Effects of Harsh Winters on Bass

Effects of Harsh Winters on Bass

Effects of Harsh Winters on Bass

by March 2, 2014

Harsh Winter on basst-header


With the harsh winter that has hit much of the northern states and Canada, our team has been pondering the effects of the temperatures on fish in these waters.


With a full-time fisheries biologist and avid angler on our team, we just had to ask the questions that are on everyone’s mind. We called upon Jason Barnucz, Fisheries Biologist and Pure Fishing Ambassador, to find out just what the crazy winter will mean for fishing in the coming season.


We asked Jason about heavy snow cover on lakes. With all the snow on most lakes over the winter and temperatures staying in the minus, the snow blocks sunlight. The lack of sunlight penetrating through the ice and freezing temps is sure to kill off more weeds than in previous years. Is this correct from a biology standpoint? How will this effect fishing next season?


Jason barnuczJason told us, “Winter cycles help to drive our fisheries here in northern latitudes. Our fish are adapted to surviving this weather but it does have impacts on lakes/rivers and the fishes within them. This can be species specific and lake specific, smaller lakes are likely more impacted than larger ones. Ice cover on lakes is like a plastic bag of oxygen. The longer the ice period, the less oxygen is left for the fish. Other factors like weed growth/dying plays into this also”.


The logical conclusion to this then is that the harsh winters will be tough on the bass populations. In contrast, some cold water species that are native to northern lakes such as pike, walleye and musky will fare through the winters quite well. Bass anglers may want to take notice of the next few paragraphs… :)


As a tournament angler I was also curious about bass size this coming summer. I would expect that the harsh winter would make water colder for longer periods. In turn, it could result in smaller bass by discouraging them from expending excess energy to eat;  causing them to come out of the winter thinner than usual.


However, Jason brought up an interesting point, “…The most precious commodity we have in the bass populations are young bass (young of the year). Young of the Year (YOY) survivorship needs two things:

1) long, warm growing season

2) winter survival. These two factors allow more bass to recruit into the population resulting in a healthier population. 

 Optimum Scenario: Hot Summer + Mild Winter = Increased Recruitment

Poor Scenario: Cold Summer + Cold Winter = Decreased Recruitment


We have two potential issues in 2013/2014 that may have a long term impact on bass populations in northern latitudes. 2013 was a cold/late spring that postponed spawning in many lakes/rivers. The summer was also cooler than usual resulting in a reduced growing season. Heading into 2014 we are faced with a record cold winter. Which could further reduce YOY survival into the 2014 open water season.” 


Does this mean bass size is not affected and tournament anglers can expect record breaking bags? Well, not exactly. Jason went on to explain,  “These trends will not be detected until a year or two afterwards as the fish need to be captured and analyzed to see if numbers are dropping. Anglers typically are catching/harvesting fish in the 2 yr class or older (12″+). We will not see the impacts of 2013/2014 winter for a year or two.” 


Jason summed it up very well, “In the short term there will be no change. Vegetation will rebound as always. Our vegetation (aquatic macrophytes) are built for the impacts from ice. What may change is some areas may see more ice scour than others. These will fill in and we will have the ‘sea’ of vegetation we have always seen. Ice scour (digging the bottom) may increase habitat in some lakes and rivers like undercut banks, etc. Will bass be easier to find?. No, same challenge as always. In the long term, however, Yes, it is likely we will have a weak year class from 2013. However, we have had two mild winters (2011/2012, 2012/2013) and recruitment should have been decent. Meaning, we may not see too many negative effects. Time will tell…”


So there you have it. In the short term there will be no negative effects of this harsh winter, but bass anglers may notice a decline in bass size in the next few years. If we have another harsh winter in 2014/2015, it will compound the effects this year and further reduce bass YOY survival.

The CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) has a great article on ice cover on the Great Lakes. You can read it here


As the spring comes closer anglers need not despair. Fish will still be there and will have survived the harsh winter. Finding them will still be up to you!


Tight Lines!


About Grant:

Profile PicGrant is the Founder of AnglingAuthority.com.  While he primarily fishes for large mouth and small mouth bass, he’s passionate about sport fishing in general.  Learning about new tactics, gear, species and conditions is all part of what makes the sport challenging and enjoyable. Grant also loves to travel, particularly to prime fishing destinations. Grant participates in regional tournaments and is a proud member of State Apparel and Gambler Lures’ Am Pro Staff, Canadian Bass Anglers Federation, B.A.S.S. and Ontario Federation of Anglers & Hunters.

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About Jason:

Jason barnucz2Jason is a full time Fisheries Biologist. His research is focused on fish species at risk and invasive fish species in the Great Lakes Basin. He spends his spare time teaching, lecturing and of course…fishing!


Jason is an active member of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society since 2003. Over the last decade years, Jason has served Ontario B.A.S.S. Nation. Currently, he is the President of the Hamilton Bassmasters and Conservation Director for the Ontario B.A.S.S. Nation.


As an angler, Jason takes pride in promoting the sport of angling. Since 2012, he’s been working with Pure Fishing as an Ambassador, representing the Berkley, Abu Garcia, Fenwick, Pflueger, Hodgman, Mitchell, Stren, Penn brands.


Follow Jason, aka “Bassin Biologist” on Twitter

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