The ideal situation for anglers would be for much of the snow on the lakes to melt, so they could drive their vehicles to more areas on the lakes.
The deep snow has prevented full access to most lakes in the Bemidji area this winter. There hasn't been a significant snowfall for weeks, so the slush has been freezing and the snow has been compacting, which has slowly improved the ice conditions.
Fishing usually picks up as the weather breaks in February. Ice on the lakes goes back and forth from freezing to melting, with a fresh plume of water flowing into the lakes when temperatures rise above freezing.
There is more than 20 inches of ice on most lakes in the Bemidji area. Anglers are using extensions on their augers on Upper Red Lake and Lake of the Woods, while most lakes closer to Bemidji can still be accessed with a standard length ice auger.
Many anglers concentrate their efforts on walleyes during the gamefish season and then switch to crappies, sunfish and perch later in the winter after the gamefish season closes.
Walleye fishing was slow most of January with temperatures well below zero much of the month. When temps are extremely cold, the ice is constantly expanding and everything in the lakes gets locked up tight.
When thawing occurs as temperatures rise above freezing, the lakes loosen up and the melting snow and ice begins to flow into the lakes. This gives the lakes a burst of fresh water and everything in the lake gets more active.
Upper Red Lake has been the most consistent lake for walleyes this winter. The south shore of Upper Red has more rock and the breakline is closer to shore, which often makes it better for walleyes. The north end of the lake has the breakline farther from shore with more mud in the basin, which is usually better for crappies.
Walleyes are able to spread out and use virtually all of Upper Red Lake because of the shallow water, so anglers are often better off staying on the move until they find some active fish.
Food is usually the key to fish location in the winter. If there are schools of baitfish present in the area, there will usually be walleyes and other predator species there to take advantage of the feeding opportunity.
Pike's Bay has been getting some fishing pressure from perch anglers, with a few walleyes being caught in the mornings and evenings. Anglers have limited access to Cass Lake because of the shallows surrounding Star Island, which can have current and thin ice all winter.
Leech Lake has a similar access problem, with narrows between many of the bays. Anglers usually have to access Leech Lake close to where they plan to fish in order to avoid the potential current areas in the narrows.
Lake Winnibigoshish has had rough ice conditions all winter, with slush in many areas. The walleye fishing has been steady much of the winter, but the huge schools of keeper-size perch have been difficult to find. Most anglers are sticking close to the roads with their vehicles and using snowmobiles to access the rest of the lake.
Panfish anglers are starting to look for crappies and sunfish. Panfish are usually willing to bite if anglers can locate the schools of fish.
Sunfish tend to be shallower than crappies and can often be tighter to structure. Sunfish have excellent eyesight, so anglers usually need to use light line and small baits to get more bites.
Eurolarve is excellent bait for sunfish, but wax worms can also be effective. Anglers usually use several eurolarve on their hooks, but only use one or two wax worms at a time for the best results.
Crappies tend to feed in deeper water than sunfish, with the edges of the deep holes adjacent to or between structures often the key areas.
Minnows work well for crappies, but anglers can also use small jigs, small jigging spoons, small jigging minnows or even small plastics to catch crappies.
Paul A. Nelson runs the Bemidji Area Lakes Guide Service. He can be contacted by calling 218-759-2235.