The body condition, lipid reserves and mortality of 0 and 1 year‐old perch Perca fluviatilis and ruffe Gymnocephalus cernuus, sampled during the winter in Lake Constance, Germany, were compared. Length‐frequency analyses did not provide evidence for overwinter mortality in either species. The fresh and dry mass of perch as well as their lipid contents decreased during winter, while ruffe were heavier and contained more lipid at the end of the winter. The superior performance of ruffe was mainly attributed to its sensory capabilities, which allowed it to ingest zoobenthos throughout the winter, while the zooplankton feeding of perch was constrained by low light levels. In lakes that undergo a process of re‐oligotrophication, this advantage of ruffe over perch may be even more pronounced, since lower food supply during the growth season and thus lower fish lipid content at the start of winter is probably better tolerated by ruffe than by perch.