Fishing in winter can be just as productive as any other season, but you must prepare differently. One key to success is the bait you use. To ensure you have as much success in the dead of winter as you do during the heat of summer, you must have baits that match fish behavior and eating habits.
The 6 best baits for fishing in winter are:
- Spoons, spinners and cranks
- Plastic and hard stick baits
When used properly, you can use any of these baits to catch winter fish. The key is matching bait to your fishing environment and the weather conditions. Below, we’ll give you a rundown on getting the most out of your winter fishing trip, and go through each bait in more detail.
General Information About Fishing In Winter
In order to succeed at winter fishing, you need the right equipment, bait, strategy and attitude. If you are missing one of that list, you significantly reduce your chances of success. This article assumes you have the proper equipment for both open water and ice fishing.
There is crossover between ice and open water winter fishing, but each style of fishing has its own bait idiosyncrasies. Below is a brief summary of the differences and why you need to cater your bait selection to each.
The entire principle of ice fishing bait is to entice a fish to bite through:
- Suspension of the bait
- Jigging the bait
Suspension is exactly what it sounds like. You lower the bait to the desired depth and let it hang, allowing the movement of the water and the bait to attract gamefish. Suspended bait is only moved occasionally and only to relocate the bait at a desired depth.
Generally, live bait is used for suspended bait, although some ice fishermen use artificial flies as well. Suspended bait does not work well if the body of water being fished has a stiff current as that moves the bait away from the desired location.
Fishing on open water in the winter is much like fishing on open water in warmer months, except that it is much, much slower. Generally, the water temperature and fish activity can be broken down into three temperature ranges.
45°F And Lower
At these temperatures, slow is the name of the game. Suspended bait works well as do jigs as long as any action with the jig has a lot of “still time” between movement. With live bait, the best approach is to let the live bait do its thing and leave it alone.
If you move the bait too much in this type of water, fish will generally eye it up and leave it alone. A fish trying to conserve energy is not going to go after any bait that shows a lot of movement or looks too lively.
At these temperatures, fish will still pursue active bait, but it must be presented in a realistic manner. Baits that are too jerky or do not look like something the fish has seen and eaten before will be left alone. Jigs work in this water as well as hybrid jigs that employ skirts and plastic baits. Jerk baits also work in this type of water, but the key is to move the bait and then let it sit.
Within this temperature range, you can fish as you normally would in warmer water. The only rule is that floating, topwater bait will not work as well. They will still work, but presentation must be very controlled and much slower.
Part of presentation includes how the bait is rigged. The following are several popular rigs.
The goal of bait presentation in ice fishing is to position the bait slightly off the bottom or to let it move, but in a very confined space.
Drop Or Punch Shot Rig
Using a tri-swivel and attaching a leader with the bait to one ring and a leader with a weight to another is popular.
This uses an egg sinker weight with the bait attached at the end of the line and either another weight or bead in between them. When it is jigged, the egg weight knocks against the stationary bead or weight, attracting fish. This type of rig can be used with live or artificial bait.
This is the same concept as the fishfinder but does not have the bead in between the weight and bait. The concept is to move the bait in a way to have the weight “knock” up against the bait. This doesn’t work great with live bait, but is ideal for fishing with spoons, spinners and jigs.
This is generally used with open water but can be effective when ice fishing. Letting the live bait suspend and move freely with little or no weight is effective. One tactic is to use a split shot to allow the bait to move, but keep it generally in the area to which it was lowered. This works particularly well when ice fishing as it holds the bait in a specific location.
There are also several types of rigs for artificial baits. Here are a few of the most popular:
This is exactly like the ice fishing drop shot rig. It is fished by “hopping” the bait across the bottom.
This is the same as the ice fishing version but is best used with vertical jigging.
A weightless rig is just the bait – artificial or live – attached to the hook. The bait is allowed to roam freely if it is live or controlled by the angler if it is artificial. Artificial baits used with this type of rig are spoons, stick baits, spinners, etc.
Weighted Jig Head
This type of rig uses a jig with a weighted head. It is great for plastic baits, worms and other lures. The bait is either jigged in a vertical manner or “bounced on the bottom.”
There are many other types of rigs used with ice fishing and open water fishing in winter. You should search online to find different types of rigs and to see pictures of rigging before choosing which one to use.
Artificial Versus Live Bait
This article covers artificial baits as well as live baits. The reason for this is that both are equally effective if presented properly. The type of bait you choose should be determined by the fishing environment and the fish you’re targeting.
