darkness on a blustery Saturday morning for another day of ice fishing.

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

DEVILS LAKE — Whipped by windswept snow, Devils Lake could have passed for the surface of the moon as Jason Mitchell set off in the predawn darkness on a blustery Saturday morning for another day of ice fishing.

Viewed in the headlights, the wisps of snow drifting across the sea of white were almost hypnotic.

Snow is abundant this winter on Devils Lake and getting around isn’t easy. That was obvious by the high snow banks and the maze of trails plowed in several areas to provide access for wintertime anglers.

The plow trucks soon would be out to reopen ice roads drifted shut after a night of steady wind. But even then, the anglers who depended on pickups for getting around the lake would be severely limited in their travels.

That wouldn’t be an issue for Mitchell.

A longtime Devils Lake fishing guide, Mitchell, 33, is using a SnoBear to access the lake this winter. Manufactured in West Fargo, N.D., the SnoBear is a high-end machine that’s been all the rage in ice fishing circles the past few winters.

Think of the SnoBear as a combination track vehicle and heated fish house, with skis and a 40-horsepower four-stroke engine that chugs across the snow at speeds up to 24 mph.

Get to your destination, and fishing in a SnoBear is as easy as removing the four hole covers in the floor and pressing a button that lowers the machine 14 inches to ice level.

Pop four holes with the auger — which runs off a 36-volt electric drill — and start fishing.

Want to move? Press a button to raise the machine, replace the hole covers and you’re on your way.

Even on the coldest, most blustery days, this is as close as ice fishing gets to fishing in a boat. And the SnoBear’s perfect, Mitchell says, for getting around Devils Lake’s vast expanse in snowy winters such as this.

Buy one yourself, and that convenience will cost you $30,000 to $40,000, depending on the bells and whistles. A big chunk of change, to be sure, but it’s no more than a well-equipped fishing boat, Mitchell says.

“You can’t fully appreciate it until you fish in one,” he said. “Once you fish in one, you’re pretty much sold. I can get anywhere on the lake and be comfortable.”

Windy and warmer

If the forecast was any indication, we’d be welcoming that comfort. After nearly a week of bone-chilling cold and nighttime lows flirting with 30 below zero, the mercury finally had risen into the 20s.

That was the good news.

The bad news was a wind forecast that called for gusts as high as 36 mph.

Not that wind mattered in the SnoBear.

Mitchell’s plan was to test some new water well beyond the ice road. Perch fishing was spotty, he said, but walleyes had been picking up the slack all winter.

“We’ve had a really good walleye bite and that’s been carrying us,” he said. “Walleye fishing has been so good I haven’t spent a lot of time focusing on the perch. There’ve been a few off days, but mostly it’s been really good.”

Best of all, Mitchell says, he’s been catching walleyes in many different ways this winter. On a lake that’s risen about 25 feet in the past 15 years, there is no shortage of options. Deep rocks, shallow trees and just about everything in between seem to be holding walleyes.

Typically, Mitchell says, he’ll start the day shallow, following the walleyes into deeper water in the middle of the day and moving back to the shallows before dark. Eater-size walleyes measuring 13 inches to 19 inches have dominated the catch, he said, but there’s enough bigger fish mixed in to keep things interesting.

“It’s surprising how many walleyes we are catching during the day,” Mitchell said. “It used to be walleyes mornings and evenings and pike or perch during the day to kill time. But even in the shallower spots, we’re picking up the odd walleye during the day.

“I’ve even been looking for walleyes during mid-day. And if I find them, generally the evening is going to be gangbusters.”

Lines in the water

The sun was barely a promise on the horizon when Mitchell plopped the SnoBear down off a patch of flooded trees far beyond the reach of the nearest ice road.

As he predicted, he had this part of the lake to himself.

Drilling three holes with the electric drill/ice auger took barely a minute. We dropped jigging spoons tipped with minnow heads through the floor into 9 feet of water and began the soothing routine of staring at our depth finders for signs of fish.

Jigging has worked best, Mitchell said, and he didn’t bother with a set line.

The Vexilars each of us used show the underwater world in shades of red, orange and green. It wasn’t long before a red blip, representing a fish, rose from the bottom toward a rattle spoon.

The blips converged as the fish hit the bait, and the first walleye of the morning soon flopped in the bucket.

We missed three more walleyes in the next 15 minutes.

The fishing was just fast enough to keep things interesting, and as Mitchell forecast, the walleyes hit throughout the day. We picked up a walleye or two in each spot, eaters up to about 18 inches, and Mitchell tied into a decent pike that likely measured 30 inches or more.

He made several moves with the SnoBear to stay on fish, gradually working toward a series of submerged rocks in about 25 feet of water, before heading back shallow to end the day.

That’s been the strategy all winter, Mitchell said: make big moves to find fish and small moves to catch them.

New venture

Last spring, Mitchell added another chapter to his outdoors resume, buying the rights to “Tony Dean Outdoors” and renaming it “Jason Mitchell Outdoors.”

The show’s first 13-episode season began airing this winter.

Dean, of Pierre, S.D., was helping through the transition, but he died unexpectedly last October at age 67. Mitchell says he aims to carry on the show’s tradition.

That means a commitment to conservation, telling good stories and not staging anything in the show, which retains its focus on the Dakotas and nearby states.

No doubt, Mitchell says, he has some big shoes to fill. Dean was one of the most respected outdoors communicators in the industry. He had a talent for pleasing sponsors while producing a show people wanted to watch.

“You have to sell, but you can do it with integrity,” Mitchell said. “I think Tony was very good at that. He never compromised. It was his way or no way; it wasn’t about decals or being flashy.

“That’s something we’re going to try to do, too.”

Had the camera been rolling, Mitchell could have served up a decent fishing show during this blustery Saturday on Devils Lake.

Making small moves, we kept a limit of walleyes, released several others and also missed our share of fish.

Even in a portable house, fishing would have been miserable in the stiff, relentless wind. Instead, we put up our feet, reeled up some fish and enjoyed a day on the ice that went by much too fast.

That’s the beauty of the SnoBear, Mitchell said.

“It’s been a fun winter,” he said. “Normally, we’re cursing this snow, but with this machine, you have access to a world-class fishery and no one’s been out there.”

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Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to