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Ice covers Bemidji area lakes but thickness varies

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Lakes in the Bemidji area continue to make ice, although the sub-zero temperatures needed to set the ice and get the ice fishing season fully underway haven’t arrived yet. The ice thickness in the deep lakes like Bemidji, Cass, Pike Bay and Walker Bay of Leech Lake varies between six and eight inches in most places. The ice is between eight and 10 inches on lakes like Winnibigoshish and the shallow bays of Leech Lake. Lake of the Woods varies more than most lakes, with eight inches in some areas and more than a foot of ice in other areas. The lake with the most ice is still Upper Red Lake, with 14 inches of good ice in most areas, although there were some ice heaves beginning to form this past week. The best ice is clear ice but there are always weak spots along the seams, in areas where the ice froze in chunks or with cloudy ice that has air or snow mixed with the ice. Anglers have been using ATVs or snowmobiles to access most lakes although a few anglers have been jumping the gun and driving smaller vehicles onto some lakes. The only lake in the area where most anglers are driving on the ice is Upper Red Lake. There may also be some resorts on Lake of the Woods ready to let vehicles drive out of their accesses by this weekend but anglers should call before going to see what modes of travel the resorts are allowing on the ice. Anglers are taking a risk whenever they drive on the lakes. Smaller vehicles may be able to drive on less than a foot of ice but larger pickups pulling a wheeled house need at least 14 inches of good ice to leave a little margin for error if there are any thin spots in the lake. Walleyes in Upper Red Lake have been biting in eight to 10 feet of water. The most congested areas on the lakes often see the fishing action eventually slow so anglers will have to branch out and go searching for new areas to stay on the fish. The lack of structure on Upper Red Lake makes it harder for anglers to make educated guesses on where the fish should be located. The breakline in most of Upper Red Lake seems to drop in 3-foot increments. The first break goes from three to six feet, the next goes from seven to nine feet and the last one goes from 10 to 12 feet deep, with a few isolated holes dropping as deep as 14 feet of water. One of the highest percentage areas for walleyes in Upper Red Lake is close to the base of each drop-off. There are often flats between the breaks so the best areas are usually the beginning of the flats closest to the breakline. The walleyes will move up and down the breakline when they feed but they tend to follow the base of the drop-off when the move rather than wandering further from the breakline and onto the flats between the breaks. Rocks are like magnets for walleyes in Upper Red Lake and most other lakes that have mostly sand or mud bottom. Rocks will also attract most other species at certain times of the year, depending on where and how deep the rocks are located. Some anglers have also been fishing for crappies on early ice with some success. If anglers would take a look at a lake map and identify the deepest holes in the lake, many of the crappies should be located somewhere along the edges of the deep holes. Any structure that touches deep water, any turns on the edges of the deep water and any steep breaks leading into the deep holes are likely areas for suspended schools of crappies early in the winter. Crappies often start out the winter suspended within six feet of the bottom but will rise higher in the water column and often suspend over deeper water as the winter progresses. Crappies are visual feeders so plastics, small jigging lures and small minnows will all work, as long as they are at the same depth range as the crappies.

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Paul Nelson
Paul Nelson writes a weekly fishing column for the Bemidji Pioneer. He runs the Bemidji Area Lakes Guide Service.
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