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Paul Nelson: Ice conditions slowly improving but access remains limited

The ice conditions are slowly improving on the lakes in the Bemidji area but there are still major slush problems on many lakes.

Anglers are limited to where they can go on most lakes and only a few lakes are ready for vehicle traffic. The best advice is for anglers to use snowmobiles or other track vehicles and stay on the roads and established trails on the lakes.

Anglers need to resist the urge to travel too far off the trails and fish mid-lake structures that are further from shore until there is more ice.

Upper Red Lake and Lake of the Woods have some of the best ice conditions in the state and are the only areas close to Bemidji that have enough ice for vehicle traffic.

Resorts on both Upper Red Lake and Lake of the Woods are starting to allow smaller vehicles out of their accesses and anglers are finding between 12 and 14 inches of ice in most areas.

Resorts are allowing up to half-ton vehicles and single axle fish houses to access the lakes, with larger vehicles and dual axle fish houses not being allowed and won’t be until there is more ice.

Anglers on Upper Red Lake have started to spread into deeper water and most anglers are fishing between 8 and 10 feet of water.

Anglers on Lake of the Woods are fishing the shoreline break in 18 to 24 feet of water in the mornings and evenings and in 26 to 32 feet of water during the day.

Jigging spoons tipped with part of a shiner minnow have been the hot baits for walleyes in Upper Red Lake and Lake of the Woods. Anglers need to gauge the mood of the walleyes they are seeing on sonar and adjust their presentations to match the mood of the fish.

There are actually better ice conditions in several directions from Bemidji. Lakes in southern Minnesota have more ice than most of the lakes further north.

Mille Lacs Lake has bad ice conditions and poor fishing, which will put more pressure on the lakes that have better ice conditions and better bites for most species of fish.

There are many anglers from Minnesota and Wisconsin traveling west to fish Devils Lake in North Dakota where there has been a great perch bite and also good action for walleyes and northern pike.

Devils Lake has between 18 and 20 inches of good ice and much less snow cover than most of the lakes in the Bemidji area. Anglers are using four wheel drive vehicles to access Devils Lake and are finding good access to most parts of the lake.

There has been an excellent bite for jumbo perch in Devils Lake and fish representing multiple age classes are being caught. Many anglers have been catching limits of perch between 9 and 15 inches and there is a legitimate chance to catch perch in excess of 2 pounds.

The abundance of freshwater shrimp in Devils Lake provides the perch will an excellent food source and that allows the perch to grow to jumbo size faster than in most lakes.

North Dakota has liberal limits on most species of fish so anglers are able to bring home many fillets as a reward for making the long drive.

Anglers in North Dakota are allowed to take 20 perch per day and 80 perch are allowed in the possession limit. The walleye limit is 5 fish with 10 in possession.

Anglers have been catching perch out of Devils Lake in a range of depths, with most of the perch coming from 25 to 45 feet of water.

Anglers need to keep what they catch if the fish won’t swim back down the hole and most anglers are staying shallower than 30 feet deep so they can release some of the smaller perch.

Anglers are also catching good numbers of walleyes in Devils Lake and are finding the walleyes slightly shallower than the perch in most situations.

Devils Lake offers good ice conditions and great fishing for anglers who are willing to travel a longer distance while they wait for the ice conditions to improve on the lakes closer to Bemidji.

PAUL A. NELSON runs the Bemidji Area Lakes Guide Service. He can be contacted at

Paul Nelson
Paul Nelson writes a weekly fishing column for the Bemidji Pioneer. He runs the Bemidji Area Lakes Guide Service.