Winter Survival Fishing

By Josh Holubz

Photo by Taylor Grote

During the colder winter months, forage is extremely limited and game animals can be scarce, providing limited opportunities to harvest calories. Most bodies of water are likely to hold at least some species of fish, but you will need to know how to approach the quarry in winter.  Once it’s determined where efforts are best focused, with a little bit of practice, catching fish can be a very efficient means of sustenance. Salmonids in particular, such as salmon, trout, char, and graylings, are an oily fish with the nutrients that a body needs in order to survive and continue the journey towards self-rescue.


The most practical and minimalist gear for catching fish in a survival scenario would consist of three basic elements: ultralight fluorocarbon line, small-sized fish hooks, and tiny BB split shot. There are many different ways to catch fish, but during the wintertime and in a survival scenario, a hook and line will be the most effective method. Fish are mostly sitting on the bottom of deep pools, rendering any sort of net or trap largely ineffective.

A person is unlikely to have nets in their possession, but a basic fishing kit is generally light and compact—easily and almost unnoticeably carried in any hiking pack, or even in a vehicle’s glove box or center console. These items can often fit in the palm of your hand and only weigh a few ounces. A tippet spool provides 100 yards of fluorocarbon line and can be carried in any size.  A rod can be improvised from most any flexible sapling. There are also various compact, collapsible rods on the market; it all depends on how prepared you choose to be. The size and weight of gear is an important consideration, and keeping that in mind, the three aforementioned items are considered the bare minimum. It is extremely difficult to improvise a proper working hook or fishing line in the wilderness, so those items are best carried when visiting remote areas.

Just like a good first aid kit, a basic fishing kit should be considered essential gear for enjoyment and peace of mind.


As the air temperatures drop, the water temperatures soon follow. This signals a fish’s metabolism to slow down, and as a result they will be feeding less often. The water is also home to a whole host of aquatic insects, many of which begin their lives as larvae or pupa, clinging to rocks and debris in streams, lakes, and ponds. Bug activity is also tied to temperature, and similarly to the fish, there will be far less activity in the colder months. In the winter time, fish overwhelmingly favor deeper water. This is great news in a survival situation because the quarry will be concentrated in the deep pools of moving water (rivers and streams), which means less time and calorie-expenditure is required in order to locate the next meal.

In still water, multi-species angler Jeremiah Giles recommends: “Focus on deeper water during the cold days. If it’s sunny and warm, then concentrate on shallow water that is adjacent to deep water, and around rocks.”

Exposed rocks will absorb warmth from the sun and that little bit of warmth can cause bug activity, which fish soon follow. In the winter, a significant increase in temperature or a warmer day almost always translates to an increase in bug activity, followed by an increase in fish/feeding activity, meaning greater odds of success for the angler. Look for the areas of water that receive direct sunlight, and watch closely on warmer days. It would be wise to focus the bulk of your fishing efforts to the afternoons, during the warmest part of the day.


With the gear and insights on where to find the fish, next is knowing the right method. This is for survival, not for sport, so bait will be used.

Jim Queen is a lifelong outdoorsman and native of Southern Appalachia who has been pursuing fish with a fly rod since he was a kindergartner. He recommends looking under rocks and downed, decomposing timber to find worms, grubs, or sow bugs, all of which a fish will eat. Jim also says to also look in low-lying spots where leaf litter stays damp and there is decaying vegetation; rake through it with a stick, and you can find worms. Crayfish can also be found in slow, shallow pools, often under rocks.

Jeremiah Giles recommends using whole crayfish as potential bait, or the tails for smaller fish. Bluegills and other small baitfish can be consumed, or they can be used as bait for larger predatory fish.

The important thing is to find some type of bait, preferably a worm, and then get it onto a hook. Ensure that the offering is able to sink to the bottom, since that’s where the fish are most likely to be found. In moving water, it is often necessary to add one or more split shots to the line several inches above the hook, depending on how swiftly the water is moving.

Success in fishing is directly related to stacking odds in your favor. This is accomplished by using what is arguably the most effective bait—a worm/grub—then putting that bait in the places most likely to hold fish, focusing on dredging the plunge and bend pools. When fishing in still water, look for rock piles, timber, and other structure(s) that are adjacent to deep water. Concentrate on the prime locations first, and then move down the list to the more marginal spots.

Whether choosing a “handline” (without a pole, just a line in hand) or opting to fish with a sapling/cane pole, be ready to set the hook when the fish strikes. A handline offers more line sensitivity and a greater ability to feel strikes, since the fishing line is directly in hand. The downside to handlining is the lack of reach; it is difficult to fling a hook very far without the leverage of a pole. It is important to select a flexible cane or sapling versus something more rigid, so go as lightly as possible. As long as you keep the line tight, a fish strike will be felt through a cane pole and then the hook can be set.

As with most things in survival, a little bit of advance preparation can pay off in spades, if a contingency comes to bear.

I highly recommend that everyone carry at least the three basic items discussed—hook, line, and sinker. Next time out and about in nature, take a peek under some rocks and logs. Test whether bait can be found, if needed. When near water, scan to see if any fish can be spotted, and think about the approach to get a cast in front of them.

A little bit of fishing never hurt anybody, so feel free to practice it as often as possible.