Left reeling: Ice fishing in North Dakota

Barbed-wired prairies, hot fudge milkshakes and blood on the snow: Tam Leach goes ice fishing on Devils Lake and learns that there's more to North Dakota than the widescreen vistas of 'Fargo' country

It's 7am and 30 below on a dark February morning, and I'm driving under power lines, in deep snow, on ice. Above 145,000 acres of water. Way in the distance, the lights of the Sioux Tribe's Spirit Lake casino shimmer on the shore. I'm on my own, and I'm trying to remember to breathe.

"You want to go where?," the travel agent had asked, blinking. "Fargo," I'd repeated. "North Dakota."



"Like the movie?"



"That's the one."



The travel agent had blinked again, twirled her pen, then tentatively tapped at her keyboard. "But why would you want to go there?"



Because it's there, I could have said, like Mallory. Or I could have pointed out that, though burnt into the psyches of filmgoers everywhere thanks to Steve Buscemi and a wood chipper in the Coen Brothers' cult film, North Dakota is the US state least visited by British tourists, and isn't exactly a hotspot with other Americans.



But I had a better answer. I was going ice fishing.



Not in Fargo itself, it has to be said. In Fargo, the eastern gateway to the state, I gawped at the Art Deco signs and shopfronts along Broadway, admired the beautifully restored cinema, and drank almost certainly the best milkshake of my life: a hot fudge-and-banana malted from the reassuringly old-fashioned Zandbroz soda fountain.



I discovered that even among the general economic doom and gloom, Fargo is a fast-growing city, regularly topping America's "best places to live" rankings – and, according to one national survey, is the "Third Least Angry City" in the country. You betcha. What Fargo is not, however, is the location for the eponymous movie. Which was set in Minnesota.



Except for those road scenes. Those white-out, barbed-wire fence, flat prairie scenes – they were shot in North Dakota. And they rolled past the window for miles as I left Fargo and headed north-west, to my final destination: Devils Lake.



I breathe. Ahead, my guide John Erickstad's wheels are spinning. It is astonishingly cold, and there is nobody around. John towed another fisherman out of a snow-drift 20 minutes back, but this lake is 45 miles long and people round here don't like to crowd each other – if that were even possible.



Now I understand why we brought two trucks. John throws a thick rope over his tow bar, and instructs me in the art of pick-up truck towing; I try to look as if I'm not petrified. Back behind the steering wheel, I remember what his wife, Maria, told me at breakfast: make sure that the autolock is disengaged, and don't wear a seatbelt. It's unlikely, but just in case the ice cracks, OK?



I try to replace this uncomfortable image with the photograph, in their lodge, of 400 people – and their pickups – out on the ice for a contest. So. Reverse, pull forward, brake. Reverse, pull forward, brake. It's certainly not an easy way to go about catching some fish.



We're looking for perch. Devils Lake is famous for them; if you can't catch a perch on the lake on a summer's day, says John, well... you've got problems. Winter, it gets more tricky. You have to read the weather, speak to other fishermen, try to find out where they're biting.



Slightly more relaxed, I follow John over to what looks like Everest base camp to speak to Zippy. A regular fixture on the cable-channel fishing shows (yes, that is a plural), Zippy is a guide with the Perch Patrol. His clients, two young couples, are cosied up against the whipping winds in ice-fishing tents, toasty thanks to portable propane heaters. Tami and Scott, from Detroit, are on their honeymoon. "Because Devils Lake is the best place to fish in the Midwest," they say, both beaming, when I raise my eyebrows.



There's a grand old tradition of hunting and fishing in this part of the world. Back in Fargo, I'd visited Scheels, a two-storey sports megastore, which has 160 stuffed animals on display, including two full-sized grizzlies. Taxidermied ducks in flight hang above the aisles, directing customers to the gun racks. At the internationally broadcast University of North Dakota ice hockey game in Grand Forks, I listened as 12,000 people sang along to John Denver's Thank God I'm A Country Boy – and very much meant it.



