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Winning Tactics For First-Ice ‘Eyes

BEMIDJI, Minn. – There’s a tradition among the most serious marble-eye hounds across the Ice Belt to travel each year to Red Lake, Minnesota, for some of the hottest first-ice walleye action anywhere. Some years that means Thanksgiving weekend; other years it comes later, like it will inevitably be this year.

If you’re a first-timer, know that there are a lot of resorts that line the lake’s basin, as well as a few places to stay along the way from Kelliher to Waskish. But spots fill up fast. Our advice? Get online now and book your trip now…

“The thing about Red Lake,” says Brosdahl, “it’s a shallower-type lake with a lot of mud, rocks, and sand. The lake was formed by large glaciers pushing rock around, so there are tracts where anglers troll crankbaits in the summer or anchor up and jig. Those same spots work great during first-ice.”

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Brosdahl continues: “Red is the perfect destination for first-ice travel on foot with a pull-behind sled; the walleye bite usually starts at the primary break-line along the shoreline, which is in 5- to 6-feet of water. As the lake freezes up, walleyes hang around that first break in shallow water, having spent late-fall chasing shiners and ciscoes close to shore. They linger on through first-ice.”

As there gets to be enough ice to run four wheelers, snowmobiles, and side-by-sides, heavy traffic can push the fish into the 8- to 9-foot range, which is still close to shoreline access points.

“I’ve walked out on Red first-ice many, many times, and fish-producing spots are typically a half-mile or less from shore, sometimes closer than that. I lot of the good spots are right in front of the resorts, too,” notes Brosdahl.

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Where To Find ‘Em

Ideally, if you can get out in the boat during late-fall on Red and mark the strings of rocks in the basin on your electronics you’ll be sitting pretty come first-ice.

If that’s not a possibility, technology like the Humminbird Ice Helix 9 MSI+ GPS G4N MEGA 360 Ice Bundle is a godsend. Drop the 360 and pan the rock structure.

“Fishing close to these rock strings makes a huge difference in the quality of the walleye bite,” offers Brosdahl. “And you don’t need to be right on ‘em. Fish the edges of those rock strings.”

Fishing off the side of the first break works great as well. But you’ll find if you look hard, there are rock piles and rocky features all over—especially on the southern and northwest side of the lake.

“There are also little spots with sand clearings,” says Brosdahl. “If you can’t find any rocks, I’ll head out and start fishing in 6- to 9-feet, fish a little bit, and then move on. I see a lot of ice anglers going way past all these areas trying to get farther and farther out, which is a waste of time when the fish are closer to shore during first-ice.”

For their length, Red Lake walleyes are very stocky and meaty. And there are some big ones to be had, too. Bro says that each first-ice he catches some over 20-inchers and fish between 23- and 26-inches, too.

“I’ve heard of fish as big as 30 inches caught, but they’re a little rarer. Big pike swim around too, so you never know when you’re going to catch a trophy toothy critter,” adds Brosdahl.

What to Use on Red Lake

“Red Lake is all about simple presentations,” says Brosdahl. “Red Lake ‘eyes love red glow baits. So, I’ll use a red glow Northland Buck-Shot Coffin Spoon or a Bro Bug Spoon in red glow and a minnow-head and set up a small rainbow or fathead on a Gamakatsu fluorescent pink hook on a deadstick.” Red’s brackish coloration is the catalyst for the effectiveness of red glow.

“I run and gun on Red a lot. I don’t put out the deadstick until it’s time to hunker down in a spot. I’ve done well making little jumps where I could drill a string of holes in semi-circles and fish through ‘em. With the Humminbird 360, you can see the boulders and walleyes swimming through. We’ve actually used 360 to find Red Lake walleye travel routes—it’s like a radar that refreshes and shows you the direction they move at certain points during the day. So, we’ll drill accordingly to what we’re seeing on the screen. There are times when groups of walleyes keep moving through specific lanes among the big areas we’re fishing. Then I’ll drill micro-holes along those routes to keep clients on fish.”

Red Lake is also a day fishery, largely due to its tannic color. Obviously, the walleyes bite at night, but you have lots of action during the day, too. As time progresses and machine travel starts, resorts start pulling out rental houses and shortly after that visitors start showing up with trucks and permanent houses. Then the fish get a little spooky and move off to 10- to 11 feet.

“That last little sand bar before the reservation border can be good as winter progresses,” offers Bro.

“For me, the Buck-Shot Coffin Spoon and Bro Bug Spoon reign supreme on Red. There are a lot of times when I’ve used the Bro Bug spoon when nothing else worked. That’s my peanut butter and jelly,” says Brosdahl.

“But my favorite overall spoon—Northland’s Glass Buck-Shot—is also phenomenal on Red Lake. The glass rattle sound is new to older, wiser fish, so they investigate. Aggressive walleyes hit it right away. Load the Glass Buck-Shot with a minnow-head, shake it, and get ready. And bring three or four rods pre-rigged with different baits, plus a deadstick, and you’re set-up for fishing Red,” notes Brosdahl.

Looking for a deal on first-ice Red Lake tackle? Northland Fishing Tackle is currently offering a screaming deal on the Red Lake Kit, an assortment of 18 packaged spoons and jigs, a 36-inch Northland ruler scale, pair of line clippers, and a Northland Tackle Box for $99.99 with free shipping. No searching out individual baits—everything has been picked by in-the-know Red Lake ice anglers specifically for walleye fishing on Red.

ABOUT Northland® Fishing Tackle

In 1975, a young Northwoods fishing guide named John Peterson started pouring jigs and tying tackle for his clients in a small remote cabin in northern Minnesota. The lures were innovative, made with high quality components, and most importantly, were catching fish when no other baits were working! Word spread like wildfire, the phone started ringing… and the Northland Fishing Tackle® brand was in hot demand! For 40 years now, John and the Northland® team have been designing, testing and perfecting an exclusive line of products that catch fish like no other brand on the market today. Manufactured in the heart of Minnesota’s finest fishing waters, Northland® is one of the country’s leading producers of premium quality jigs, live bait rigs, spinnerbaits and spoons for crappies, bluegills, perch, walleyes, bass, trout, northern pike and muskies.

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