The ice fishing season began suddenly this past week when most lakes in the Bemidji area froze over in below-zero temperatures.
Ice thickness varies greatly from lake to lake and some of the deeper lakes have not yet frozen over completely.
Many lakes freeze around the perimeter of the lake first, before the middle portion of the lake freezes. This creates a seam in the ice near the shoreline drop-off, where the ice suddenly becomes thinner.
Anglers need at least four inches of good ice to be able to walk out on the lakes safely. This doesn't leave much room for error, so anglers should take all of the necessary precautions to make the sport as safe as possible.
Anglers can wear a life jacket on the ice and bring along a pair of ice picks to add an extra measure of safety early in the ice fishing season.
The best lakes for early ice fishing are shallow lakes that have a good location for fishing close to the public access.
Anglers can walk along the shore, where the ice is usually thicker, and then walk directly out to the spot they want to fish.
Anglers usually want to avoid walking across long stretches of deep water early in the season and concentrate their ice fishing efforts along the shoreline break.
Anglers usually fish close to the edges of the rushes or off of a cabbage weed bed early in the season, with inside turns and points along the weedline usually the key areas.
The best locations often have direct access to deep water, even though anglers often fish in water less than 20 feet deep.
Fishing can be very good on early ice, with flurries of activity expected early and late in the day for most species of fish.
Anglers fishing during the day will usually have better success fishing for day feeding species like perch, northern pike and sunfish. Crappies and walleyes usually bite best under low light conditions.
The weather always plays a big part in determining how active fish are going to be on any given day, regardless of the time of year.
Cold fronts usually slow down the bite in the winter, just like they do during the summer. Stable weather is often one of the biggest keys to a consistent bite at any time of year.
Anglers can improve their chances for success by selecting lakes with stained water if they are fishing during the day or in bright conditions.
Clear-water lakes usually have better bites in the mornings and evenings and the chances are better for a night bite under the right conditions for species like walleyes and crappies.
Most anglers just want to get on the ice and catch something early in the season. They like to travel light and just bring a minimum of gear with them so they can concentrate on the ice conditions.
Pulling a one-man ice fishing house can double as a sled to carry your gear onto the ice. Anglers can then sit in the house rather than stand up, to spread out their weight on the ice.
Another inexpensive safety item for ice fishing are the rubberized ice cleats that slip over a pair of boots for helping anglers keep their balance on the ice.
Ice fishing has come a long way in the last decade. The amount of gear specifically designed for ice fishing continues to revolutionize the sport.
The focus for ice anglers today is largely on location and presentation.
Find the fish. See the fish. Catch the fish.
The dark house season begins Saturday morning, so there will be people on the ice in many locations this weekend.
There was a change in the regulations over the summer, with anglers now allowed to use portable ice fishing shelters without a license, as long as the houses are not left on the ice unattended over-night.
Anglers leaving structures unattended on the ice over-night still require a shelter license.
With all of the usual cautions in mind, the ice fishing season is now under way in the Bemidji area.
Paul A. Nelson runs the Bemidji Area Lakes Guide Service. He can be contacted by calling 218-759-2235.