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Freshwater game fish in the United States are calling your name. Waterways all across America are filled with an incredible variety of freshwater game fish. Some are small and spunky while others are large and magnificent. Whether you are hunting trophy fish or recreational fishing, know that your time on the water is time well spent. We are here to help you identify, locate and answer their calls.
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Varieties Of Freshwater Game Fish In The United States
Knowing the area and the game fish to target will help make for a successful day on the water. According to National Geographic there are more than 800 known freshwater fish species in North America. Freshwater fish are climate and water temperature specific. The three main categories based on water temperature are cold water (approx. less than 60 degrees), warm water (approx. 75 degrees and above) and cool water (approx. 60-75 degrees). Wherever you are located you will find plenty of fish in your local lakes, rivers, streams and ponds.
Popular Cold Water Freshwater Game Fish In The United States
Popular cold water game fish are the trout and salmon. Specific types of trout include the Rainbow, Redband, Coastal, Cutthroat, Dolly Varden (Char), Bull, Eastern Brook, Brown and Lake. Types of salmon include the Atlantic, Pink, Chum, Sockeye, Coho, Artic Grayling and Chinooks. The only native salmon found on the East Coast is the Atlantic Salmon. The Rainbow Trout is native to areas west of the Rocky Mountains. However, both species of fish have been transplanted by humans and can be found across the country.
Popular Warm Water (Tropical) Freshwater Game Fish In The United States
Bass, Sunfish, Perch, Pike and Catfish are the most popular warm water freshwater angler fish. Types of bass include Large & Small Mouth, Yellow & White, Stripped and Spotted. The Sunfish family includes Bluegill, Perch, Crappies, Redear and Fliers. Types of Perch include the Walleye (yes, Walleye are part of the Perch family), Sauger and Yellow Perch. Northern Pike, Muskellunge and Chain Pickerels round out the Pike family. Catfish, named for their cat like whiskers, include the Bullhead, Flathead, Channel and Blue.
Popular Cool Water Freshwater Game Fish In The United States
Cool water fish are generally warm water fish that require cooler water during their growth season. This includes the Northern Pike, Walleye, Pickeral, Tiger Muskellunge and Large / Small Mouth bass. Most states have specific fishing seasons for keeper fish based on spawning season so if you intend on harvesting your catch make sure to check your local, state and federal regulations.
Freshwater Trout In The The United States
The Rainbow Trout is named for its distinct “rainbow” color, the average rainbow trout will range from 2 to 10 pounds and 2 to 20 inches in length. In larger bodies of water they grow much larger and are often referred to as steelheads. Steelhead and rainbows are the same however rainbows are freshwater only and steelheads will go to sea. Unlike most salmon, steelhead can survive spawning, and can spawn in multiple years. Rainbows like moving cold water so use ultralight tackle. A 4-8 pound flurocarbon line, spinning reel and light action rod should do the job. Rainbows will grab live bait so use grasshoppers, worms, beetles, salmon eggs and crickets. Spinners, spoons and jerkbaits are all good choices for most rainbows but use a powerbait for stocked rainbows.
Redbands are a subspecies of the rainbow trout. They are found in Montana, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, California and Nevada. Anglers should use artificial nymph flies and lures. The Endangered Species Act list redbands as a threatened game fish species so please adhere to local, state and federal laws. The fish mortality rate is higher when using spoons and spinners so avoid these when fishing for Redbands. Use flies, grasshoppers, crickets and softbaits for success.
The Dolly Varden (referred to as trout but is actually part of the char family) are located in the coastal waters of the North Pacific. They are closely related to the Arctic char and bull trout. The best time to fish for Dolly Varden is June, July, and August. On average they range in size from 8 – 22 inches and 1 – 4 pounds. The best dolly fishing is in estuaries and river mouths during fry migrations and salmon spawning season. Use bait that mimics the rivers food. Typically they will weigh between 1-3 pounds so use a light to medium weight spin caster. Pixies, hotrods and buzz bombs are popular lure choices. Dolly Vardens mouth is soft so make sure not to set the hook rough.
