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Fishing: Big Lake's diversity offers opportunities for every angler

BEMIDJI — Bemidji area anglers can have their choice of what species to target on a particular day as the area is filled with lakes that support everything from sunfish to muskies.

There even is an area lake that offers the opportunity to catch walleyes in the morning, panfish or bass in the afternoon and muskies and northern pike in the evening.

“Big Lake is a more diversified than even Lake Bemidji,” said Bemidji DNR Area Fisheries Supervisor Gary Barnard. “Its main deep water basin is perfect walleye habitat and its western basins provide great panfish habitat. And that diversity of habitat results in the wide variety of fish species in Big Lake.”

The Big Lake walleyes regularly patrol the eastern basin of the lake where winds can sweep over the humps, drops and contour changes.

“There is no shortage of good walleye structure in the eastern basin,” Barnard said. “I don’t know if walleye fishing is ever easy but in Big Lake there are plenty of places where the walleyes can be located. The walleyes will be there and the key is to find the places that the walleyes are using that day.”

Most of those walleyes will be fish that were stocked as fry instead of naturally reproduced.

“There is some walleye reproduction in Big Lake but it is limited so we stock the lake heavily,” Barnard said.

Last year DNR officials put 2.65 million walleye fry into Big Lake and this year the stocking of another 2.1 million is planned.

“We sample Big Lake every year and those results indicated that fry stocking works when the conditions are right,” Barnard said. When we stopped stocking (in the mid-1990s) the walleye population dropped so we resumed fry stocking and every year since 1991 we’ve had recruitment.”

In the most recent lake assessment conducted in 2011 the walleye numbers indicated that the Big Lake population was stable and that the population included a nice mix of fish between one and three years of age. The presence of those fish showed that there was successful recruitment from the most recent stocking efforts.

Of equal importance to the angler was that the five-year old walleyes formed the most abundant year class in 2011 and those fish averaged 15.4 inches in length.

“When it comes to Big Lake, we hear no complaints from the walleye fishermen,” Barnard said. “Everybody seems happy with the walleye catch rates on Big Lake.”

Big Lake’s perch also are willing to hit a presentation and they can often be found mixed in with the walleyes.

“The perch fishery on Big Lake is pretty good and they go hand-in-hand with the walleyes,” Barnard said. “It is not uncommon to be working traditional walleye areas and find 10 to 12 inch perch. And when you find perch of that size, who needs to catch walleyes?”


Stocking has also helped Big Lake make the transformation into one of the area’s premier muskie lakes and the current schedule calls for the DNR officials to maintain that stocking regimen on an every-other-year basis.

“Big Lake is a native muskie lake connected to the Cass Lake Chain but the muskies were somewhat depleted in the 1970s,” Barnard said. “At that time we started stocking shoepack but in the late 1980s we switched to the Leech Lake strain. And as soon as the source for muskie fingerlings became available we started to stock Big Lake every other year.”

That stocking effort has paid dividends as the lake supports a healthy population.

“Once the muskies become established it doesn’t take many fish stocked to maintain the numbers,” Barnard said. “We’re still stocking Big Lake every other year but we don’t need to put in as many as we used to.”

Last summer Big Lake received 150 muskie fingerlings.

“The muskie is providing many extra hours of fishing enjoyment without putting much strain on the resource,” Barnard said. “A consumptive harvest can put a strain on a fishery but muskie fishing is mostly catch-and-release so there isn’t much strain on the population.

“Anytime you are on Big Lake you can see one or two boats pitching muskie lures but the muskie fishermen are not dominating the lake,” Barnard continued. “The muskie is providing a good fishery on the lake but it is not overshadowing the walleyes, pike or panfish.”

Panfish are abundant

The main panfish species in Big Lake are crappies and sunfish and both are doing very well.

“The diversity of the habitat allows for varied species and in Big Lake we have habitat that provides spawning areas for the panfish and areas that provide protection and growth potential.

“The bluegills all tend to be nice size and you can catch them on the humps in the eastern basin of the lake. The crappies also are doing very well and I’m sure they are using some of the deep water habitat during the summer. With crappies it is common to have the light determine how and when they will bite.”

Bass fishermen also enjoy a day on Big Lake as the ample weed areas provide perfect places for the young bass to grow and the large bass to prowl.

“All of the species that use nests need protected bays and those areas can be found on Big Lake,” Barnard said.

Northern Pike

A special regulation protecting pike between 24 and 36 inches has been implemented on Big Lake and results of the recent assessment indicate that it may be working.

“The intent of the regulation is to protect the larger northern pike and reduce recruitment,” Barnard said. “When you have high numbers of small pike you see pressure on the overall fishery because pike are eating machines and constantly are in need of energy. Big Lake has a history of many small pike but in our last two assessments the numbers went down from the high teens per net to only seven per net.”

The reduced overall catch was what the DNR officials were hoping to see. Unfortunately, what they didn’t find were many large pike.

“Maybe the larger pike were there but we just didn’t sample them,” Barnard said. “Regardless, something seems to be affecting the overall recruitment of the pike.”

The access is located on the east shore and a trip to Big Lake would be worth the effort.

“There are many quality fishing lakes around that may get lost by the anglers because we have Lake Bemidji, Cass, Red and other well-known lakes,” Barnard said. “But Big Lake is a very good fishing lake. When we do our creel surveys on Big we find that there is a lot of ‘anything that is biting’ fishing going on.”

And on Big Lake something usually is biting.

Pat Miller

Pat Miller is the sports editor at the Pioneer.

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