John and I retire to his hut. Apparently you do need somewhere to get away from it all, even in the middle of nowhere; this is the garden shed on ice, complete with stove, cards, and multiple trap doors, below which sit semi-permanent ice holes.



Lined with thermal foam, – allegedly buoyant – these are dragged out in December and removed at the first signs of thaw. They can be moved if there's word of a school coming through, but mostly neighbours stay by neighbours, content to wait for the fish to come to them.



Maria shows up with cookies. She is of German descent, while John is Norwegian. North Dakota was settled by these two groups of farming migrants, who arrived early last century.



The wind blows, the gas hisses, we deal again and again. Only once does the hum of the sonar device deepen, and the little bells on the fixed lines ring. No perch, but 10 minutes of reeling produce three walleyes: dinner.



The next day, as we drive past tumbledown houses and wheatfields dusted with snow, Maria tells me how ticked off folks were that a recent National Geographic article on the state featured so many images of desolation and decay. Today, migration is to the state's cities, where the oil business, service industries and universities are doing well. It's like the movie, she says. When Fargo came out, people here were not best pleased with the actors' take on their accents. "And I just thought," says Maria, "For Pete's sake, will you listen to yourselves?"



We pull up by Mauvee Coulee; John's heard that pike are coming through. In glorious sunshine, practically mummified figures are drilling holes and setting up tents and tip-ups: spring-loaded lines that send up a flag when a pike takes the bait. One father-and-son team have a chainsaw. "Spear fishing," says John, mysteriously.



Snug in the dark tent, the lake illuminated by the sun glinting through the ice, it doesn't take long before I spy the first kill of the day. The monster noses up to the frozen minnow on the end of my line, then grabs on, hard. "Let him take it," says John. "Now pull!" Writhing and snapping, the pike fights hard on its way out. John tosses it outside; within 15 minutes, it will be frozen solid.



The fish keep coming. Just before we leave, our quota reached, John introduces me to the chainsaw man. Inside the darkened canvas, his son leans over a large sawn-out hole with something that looks suspiciously like a trident. I watch, fascinated, as a two-foot pike swims into view, attracted by a colourful lure on the end of a rod.



"Once you've got its attention, you need to aim the spear behind the gills," he explains, politely. "Would you like a go?" How can I say no? When, ever again, will I get to pretend to be Neptune? I heft the weapon, aim, and throw. The trident slices through the water and, to both our surprise, pins the poor fish to the lake floor. Both elated and horrified, blood on my hands, I emerge blinking into the sunlight. The Coen brothers, I like to think, would be proud.



Traveller's Guide: State Lines



43. North Dakota



Getting there



You can fly into Fargo or Grand Forks via Minneapolis St Paul with Northwest Airlines/KLM (08705 074 074; klm.com). You will need to rent a car to get out to Devils Lake. Another possibility is to fly direct to Minneapolis and drive into North Dakota; allow two days for the journey to Devils Lake. A third option is the train; Amtrak's Empire Builder (amtrak.com) starts in Chicago and passes through Minneapolis before reaching Devils Lake. Book through Perch Patrol (see below) for discounted train fares (starting at around £40 return from Minneapolis).



Staying there



Lakeview Lodge, 704 Elmwood Road, Devils Lake (001 701 665 5060; lakeviewlodgedl.com) has nine two- or three-bedroom self-catering apartments, some sleeping up to eight. Double rooms start at $95 (£63), self-catering.



Fishing there



Perch Patrol Guide Service (001 701 351 3474; perchpatrol.com) offers guided one-day ice-fishing packages for $150 (£100) per person.



More information



Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors' Bureau: 001 701 282 3653; fargomoorhead.org



North Dakota Tourism: 001 701 328 2525; ndtourism.com



Population: 642,000



Area: Nine times the size of Wales



Capital: Bismarck



Date in Union: 2 November 1889



Flower: Wild Prairie Rose



Motto: "Liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable"



Nickname: Peace Garden/ Flickertail/Roughrider State

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
News
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Sport
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
football
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
tech
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Day In a Page

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering