Most lakes in the Bemidji area have finally froze over, with the deep lakes like Lake Bemidji and Cass Lake always among the last local lakes to freeze.
Anglers have started to use ATVs and snowmobiles to access a few of the lakes that have been frozen the longest. The primary lake in this category is Upper Red Lake, which usually has the most ice of all the lakes in the Bemidji area.
The ice conditions vary greatly between lakes and also on the same lake, with the ice in the middle of the lake usually thinner than the ice along the shoreline.
Anglers need to asses the ice conditions personally, rather than relying on someone else to check the ice for them, at least until a “safe” path has been established.
Upper Red Lake gets much of the fishing pressure early in the season, with anglers from all over the state wanting to get a jump on the ice fishing season.
Most anglers fish the shoreline break in Upper Red Lake, with anglers spreading out in water between 6 and 8 feet deep during low light and fishing slightly deeper during the day.
The part of Upper Red Lake open to the public is roughly the east half of the lake. The shoreline break on the north end of the lake is further from shore and deeper water can be more than a mile from shore. The break line and deeper water are much closer to shore on the south end of the lake.
With so little structure in Upper Red Lake, it is usually a good idea to stay close to the drop-off during low light and to keep moving until locating some baitfish or active walleyes during the day.
Walleyes and most other species of fish want to stay close to their food during the winter because they don’t want to make long feeding movements in the cold water. The presence of minnows (especially spottail shiners or emerald shiners) is often the key factor in walleye location.
Finding an area holding baitfish is almost a guarantee there will be walleyes nearby in Upper Red Lake. Anglers can see the baitfish on sonar, which look like small marks that are usually further off the bottom.
The new Chirp technology is specifically designed to separate small targets like minnows, rather than lumping them all together in one indistinguishable blob on sonar.
Upper Red Lake is a stained lake as the name implies. Light sensitive species are able to feed more comfortably during the day in stained water because it cuts down on the light.
Clear water takes away the feeding advantage for fish like walleyes that use their sight as their main advantage over their prey. The best bite on Upper Red Lake is still during the low light periods, but the extremely high walleye population and the stained water allows some of the fish to feed all day long better than in most lakes.
The Red Lake walleyes tend to be very aggressive, so anglers are able to use jigging spoons very effectively. Anglers are allowed two lines during the winter in Minnesota waters, so many anglers use a jigging rod and a dead stick for their two lines. This is a good combination because the dead stick catches the less aggressive fish attracted by the jigging rods.
The shallow water makes slender jigging spoons less effective than the wider spoons that get some glide out to the side of the hole. Anglers can pump the lures several times aggressively and then drop their rod tip so the lure hits the bottom.
The rod is lifted to a preset spot where the lure is just off the bottom and let the lure flutter back into the whole. The bites usually happen when the rod tip drops to the bottom or when the lure is fluttering back into the center of the hole.
Red Lake walleyes are pretty aggressive when the bite is on, so bring a needle nose pliers or a hemostat to take the hooks out of deeply hooked fish.