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Dokken: Experts weigh in on hot ice fishing destinations

Lake of the Woods, Devils Lake, Upper Red Lake and Lake Winnipeg all rank highly as prime ice fishing spots, but don't overlook smaller North Dakota lakes and sloughs.

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Ice fishing on Upper Red Lake is off to a good start, as seen here on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. Contributed / Brian "Bro" Brosdahl

GRAND FORKS -- The big question for many anglers again this winter is this:

Where is the “hot bite” going to be?

I posed that question to ice fishing experts Mike Olson, Jason Mitchell and Brian “Bro” Brosdahl earlier this week when I interviewed them for a story about the coming ice season and what’s new in the winter fishing industry.

Olson, of Thompson, North Dakota, is the host of “Fish Addictions TV” and promoter of the Fargo Ice Fishing Show that gets underway Friday, Dec. 10, at Scheels Arena in Fargo. Mitchell, of Devils Lake, travels the region filming segments for his “Jason Mitchell Outdoors” TV show, and Brosdahl, of Max, Minnesota, is a fishing guide and one of the most recognizable faces in the ice fishing industry for his TV and promotional appearances.

They know their stuff, and between the three of them, they cover a lot of ice in a given winter.

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Based on the fall run of emerald shiners and reports of good walleye and sauger action that continued right to freeze-up, Olson says he thinks Lake of the Woods will be a good bet again once the ice is safe.
Devils Lake also looks to be a keeper, Olson says.

“The fall fishing on Devils Lake was really, really good,” he said. “I see a very nice bite going on there.”

With dropping water levels, Olson recommends anglers familiar with Devils Lake revisit the spots they fished 10 years ago. “Go-to” spots from more recent years may be too shallow.

“But that’s what makes Devils Lake fun,” he said. “You get out there and it can be a little bit of a challenge. But once you find the fish, you just can't beat the fishing.”

Before this fall, Olson says he thought the perch population was dwindling, but that view has since changed.

“I do a lot of fall fishing out at Devils Lake, and the perch that we were finding are the perch of the past,” he said. “A lot of people say Devils Lake is dead – it’s not. I think (the perch) were hiding from us with those high waters, and now they’re kind of congregating and pushing themselves into more concentrations. They’re there for sure.”

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Brosdahl was ice fishing on Upper Red Lake with a crew from Bemidji-based Northland Fishing Tackle – one of his sponsors – when we spoke Monday morning, Nov. 29. There was about 10 inches of rough ice in the area he was fishing out of the Mort’s Upper Red access on the south side of the lake, but the walleyes were cooperating.

Anglers can keep four walleyes this winter on Upper Red, with only one over 17 inches allowed.

Brosdahl says he started the morning by walking about a half-mile from shore to a spot with 7 feet of water. He marked fish, but they wouldn’t bite, so he ventured out a bit farther to 9 feet of water.

Ever the salesman, Brosdahl said he was having his best luck fishing a one-eighth ounce red “Bro Bug” spoon, a Northland Tackle product named after Brosdahl, who helped design the lure.

A deadstick combo with a No. 4 red Gamakatsu hook tipped with a rainbow minnow set 2 feet off the bottom on his second line also was productive, he said.

“It’s fantastic out here,” Brosdahl said. “Our biggest problem is trying to get small (walleyes) because we keep catching the big ones. There are a whole bunch of fish in this lake that are 19 (inches) on up to 24 inches, and it’s really a blast.”

Mitchell says he expects his home water of Devils Lake to be good this winter, along with any number of small lakes and sloughs that can provide some fantastic action for anglers who do their homework and check out the stocking and netting survey reports on the North Dakota Game and Fish Department website.

“There are so many different sloughs around,” he said. “As simple as it sounds, I go on the North Dakota Game and Fish website a lot and just research lakes. They’ll have a description next to each lake and I find they’re fairly accurate.

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“I think a lot of these small lakes, they’re the diamonds in the rough, at least for ice fishing in North Dakota.”

With Canada’s border once again open to nonessential travel for fully vaccinated Americans who can show proof of a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours of crossing the border, Lake Winnipeg and other prime Canadian destinations again are back on the menu for many anglers, Mitchell included.

Mitchell says he’s already been to Canada twice since the border reopened and is planning an early January trip for lake trout. The vaccination and testing requirements are more than a fair trade, he says, for the kind of fishing available north of the border.

“I love it up there,” he said. “That’s something I’m looking forward to.”

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Brad Dokken

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