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Paul Nelson column for Dec. 11: Ice fishing season begins in the Bemidji area

Lakes in the Bemidji area started to freeze about a week ago. Some of the shallow lakes already have more than four inches of ice, which is usually enough for anglers to walk on.

The extended forecast calls for more cold temperatures this coming week. Ice conditions can improve quickly with sub-zero temperatures, especially if there is not much snow on the ice.

Ice fishing enthusiasts should be relieved the recent blizzard in southern Minnesota missed the Bemidji area. A heavy snow on newly formed ice could have negatively affected the ice conditions for much of the winter.

Ice on the lakes needs to be thick enough to support the weight of the snow. If too much snow falls on the ice before the ice is ready to support the weight, pressure will force water on top of the ice.

Slush on a lake can eventually freeze if it gets cold enough, but it usually takes an extended period of below zero weather to do it.

Travel on lakes with slush can be dangerous and sometimes nearly impossible, so most anglers hope the snow stays away long enough to get a good base of ice on the lakes.

People can begin walking on lakes with at least four inches of ice and can drive ATVs and snowmobiles on the lakes where there is more than six inches of ice.

Large vehicles usually require about 15 inches of good ice, while smaller vehicles require at least 12 inches of ice to support their weight.

Lake of the Woods and Upper Red Lake usually have thicker ice than most lakes closer to Bemidji. If the two big shallow lakes didn't reopen with the strong winds late this week, there could be enough ice for ATVs and snowmobiles by this weekend.

Anglers do not need to be in a rush to get on the ice. Winter is the longest season of the year in Minnesota, so there will be plenty of time to go ice fishing.

If anglers are anxious to get out on early ice, they can pick a shallow lake that has some good structure within close walking distance of the shore. Most of the fishing pressure early in the season is in front of the public accesses or resorts, so anglers can follow a trail onto the ice.

Some anglers are able to access the lakes through private property, so they don't have to compete with other anglers, but they have to break a new trail on the ice.

Anglers walking over deep water or breaking new trails in the ice should personally check the thickness of the ice every few steps.

Wearing a life jacket can help keep your face out of the water if you fall through the ice. Ice picks within easy grasp can help you pull yourself out of the water. Rolling away from the hole before trying to stand up could prevent you from falling through the ice a second time. A rope tied to a boat cushion works well for pulling other anglers out of the water from a safe distance.

With all the usual precautions about being careful on the ice, the 2009 ice fishing season is under way in the Bemidji area.

All of the bait stores in town should be able to name specific lakes where anglers have already been out on the ice.

Most anglers go after walleyes, perch or northern pike on early ice and fish along the shoreline drop-off. The key areas are usually turns or points along the outside edge of the weedline, especially if there is a good sized flat with a sharp break into deeper water.

Most fish will make feeding movements towards shallow water when they are actively feeding and move back toward deep water or suspend off the sides of structure when they are inactive.

Anglers can drill a series of holes from the top edge of the breakline to the bottom of the drop-off, so they can move from hole to hole with their sonar, searching for the depth with the most active fish.

Paul A. Nelson runs the Bemidji Area Lakes Guide Service. He can be e-mailed at