8 Winter Fish Species to Catch While the Cold Still Lasts

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February 24, 2020

Fishing in Michigan's Pere Marquette River. Photo: Mike Doute

Spring isn’t far away, but that doesn’t mean you should wait around for warm weather before casting a line. Enjoy winter fishing catches today, regardless of the weather conditions.

Keep in mind that fishing in the winter requires a different approach than its warm-weathered counterpart. The fish change their habits, they behave differently and they travel to different parts of the water. It’s easy to sit out there and throw your line in the water, but do you know if you’re targeting the best winter fish species?

A man fishes at the foot of a waterfall.

Fishing in a winter creek in West Virginia. Getty Images

In this article, we’re talking about the best winter fish to look for and some tips and tricks to help you catch them. Let’s get to it!

How Fishing Changes in the Winter

Before we dive into the best winter fish species, we should talk about some of the things that happen with fish when it gets cold in the fall and beyond. Remember that fish are cold-blooded, so their body temperature is a direct reflection of the temperature outside.

A fish dangles from a line in a snowy landscape.

Getty Images

As a result, they start to slow down when the water gets cooler. When their metabolism slows down, so does their eating habits and their willingness to expend energy and travel far or fight hard for bait.

The thing is, this isn’t true for all fish, and there are some species that do not experience this physiological effect. Although, there are still many that you’ll have a hard time catching when the weather is cold.

So, a few things you can do to increase your chances of catching fish in the winter would be:

Slow down your presentation — It’s always our habit to reel in quickly and jerk the bait at the first sign of a nibble. In the winter, you want to reel slower and give the lure a bit more time before you try to set the hook.

Fishing on a streem with snow-covered banks on each side.

Fishing on Blue River in Summit County, Colorado. Getty Images.

Size down your lures — Most fish aren’t as active during the winter months, so they don’t require as much food. They won’t go after lures that seem like too much of a fight, so using a smaller lure is a great way to make the fish think they have an “easy meal” in front of them.

Stay in the shallows — Fish are more prone to shallow water during the winter because it is warmer, and that is where most of the baitfish will hang out as well. This is especially true for late winter towards the end of February into March. This is when spawning season is starting to begin, and it’s where the nests will be.

Best Winter Fish Species

Now let’s get to the goods and talk about some of the species you’ll want to keep an eye out for this winter. This list is not a guarantee, and I’m not saying you will find these, but there are a few reasons why most people find these fish at the end of their line when the weather is cold.

A fish lying on grass.

Pike. Photo: krzysztofniewolny

1) Pike

The best thing about pike is that they’re an exception to almost all the rules I outlined above. While most fish slow down in the winter, these guys have an adaptation that makes them even more active during the coldest weather. If you’ve ever been ice fishing, you know that pike is the target most of the time.

2) Walleye

Walleye are commonly found throughout the Midwest all the way up to the Mid-Atlantic. When the temperature drops, they maintain a decent level of activity, and you can find them almost anywhere. I’d recommend a slow jig along the shoreline and near rocky ledges. You can catch walleye all winter long.

A man hold up a walleye fish against the horizon.

Walleye. Getty Images

3) Crappie

These guys are another example of a year-round fish. Crappies are abundant, and you can find them almost anywhere, so they’re an easy target for winter fishing. If you’re a beginner or you don’t think you have the stamina to wait around for a pike or walleye, you’ll want to try for these panfish.

A bluegill bits on a line after a worm.

Bluegill. Getty Images

4) Bluegill

If you’re fishing the shorelines, you’ll often be lucky enough to land one of these panfish. Bluegill is also abundant, and you can locate them everywhere. While most people consider them a summer backyard barbeque kind of fish, they can brave the cold weather just like any of the others on this list.

They’re a curious bunch but a little skitzy, so you’ll want to size down your lure quite a bit, and I’d recommend using a natural color that matches your surroundings.

5) Perch

Many people claim that perch offers some of the best winter fishing out there, but I haven’t experienced it quite as much as some others. Maybe I’m not north enough because I’ve heard of some incredible perch ice fishing in Canada and upstate New York.

Either way, I’ll take their advice and consider fishing for them the same as most panfish. Size down your lures, use a jig, and if possible, I’d recommend using some Berkley Powerbait to help them pick up a scent.

long pike on white background

Pickerel. Getty Images

6) Pickerel

These guys are typically the pests of the water in the Spring and Summer but come wintertime, you’ll find that they fill in the gaps quite nicely between catches of the more desirable fish. It’s not typical that I enjoy seeing a pickerel at the end of my line, but when you’re freezing your butt off outside, it’s nice to catch something.

They put up a nice fight and maintain a high level of energy even in the winter. You can pretty much maintain a typical presentation as well.

A white catfish feeding on the bottom of a lake.

A white catfish in Mississippi. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region

7) Catfish

One of my favorite ice fishing species to catch is catfish, specifically channel cats. They put up a heck of a fight, they’re aggressive, and you can catch them with blade baits which is why I enjoy fishing.

8) Bass

I know I’ll take some flack for this but, I’m still adding bass to a winter fishing list. Here’s why, if you know how to fish for bass, you can still catch them in the winter. I’m a bass angler, I love fishing for bass, so I am a bit biased.

man holding a fish caught in the winter

Getty Images

Fishing Tricks:

Here are my tricks. Use a smaller lure, one that matches the color of the environment at that time. Slow down your presentation, a lot. Use lures that make a lot of noise like spinners and lipped crankbaits.

I’d say you’re best off trying to fish for bass before the water freezes over, but I think you can catch them all year long.

Final Thoughts

It’s great to live in a place that has all four seasons because every few months brings upon a new fishing experience. In the spring and summer, we get to enjoy trout and bass fishing, and then in the winter, we can catch pike and walleye.

Keep in mind that no fish is off-limits. You can catch trout and bass all winter with the right strategy, but I would keep my eyes out for these 8 species this winter. Thanks for reading!