The angler who lost his life on Leech Lake this past week shows again that no ice is ever totally safe, especially for vehicle traffic. It also shows how important it is to be familiar with the lake before driving on the ice.
Any current under the ice can create thin ice or even open water. Potential current areas include inlets, outlets and narrows or bottle necks with water flow.
Local Bemidji residents can watch the inlet on Lake Bemidji to learn how current works on ice. The shallow water at the inlet only freezes when the temperature drops below zero. Once the temperature rises above zero, the inlet opens up again.
The open water at the inlet on Lake Bemidji is generally less than 5 feet deep and never forms more than an inch or two of ice. Once the current hits the drop-off, it disperses into deeper water and ice is able to form.
Springs can also create thin ice, which are more dangerous near shore. Schools of fish like carp can create thin ice because their feeding activity creates turbulence under the ice, which can erode the ice much like current.
Anglers can minimize their risk on the ice by staying on established trails, avoiding areas with deep snow or slush near shore or around islands and avoiding ice heaves or traveling long distances over shallow water.
Snowmobiles actually go through ice with greater frequency than vehicles, presumably because people drive snowmobiles off the trails and pay less regard to the ice conditions than persons driving vehicles on the ice.
The cold temperatures the past couple of nights and the cold weather in the extended forecast should help freeze most of the remaining slush on the lakes.
The current ice conditions in the Bemidji area range from 13-18 inches of ice. The best ice conditions in the area continue to be on Upper Red Lake and Lake of the Woods.
Cold temperatures can have a negative effect on fishing for several reasons. Fish don't usually bite as well in the cold. Anglers have more trouble with their equipment and are much less likely to stay mobile when the temperatures drop below zero.
Perch fishing is not as popular with some local anglers as it is with many of the visitors who come to the Bemidji area to go ice fishing.
Perch fishing is a staple of many winter anglers because perch have liberal limits, they are aggressive day biters and they taste good in the frying pan.
It usually takes a large lake or a chain of lakes to provide the specific conditions perch require to grow into jumbos. If something is missing from the lake the perch need, the perch will become stunted and won't grow to their full potential.
Many of the largest lakes in the Bemidji area are also the best perch lakes. These lakes include Bemidji, Blackduck, Cass Lake (including Pike's Bay), Leech Lake, Plantagenet and Lake Winnibigoshish.
Walleye fishing has been excellent on Upper Red Lake with anglers fishing a range of depths for walleyes. Most anglers are easily catching their two walleye limit under the 17-28 inch protected slot. Crappie fishing has been slow on Upper Red, with few fish being caught.
Lake of the Woods is producing good numbers of walleyes and sauger for anglers fishing in 28-32 feet of water during the day and shallower in the mornings and evenings.
Crappies and sunfish are being caught on many of the smaller lakes in the Bemidji area, with light fishing pressure. Many anglers concentrate on walleyes and northern pike while they can and then switch to panfish later in the winter after the gamefish season closes.
Access to the lakes continues to be one of the biggest problems for anglers. The current cold spell should help freeze most of the slush and add a few more inches of ice to the lakes.
Once the current cold spell has run its course, anglers should have better ice conditions and better access to most of the lakes.
Paul A. Nelson runs the Bemidji Area Lakes Guide Service. He can be contacted by calling 218-759-2235.