How to Ice Fish Upper Red Lake in Minnesota | The Ultimate Guide
Red Lake Walleye Secrets
When it comes to ice fishing walleye, it’s hard to beat Upper Red Lake. My family and I have been fishing it consistently for the last five or six years, with it producing some of the best days of fishing in my life (100 fish days). Not only does it hold an insane population of walleye, but it also provides some of the easiest fishing you can find. With so many people asking me the basics of where to go and what to do – I have chosen to break down everything you need to know when fishing Upper Red Lake including what to use, where to go, and where you can stay.
Below you will find out about:
Where to Access the Lake
Where to Stay
How to Find Fish
Upper Red Lake is a fun fishery for everyone – so be sure to dive right in!
*I do have affiliates below for products that I have purchased, own and recommend.
ABOUT RED LAKE
Red Lake is the largest inland lake in the state of Minnesota. It’s located roughly an hour north of Bemidji, or the dead center of northern Minnesota. Despite it technically being one lake – it appears more like two, as it’s separated by only a small channel. That, and a large difference in lake structure and regulations, is why the vast majority of people refer to the lake as Upper Red Lake and Lower Red Lake.
Lower Red Lake is not open to the public. However, it’s also incredibly important to note that roughly 60% of Upper Red Lake is also not open to the public. If you wish to fish these areas you will need a tribal guide. This leaves roughly 75 miles open to public fishing. That is still a lot of lake to tackle.
Upper Red Lake Freezes Up Quick
Perhaps, one of the most well-known aspects of Upper Red Lake is that it is abnormally large and shallow, with a maximum depth at roughly 15 feet (in the public sector). Its shallow depth allows it to freeze quickly in the fall – making it one of the most popular early ice destinations in the midwest.
I’ve spent countless days on Upper Red Lake in the middle of November and for many people – they were on it even sooner. However, any early ice situation can be dangerous, that’s why I highly recommend you find a resort to get proper ice updates (which I go through below).
How to Access the Lake
Next is figuring out where to access the lake. There is really only one popular public access point and it’s on the Tamarac River (shown above). Generally speaking – accessing a lake near a river isn’t the safest option therefore I’ve always avoided it. I think it also goes without saying that it’s next to impossible to access the lake this way during early ice.
Above is a map of some of the popular resorts located on the lake. The top destination is Beacons (and my favorite destination to go) and the bottom destination is Rogers.
Instead I highly recommend trying to access it through one of the many resorts on the lake. As you can see in the map above – there are places all along the northeast shore (many not included in image above). Even if you don’t want to stay overnight – many offer daily access options for a small price.
Most of these locations offer plenty of accommodations including meal options and housing. There are sleeper options for overnight fishing as well.
Early ice I almost always go out of Beacons. This is because of its location on the north end where it tends to freeze the quickest and then stay frozen. It seems that the farther south you go – the sketchier the ice can be early in the year.
Beacons have affordable accommodations and can even haul you out to the lake if you need a ride. As of 2019/2020, there are no bar or dining services. However, you can get a cabin with a kitchen or take a 10-minute drive down to West Winds for your meals.
All of the other options to the south are reputable places that produce quality fishing. I recommend calling around and checking reports to find the hottest fishing and safest conditions.
WHERE TO FIND THE FISH
I grew up fishing classic clear water, structured lakes in Minnesota where walleye success is completely dependent on which break-line you are going to set upon. This is not the case on Upper Red.
Although there are some small mid-lake humps and cribs… most of the time I feel that these don’t hold large pods of fish. However, they do make a good starting point.
For the most part, you can expect roaming pods of fish chasing bait throughout areas of the basin. That’s why I always recommend finding a few starting points and seeing if you mark. If you mark fish – set up shop – even for the full day. If you aren’t marking then move until you do. Once you are in the general vicinity you will likely be able to find fish roaming. I don’t find Upper Red to be a run and gun fishery.
Most of the time I’ve found moving out to deeper and clearer water to be the ticket. However, like with all fishing, there are exceptions. There are definitely times when fish are roaming in 5 to 9 feet of water next to shore.
Again, good places to start include:
Where You Find Clear Water
Of course, I always recommend using Navionics or LakeMaster chips if you can. As with any lake – finding hot bites can be a great starting point for your next trip out. If you didn’t know – you can access both LakeMaster and Navionics on your phone now. LakeMaster comes with a hefty per lake fee.
