11 Most Active Game Fish That Bite All Winter

With plummeting temperatures and frosty mornings, most anglers put their fishing gear into hibernation.  Unfortunately, they are missing some of the most active bites of the entire year.

Whether you prefer freshwater or saltwater fishing, there are plenty of species that remain active all winter long.  Several, of which, likely inhabit waters near you.  So instead of stowing away your tackle for the winter, keep fishing!  Remember, the bite can really heat up when the weather turns cold.

Here are 11 of the most active fresh and saltwater species to target this winter.  

Saltwater Species

Many anglers have the good fortune of living within spitting distance of the east or west coast and fine saltwater fishing. 

If you have a boat, great!  If not, no worries.  Both shore bound anglers and deep sea adventurers have loads of saltwater game fish to choose from this winter.  Here are a few favorites for both east and west coasters.

#1 Surfperch

There’s not much ice on the west coast but there are plenty of active surfperch.  Redtail, Barred and Calico surfperch swim up and down the entire Pacific Coast within casting distance of shore.  

You don’t need to wait for warm weather to hook a limit of these awesome fighters as they feed in the breakers.  Winter mating season draws in large schools of hungry fish just waiting to be caught by the intrepid surf angler.  

Empty beaches and mild winter temperatures provide a reprieve from the harsh inland winters.  When the winter time blues have got you down, just grab your surf rod and head to the beach in search of surf perch. 

Winter surf perch tactics are the same as any other time of the year.  Our favorite is a Carolina rig with 1 to 2 ounces of weight.  Some of the best baits are clam necks, Berkley Gulp sandworms or live sand shrimp.  If you want to go more in depth on surf perch fishing before heading out, make sure to read our top rated article on surfperch fishing gear and tactics.

#2 Stripers 

The spring striper migration has long since passed but winter stripers are still within grasp of anglers looking to brave frigid east coast temperatures.

From New Jersey down to the Carolina’s, stripers keep feeding all winter long.  While many fish move out to deeper water, plenty of fish still hold in tight to protective coastal shorelines and river bays. 

Popular areas include the Hudson and Providence Rivers, as well as Cape Cod, Cape Charles and Cape Hattaras Bays.  

Don’t expect dense schools as temperatures plummet but there are always a few schoolies hanging around within casting distance.  Look for structure along rip rap banks or jetties.  And don’t be afraid to move around.  

The trick in winter is to fish your bait slow but move often in order to find small groups of these winter hold overs.  Popular lures include heavy jigs tipped with Berkley Gulp eels, bucktail jigs or diamond jigs.  

#3 Redfish

From Florida to Texas, Redfish are found in shallow marshes warmed by the winter sun and they are ready to take your bait.  

Some of the best opportunities for chasing highly active and aggressive Redfish is just following a cold snap in early winter along shallow flats.  But you can also find these fish sulking around deep holes in tidal rivers.  

Cool winter temperatures and crystal clear water produce some fine sight fishing.  Try talking to some local guides to get a few tips on where Reds frequent during winter months near you.

Reds are a bit sluggish when water temps start hovering below 60°, so fish slow.  Live baits like mud minnows or shrimp work well when artificial lures aren’t enticing a bite.  For anglers adept at fishing artificial baits, stick with your favorites but size down.  Something as simple as a soft plastic paddletail on a 3/16 oz jig will do the trick. 

#4 Red Snapper

When you’re ready to escape the frozen northern states, look no further than Texas.  Winter weather in the Gulf seems more like spring and the warm water just off the shore of Texas is prime habitat for active Red Snapper. 

State waters as far out as 9 miles in the Gulf are open year-round for snapper.  Find wrecks and reefs in water just deeper than 40 feet and you’ll have sore arms by the end of the day.  

The southern Texas coast along the Mansfield jetties is a particularly productive area all season.  Natural reefs that extend miles out hold schooling snapper that feed on abundant prey.

The central coast near Port O’Connor has several wrecks and reefs that are top notch feeding sites for huge snappers as well.

Boaters targeting snapper are few and far between during winter months so cash in and get out there.

Freshwater Species

Just about every angler in the US has close access to premier freshwater fishing destinations during the winter months.  

America is chocked full of lakes, reservoirs and rivers.  Whether winter fishing means you’ll be drilling through ice or casting in open water, there is an abundance of fresh water species that bite all winter long.

#5 Yellow Perch

Standard fair on the menu of most winter anglers is the yellow perch.  And for good reason too.  Even the coldest of lakes capped by thick ice hold these voracious feeders in abundance.  

