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 10 years or more, with it producing some of the best days of fishing in my life (100 fish days easy). 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 deciding to ice fish Red Lake, including what to use, where to go, and where you can stay.
Below you will find out about:
- Lake Basics
- Where to Access the Lake
- Where to Stay
- How to Find Fish
- Recommended Lures
- Fish Quality
- Bonus Species
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 in 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). It’s a nice access, but being on or near a river can be a problem. Generally speaking – accessing a lake near a river isn’t the safest option early in the season therefore I’ve always avoided it until later in the year. With plenty of resorts around, there are many safer and more accommodating options to use.
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 the image above). Even if you don’t want to stay overnight – many offer daily access options for a small price.
Popular locations include:
- Beacons (Very Northeast End)
- Red Lake Remote (Farthest North)
- Red Lake Ice Cabins
- West Winds
- JR’s (South End)
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 (the south towards Lower Red is where it sometimes breaks – which is what you often se on the news). 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 2023, 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 (which is why we love to do).
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 – and fishing either early in the morning or late in the evening. This is not the case on Upper Red.
Although there is some small mid-lake structures, most of the time I feel that these don’t always 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 as much of a run and gun fishery as many popular destinations dominated by structure are.
Most of the time I’ve found moving out to deeper and clearer water (and most importantly away from the crowds) 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. Just keep in mind, the more commotion the worse the fishing.
Again, good places to start include:
- Pressure Ridges
- 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. Keep in mind, Lakemaster comes with a hefty per lake fee.
Upper Red Lake collapsed in the early 2000s and has been on the rebound ever since. Traditionally the 2011 year class was the most abundant leaving a large portion of the fish in that 18 – 22 even +” mark over the last couple years, however those fish seemed to be heavily fished out. According to the DNR in 2022…
“The incredibly strong 2011 year class has largely phased out of the population which is now dominated by young fish. These young fish are ages 2 to 5 and range from 12 to 17 inches. The “one over 17 inches” size regulation coupled with a five-fish bag limit in place for the 2023 open water season will allow anglers to take advantage of the harvest opportunity presented by the abundance of eater-sized fish. The 2017, 2018, and 2019 year classes are the strongest we have seen since 2011 and will provide most of the fish for harvest. “
However, I have seen much larger fish caught – it’s just rare. The above image is a trophy exceeding 27” from a couple of years ago. My brother was out by himself when he hooked into this giant. Big fish do get caught.
Below is a 25″ caught in 2021.
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 (grab my favorite flyer spoons here using code nicole15 for 15% off everything)
- Small Jigs – if spoons don’t work I go smaller
- Aggressive Rattle Baits – Can’t catch a fish? 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.
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Spoon fishing is popular on Red Lake, and I highly recommend having a handful on hand. My favorite is the Lindy Rttlin Flyer spoon thanks to its ability to rapidly change in direction and unique pattern. You can grab one here and get a discount by using the code nicole15 on any lurenet.com purchase.
Slow Falling Spoon
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.
That’s why it’s important to always have a slow-falling spoon too. I personally recommend the Lindy Quiver spoon. It’s got an idea slow fall rate for those tougher bite days.
Keep Jigs on Hand
If your spoons don’t do the trick – try to downsize to a simple jig. I highly recommend checking out the Lindy Live Bait Jig as a perfect option for those finesse bites. It’s got a shorter shank and wide gab to assure you get more hooksets. It also has a slower fall rate to help make the most of those tough bite days.
Recommendations:Lindy Live Bait Jig
Rattling Lipless Crankbaits
This one gets overlooked on Upper Red. If the bite is really tough, get aggressive. This means digging out aggressive ripping raps/lipless cranks. 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.
A few of my favorites include:
Rod, Reel, Line
A classic walleye rod will work well on Red Lake, especially when using smaller spoons. I like a Medium power rod with a fast or faster action end. I ordered a bunch of these this year to tackle bodies of water like this. I pair this with a Pflueger Trion, 8 lb Power Pro and an 8 lb fluorocarbon leader.
BONUS CRAPPIE AND PIKE
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 (and as of 2022 these fish have become much more abundant across the eastern side of the lake).
When the walleye population collapsed – crappie famously 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 have traditionally been few and far between, until these last couple of years.
As for pike, Upper Red’s management of a healthy, less dense population 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”, one more reason to keep a tip up out. There are numerous over 36″.
Below is a screenshot of the MNDNR survey data from 2022. 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.
Upper Red Lake Sampling – Courtesy of the MN DNR.
UPPER RED LAKE REGULATIONS
Regulations on Red don’t just vary year to year but even season to season. As of this ice season (starting November 2023), the regulations are as follows:
- Northern Pike: All from 30-40″ must be immediately released. Possession limit three, only one over 40″.
- Walleye: From November 1, 2023 through February 25, 2024, the daily and possession limit is four. Only one over 17″ allowed in possession.
- A person’s statewide bag limit may not include more than current bag limit of Red Lake walleye
- State anglers: The actual boundary is not a true north-south line. To simplify, it’s recommended that anglers stay east of the longitudinal coordinate of 94 deg. 43′ 12.0″ to ensure they are on state waters.
- Those portions of Red Lake located within the Red Lake Indian Reservation are closed to non-band members except by special authorization of the tribal council.
- The fish carcass retention requirements are still in effect.
Be sure to visit the MNDNR to keep current on changing regulations.
UPPER RED LAKE IS A FANTASTIC DESTINATION
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!