Upper Red Lake 27 – 28” walleye.
Upper Red Lake collapsed in the early 2000s and has been on the rebound ever since. As of right now – the 2011 year class is the most abundant leaving a large portion of the fish in that 18 – 22” mark. However, I have seen much larger fish caught – it’s just rarer. The above image is a trophy exceeding 27” from a couple of years ago. My brother was out in the basin by himself when he hooked into this giant. Big fish do get caught.
I’ve always found that your best bet for the bigger fish is getting farther out and away from the crowds.
RED LAKE LURE PRESENTATION
Sometimes the bite can be so hot that you can put anything in the water and you will catch something. However, other times it can be an elimination game. Here is how I start:
With Spoons – either rattle or flutter
Small Jigs – if spoons don’t work I go smaller
Aggressive Rattle Baits – Sometimes nothing but reaction and competition will get it done
I generally tip everything with a fathead or shiner. I also always have a deadstick down.
For the deadstick – make sure to hook the minnow horizontally.
The VMC Rattle Spoon is a popular Red Lake lure.
As for lures, I keep a few staples with me at all times. I will start with a spoon that rattles. Examples include the VMC Rattle Spoon or the Northland Buckshot. I usually start with a 1/4 oz lure and will keep a 1/8 oz lure around if I need to.
Walleye don’t see color as we do. They don’t have the same rod to cone ratio in their eyes (the photoreceptors that allow us to see colors and lowlight) and water tends to scatter light reducing color visibility in the first place (you can learn more about this here). That’s why I never get too caught up in color. Instead, I look at the lure’s action in the water first.
Upper Red Lake is known for its classic jig and minnow bite. However, if you are downsizing from a spoon – I’d go small. A very popular option for use is the Teardrop jig. There have been times when I’ve had on a spoon and one of my family members has had on a Teardrop jig – and they have out-fished me 10 to 1. It’s a good one to keep in your arsenal.
Rattling Lipless Crankbaits
The Rapala Slab Rap
This one gets overlooked on Upper Red. If the bite is tough, get aggressive. This means digging out aggressive ripping raps. These are baits that move fast and make a lot of vibration. When everyone else is struggling to get fish to bite – I stick on a lipless crank (much like I do on Lake Winnipeg) and often times find success.
Tip them with a minnow head or tail and you’ll be out fishing your buddy in no time at all.
Walleye aren’t the only trophies the lake is known to have. In fact, it’s also filled with trophy pike and crappie. One time we pushed farther north and east and ran into a pile of trophy slabs (as shown in the video above). These fish came charging off of the bottom chasing our spoons like they were walleye.
When the walleye population collapsed – crappie naturally took over – losing not only a predator but competition for food. After the reintroduction and success of the walleye population, we have seen a reversal. Crappie still exists but are few and far between.
As for pike, Upper Red’s management of healthy, thin populations has been a success. The fish come in few numbers but when you do hook into one, there is a good chance it’s a trophy. You very well could hook into a pike that is over 40”.
Below is a screenshot of the MNDNR survey data from 2018. Keep in mind survey sizes are limited – both in size and capabilities. It’s a small snapshot of part of the lake but it doesn’t exactly represent the lakes fishery nor does it cover a large portion of the lake’s water. It’s just a sample – but always worth a look.
Finally, let’s talk about regulations. Upper Red Lake has special regulations. These are in effect as of the 2019/2020 season.
First of all, as of Dec. 1, 2019, you can only keep 1 over 17”.
The Daily and Possession Limit is 4
Catch and Cook is allowed on the ice – just remember that you need to keep the carcass on the ice with you – as it counts towards your daily bag limit.
As for pike – all fish between 26” – 44” must be released. Daily and possession limit is three each.
UPPER RED LAKE IS A GO-TO DESTINATION FOR ICE ANGLERS
Upper Red Lake is a fantastic destination for all anglers. It has an incredible walleye population, freezes up early, and is filled with bonus crappie and pike. Between the walleye population and shallow depth – it’s relatively easy to fish. That’s why it’s the perfect place to introduce someone new to fishing or to simply get your walleye fix in. If you are really ambitious, fry up your catch on the ice!
If you want more free information on how to catch fish I recommend you check out: