Make the Most of Winter Fishing: 10 Species to Target

Published on 05/12/2023 · 7 min readWondering what is out there in the cold water? Conventional Fishing Expert Danny Palmquist lays out his top 10 target species for the winter season.
Danny Palmquist, Fishing Expert
By Fishing Expert Danny Palmquist

Photo by Glenna Haug

In the fall, many anglers start to winterize their boats, organize their tackle, and store their rods in their rod lockers in anticipation of the cold winter months ahead. To them, fishing is a hobby to be enjoyed in warm weather under the hot summer sun. While that is a great time to fish for species that prefer warmer weather, others stay active or become more active in cold water.

While it’s completely understandable that some folks might prefer to stay indoors where it’s warmer, just because there’s snow on the ground doesn’t mean you can’t get out and catch fish. In the north and where lakes and ponds have frozen over, anglers will need specialized ice fishing gear in order to have any success. Others will find that downsizing your equipment and slowing down your presentation will allow you the best chance of catching fish this time of year.

In this guide, I am going to share with you 10 species of fish that can be caught in the colder months, along with some tips on how to be more successful when targeting these species.

Gear Overview

While the gear will vary depending on the species you're after and whether you'll be fishing from the ice, I want to give a brief overview of what anglers will need to catch fish in the winter. Since cold water fishing requires downsizing your lures and line, spinning rods and reels will be a must. For ice fishing, there are spinning combos with short rods designed specifically for the task. Of course, gloves, warm boots, and layered clothing will ensure that you are comfortable when fishing in the cold.

1. Northern Pike

Photo by Kelly Sikkema

Pike are plentiful in the fall and early spring when temps are warm, but the bite slows down during the winter months. While things might have slowed down, they will still need to be eating and anglers will still have an opportunity to catch these aggressive apex predators.

Anglers will find that targeting deep pockets of water will hold the most fish. Slowly jigging spoons around deep structure is a great way to catch winter pike. Using live golden shiners is another key method for catching pike in the colder months.

2. Perch

Photo by Michal Dziekonski

Especially for ice fishermen, perch make an excellent species to target in cold water. As ice first begins to freeze, perch can be spread out around a lake, but by the middle of winter they will become more concentrated around deeper flats. This makes it easier for anglers to find and catch them.

Using small ice jigs tipped with maggots is one highly effective way to catch perch this time of year. Jigging spoons and small blade baits create a bit more sound and underwater commotion, making them great choices for when it's harder to get their attention.

Find more perch fishing tips here.

3. Trout

Photo by Jack Murrey

Trout are a species that tend to be very active in colder weather, making them a great species to target all throughout the winter. Whether you are fishing through the ice or in rivers and streams, targeting trout is an excellent way to get outdoors when the weather becomes frigid.

In rivers and streams, trout will gravitate towards deeper water and around rocks that hold warmth from being in the sun. Focusing on pools of deep water and hard structure will allow anglers to catch more trout in the cold. Slowly fishing spinners and spoons on warm days will be a key method for catching cold-water trout, and slowly fishing a drop shot or micro jig in these same areas will be key when temps become more frigid.

Read this article for more on trout fishing.

4. Walleye

Photo by Seth Schulte

Widely regarded as one of the tastiest freshwater species, walleye are an amazing fish for anglers to target all year round. Whether you are fishing through the ice or open water, lakes or rivers and streams, walleye present anglers with an exciting cold-water fishing experience. Both live bait and lures will be effective when fishing for winter walleye.

Bright-colored tungsten jigs tipped with worms will be a great choice when fishing through the ice for walleye. Spoons and blade baits are also excellent for fishing in hard water. In open water, slowly retrieving an inline spinner through pockets of deep water is a great way to winter walleye.

Check out the best gear for walleye fishing here.

5. Smallmouth Bass

Photo by Michal Dziekonski

While largemouth slow down substantially in the winter months, smallmouth bass still remain somewhat active, making them a viable species for cold-water fishermen to target. In rivers and lakes where smallmouth reside, they can be found in the deepest parts of the water holding to underwater structure.

A drop shot will the go-to rig for catching sluggish smallmouth bass in the winter. Adjusting the length of your leader will allow anglers to fine-tune their presentation and keep their lure in the strike zone longer, increasing their chances of catching fish. Finesse swimbaits that are designed to mimic small minnows will be another great option.

Learn more about catching smallmouth bass in this article.

6. Crappie

Photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie, courtesy of Flickr

Crappie are a fun and exciting species to catch all throughout the year, and winter is no exception. They are relatively easy to catch, and they're a staple species for light tackle anglers to target.

Crappie huddle up together in cold weather, so once you catch one there are sure to be others close by. The key to finding winter crappie will be targeting brush piles, laydowns, and standing timber. Fishing a drop shot in these areas is sure to get a bite or two. A slip sinker rig is another great way to catch winter crappie.

Refine your crappie catching with these tips.

7. Bluegill

Photo by Mid Atlantic Stocking

Abundant in many bodies of water, bluegill are a small species of panfish that put up a good fight relative to their size. Usually weighing between 3 and 12oz, bluegill are a popular species of fish to catch any time of the year.

While bluegill can be found out deep in the winter, they can also be found in patches of weeds that are closer to the shore when deep water is nearby. Jigging small spoons on the outsides of weed beds is one way that anglers can land winter bluegill. A split shot rig tipped with worms or maggots will also be effective.

8. Channel Catfish

Photo by Denise H.

A lot of people don't think of catfish when they think of fishing in the winter, but catching channel catfish is still possible for anglers who are willing to brave the cold. In the winter, catfish huddle together in the deepest parts of the rivers and lakes where they reside. In order for anglers to catch them, they will usually need to be on a boat or ice fishing since usually these areas aren't accessible from the bank.

Cut bait is ideal for winter catfishing when fish are sluggish. Chumming the water can help get the attention of catfish in colder water. Using stinkbait is another way to coax catfish into being awake and interested in coming over and biting your presentation.

Want to learn more about targeting redfish? Check out How to Catch Catfish: A Step-by-Step Guide.

9. Carp

Photo by Thirdman

Popular in the USA and Europe, carp fishing is an exciting endeavor that requires specialized gear and unique presentations. The soft lips of this bottom-feeding species require a soft rod in order to keep from pulling the hook out of their mouths. The world record carp is 112lbs, but most grow to be somewhere between 1 and 8lbs.

During the winter months, carp will found in the same types of deep areas where catfish are congregated. A hair rig with corn used as bait is a great way to catch carp this time of year. Chumming the water will help get the attention of hungry carp and encourage them to take the bait.

10. Redfish

Photo by Steve Hillebrand

Redfish are a species of saltwater fish that can be caught in the winter months. Like most species included on this list, when it gets colder out, they can be found in the deepest parts of a body of water.

Anglers will find that slowing down and slimming down their presentations will help them to get more bites and ultimately catch more fish. Small swimbaits that mimic the baitfish are highly effective, and when those aren't producing bites, shrimp is another bait that works for redfish in cooler temperatures.

Learn more about catching redfish in this article.

Final Thoughts

I would thank you for taking the time to read through this guide. Whether you are just curious about winter fishing or preparing for a winter fishing trip, you should now have a good idea about the types of fish you will be catching. If you're looking for more Fishing content, check out the Expert Journal here on Curated.

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