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Paul Nelson column for Dec. 18: Conditions perfect for making ice in Bemidji area

The conditions for making ice in the Bemidji area have been almost ideal so far this year, which is good news for those who enjoy ice fishing.

The base of ice that forms on the lakes early in the season can largely determine the quality of the ice for most of the winter.

Virtually all of the lakes in the Bemidji area have between 6 and 10 inches of good ice, with the lakes making half an inch or more of new ice each night the temperatures drop below zero.

Anglers are starting to drive ATVs and snowmobiles on most lakes, with anglers setting up stationary fish houses along many of the more popular fishing spots close to shore.

Most of the fishing pressure early in the season is near shore, especially on the larger lakes. Ice conditions are more stable near shore and many fish start out the season in shallower water along shoreline structure.

Upper Red Lake and Lake of the Woods are two of the premier walleye lakes in Minnesota, especially during the winter. Both lakes have abundant walleye populations and stained water, which means they usually have a good day bite for walleyes most of the winter.  

Tannic acid from the peat bogs surrounding Upper Red Lake and Lake of the Woods drains into the lakes, which gives their water a coffee-colored tint.

The dark water helps filter out some of the sunlight that passes through the ice, which allows light sensitive species like walleyes, crappies and sauger to feed more comfortably during the day.

Stained-water lakes usually have a shallower walleye bite than clear-water lakes. Stained lakes tend to have better day bites and less of a night bite than lakes with clear water.

Anglers fishing in clear water usually need to fish in deeper water and often have the best action in the mornings and evenings. Most clear-water lakes also have a walleye bite at various times during the night.

Upper Red Lake has been very good for walleyes early this season, with most anglers fishing along the shoreline break in 8-12 feet of water.

The resorts on Upper Red are allowing anglers with ATVs and snowmobiles to access the lake, but have not been allowing vehicles on the ice yet with nearly a foot of ice in most areas.

Anglers on Lake of the Woods have been fishing walleyes in 12-18 feet of water in the mornings and evenings and then moving into 22-28 feet of water during the day to fish for sauger.

Anglers in Minnesota are allowed to use two lines for ice fishing. Many anglers like to use a jigging rod for one line and either a tip-up or a bobber rig for the second line.

The idea is to catch the most active fish on the jigging rod and then catch the less active fish on live bait rigged to either a tip-up or a bobber rig on a dead stick.

Some days the jigging rod will catch more fish, while on other days the dead stick with a bobber and a lively minnow may catch more fish. The most effective presentation usually depends on the conditions, which changes during the day.

Many walleye anglers prefer to use shiner minnows for walleyes in most situations, but sometimes fatheads, chubs, rainbows and even small sucker minnows may work better, so it pays to experiment.

Anglers may find situations where walleyes, sauger and perch are feeding over mud bottom and might have a preference for insects instead of minnows.

Anglers can try using smaller jigs tipped with one or two wax worms or a jig with multiple eurolarve to more closely match the insect larvae the fish are eating out of the mud.

Please remember to check ice conditions personally, because the ice thickness varies between lakes and between the shore and the middle of the lake.

Stick to established trails on the ice whenever possible and be particularly careful in areas where there hasn't been any fishing pressure yet this season.

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