Top Freshwater Fish You Have to Catch in Your Lifetime
Fishing is a sport that one can pursue with unflinching perseverance their entire life and never truly master. Seasoned anglers might have decades of experience wetting a line, but there’s always a select few species of fish that garner their attention and captivate their imagination. Like Captain Ahab in pursuit of the ‘white whale’ with dogged determination, experienced anglers spend countless hours working toward landing a genuine trophy.
Yes, there are many “bucket list” fish that many fishermen long to catch. More often than not, landing these feisty fish require a significant amount of preparation, study, and relentless pursuit that most anglers simply give up on early on in the game.
It can be quite a feat for one angler to catch most of the popular freshwater game fish species in the United States during their lifetime without a guide. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at some of the more prominent species of fish found across North America and discuss why anglers consider them to be among the best freshwater fish to catch.
Best Freshwater Fish to Catch
There’s no question that the largemouth bass is—hands-down—one of the most popular fish species in North America. They are prevalent in every corner of the country and can be caught using a wide variety of lures and baits throughout the entire year. Largemouth bass are ambush predators and they will use shadows and darkness to conceal their attack. This means they will be more active in the early morning or late evening. For most of the country, April through July are usually considered the best months to catch largemouth bass as this is a time when they are going through the ritualistic patterns of their annual spawn.
Largemouth bass can weigh more than 20 pounds, but most anglers consider anything more than 10 pounds to be a trophy-sized fish. You can use various tactics to either catch bigger bass in smaller numbers, or employ smaller lures and a more generalized approach to land high numbers of smaller fish. Bass make decent table fare, but most anglers target them for the sheer thrill of the chase as these are the most popular game fish species among competitive anglers in the United States.
As the largest freshwater fish America has to offer, the white sturgeon can measure up to 20 feet long and weigh half a ton. If you’re looking for a challenge, you’ve found it. These fish more closely resemble a prehistoric monster and it’s rare to come across a behemoth white sturgeon over 16 feet in length. Anglers describe the thrill of catching such a massive creature as being unlike hooking any other game fish species in the world. They are attracted to salmon, herring, smelt, and squid. If it’s legal to do so where you live, you can also catch them using trout as bait.
White sturgeon, despite their freakish appearance, are quite tasty when properly prepared. Their eggs are even used as caviar. These fish will put up an intense fight during the first few minutes, but often tire quickly as their bodies are not suited for long, drawn-out struggles in the same way other species are. These fish are more common in the northern portion of the country and are certainly among the top freshwater game fish in the United States due to their peculiar looks and gigantic size.
In terms of popularity, many fishermen argue that the catfish is right up there with the largemouth bass. They’re certainly one of the top freshwater game fish, with several different types to catch, but most anglers agree that the blue catfish is king of these freshwater brutes.
Catching a blue cat requires a much different approach than you might use to land largemouth bass or other freshwater species. Patience is the name of the game when it comes to luring in and catching a trophy blue and they are typically attracted to worms, minnows, and a variety of other smelly baits that novice anglers might find repulsive.
Blue catfish are known to grow exceptionally large and can reach huge sizes—well over 100 pounds in freshwater lakes and rivers across the United States. Blues are a bit more challenging to catch than other variations of cats as they will generally hunt around structure, but can also be found cruising the open waters at different depths. If you plan to go after these giant species, be sure to do plenty of research on the particular body of water you’re fishing and don’t get in a hurry.
As one of the more challenging fish to catch on our list, carp will certainly satisfy your thirst for competition. These fish have large scales, whiskers, and sport a yellow color. Like catfish, carp tend to hang around at the bottom of lakes, feeding on available plant life. If you’re able to catch a carp, prepare for a fight as their giant bodies are full of powerful muscles that allow them to pull exceptionally hard at first. However, their massive size will also lead them to tire out more quickly than other types of fish.
Despite their massive size, carp have an incredibly small mouth that’s almost comical in proportion to the rest of their body. Experienced anglers have been known to catch carp using a variety of different methods and baits, including small corn kernels on the end of a hook. It’s generally discouraged to eat carp as they are poor tasting fish that are much more useful alive since they are capable of eating large amounts of grass and moss from lakes, which keeps it more clear for anglers to go after other freshwater species.
The northern portions of the United States are home to the ferocious walleye. These fish are long and slender—built for attacking their prey with speed and precision. Their physique also means that walleye are capable of delivering one of the toughest fights of any freshwater fish in North America. They are excellent table fare and it’s easy to see why so many anglers consider them to be among the best freshwater fish species in the world.
Walleye are a species that southern anglers might not get many changes to catch, but should certainly have on their bucket list to do so. Walleye fishing can be done from the shoreline or a boat, but dedicated anglers have also been known to catch them out on the frozen lakes while ice fishing in the middle of the frigid northern winter. The average weight of walleye is around 1 to 3 pounds, but they can grow larger. Most anglers consider walleye weighing more than 10 pounds to be trophy size.
To ensure the best results, stick with natural baits like minnows and shad, as walleye love to feed on them and will be drawn out of cover to investigate an easy meal. In some cases, you may even find nightcrawlers and leeches to prove successful. These fish would likely be among the most popular in the country if they were found to be as prevalent as largemouth bass and catfish.
As the largest of panfish, crappie are popular and easy to find. They also stay in schools, which makes them one of the more exciting freshwater fish to catch. If you catch one, you can bet that there are others nearby. Crappie are fun to catch and don’t grow to gigantic sizes like some other types of freshwater species.
When it comes to the best-tasting fish, however, crappie reign supreme among North American freshwater fish. Anglers will find two variations, white and black crappie. They average in size of about one pound and anything more than two pounds is considered a trophy, or as crappie anglers more affectionately call them, ‘slabs.’
You can typically find them in shallow waters. The best time to fish for crappie is in the spring during their annual spawn, using live minnows as bait. In doing so, you are more likely to find schools of active crappie to catch.
If you haven’t tried catching any of the fish we’ve mentioned in this article, you’re missing out. The good news is that all of these species can be found in abundance in various parts of the country. Best of all, you don’t have to be a veteran angler to enjoy fishing for these top freshwater picks.