There are 13 species of cutthroats and the most recognized is the coastal, westslope, lahontan and yellowstone. Cutthroats live in clean cold water west of the Rocky Mountains. They are native to New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana. Most anglers choose to fly fish for cutthroats because they are tough fighters and aggressive eaters. Imitation nymphs work well for bait along with dry fly patterns resembling mayflies. Cutthroats are ambush predators so look for them to be holding cover by structures. Some cutthroats are listed as threatened so please know the local, state and federal laws.
According to Wikipedia the bull trout historically has been known as the dolly varden but was reclassified as a separate species in 1980. Bull Trouts live in Western Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Nevada. Bulls are listed as a threatened species but these hard fighting game fish are a great target for catch-and-release. Cast with jigs, crankbaits, spoons and spinners. Anglers should use lures or streamer flies that imitate their prey (a wounded fish). Young bulls eat insects but when grown will eat other fish. If you are fly fishing use minnows.
Brook trout are located in the Eastern and Northeastern United States. They prefer deep, clear, cold and enriched oxygen water. Look for them in creeks, rivers and lakes. Brooks are actually members of the charr family along with other game fish including lake trout, bull trout and blue trout. Young brooks feed on plankton and then as adults they will eat insects. Smaller than other trout species, brook trout average between 7 and 11 inches. Since brookies like a variety of flies they are the perfect target for fly anglers. Weighted flies will get you down to the deeper waters where the larger brooks like to hide. Cast upstream and allow the fly to drift downstream.
Brown trout are found in almost every state in the Untied States. The average size is between 12 and 14 inches and they weigh up to 20 pounds. Plastic worms and salmon egg shaped bait (or a hook with salmon eggs) work well to catch brown trout. Larger brownies will eat frogs, snakes and lizards. They hide out near structures so cast your line close to rocks, brush and plants. They do not like the sun so fish for them dusk, dawn and on cloudy days. Since they feed on the surface, fly fishing with dry flies is ideal.
Lake trouts are located in the Northern freshwater lakes where the water remains cool / cold. They prefer cold water and will dive deeper when the surface water gets to warm. Lake trout do not like bright lights so ideally you will want to fish at dusk or dawn. Look for them to be near natural drop-offs and ledges because the water is cooler and deeper. Use lures that replicate wounded fish movements or live baits including worms, salmon eggs and minnows. When fishing from a boat use a light 1/2 to 3/4 ounce jig. Use a light action rod with a 4 to 6 pound test line unless you are after a trophy fish then you will want to use a medium or heavy rod with a 20 pound test line.
Apache trout are native to Arizona and live in small clear cool streams. However, due to their near extension they have been introduced in lakes. The average size of apaches are 10 inches long. Aquatic and terrestrial insects are their meal of choice so when fly fishing for apache use either wet or dry flies. Use small hooks between 14 and 18 and the colors that work well are brown black and dark green.
Freshwater Salmon In The United States
Atlantic salmon are located in the Northern Atlantic Ocean and the rivers that flow to it. They are the largest of the salmon species and will grow up to 40 inches and 30 pounds. Average range is 8 to 12 pounds and 38 to 30 inches. They are anadromous (live in both fresh and saltwater) and migrate long distances from mouths of rivers to the Atlantic Ocean. However, they will return to their river of birth to reproduce. Young Atlantic Salmons feed on insects, invertebrates, and plankton while adults prefer capelin. If the water is high use large flies and use small flies when water levels are low. Bright colored flies are good in clear water while dark or crystal flash are best in murky waters. Atlantic Salmon is listed as an endangered species in the United States so be sure to check your local, state and federal laws.
Pink Salmon are also referred to as humpies due to the hump on their back during spawning. They are the smallest of the Pacific Salmon weighing between 9 and 22 pounds and are typically 22 inches long. In Alaska theywill school and spawn in large numbers every year. However, in Oregon and Washington they only school and spawn in large numbers every other year. Grab a medium 8 to 12 pound rod, a spinning real with 150 yards of 10 pound monofilament line and lures. Popular choices for lures include small pink buzz bombs, small pink spoons and small pink hoochie jigs.
Chum Salmon typically weigh between 9 and 22 pounds while averaging 22 inches long. Chums holdup over deep holes and runs so bottom bouncing can be an effective technique. We recommend using a 9 weight 12 or 13 foot rod with 10 to 15 pound leaders. For the main line use 15 to 20 pounds with a barrel swivel attached. Chum’s will put up a long and hard fight so heavier gear is needed. Use bright colored lures with flash. Pink, orange, cerise and purple are popular choices. Spinners and spoons will attract chum salmon but also adding a scented piece of yarn will increase the bite. Chum are big strong fish so 9 to 12 weight rods and 10 to 15 lb. leaders are needed for these hard fighters.
Sockeye Salmon (also known as kokanee and reds) are located in the North Pacific Ocean and the rivers flowing to it. They can grow up to 3 feet in length and weigh between 5 to 15 pounds. Sockeyes are schooling fish but are also known to be shy. They feed exclusively on plankton so they rarely strike a lure or fly. Your presentation needs to be simple and bare hooks are often effective. Sockeyes stay between 2 and 5 feet off the shoreline so they are better fished from the bank. Cast upriver and draw straight back across the current while using short methodical swings. The weight of the leader depends on the strength of the current and always aim for mouth level.
Coho Salmon average 28 inches long while typically ranging from 7 to 11 pounds. They are located along both sides of the North Pacific Ocean from mainland Alaska to Montery Bay California. They have also been transplanted by humans to all the Great Lakes and landlocked reservoirs in the United States. Use a 8 to 10 foot rod with a 10 to 15 pound line. Wigglers are a great lure and small spoons wont disappoint. Cast out and slow reel when water is fast and fast reel when water is slow. Jigs are also good for coho and choose the pink, purple or orange colors.
Chinooks are native to the North Pacific Ocean and rivers in Western North America. They are also known as the King Salmon. From California to Alaska chinooks average 30 pounds, are 3 feet long and are also the largest of the Pacific Salmon. Flashers along with herring will attract spring chinook. Also, use red colors in murky waters and chartreuse colors in clearer waters. Fish shallow waters in the morning and then move to deeper water in the afternoon because chinooks will move deeper as the sun brightens. Use a long light rod ranging between 10 and 12 feet and fluorocarbon leaders. This will allow for more forgiveness and shock absorption since chinooks are shy and spook easily.
Freshwater Bass In The United States Bass
Freshwater Game Fish: Largemouth Bass
Largemouth Bass are the top recreational freshwater species in the United States. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service largemouth bass are found in North America extending from St. Lawrence River, Great Lakes, Hudson Bay into Mississippi River basin. Also, they are found in Atlantic drainages from North Carolina to Florida. Largemouths are found in freshwater rivers, lakes and streams hiding under rocks in vegetation. They have an incredible sense of smell so they aggressively strike anything that’s alive. Use nightcrawlers, shad and crayfish for live bait. Red color is best for artificial baits including jigs, spinners, cranks and spoons. 10 to 20 pound test line works for smaller bass but and is strong enough for larger catches. The method of fishing determines line material. So, use fluorocarbon in clear waters since it’s nearly invisible underwater. Monofilament floats and stretches so use when casting top water and popping lures.
Freshwater Game Fish: Smallmouth Bass
Smallmouth Bass is the cousin species to the largemouth. They live in shallow areas of lakes, streams and reservoirs and prefer cooler waters than the largemouth. Popular food choices of the smallmouth are crayfish, insects and other fish. The average size of smallmouth bass is 12 to 16 inches and females are generally larger than the males. They prefer cool, clear and deeper water with fast flow streams and rubble bottoms. Effective baits include insects, minnows, soft plastics, spinners, spoons and jigs. They will basically attack anything and will still try the bite even if the food source it too large. Use stream lures colored brown, silver, and chartreuse because they imitate minnows. A 6 foot long light spinning rod with a 6 pound monofilament will work well.
