A worthwhile activity during these frigid months is to go ice fishing. Cutting a hole in the ice and waiting for fish to bite or casting your line while out in the cold may seem unappealing and uncomfortable, but only to the uninitiated. Many experienced anglers, campers and even the occasional line-caster enjoy the peace, quiet and serene white landscape that comes with ice fishing.
Check the weather reports, then head over to a good spot with an ice-fishing shelter, ice auger, if needed, your trusty rod and reel, a couple of tip-up reels (if fishing through ice), some hot drinks, a camping stove, portable heaters, and of course, appropriate winter wear and insulated waterproof boots. Once you’re all set, prepare for the unique experience of enjoying a fresh catch in the comfort of your home this winter.
In this article, we list the freshwater fish that make for good sport and even better meals during this season.
Time It Right
Bear in mind that the best fishing times aren’t the most comfortable times to fish. In general, freshwater fish are more active right before a cold front hits, then become sluggish after it passes.
You’ll know when a cold front is coming when barometric pressure drops. In simpler terms, barometric pressure is the “weight of the air” and this affects water levels, light penetration and water temperature. Since there’s no guarantee an oncoming cold front will come on a “free” day (such as a holiday or weekend), you may have to track the weather forecasts and plan ahead for when you’ll go fishing.
Note too that the time of day impacts the fish’s activity. The sun will be higher from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. so the water will be slightly warmer, making the fish more active.
At wintertime, apart from having to contend with the miserable weather, winter actually makes some people, well, miserable. Commonly known as “winter depression”, this psychological condition is also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. This affects 4 to 6 percent of Americans during winter, and another 10 to 20 percent can have “mild” cases of SAD.
Women are more susceptible to SAD than men, and two primary causes of SAD are a lack of sunlight and reduced Vitamin D production. Among the most prescribed treatments for SAD are light therapy, and Vitamin D supplements. Doctors have also discovered that eating food rich in omega-3 can help elevate the patient’s mood and ease the symptoms of SAD. This is all the more reason why you should eat fish (store-bought or caught fresh) this season.
Salmon is an excellent choice due to its size and delicious meat that can be prepared in many ways. Rich in omega-3, this fish comes in at least five species in the U.S., with Chinook salmon being the type that’s in-season for the longest period. Also known as King salmon, chinooks can be fished from mid-January all the way to early December.
Note that some of these locations may be strictly catch-and-release or have possession limits. As with all game fish, salmon numbers and statuses can vary from season to season, so check with the state’s license requirements, fees and limits beforehand.
To get your salmon fishing fix, here are some winter fishing spots:
- Salmon River, upstate New York
- Lake George, New York
- San Juan Islands, Washington State
- Katmai National Park, Alaska
- Wind River, Skamania county, Washington State
- Rapid River, Maine
- Lake Oahe, South Dakota
- Wilson River, Oregon
Trout is likewise rich in omega-3 fatty acids and eating a couple 3.5-ounce servings twice a week may help prevent cardiovascular disease and some neurological disorders, including dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Rainbow, wild brook and brown trout all make for excellent fishing if you know where to look.
Here are the places to go for trout:
- Salmon River, upstate New York
- Niagara River, New York
- Lake Taneycomo, Missouri
- Lake Superior, Minnesota/Wisconsin
- White River, Arkansas
- Alsea, Chetco, Umpqua, Siletz and Rogue Rivers – all in Oregon
- Skagit and Sauk Rivers, Washington State
- Youghiogheny River, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
- Mann Creek Reservoir, Hayden Ponds, Snake River (South Fork), Bear Lake – all in Idaho
- Sebago Lake, Maine
3. Northern Pike
This large predator/scavenger is a favored catch among anglers, since you can find it in shallow water and it’s really fun to hunt; you set up a shelter, drill a hole in the ice, dangle some bait in the water and wait to spear it, if you don’t like to use a tip-up or the usual rod and reel.
Northern pike is likewise a popular pursuit in winter due to its size; regulations usually allow you to keep pike just under two feet. The pike you’re allowed to keep and eat can provide a significant amount of food over the season, since pike is an excellent fish for pickling and storing for future consumption.
Here are some popular and some relatively obscure spots for getting Northern Pike:
- Lawrence River, New York
- Devil’s Lake, North Dakota
- Leech Lake, Lake of the Woods – both in Minnesota
- Muskegon Lake, Manistee River, Portage Lake, Lake St. Clair, White Lake, Big & Little Bays De Noc – all in Michigan
- Hayden Lake, Coeur d’Alene Chain Lakes (lakes all along the Coeur d’Alene River), Avondale Lake – all in Idaho
These toothy fish have a voracious appetite and eat smaller fish as well as crustaceans, worms and insects. Anglers swear that walleye is one of the best-tasting freshwater fish you can catch, and tastes all the better if caught then filleted and cooked almost immediately.
Walleye are nocturnal, so it’s best to fish at nightfall or at dawn. Have some bandages ready as it’s not uncommon for even the most experienced anglers to cut themselves on this feisty fish’s sharp teeth.
You’ll find plenty of walleye to fish in these locations:
- Mille Lacs Lake, Leech Lake, Lake of the Woods, Upper Red Lake, Lake Winnibigoshish, Rainy Lake – all in Minnesota
- Devil’s Lake, North Dakota
- Glacial Lakes, South Dakota
- Lake Erie
- Lake Michigan
- Lake Gogebic, Michigan
- Saginaw Bay, Michigan
Fishing during winter is not a “one-style-fits-all” affair; depending on the location and fish you’re after, you may have to wade in icy water and cast a line, drill a hole in a frozen lake or hire a boat and travel a few miles away from shore. Before committing to fish, do your homework and make sure what the limits are, the licenses and fees required, and that you can spare the time, effort and cost.
Remember that fishing in winter isn’t for purely recreational reasons. Knowing where and how to get fish in winter can prove to be very useful knowledge and can be an indispensable part of your survival “bag of tricks”, should you choose to live off-grid or when SHTF. The ability to make it through harsh winters includes being able to forage for food from as many sources as possible.
This winter, aim to learn how to fish in winter in your home state, then make an effort to expand your repertoire of fishing knowledge and skill by going for other fish in other states, in the winters that follow.