The ice fishing season is underway as anglers are finding a few shallow lakes with enough ice to walk on. All lakes are not created equal when it comes to ice so anglers have to be very careful and avoid the deep lakes until later in the season.

Upper Red Lake is one of the premier ice fishing lakes in Minnesota and usually has more ice than almost any other lake in the state.

To illustrate how much the ice conditions can differ between lakes, a comparison between Upper Red Lake and Lake Bemidji hits home the point.

There is usually enough ice to walk on Upper Red Lake before Lake Bemidji is completely covered with ice. Anglers are usually able to walk on Lake Bemidji about the same time anglers can drive ATVs or snowmobiles on Upper Red Lake and anglers can usually drive vehicles on Upper Red Lake about the same time anglers are able to drive an ATV or snowmobile on Lake Bemidji.

Many lakes freeze in sections. The south part of Lake Bemidji usually freezes long before the north end of Lake Bemidji. There will usually be some anglers spearing northern pike on the southeast side of Lake Bemidji before the north end of the lake is completely frozen.

The wind has been keeping many of the larger lakes with deep water open. The waves keep the surface of the lake from freezing, much like current keeps rivers open much longer than lakes.

Wind chill has no effect on water freezing. The only thing that matters is the temperature. Cass Lake and Walker Bay of Leech Lake are also among the last lakes to freeze, along with Lake Bemidji.

Anglers need to know some of the history of the area to know which lakes freeze first. There is a predictable order in things, with shallow lakes, bays or protected areas freezing sooner than wide open deep lakes.

Once anglers decide on a lake to go ice fishing, there are a few early season precautions that need to be taken until a safe path on safe ice has been established.

Anglers can take a short cut and wait for other anglers to establish a trail out to an area to fish or they can do it themselves on their own spot.

The buddy system is critically important early in the season. One person can break the trail and test the ice, while the second angler pulls out the gear and stands ready with a rope tied to something that floats to help in an emergency.

There are commercially made ice picks anglers can have ready to pull themselves out of the water. A life jacket is also critically important to keep an angler’s head from going under the ice in the event of a fall through the ice.

An ice chisel is one way to test the ice as an angler walks out on an area for the first time. The ice should be able to take a good hard chop from a sharp ice chisel without the chisel going through the ice.

A better way is to drill test holes every 10 yards or so. Anglers should put even pressure on the auger and count the number of turns it takes to cut through the ice. That way anglers will know if the ice is getting thinner as they walk.

The ice can form seams as it freezes so crossing over a seam is one of the areas where anglers need to be extra careful. The seams should be visible if the ice is not covered with snow but may not be visible if there is some snow covering the seams.

Anglers are usually fishing shoreline structure early in the season so finding a place to access the lake close to where anglers want to fish is an important aspect of choosing a location to try early in the season.

Anglers are usually looking for the shoreline break, with an inside turn or a tip of a point usually good areas to try. Remember, the winters are long in the Bemidji area so don’t take any unnecessary risks. There will be plenty of time to go ice fishing.

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

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