Ice conditions in the Bemidji area have not improved much in the past week. The warmer temperatures have started to melt some of the snow cover, but the runoff is adding to the slush problems on many lakes.
Most of the local lakes have between 5 and 9 inches of ice, but there can be thin spots in the ice under deeper snow drifts or wherever there is slush on the ice.
Anglers are able to access most lakes with ATVs and snowmobiles. The majority of the fishing pressure has been along the shoreline break, with many anglers hesitant to fish further from shore until the ice gets thicker.
Eventually the high-traffic areas on the lakes will get compacted and freeze, but it will likely take another prolonged bout with below-zero temperatures to do the job.
The lakes desperately need to add more ice before they get any more snow or it could be a long winter for those who love to go ice fishing.
Anglers have started to drive their vehicles on Lake of the Woods and Upper Red Lake, but those are the only two lakes in the area with enough ice for driving vehicles. Both lakes have between 12 and 15 inches of ice.
Anglers have been catching good numbers of walleyes and saugers in Lake of the Woods in 22-28 feet of water along much of the south shore.
Walleyes often stage up near Pine Island early in the winter as they filter out of the Rainy River after following the emerald shiners up the river in the fall.
The walleye fishing around Pine Island usually tapers off as winter progresses and then picks up again late in the winter as walleyes begin to stage near the mouth of the Rainy River, waiting to begin their annual spring spawning migration.
The stained water in Lake of the Woods often helps improve the day bite for walleyes and saugers because the water is too dark for a significant night bite.
The dark water in LOW also increases the likelihood of walleyes suspending off the bottom as they follow the schools of emerald shiner minnows.
Many anglers use portable sonar when they ice fish, which allows anglers to watch their bait and see fish as they come through under their holes. Some of the larger fish coming through high in the water column in Lake of the Woods are larger walleyes.
Most of the suspended walleyes will get spooked if anglers try to race their bait up to the fish too quickly. It usually works better to carefully raise the lure up to the fish, pausing several times to give the fish a chance to come down to the bait before bringing it to the same level as the fish.
If suspended walleyes are coming through with some regularity, anglers may want to move a bobber rig up to that level to put their bait in the right zone.
Being able to fish two lines during the winter allows anglers to fish one line aggressively while watching it on sonar and then fish a dead stick with a lively minnow on another line to trying to catch the less aggressive fish.
Most anglers fishing on Upper Red Lake have been staying close to the roads and fishing in larger groups. The shallow water often makes the fish more sensitive to noise, so anglers will often have better luck staying away from the crowds.
There is minimal structure on Upper Red Lake, so anglers may need to keep moving until they find an area with active fish.
A difference in depth of only a few inches can make a big difference in lakes with little structure. Most of the bottom is sand in Upper Red Lake, so areas with rock and gravel can be good for walleyes and areas with mud can be great for crappies and perch.
Northern pike in Upper Red are nomads that can show up anywhere at any time. The pike often take small presentations intended for other species or they can be caught on larger minnows or dead baits on tips.
Anglers should note there are special regulations on both walleyes and northern pike in Lake of the Woods and Upper Red Lake.
Paul A. Nelson runs the Bemidji Area Lakes Guide Service. He can be contacted by calling 218-759-2235.