Paul Nelson column for Dec. 24: Anglers ready to hit the lakes after Christmas
Winter arrived officially on the calendar this past week, although it has felt like winter in the Bemidji area for about a month.
Snow is an unavoidable part of winter in the North Country. Snow is good for taking scenic winter pictures and covering septic systems and it is necessary for sports like skiing and riding snowmobiles.
Generally speaking, too much snow is not good for ice fishing. Sure it helps to have enough snow on the lakes to bank around the fish houses, but the last thing anglers need right now is a big snowstorm.
When it comes to travel on the ice and access to the lakes, large amounts of snow are not helpful for those who want to be able to go where ever they want for ice fishing.
There is a good base of clear ice on the lakes right now, but there is not enough ice to support a significant amount of snow.
The lakes were making ice very quickly when the temperatures were dipping below zero every night, but this past week was not as cold, so the lakes have not added much ice recently.
Most of the lakes in the Bemidji area have somewhere between 8 and 12 inches of ice. The panfish lakes tend to have more springs and deeper water, so they usually have less ice than lakes with shallower water.
Ice often forms in stages on lakes, especially on larger lakes and on lakes with bays, islands and irregular contours along the shoreline.
The ice close to shore is usually more stable and uniform in thickness than ice farther from shore. Seams and heaves in the ice may not be visible when there is snow on the lakes, so anglers must be careful when moving farther from shore.
Most anglers have been accessing the lakes on foot or with snowmobiles and ATVs. There has been some indication that resorts on Upper Red Lake and Lake of the Woods will be opening their accesses to vehicles soon, but anglers should call ahead to their destinations to be sure.
Anglers fishing out of uncontrolled accesses have to decide themselves when the lakes are ready to drive vehicles on the ice.
Ice fishing has been very good early this season, but it has been a little tougher recently with the passing of several cold fronts.
Each time a weather system passes through the area, the fishing usually peaks right before the front hits, tapers off while the front passes and then shuts down after the front has gone by.
The winds usually shift to the northwest and increase after a cold front passes and the temperatures usually drop significantly in the backdraft of a cold front.
Anglers can expect more activity and larger fish before a cold front hits and less activity and smaller fish after the cold front passes. It usually takes a couple of days for the conditions to reset after a cold front before fish resume their normal feeding patterns.
The best bite for walleyes on Upper Red Lake has been along the shoreline break in 9-12 feet of water. Anglers are using jigging spoons with a minnow head or bobber rigs with a lively minnow for walleyes. Crappie action has been slow in Upper Red and there are always a few large northern pike being caught.
Walleyes in Lake of the Woods have been biting best in 12-18 feet along the shoreline break in the mornings and evenings. Anglers have been catching sauger during the day in 22-28 feet of water
Both Upper Red Lake and Lake of the Woods have huge populations of walleyes that wander big flats looking for food. With little structure to hold the fish, anglers are usually better off if they keep moving until they start catching fish and then drill more holes in the productive areas.
Anglers should watch for baitfish on sonar whenever they are ice fishing, because predator species seldom get too far away from their food.
Paul A. Nelson runs the Bemidji Area Lakes Guide Service. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.