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Paul Nelson: Walleye fishing typically improves late in the season in Bemidji area lakes

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If it gets cold enough for long enough, almost anything will freeze. The ice conditions on the lakes in the Bemidji area continue to improve, with only isolated patches of slush remaining on a few lakes.

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It is amazing how acclimated a person can become to the cold. Anything above zero with light winds and sunshine actually feels balmy after enduring all the sub-zero temperatures this winter.

A return to average would even be a nice change. The high temperatures in the Bemidji area at this time of year are supposed to be around 22 degrees and the average lows are about zero.

Walleye fishing typically starts to improve again toward the end of the season. The season for walleyes and other gamefish species closes at midnight on Feb. 23.

There are extended seasons for walleyes, sauger and northern pike on many border waters, including Lake of the Woods. Anglers are also allowed to fish for species like perch, crappies, sunfish, whitefish and eelpout continuously in Minnesota waters.

The lakes will remain locked and in mid-winter patterns as long as the cold weather continues. Most lakes now have between 22 and 26 inches of ice, with anglers starting to use extensions on their ice augers on lakes like Upper Red Lake and Lake of the Woods.

Walleyes in many of the large lakes spend the first part of the winter on the deep flats following the schools of minnows and perch around the basin.

Once spring approaches, walleyes in the larger lakes will begin to stage closer to where they plan to spawn.

Walleyes in the larger lakes usually have a longer distance to travel so they start to move much earlier than walleyes living in smaller lakes.

Walleyes living in a chain of lakes may travel through several lakes to reach a specific area where they plan to spawn. These fish may also begin to move early when some combination of factors trigger them to start migrating.

Walleyes know spring is approaching as the days grow longer. They also key in on when the snow cover on the lakes begins to melt.

The melting snow causes the water levels in the rivers and streams to rise and fresh water starts to flow into the lakes.

Until the weather breaks, the lakes will continue to add ice and the frozen slush and snow cover will combine to limit the amount of sunlight that is able to penetrate into the lakes.

Most fish want to stay in the part of the lake that has sunlight at least part of the day. With the sunlight in most lakes only able to penetrate about 25 feet into the water, the fish have been moving out of deep water into more moderate depths.

Fish that like to suspend, such as crappies and sunfish, also react to the amount of light under the ice. Instead of suspending further off the bottom, they often move out of the deep holes to the more moderate depth flats that surround the deep holes.

Steep breaks, inside turns and other areas that offer some structure to the fish are often preferred by sunfish and crappies over the wide-open parts of the basin.

Crappies, sunfish and most other species of fish need to stay in the part of the lake where sunlight is able to touch the bottom.

The food chain begins with phytoplankton, which need sunlight to grow. Crappies and sunfish like to eat zooplankton, blood worms and any other small critters or minnows, and that diet preference keeps them in the part of the lake that gets some sunlight.

Most walleyes and perch have also moved into more moderate depths because of the lack of light in deep water under the ice.

Walleyes usually prefer to feed in areas with a steep break so they can move up and down the breakline when they feed.

Perch usually prefer flats, so they often move to the edges of structure where they can find saddles or wider aprons where they can feed on a mixture of prey species.

Anglers should try to pattern what types of areas the fish are using to feed so they can look for similar areas to search for active fish.

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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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