During summer months, you’re likely to see fish blowing up the surface of the water, eating bugs on the surface, or jumping out of the water. During winter, however, the water’s surface is replaced by ice, and the fish behave differently.
During ice fishing, most fish will spend winter in the deepest parts of the river, pond, or lake. Fish have several adaptations to keep them alive during freezing temperatures, including a natural antifreeze and a lowered metabolism. Some fish will burrow in mud for added protection.
Continue reading for more details about where fish go during ice fishing and some of the details regarding their cold weather survival mechanisms.
How fish survive through winter involves several different environmental and biological responses that keep them from feeling the full effect of harsh winter conditions.
Generally, fish will slow down their metabolism immensely during winter, feed infrequently, and choose the most habitable parts of the water to dwell in.
Understanding the mechanisms fish use to survive the cold will help you understand where they must go to survive winter temperatures.
Fish survive during winter by schooling in the deepest parts of the body of water they are in. In lakes and ponds, this tends to be near underwater drop-offs and the middle of the body of water.
In rivers, survival can be more difficult, and fish choose the deepest pools they can find. Ice fishing in rivers is rare as there are few good opportunities, and fish will migrate toward lakes if they can.
The deeper fish can go, the less affected by temperature fluctuations they will be. Going from cold to warm to cold in a short period can be lethal to many fish.
Most fish slow down as part of their winter survival strategy, but some will hunker down, burrow in the soft mud, and go through a hibernation period. These fish include goby, koi, and lungfish.
The fish that hibernate are not species targeted while ice fishing and are a much less common group than fish that remain active during winter.
However, if there are species that you can’t catch during winter hibernation may be why.
In preparation for winter, many fish will do their best to build up fat reserves, which can be essential for winter survival.
Like bears, people, and wolves, fish will spend fall putting on extra weight in preparation for winter.
Without going too far into the science of the proteins fish produce, a molecule is introduced into the fish’s bloodstream to keep them from freezing in water that’s below 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
Without producing this protein, fish would die in freezing water. This molecule is more prevalent and vital in saltwater fish species, where water can get below-freezing temperatures without freezing.
Still, freshwater fish can also produce a similar protein to help them survive.
Since fish are cold-blooded or ectothermic, they cannot produce their body heat and are at the mercy of their external environment.
Cold weather impacts their metabolism and ability to energize themselves and digest food. During winter, fish will slow down their movement and won’t need to eat as much food or intake as much oxygen.
Since the plants underneath the water aren’t producing as much oxygen, fish need to survive with fewer resources than during summer.
Part of the reason lakes and ponds don’t freeze from top to bottom is because ice is an incredibly effective insulator, and snow is an even better insulator.
Due to the insulative properties, the cold air and the warmer water are kept separate, and only a foot or so of ice will form.
Snow-covered lakes are more dangerous than they seem at first, despite their cold appearance.
Snow is such a good insulator that a few inches of snow can prevent the water from freezing to a safe thickness, so check the thickness of the ice and pay attention to local warnings.
Since fish need to go deeper in the water to survive winter, casting in the deepest parts of the lake will guarantee the best results.
While deep water is an integral part of ice fishing, there are a few other things to look for to find a good spot.
Fishing in deep water is suitable, especially near steep drop-offs from shore. You might not need to go to the middle of the lake to find the fish, as some will school near ledges, which offer extra protection.
Ledges also offer a funnel for possible food to fall, further incentivizing fish to spend their time at the bottom of one.
An ice fishing flasher uses sonar to provide the angler with information regarding the depth of the water and any notable discrepancies in the water, such as structures and even individual fish.
Areas with the most plant life will be perfect places for fish during the ice fishing season. There are many environmental reasons that weeds are the ideal place for fish to be, both in the winter and summer.
Year-round weeds provide plenty of cover and protection for fish and can also be the perfect place for predator fish to find an easy meal.
During winter, oxygen levels are severely depleted across the water, and fish near active plants will experience noticeably higher oxygen levels.
Here is a general tip you can use year-round: online maps are perfect for getting the feel of a lake without being there in person.
If you are fishing new territory, using maps can give you ideas of depth levels, structures, and other points of interest.
During winter, it can be a lot more challenging to get a feel for what’s going on underneath the water, so checking out what the lake or pond looks like without ice and snow will give you a leg up over going in blind.
Of course, one of the most tried and true methods of catching fish is to move areas if you aren’t catching anything.
Even if it seems like the perfect spot, there is a chance that there aren’t any fish or other anglers have pressured them.
Moving spots when you aren’t catching anything is an easy way to improve your odds, and many beginner anglers can get wrapped up in trying different lures, techniques, and more before considering moving.
Although that doesn’t mean varying your approach isn’t equally important, sometimes the fish just aren’t there.
Now you know where fish go during winter and how to find them while ice fishing.
Winter is the most challenging season for fish to survive and can make ice fishing more challenging than warm-weather fishing.
However, if you know where to place your bait, you’ll have much better luck during your ice fishing adventures.
Fishing close to the bottom in deep areas is the go-to method and is especially effective in areas with heavy cover.
With that in mind, get out there and catch plenty of fish this ice fishing season, knowing where to find them.