January is supposed to be the coldest month of the winter. We are certainly getting our money's worth so far in 2009. The average temperature for Bemidji on Jan. 16 is a high of 12 above zero and a low of 7 below.
The prospects for off-road travel on area lakes have not improved in the last week. The only anglers leaving the roads on the ice are the ones using snowmobiles or vehicles with tracks.
Generally speaking, the ice conditions are better in central and southern Minnesota than they are in the northern half of Minnesota.
Most anglers are accessing lakes on roads plowed by resorts or maintained by anglers with stationary fish houses on the ice. Most anglers are fishing structure within easy walking distance of the roads.
A handheld GPS with a map chip can give anglers a good idea of where they are as they drive across the lakes, so they can see when the road passes within walking distance of some structure they would like to fish.
Upper Red Lake is still the best bet for anglers wanting to catch walleyes. Anglers have a good chance to catch fish at any time of day because of the shallow, stained water in Upper Red.
Anglers should keep in mind that fish in shallow water tend to be spooky. Stay quiet around the fish house and set up portables on the edge of the groups of houses instead of in the middle.
The resorts on Upper Red Lake have been plowing roads farther from shore, so anglers can spread out and have a better chance to catch crappies, along with the walleyes. Most anglers are fishing Upper Red in 12 to 14 feet of water.
A simple bobber rig with a split-shot sinker and plain hook tipped with a lively minnow can be effective for finicky fish. Fish in stained water like those on Upper Red Lake and Lake of the Woods usually prefer a colored split-shot sinker and colored hooks, to give fish a more visible target.
Some anglers like to use tiny jigging spoons for crappies. They can be tipped with a minnow head or tail or a whole small minnow. Some anglers prefer to use wax worms or colored eurolarve to tip the hooks on little jigging spoons.
Jigging minnows are also available in several sizes, including the small 1/8 ounce size, which is perfect for panfish. Anglers can tip the center treble hook with a minnow head or some type of grub. A few anglers prefer to fish jigging minnows without bait, but they have confidence in their presentation and know how to work the baits properly.
Anglers can also success fishing small plastics for panfish and gamefish. Sometimes walleyes want something small to match what they are feeding on. Baits with heavy heads and small profiles can be the answer. The plastic tails give the baits movement, which can trigger the tough bites.
Some anglers prefer small baits that fish heavy in the winter, so they can get a small presentation back to fish in deep water more quickly. If baits fish too light, anglers take too long to get back to the fish and miss an opportunity to catch more fish.
Lake Winnibigoshish has a significant slush problem off the roads, much like many of the other lakes in the area. Some resorts on Winnie have only plowed out a couple of miles because of the difficulty maintaining the roads.
Anglers have had trouble getting stuck on snowmobiles on some areas if they stop on the wrong spot. It is usually a good idea to circle the area and get back on your trail before stopping.
Most anglers traveling off-road on the lakes use a handheld GPS with a map chip to help them navigate. Many lakes in the Bemidji area are not being fished because of the deep snow and slush on the ice.
The good news for some individuals is snowmobile trails are in peak condition, with many miles of groomed trails available to use in the Bemidji area.
Paul A. Nelson runs the Bemidji Area Lakes Guide Service. He can be contacted by calling 218-759-2235.