Don’t let cold weather stop your winter fishing fun. Here’s how to catch more bass, walleyes, perch and crappies up North and down South right now.
By Colin Moore
Regardless of where they swim, fish don’t stop eating just because it’s winter. Granted, their metabolism slows and they don’t require as much nourishment, but they still get hungry and that makes them vulnerable to anglers if you know where to go and what to use.
And whether you’re cozying up in an icy shanty with the kids or spending a quiet afternoon casting from the bank, winter fishing provides a great opportunity to spend some quality time with your family outdoors.
One bit of advice, especially for those new to fishing: Consider hiring a local guide to take out your crew. This is particularly important if the area you’d like to fish might involve using a boat to get to where the action is.
Guides are usually available regardless of the season, and their knowledge of local waters and weather, which can affect where and how to fish, is worth the price you’ll pay. Start by searching words “fishing guides,” for the lakes you want to fish, then scout the internet for suggestions.
Whether you’re planning to fish the frozen waters up North or the sunnier lakes down South, here’s what you need to know to catch more walleyes, bass, crappies and perch this winter.
Catching fish through the ice is a popular sport in the upper Midwest and among northern lakes out West and in the East. In the upper tier of states, ice-fishing opportunities abound wherever ponds and lakes freeze so solidly that fishermen can walk out on the ice and chip or drill holes in the ice. This is one of those occupations that can be as cheap or expensive as you want to make it. Gear can vary from economical tip-ups and ice chisels to high-dollar gasoline-powered ice augurs, portable fish finders and shanties that keep out the cold wind.
Because ice fishing involves a vertical presentation of baits or lures, as opposed to horizontal casting, a short jigging rod and reel for storing line are favored by those who like to move from hole to hole or expect fast action. Frabill and Berkley offer a number of matched rod-and-reel outfits that are inexpensive and simple to use even for children.
Otherwise, a tip-up rig consisting of a rudimentary reel to hold the fishing line and a pivoting arm with a small flag that “tips up” when a fish bites is preferred. It’s particularly easy for youngsters to use. When the flag is tripped and a fish is on the line, it’s simple to bring in the catch hand over gloved hand.
Price-wise, ice-fishing rod-and-reel outfits or tip-ups can be purchased starting at about $20. Frabill is a good source, as is HT Enterprises maker of the inexpensive HT Explorer Tip-Up. More expensive and sturdier gear is available for anglers likely to encounter bigger fish such as lake trout, salmon, muskies and pike.
For newcomers to ice fishing, the wiser choice—and most popular and available targets—are yellow perch, walleyes, crappies and bluegills. Any of those species can be caught with tip-up rigs baited with natural baits (usually larvae of some sort) or artificial natural baits such as Gulp! and Power Bait. Typically, ice fishermen make a number of holes when they’re targeting walleyes and fish for them with jigs such as the Lindy Slick Jig in 1/32- to 1/8-ounce size or Northland Whistling Jig baited with minnows. Small spoons such as the Bay du Noc Swedish Pimple and lures such as the Rapala Jigging Rap are also popular for walleyes and crappies.
Quick Tip: How solid should the ice be for ice fishing? The general consensus is that—for safety’s sake—it should be at least 4 inches thick. If you’re not sure, contact a local wildlife officer or simply check with a local bait and tackle shop. Otherwise, visit the lake you’re planning to fish and see how many anglers are out there on the ice. If there are several, and perhaps even a few snowmobiles or ATVs parked here and there, you can be fairly certain it’s safe.
Crappie-fishing is often just as good in the winter is in the summer, depending on how cold the water gets and the availability of baitfish. In the crappie’s Southern range, fishing from the bank near bridges and around docks with casting gear or long poles baited with minnows or jigs can be especially productive.
Forget about tapping shallow-water cover in more northern waters, however. Crappies will readily move to a more comfortable depth when the weather turns cold, and usually that’s in deeper water with some sort of cover. One of the best places to catch winter crappies is near a creek or river channel passing under a bridge. During flood stages, wood debris often washes downstream and is caught against the pilings or where the channel makes a sharp bend. Crappies congregate near such cover and structure to feed on shad.
Many anglers and fishing guides set out stake beds or discarded Christmas trees for crappies along drop-offs and channel ledges. Such offshore cover can be crappie magnets, and vertical presentations with fiberglass poles usually are the best way to fish them and avoid hangups. B’n’M poles in various lengths are favorites among jig fishermen and anglers who fish live minnows under floats.
When casting in more open water for winter crappies, light line in the 4- to 6-pound-test range paired with spinning outfits such as the Eagle Claw Brave Spin Combo or the Daiwa Samurai X spincast set work well. Though live minnows are always the best bait for papermouths, 1/64- and 1/32-ounce jigs, such as the Bobby Garland Baby Shad, Lindy Fuzz-E-Grub, Z-Man TRD Finesse or TRD Tubez and Strike King Scizzor Shad are favored artificials.
Quick Tip: Being sight feeders, crappies are particular about bait colors. In deeper, stained water, “loud” colors such as hot pink or chartreuse are best. Crappies are likely to be deeper in cold weather and if the water is clear – which it tends to be in winter – more subdued, natural colors might be the best bet. Plan to experiment with several different colors; the crappies will let you know which one they want.
