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Cold Water Kayak Fishing: What’s Biting?

As cold weather holds much of the United States in its grip, you might be inclined to think that fishing is frozen as well. But, don’t despair! As long as you are hardy and willing, kayak fishing can be had all year round in much of the USA - as long as there is open water.

However, kayak fishing in winter does take a bit of extra planning, especially around issues of safety and winter kayaking gear. Waterproof and thermal layers are important as well as extra food and water You tire faster in colder temps so be prepared for that. Wear a properly fitted personal flotation device. Also, prioritize the buddy system and ALWAYS leave a float plan with a trusted friend or family member. Cold water can turn deadly if you aren’t prepared.

So, what fish are biting in the winter?

Here is a list of some of the fish that stay most active in winter when other favorites (we’re looking at you, bass) essentially shut down.

  • Trout
  • Trout are probably the most obvious inclusion on any list of cold-water fish. They are genetically disposed to prefer cold water. In summer, you will find this species in chilly creeks and springs. And in winter, they are excellent targets as they remain active even in the icy conditions. However, they may feed less in the cold as their metabolism slows so you will have to entice them with good bait. 

  • Perch
  • Perch are great fun in the winter as they always seem to be biting. When other fish find their appetites dropping, perch continue to feed in the cold season. They are also more likely to strike harder than other fish in the winter. They tend to hit on maggots and blood worms and are often found in the mud during the winter.

  • Pike
  • This great-tasting fish is an excellent treat in winter. They are found in lakes and rivers throughout the north, as they have adapted to some of the coldest weather. Even in winter, they can be active and aggressive. Live bait, like minnows, and even artificial lures can find willing biters. 

  • Walleye
  • This popular fish in the Midwest keeps biting even into the winter months. Since they typically drop as the temperature drops, You will find them in deeper water in rivers and lakes throughout the United States. Entice them with a slow jig in open water or set lines along rocky bottoms. They are a sucker for an easy meal as long as you can reach them with it.  

  • Catfish
  • While this one might surprise anglers, catfish are quite active in the winter. Indeed, they have become quite the target for ice fishers. They will respond well to jigging spoons, minnows, and blade baits. They can be quite aggressive, even in the winter, so be ready for a fight. 

    Whatever you are fishing for, the general rule is that smaller bait is better. Fish aren’t looking for a big meal as their metabolism slows. And consider a bit of an attractant to get their attention.

    Pros of Cold Water Kayak Fishing:

    • Cold keeps the crowds away. If you don’t like to share your space, winter is a great time to find some open water and drop a line. Most people aren’t willing to brave the cold and water recreationalists like swimmers, water skiers, and wave runners are packed up for the season. 
    • Enhances your skills. Fish tend to be less active and less frisky in the winter. If you aren’t actively paying attention, you might overlook the bite and miss the chance to sink your hook. You need to use short casts and stay close to the fish to avoid missing opportunities. 
    • No ice is needed to get your “keepers” home. If you are taking a few panfish home for a fish fry, winter is a great time for transporting them as they stay plenty cold as long as you don’t keep them in a warm vehicle.

    Cons of Cold Water Kayak Fishing:

    • No crowds also means no ready help if things go south. As mentioned above, safety is a primary concern for cold-weather fishing. If you are all by yourself, there might not be anyone around to lend a hand. Fish with a friend, leave a float plan, take a whistle or flare to alert others, and always be prepared to hit the water (dress appropriately).
    • Cold hands make it hard to handle baiting, catching, and releasing. Be extra careful with hands that can be cold and wet. (Of course, a cold, wet hand means you are actively fishing - and hopefully catching fish - but it can also be a danger). 
    • Sluggish fish can mean less exciting battles. While some fish species will still give you a fight in the winter, other times winter kayak fishing is a bit less exciting. 

    With a little preparation and a hardy disposition, you can make kayak fishing a year-round activity. In fact, you might find some things to love about it. Happy Fishing!

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