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Opener approaches but ice may still be on Bemidji area lakes

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The elephant in the room is the late spring and whether the lakes in the Bemidji area will be open in time for the fishing opener on May 11.

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The latest ice-out date for Lake Bemidji on record is May 22, 1950. There was also a late ice-out in 1996, which was the last time Bemidji hosted the Governor’s Fishing Opener. The ice went out on Lake Bemidji on Thursday afternoon in 1996, less than two days before the season opened.

Park Rapids hosts the Governor’s Fishing Opener this year. A photo was circulated this past week from Fish Hook Lake near Park Rapids of a tape measure down an ice hole that showed 30 inches of ice remaining on the lake that will host the event.

A look at the 10-day forecast for the Bemidji area predicts the first night with overnight temperatures above freezing to be April 27, when the overnight low is expected to be 36 degrees.

There is always some melting in areas exposed to the sun during the day but the lakes usually hold their ice as long as it stays below freezing at night.

The end of the ice fishing season usually occurs after two or three consecutive nights with temperatures above freezing, but it can take another couple of weeks for all the ice to be gone from the lakes.

Another predictor for ice-out dates in the Bemidji area is to watch when the ice goes out on Lake Minnetonka. The average ice-out date for Lake Minnetonka is April 13, so it is already almost one week late.

The average ice-out date for Lake Bemidji is April 26, so Lake Bemidji is usually about 13 days behind Lake Minnetonka.

Lake Minnetonka had more than 20 inches of ice this past week, and anglers were still actively ice fishing most parts of the lake.

If anglers do the math, the ice needs to be out on Lake Minnetonka no later than April 27 in order for Lake Bemidji to be open by May 10, which is a day before the opener.

Admittedly, Lake Bemidji is one of the last lakes to be ice-free each spring. Most shallow lakes are usually free of ice several days ahead of Lake Bemidji but ice-out records are not kept for most small lakes in Minnesota.

The average ice-out dates for some of the other popular lakes in Minnesota include Leech Lake on April 27, Winnibigoshish, Mille Lacs and Pokegama on April 24 and Lake of the Woods and Vermillion with an average ice-out date of April 29.

The historical records are not favoring open water by the opener in the Bemidji area. Stranger things have happened but right now it looks like it will take a drastic change in the weather pattern, several days of heavy rain and strong winds to get rid of the ice in time for the opener.

The Bemidji area is locked into winter mode and anglers are still accessing the lakes with ATVs and snowmobiles.

Many of the panfish have been moving into shallow water, anxious for spring to arrive. Anglers may have trouble locating the fish but once they find them, the fish should be biting.

If anglers know where the fish are supposed to be on late ice from previous years, it should help them figure out where the fish are located now.

Sunfish and perch in many lakes have moved into very shallow water, with six to eight feet a common depth range to find both species. If the fish aren’t there, they are probably suspended over the closest drop off in deeper water.

Many of the fish have been suspended right below the ice so anglers may be on the right spot and fishing below the level of the fish.

Fish suspended right below the ice tend to be spooky and may look like interference on sonar. Anglers may see something on sonar close to the surface but may not believe or realize what they are seeing on their electronics.

Crappies have also moved shallow in most lakes but they tend to be slightly deeper than the sunfish and perch, with more fish in the 10 to 14 foot range.

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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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