Recreation and Fishery, Devils Lake Basin

Science Center Objects

The Devils Lake area has been a popular recreational area for at least the last 120 years, and Devils Lake has been the main attraction for much of the recreation.

The Devils Lake area has been a popular recreational area for at least the last 120 years, and Devils Lake has been the main attraction for much of the recreation. Clason's No. Dakota Green Guide (Clason Map Company, 1920), distributed by the Commissioner of Immigration to attract residents, said of Devils Lake, "It is salty, but unlike the famous Great Salt Lake of Utah, its water is very similar to that of the ocean. Bathing here offers all the exhilaration of ocean bathing. The lake is used for sailing, and on its banks is the club house of the Devil's Lake Yacht club, having a membership of over one hundred."

Steamboats, such as the Minnie H, carried cargo and passengers on Devils Lake from 1883 through 1909.

Minnie H
Photo courtesy North Dakota State Historical Society

Devils Lake also has been a productive sport fishing lake intermittently since settlers arrived in the early 1880's, and commercial fishing was conducted at Devils Lake in the 1880's. However, in 1888 a major fish kill greatly diminished the fishery of Devils Lake, and by 1905 the fishery had disappeared.


Residents concerned with the lack of food and game fish in the lake convinced the Bureau of Fisheries, through repeated inquiries and requests to stock the lake, to investigate the physical and biological conditions of the lake in 1907. In a study published in 1908 and entitled A Study of Physical and Biological Conditions, with a View to the Acclimatization of Fish (Pope, 1908), the Bureau of Fisheries reported, "From all information available it appears that prior to 1889 Devils Lake was well stocked with pickerel. This was, perhaps, an influential factor in the selection of a reservation on its shore by the Sioux Indians, and also in the influx of people of Scandinavian origin."

The report describes the quality and quantity of pickerel formerly caught on the lake and states that "According to excellent authorities, these fish averaged from 5 to 6 pounds, a number of 17 or 18 pounds weight were caught, and one specimen, displayed in Devils Lake city, weighted 19 pounds. The average length was about 2 feet, the largest measured 3 feet, and those under 7 inches were rarely seen or caught. The flesh was reported to be firm and of fine flavor. No other species of fish was known to have been captured from this lake."

The Bureau of Fisheries study also included water-quality tests and attempts to introduce fish into the lake. Although all pickerel introduced to the lake died, experiments with yellow perch, black bass, and catfish were "highly satisfactory". The disappearance of the pickerel and their inability to survive when reintroduced was attributed to excessive evaporation that resulted in the "loss of vast spawning and feeding grounds for the pickerel", exhaustive fishing, and the increasing alkalinity of the water.

The study suggested that other species of fish could be introduced, but fresh water should be conveyed to the lake by means of a dam and gateway, a culvert, or a runway leading from Court or Spring Lake. According to the report, "Records of former years indicate that the level of the lake [Devils Lake] fluctuates to a considerable extent and a substantial increase may occur at any future date, but in view of the deficient precipitation disclosed by recent records for this section, the increasing development of surrounding territory, and the history of the lake for the past twenty-five years, it is extremely doubtful whether it will ever regain its former level."

The passage of time has resulted in a better understanding of Devils Lake. Because the recreational and fishery values of the lake are closely associated with the water-level fluctuations, various plans have been introduced to stabilize the water level and protect the recreational industry. In the late 1930's and early 1940's, various plans were developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to divert water from the Missouri River to stabilize the water level, but no lake stabilization plans were implemented. Then, from about 1969 through 1987, rising water levels resulted in an increase in recreational activity (especially fishing) and tourism. From 1987 to 1991, the water levels once again declined and provided the impetus for local organizations and State and Federal agencies to identify options that could be used to stabilize the water level for the growing tourist industry.

Because of the recent lake-level rise, fishing is a popular activity on Devils Lake and a boon to the tourism industry in the area. The city of Devils Lake styles itself as " North Dakota's Sportsman's Paradise", publishes fishing reports on its web site, and states that popular species on the lake are: Walleye , Jumbo Yellow Perch , Northern Pike, and White Bass