All those rod-and-reel combos that Santa put under Christmas trees don’t have to be stuck in closets until spring. Fishing prospects for walleyes, saugers and yellow perch are good in Washington’s Columbia River, the northern end of the Mississippi River, below the dams of the Missouri River from the Dakotas to Montana, and along the Great Lakes waterfronts. The weather holds the trump card, as some shorelines freeze early in the season during extremely cold winters. In rivers and lakefronts that don’t freeze, however, fishing for walleyes and yellow perch can be excellent.
Because the concrete seawalls and rock jetties that line harbors and inlets tend to retain warmth longer than natural structure, the water around them doesn’t freeze as quickly as it does on smaller lakes. And it may not freeze at all. Likewise, algae and other miniature food sources are available to baitfish longer. These, in turn, lure walleyes, perch and even bluegills to within casting distance of shore-bound anglers.
All a fisherman needs is a few warm layers of clothes to wear, a modicum of fishing tackle, a thermos of hot cocoa or coffee, and a chair to sit in. Contact local tourism agencies or guides for more information about urban fishing. Pat Harrison Outdoors guide service for instance, covers the Chicago area waterfront as well as southern Wisconsin.
Out on open water accessible by boat, plan to fish deep – 30 feet or more – if walleyes are on the menu. Although it’s possible to catch walleyes from shore, trolling below spillways and offshore inlets, and around harbor mouths and warm-water discharges from power plants is a more popular approach. Because the fish tend to suspend, deep-diving crankbaits such as the Rapala TT20, Yo-Zuri 3D Magnum Deep Diver or Crystal Minnow Deep Diver and countdown spoons such as the Al’s Goldfish are hard to beat. Otherwise, hot pink or chartreuse cannonball-head jigs tipped with minnows and slowly jigged on bottom will work.
Fishing with children is as easy as setting up on any of numerous municipal piers and docks such as Chicago’s famed Navy Pier or Milwaukee’s Cupertino Pier. Nightcrawlers, mealworms and other live baits are okay for yellow perch and bluegills, but flavored artificial baits such as Gulp! Pinched Crawler, PowerBait Ice Mayfly, Gulp! Leech and Gulp! Minnow are almost effective as the real thing, and a lot easier to use.
Quick Tip: Walleyes and yellow perch are schooling fish. Stick around when you catch one; dozens more are likely to be in the vicinity and ready to bite. On the flip side, if you don’t get a bite in one place, move on and try a different spot a few yards away.
Although largemouth bass can be temporarily persnickety when the thermometer takes a dive, smallmouths and spotted bass don’t seem to mind so much. From the Ozark lakes of Missouri to Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, from Texas waters to California’s deep, clear lakes, all three types of bass are available to anglers who enjoy being out in balmy weather.
Whether fishing a farm pond, river or big lake, focus your efforts on targets and structure in deeper water: wood and weed cover, fallen trees, rock bluff banks, jetties, wing dams, creek channels, drop-offs, underwater points, the outside edges of docks, and humps or sandbars. The southernmost haunts of the Florida largemouth bass in the Sunshine State, Texas and California are more about cover than depth. Fishing from the bank or a dock in these states accounts for plenty of shallow-water bass as long as winter weather fronts don’t crash the party.
Depending on the angler’s skill level, spincast, spinning or baitcasting tackle from such manufacturers as Shimano, Zebco, or Abu Garcia will handle the fish one is likely to encounter. Casting from docks can be rewarding as bass move to the outside of such cover in winter, especially on cloudy days.
Youngster-friendly lures that don’t require much expertise to entice bass are called for here. Football-head jigs such as the Strike King Tour Grade or Keitech Tungsten with soft-plastic trailers can be effective simply by crawling them across the bottom. Likewise, spinnerbaits “slow-rolled” until their blades barely turn are popular with winter anglers of all ages. Use spinnerbaits with Colorado blades that have more “thump” when retrieved at slower speeds. The Booyah Blade and Nichols Pulsator Hoosier Series in 3/8- or ½-ounce sizes are a couple of good choices. Typically, white or white-and-chartreuse are good colors. Suspending jerkbaits, such as the Rapala Husky Jerk or Shadow Rap, also account for plenty of winter bass, especially in highland lakes and TVA impoundments. Shad-colored lures are best-sellers.
Quick Tip: You can’t fish a lure too slow to suit cold-water bass. When retrieving a suspending jerkbait or jig, barely turn the reel handle and occasionally pause the retrieve for several seconds before resuming. Expect any strike to be light. Sometimes the feeling of weight on the line is the only signal that a bass has latched onto the lure.
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About the Author: Colin Moore is an avid bass fisherman who has had the opportunity to fish some of the best bass fisheries in North America, with some of the best bass anglers. Formerly, Moore was executive editor of Bassmaster magazine, the bass fishing columnist at Outdoor Life and editor in chief of FLW Bass Fishing magazine. Now editor emeritus of the latter, he continues to write about all things bass fishing.