Freshwater Game Fish: Yellow Bass
Yellow bass game fish gather in large schools unlike largemouth who are solitary. When you get into a school they will bite on virtually every cast. They are tiny in size but scrappy and fast in action. Yellow bass can be found in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas. They inhabit the backwaters of rivers, reservoirs and lakes. Live bait that works well include worms, crickets and minnows. Use an ultralight tackle with a 6 to 8 pound mono for these circle and run fish.
Freshwater Game Fish: White Bass
According to The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service white bass can be found in the Great Lakes, Hudson Bay and the St. Lawrence River, which is on the border of Canada and the United States. In the U.S. white bass range from the Mississippi River Basin down to Louisiana and into the Rio Grande River in Texas and New Mexico. White bass are carnivores so it is ideal to use live shad, minnows and worms. Their average size is 1 pound but the world record is 6 pounds from Virginia. Use a medium action spinning tackle with 8 to 10 pound test line for white bass game fish.
Freshwater Game Fish: Stripped Bass
Striped bass are found along the Atlantic coast from Florida to Canada. You will find them in rivers, bays, inlets, estuaries and creeks. They will hang out around structures while awaiting an opportunity to ambush their prey. They average four feet long and 50 pounds. Striped bass are known to be finicky. Their natural diet is fish so using clams, anchovies, shad and herring will be great choices. Use fluorocarbon leaders so that the stripped bass wont see the line in the water. Fly fishing, trolling and sight fishing are all effective techniques. A 7 foot medium rod with a 12 to 20 pound line works well using both natural and artificial bait.
Freshwater Game Fish: Spotted Bass
Spotted bass are located in Ohio, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida. They closely resemble the largemouth but spotted bass have smaller mouths. Slow flowing warm mountain streams are their preferred habitat. They also live in reservoirs and rivers hiding in the rocks and vegetation. They feed on bugs, worms and crustaceans and average 3 pounds and 18 inches. Spotted bass will eat anything that crawls or swims so bait options are numerous. but choose the color chartreuse for artificial bait.
Freshwater Sunfish In The United States
Freshwater Game Fish: Bluegill
Bluegills are found in most areas of the United States. They are found in quiet lakes, streams and ponds hanging out under tree shadows and water structures. Bluegills are small freshwater game fish and are between 6 and 12 inches long and weigh less than a pound. Bluegills are opportunistic feeders but their first choice is insects. They are one of the easiest fish to catch and are able to be fished year round. Because bluegills are a great fish for beginners, you will only need an easy spin cast reel with worms. Use a small hook and monofilament line.
Freshwater Game Fish: Crappies
Crappies were native to the East Coast but due to transplantation, they can be found all over the United States. On average they are less than a pound and are between 5 and 12 inches long. Because they are social fish, they are often found in schools. They like to hide in the brush, rocks and vegetation. Crappies are carnivores so they feed on small walleyes, northern pikes and minnows. Use small jigs and a spin cast reel. Use a 4 pound monofilament, a 3/4 ounce sinker and 1/16 ounce jig. Both casting and trolling are great options to catch crappies. Crappies are low light feeders so fish for them during dusk or dawn.
Freshwater Game Fish: Redear Sunfish
Redear sunfish are native to the Southeastern United States. Due to tranplantation and popularity they are found across the U.S.. The average size of a redear is 2 pounds and 8 inches long. Redear game fish thrive in warm calm water so you will find them mostly in ponds, lakes and backwaters. They feed on snails, worms, insects and minnows. Use live bait on or just above the bottom because redears are not fond of artificals. Redears are best fished for in early spring while they are spawning. After spawn they will go deeper and will be harder to catch. They are a popular game fish because they put up a strong fight.