When it seems like other fish aren’t biting, perch are a good plan B.  Better yet, consider making perch your plan A.  You’ll find that yellow perch are among the most reliably active fish in freshwater during winter.

Like other times of the year, perch stay in schools.  You’ll find plenty feeding on mud bottoms in deep basins.  Use small tungsten ice jigs tipped with maggots, perch meat or waxies.  

It takes good electronics and some hole hoping to find good numbers of perch through the ice.  However, a good bite can last all day in the winter once you find them.  

#6 Crappie

Crappie are hungry predators and the winter months don’t seem to tame their appetite.  These widely dispersed fish are a favorite among anglers and a top target during winter.

Bass might give you the cold shoulder when the weather turns chilly but the crappie bite never seems to slow down.  Above the 45th parallel, you can target active crappie through the ice and further south, open water is fair game.

Either way, get them to bite using minnows, ice jigs or spinners.  Once you find their location and depth, be sure to fish your bait just above them to stay in the strike zone. 

#7 Walleye

It seems impossible to make any “top” list without including walleye.  And this list is no exception.  Winter months bring ice, snow and numbing cold.  But winter also brings active walleye to the attention of nearly every angler around.  

Catching walleye through ice or in spillways and tail races is a thrill for many in the north.  Not to mention, walleye meat makes a tasty meal for the table.  

For top action through the ice, use jigging Raps, spoons or jigs tipped with bait.  Don’t be afraid to get aggressive with your jigging action to draw in cruising fish.  Drill strategic holes along drop off edges and hard to soft transitions near mud flats.

For open water anglers, fish slow with soft plastics near the bottom.  Current seams and rocky breaks are favorite hunting grounds for hungry walleye.

#8 Northern Pike

Few fish can thrive in icy waters as well as the Northern Pike.  These toothy behemoths haunt the coldest lakes as far north as the Arctic Circle.  Any ice angler can attest that pike are among the most active fish to target during winter.

Pike are keen hunters but scavenging for victims of the cold is their bread and butter.  Experienced anglers prefer ambushing big pike with tip-ups using live or dead minnows as bait.

Darkhouse spearfishing is another favorite pastime for dedicated ice anglers looking to spice up the action during long winters in northern states.  We share all the tips and tricks you need to know to successfully go darkhouse spear fishing in another one of our articles. 

Regardless of how you want to catch them, pike should be on your list of must catch fish this winter!

#9 Trout

Trout are at their most active when winter arrives.  Their love of frigid water and non-stop feeding makes them easy quarry for winter anglers.  

Unlike most fish on this list, cold water doesn’t induce sluggishness upon trout.  In fact, as oppressive heat subsides, trout kick into high gear.  They come out of deep, cool holes and feed aggressively in the top layers of water.

Trout cruise shallow flats and structural transitions in search of prey all winter.  Catch them through the ice with small spoons, ice flies or live bait.  In open water areas, still fishing with suspended baits is also highly productive.

Despite being extremely active in winter, trout still bite best in low light hours.  If you can brave the cold, trout offer plenty of motivation to go out fishing this winter. 

#10 Smallmouth Bass

They might have bass in their name but they are polar opposites from their largemouth cousins.  Smallmouth bass thrive in cold water.  

Locating them is a challenge as they move to their favorite winter structures.  However, once you zero in on them, it could be the most epic fishing done all season.  

Locate active winter smallmouth around rock humps, gravel bars and rocky bluffs in water slightly deeper than you target in spring through fall.  In winter, deep water is slightly warmer so find those pockets for success.  

Remember to fish your baits slower and make use of electronics.  If you’re fishing for smallmouth through hard water, drill your holes around mid-lake humps, drop offs or rocky transitions.  A drop shot or blade bait work wonders through the ice for smallmouth bass.

#11 Channel Catfish

Big fish require big meals all year long and fat channel cats are no exception.  Surprisingly, catfish are overlooked by most anglers in the winter.  However, few fish feed as actively during the cold months as catfish.

Once only an incidental catch for ice anglers targeting more popular species, catfish are now gaining more dedicated winter attention.  The low light of winter combined with a thick layer of ice produces perfect hunting conditions for smell driven predators like channel catfish.

Deadsticking with stink baits or minnows using a stout ice rod yields satisfying action any time of day.  Although, jigging with spoons has been known to work well too.

Even in open water to the south, catfish seem to feed all day during the darkest winter days.  Keeping your bait in the water is about the only skill needed to catch some true giants during the winter chill.