Ice Fishing with Dad

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Devils Lake, North Dakota, is a famous fishing destination where the perch and walleye populations continue to explode. The lake itself is now six times larger than it was 25 years ago, currently at 180,000 acres. That’s just slightly bigger than Lake Powell that stretches from Arizona into Utah. I’ve lived in North Dakota for almost 40 years, and had never fished there. Until now.

On February 20, my dad and I rented a very reasonably priced 14 foot Ice Castle fish house with two bunks to pull behind my pickup truck for an overnight fishing trip 160 miles northwest of my home in Fargo. The lake is huge and intimidating. Before we left, I asked for advice from coworkers and friends who have a lot of experience fishing it. The nuggets of wisdom ranged dramatically, “Fish at a depth of 21 feet,” to “You gotta be deep. All the fish are at least 40 feet!” I studied lake topography maps and focused on a few locations to check out when we got there. After drilling twenty two holes through 30 inches of ice with my propane auger, I found the spot I was looking for.

Generally, walleye move into shallower water and feed more actively in the evening, overnight, and early morning. I found a spot to set up our fish house at a water depth of 13 feet where it quickly got deeper on one side and shallower on the other. That way we could pick up fish as they moved in and out. Some people can’t handle the sit-and-grind version of fishing. Catch a few fish, then wait two hours until another bite comes, and so on. These are the same type of people who can’t sit in a tree stand deer hunting all day. They would rather do the run-and-gun version, constantly chasing schools of fish as they move around. But my 76-year-old dad and I came to Devils Lake to catch some fish, and to relax a little and enjoy each other’s company.

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The first nice walleye hit one of our tip-ups outside at about 3:00 p.m. The second walleye hit a tip up at about 4:30 p.m. Two hours later, inside the fish house, my dad grabbed one of the bent rods tipped with a tungsten jig and minnow and set the hook. When I reached down and grabbed his fat 17-inch walleye out of the hole and held it up for him to see, his eyes got huge and we were both overcome with excitement! Like any outdoor pursuit with my dad, success brings a big smile and sense of accomplishment. I saw it two years ago, when I was there to see him harvest his first ever antelope in Wyoming on his 75th birthday. Or when we completed a long hike together around Devils Tower a few days later.

Along with every outdoor pursuit with my dad also comes a lot of snacks. My 5-year-old daughter follows in her grandfather’s footsteps. They both constantly snack during all hunting and fishing trips the second there is a lull in the action. I use that time to check lines, put fresh bait on a hook, use a metal scoop to skim the ice off the top of the tip up holes, or tidy up while trying to have a conversation with my fishing partner. Over an 18-hour period on Devils Lake, we caught and kept 11 Walleye to bring home. During that same 18-hour period, my father consumed a bag of potato chips, two cans of Pringles, a package of fig newton cookies, two bananas, a can of mixed nuts, and a couple slices of German chocolate cake. This was in addition to the two full meals of deer sausage and antelope steak that I cooked up for us.

As my dad slept in the passenger seat next to me on the way home, I kept my eyes on the road, but dreamed of all the different recipes I would create with my half of the fish. I also reflected on the real success of this trip being the time I got to spend with my dad. No matter how busy he was when I was growing up, he always took time to spend quality time with us. I have always felt genuinely loved, respected, and appreciated by my parents. That has inspired me to find a good balance between work, being an active outdoorsman, and at the same time striving to be a great husband and father like him.

With my left hand on the steering wheel, I quietly reached my right hand inside the bag of Goldfish crackers and grabbed a few to pop in my mouth. Now that there was a lull in the action, I was finally going to enjoy a snack of my own.

Jeff Benda

Cooking gives me a creative outlet to transform wild game and bring it into traditional recipes from around the world to help expand people's perceptions. My goal is to celebrate local fish and wild game and provide achievable, bright recipes designed to build confidence for new cooks, and inspire everyone to elevate their cooking. I hope that by sharing and celebrating the food I create with the fish and wild game I harvest, I can highlight the great contribution so many hunters and anglers have made to conservation in this country, and reflect the freedom we have to enjoy America's great outdoors.

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