Freshwater Game Fish: Fliers
Fliers are native to the Southern United States. They are located in swamps, backwaters and weedy lakes. Fliers prefer bodies of water with heavy vegetation. and thrive in waterways between 75 and 85 degrees. Average size of fliers is 5 to 7 inches and weigh 3 to 5 ounces. Fliers feed on insects, worms and small fish so use poppers, worms and minnows
Freshwater Perch In The United States
Freshwater Game Fish: Walleye
Walleyes (also known a yellow pike) are native to the Northern United States. The mouth of walleyes are large with sharp teeth Walleyes average 30 inches long and weigh 20 pounds. They are nocturnal, having low light vision so they are best fished for at night. Walleyes are found in cool deep waters of lakes, rivers and reservoirs. Use a 6 to 12 pound test line with minnows, night crawlers, and leeches. Use artificial bait with the colors gold, silver, yellow and bright green. When using artificial bait choose a jig, crankbait or spinner. Top techniques for catching walleye are spin fishing and trolling so use a 7 foot medium fast action spinning rod with a 2500 series reel. Spool your reel with 10 pound braided line to avoid stretching and increase sensitivity. When ice fishing for walleye look for them 15 to 25 feet below ice.
Freshwater Game Fish: Sauger
Saugers are the cousin fish to walleyes. When the walleyes aren’t biting and you want action switch your target to the sauger. Saugers are found in the same bodies of water as the walleye and average 5 pounds and 16 inches, They prefer deeper water than their cousin and are easily fished year round. Saugers like deep water and currents and stay near river channels and vegetation. We recommend using either a 9 or 10 foot medium action casting rod, 18 pound line and shad style crankbaits.
Freshwater Game Fish: Yellow Perch
Yellow perch live in drainages of the Atlantic Ocean, Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins. They live in ponds, lakes and creeks and prefer clear waters with good vegetation. Yellow perch average 8 inches long and weigh 1 pound. The best line to use for catching yellows is a 6 pound monofilament. Use an 8 foot fast action rod and a spinning reel. This setup is good to use with both live and artificial bait. Anglers often prefer using live bait so grab some minnows, shiners, worms, leeches and insects. The best time to fish for yellow perch is dusk and dawn.
Freshwater Pike In The United States
Freshwater Game Fish: Northern Pike
The average length of Northern pike is 20 inches weighing in at 34 pounds. Pike favor clear cold rocky waters like streams, lakes and reservoirs. They patiently wait in weedy waters so they can ambush their prey. Pikes are aggressive and territorial and will remain inactive until they strike their food. So, the larger the pike the more territory it will claim. Northern pike are found in the upper mid-western portion of the U.S.. They feed on insects, crustaceans, ﬁsh, frogs and even small mammals. You need to use a heavy leader because pike will bite through mono line. They will lay into you so handle them carefully when caught. Needle nose pliers and a net are a must. Use spinner baits, spoons, jigs and surface plugs and choose colors white, yellow, and chartreuse lures.
Freshwater Game Fish: Muskellunge
Muskellunge are native to North America. This species is the largest of the pike family and will be between 28 and 48 inches weighing between 15 and 35 pounds. Muskellunge are located in clear large lakes and rivers with plenty of vegetation. According to Wikipedia their range is Northern Michigan, Northern Wisconsin and Northern Minnesota through the Great Lakes region. They have been transplanted as far south as the Tennessee River and South Carolina’s Broad River. Muskies will eat all types of fish (even other muskellunges) and once they are large enough they will eat rats, frogs and even ducks. The optimal set up for fishing muskies is a heavy action casting rod with a bait caster reel and a 50 to 80 pound braided line. Because they have razor sharp teeth, make sure to bring a large net and needle nose pliers.
Freshwater Game Fish: Chain Pickerel
Chain Pickerels average size is 24 inches long and weigh 3 pounds. They feed on worms,crayfish, frogs and small fish. Chain pickerels are a popular game fish because they are tough fighters. You can use spinners, spoons, top water lures and live bait minnows. Use a light spinning reel with a 6 pound mono and the top choice among anglers are spinners and spoons. Chain pickerels are located on the East Coast of the United States and down south to the Gulf of Mexico.
Freshwater Catfish In The United States
The bullhead species of catfish include the black, brown, white and yellow. They differ by color, reproduction styles and fins. Bullhead catfish are located in the Great Lakes and span from New York to the Gulf of Mexico and as far west as Montana. They don’t require clear water or high oxygen levels so they are located in muddy bottom lakes, stream and rivers. They are nocturnal eaters (except the white) and feed primarily on crayfish, snails and insects. However, will eat just about anything that fits in their mouth. Bullheads are bottom feeders so go deep and avoid currents. Use ultralight spin cast combos, 4 to 8 pound test line, number 4 hooks and a small sinker. Their bait of choice are nightcrawlers. Bulls are sensitive to smells so wash your hand or wear gloves when handling your bait to avoid scents other than the worm.