If, for example, you are fishing primarily for larger gamefish like pike, bass or pickerel, any type of bait will work. Live bait tends to work best on smaller fish, like panfish. For fish like carp or catfish, the same type of bait as you would use in warm water (meat or dough) is just as effective in cold water.
The 6 Best Baits For Fishing In The Winter
Minnows are generally regarded as the undisputed champion when it comes to ice fishing, although some anglers prefer jigs. Minnows also work in open cold water. The type of minnow depends on where you are fishing.
States have different rules regarding what type of minnow can be used, how many lines can be run and what type of bait can be fished. Restricted fishing waters are often designated as “fly only” or have prohibitions for certain types of baits. It is best to always check first to see what is legal and how the bait can be used legally.
Worms are also excellent choices for live bait in either open water or for ice fishing. There are several types of worms a fisher can use.
These are the most popular. They can be bought at most locations that sell live bait although availability is often determined by the season. Some locations that sell bait will only have nightcrawlers from spring through early winter.
These are smaller worms and are “all-purpose.” Usually, they are baby nightcrawlers. They work best on panfish and trout, although bass will eat them in a pinch.
Meal And Waxworms
These are not technically worms, but larvae of the mealworm beetle and wax moth respectively. They are very small and sold in some bait shops, although ordering them online is a better option. They work with panfish and trout primarily.
This is another “not a worm” worm and can be purchased online, in some stores, or you can grow your own. They are the larvae of flies. They work with just about any type of fish in any type of fishing setting.
Technically, leeches are worms. They can be trapped or bought online or in many bait shops. Leeches are a delicacy for most fish. They can be used in cold water and warm water too.
Jigs come in all forms. The most common are weighted head jigs, which can have plastic bait attached to the hook, plastic “skirts” and even live bait. Jigs are the workhorse of fishing as they can be used in any water effectively.
Generally, jigs are bounced or dragged along the bottom, vertically jerked or even brought in on a slow, erratic retrieve. Jigs work with just about any type of fish.
4. Spoons, Spinners And Cranks
These three types of artificial baits are usually reeled in with a consistent or varying speed. Each also has “custom” retrievals that are covered below.
One very effective retrieval tactic with spoons is to retrieve them by hopping them along the bottom. Jerking up and letting them flutter to the bottom, or jerking after three seconds of being motionless, mimics dying bait fish that fall to the bottom and then have bursts of energy in an attempt to stay alive. Spoons can also be jigged from a boat, dock, or when ice fishing.
Spinners can be used effectively by varying depth, which is controlled by retrieval rate. Let the spinner fall, then reel in fast, let it fall and reel in slow, jerk the spinner forward, etc. This approach also mimics bait fish and when brought in quickly can sometimes provoke a reaction strike. When ice fishing, spinners can be jerked up and allowed to flutter down.
Crankbaits are effective in just about every setting. They key is to modify retrieval speed to suit fish activity. Crankbaits can be slowly retrieved, attached to a weight and allowed to suspend off the bottom, or brought in using a jerky manner and retrieved erratically.
The best tactic for ice fishing with a crankbait is to use a tri-swivel with a weight on one of the rings. Allow the weight to fall to the bottom and allow the crank on the other ring to suspend. Occasionally, jerk the rig upwards to give the crank some motion.
5. Plastic And Hard Stick Baits
Plastic baits like worms and crayfish can be used with ice fishing or with open water fishing. Fishing them weightless in open water and allowing them to float to the bottom before jerking them upwards mimics dying bait fish. With plastic baits like crayfish, dragging them on the bottom very slowly is effective as well.
When ice fishing with plastic baits, jerk the line occasionally after lowering the bait to the desired depth. You can also use a weight and let them sit on the bottom, twitching them occasionally.
Hard stick baits can be used in both ice fishing and open water but are most effective in open water. Bring in a stick bait with a consistent but slow speed and stop the retrieval periodically. A weighted hard stick bait can be allowed to slowly sink and then be retrieved slowly before being allowed to suspend again. Fish will usually strike when the bait is suspending.
This type of bait is a class of its own but spans a lot of different types of baits. Specialized dough baits, bread and bread dough, corn, meat, and even soap fall into this category. They work best with ice fishing.
The best approach is to suspend them about 6 inches to a foot off the bottom, and allowing the bait to rest on the bottom is also effective. The type of fish you are targeting should determine which tactic you use.
The list above includes the most popular baits to use in the winter. This list is by no means comprehensive. However, minnows are generally the go-to option, with jigs serving that role when using artificial bait instead of live bait.