Flatheads are one of the larger catfish found in the United States. Their adult average size is 25 to 45 inches long and weigh between 30 and 45 pounds. Flatheads range from Pennsylvania to Missouri and North Dakota to Texas. Habitat includes large lakes, rivers and streams. They are carnivores so they prefer crustaceans, worms and other fish. They are night feeders so bottom fish at night using heavy tackle and live bait. Use a 7 to 9 foot heavy action rod and a spinning reel. Setup with 40 to 50 pound line and a 4 to 8 inch baitfish. When fishing in the South use shad and sunfish as bait and while in Northern areas use chubs and carp.
Channel catfish (also known as channel cat) are the most sought after catfish for U.S. They are a popular eating fish and are abundant. They are located in the Eastern and Northern United States and also as far south as North Mexico. The average size of adult channel cats is between 2 and 4 pounds and 22 inches. However, catching a 10 pounder is fairly common. Channel catfish prefer oxygenated waters of rivers and streams. Their favorite meals include crayﬁsh, clams and snails. Use a 7 to 8 foot rod, low profile bait cast reel and a 10 to 12 pound mono test line. Channel catfish fight tougher pound for pound than the blue and flathead catfish.
The “big” blue catfish is one of the largest catfish found in the United States and will typically weigh between 20 and 40 pounds and be 25 to 46 inches long. The Mississippi River basin is their natural habitat. Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, South Carolina, Virginia and Arkansas are the hot spots. Blue catfish thrive in deep clear moving water also hovering over gravel, sand and rock bottoms. They will eat any fish they catch and bite year round. However, they are best fished for from dusk until dawn when water temperatures exceed 70 degrees. Use a lime green monofilament 20 to 30 pound line because it’s better seen at night. A 7 or 8 foot one piece casting rod with live cut bait will is a good choice.
ALLIGATOR GAR, STURGEON AND AMERICAN SHAD
Alligator Gar is the largest fish in the gar family because they grow up to 10 feet long weighing up to 350 pounds. Alligator gar can breathe both in and out of water so oxygen levels in the water are a non factor. They are night predators so they feed mostly on other fish. They live in the lakes, rivers, bays and reservoirs of the Southern U.S.. Due to their size and muscle you are in for a fun battle when hooked. So, use a large spinning reel holding 200 yards of 40-80 pound mono line with a 7 or 8 foot rod. A 10 to 12 inch live bait like mullet is a solid choice.
Lake Sturgeon, Atlantic Sturgeon and Pallid Sturgeon are three of the most popular of 25+ sturgeon subspecies. Summers they migrate from sea to fresh waters so they can breed. As adults they will grow to be 5 to 15 feet long. They are found 20 feet down along edges and holes so use a 7 to 8 foot medium or heavy fiberglass rod, a 6500 to 7500 reel and 65 to 80 pound braided line. According to Encyclopedia Britannica sturgeons are overfished and the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) lists more than half of the remaining species as critically endangered. So, please adhere to local, state and federal laws.
American shad are exciting to fish for and are the largest of the herring family. Because this game fish often jumps and rolls they are compared to the tarpon. This Atlantic basin fish lives primarily in the ocean but spawns to rivers and estuaries in late spring early summer when the water temperatures reach 60 degrees. The female adult shad averages 24 inches long and the males are smaller averaging 20 inches. Shads like to mainly hang out in deeper water eating plankton and smaller fish. Fish for shad in low light conditions. Prepare for the waiting game because they are not heavy feeders during spawning season. However, these hard fighting fish are worth the wait. Use light spinning gear with darts and spoons. Fly fishing for shad is also becoming a popular trend..
“Fishing provides that connection with the whole living world. It gives you the opportunity of being totally immersed, turning back into yourself in a good way. A form of meditation, some form of communion with levels of yourself that are deeper than the ordinary self.” – Ted Hughes