How do you come up with a list of the best freshwater fish? It’s not an easy task, largely because you can take so many different approaches and base your choices on such a wide range of criteria. What it really boils down to is asking what makes a fish the “best?” Is it how hard it fights? How good it tastes? I also could have easily created this list based solely on my opinion. Doing so, however, wouldn’t have been fair, because I’m a champion of the underdogs and enjoy getting after fish that most anglers overlook. My personal list would have included bowfins, snakeheads, chain pickerel, alligator gar, and peacock bass, thereby knocking out species that are far more popular among the masses.
How We Made Our List of the Best Freshwater Fish
Peacock bass, for one, aren’t listed because despite my belief that they out-fight every other fish that made the cut, they’re only available in South Florida. More important than anything else, I factored accessibility into my choices, even if—as you’ll learn—some of these fish aren’t my favorites to catch. “Best,” to me, means available and attainable to anglers with all different skill levels, budgets, and degrees of dedication. None of my picks require highly specialized gear or the funds to take a trip to a niche area where they exist, nor do they require you to put in gobs of time in hopes of connecting (I’m looking at you, muskie addicts). So, while some of you will surely disagree with these picks for the best freshwater fish, or say I’m crazy for not including a fish or two, I’ll stand by my winners, mostly because no matter where you live, you can stand by them, too.
Table of Contents
- Largemouth Bass
- Northern Pike
- Brown Trout
- Smallmouth Bass
- Channel Catfish
- Yellow Perch
I don’t get overly excited about catching largemouth bass. Sometimes on a hot summer afternoon after cutting the grass, I’ll be in the mood to throw a few bass flies in my pocket and hit a local pond with the fly rod, or run a frog lure through the lily pads, but that’s about the extent of my effort. Barring a few occasions, all my biggest largemouth were caught while I was targeting something else. But despite my own opinions, they must make my list for accessibility alone.
A huge reason why largemouth bass are considered “America’s favorite gamefish” is because so many Americans have them right in their back yards. Furthermore, for many people in this country, largemouth are the only gamefish they’ve got close to home that can reach hefty weights. Though there are countless bodies of water across the country with reputations for kicking out 10-plus-pound bass on the regular, there is always the potential to stick a 5-, 6-, or even that random 10-pounder in the park lake right down the street.
What makes largemouth even more popular is the ease or difficulty in which they can be caught. The choice is really up to you. Some anglers have garages full of specialized rods, mountains of lures, boats that cost more than $100,000 and electronics that cost practically as much to pursue largemouth bass. At the same time, if you hang a live shiner under a bobber, cast it out, and then plop yourself down in a lawn chair on the bank, you arguably have as much chance of sticking a trophy as the guy leaning into the latest finesse tactics and lures imported from Japan. That’s not to say bass can never be fickle or challenging, but a garden worm you dug can score as quickly as custom, hand-poured plastic worm you bought for top dollar online. (Want to catch a lunker? Check out our list of the best bass lures.)
If you’re lucky enough to live close to a northern pike fishery, you probably either love them or can’t stand them. It all depends how much you enjoy bass fishing. A pike’s teeth will snip costly bass lures off your line in a split second, making them the scourge of many anglers. But for those like me that love to target them specifically, they’re an absolute blast.
Their cousins—the chain pickerel and muskie—have their perks, but northern pike are the perfect combination of the two. Muskies might grow bigger, but they are notoriously picky when it comes to making a move on a bait or lure. Pickerel are ravenous, but a 20-incher would be considered big in most areas. Pike, meanwhile, routinely grow to more than 40 inches long, and while the bigger ones can be temperamental, by and large, pike are simply more willing to attack baits and lures under any given conditions than those pernickety muskies. Just make sure you use steel leader so you don’t get cut off.
I mean no disrespect to rainbows, brookies, and cutthroats, but in my eyes, brown trout—wild ones in particular—are the best trout. Not only do they reach trophy size more routinely than other species, but they’re also meaner than the rest. All trout are predators, of course, but big browns level it up. Sure, you can catch heavy specimens on worms, tiny nymphs, and dry flies, but you can also throw streamers and lures bigger than you think would appeal to the average trout, and browns will come out swinging. (See our list of the best trout flies of all time.)
Wild browns are also more accessible to anglers across the country than some of the other species, notably cutthroats which are confined to the Rocky Mountains and West Coast. Big wild browns, on the other hand, can be found from New York to Michigan, throughout the Midwest, south in the Ozark Mountains, as well as in the Rockies.
Smallmouth bass vs largemouth bass: In the minds of many anglers, largemouths and smallmouths sort of go hand in hand. In reality, that’s not the case. Though smallmouths are pretty widespread across the country, they’re not quite as accessible to everyone. Those that do have them close to home, however, will often tell you that smallmouths are the better of the two bass. I, for one, agree with that sentiment, which is why I’m listing them as one of the best freshwater fish.
Smallmouth bass are just as comfortable in lakes as they are moving water, and while you can find little creeks and smaller ponds full of them, the trophy fish are often found in bigger bodies of still water and large, rocky rivers. They also tend to be more aggressive than largemouth bass, and pound for pound they fight a heck of a lot harder. Like largemouths, they can also be fooled on a wide variety of offerings, from a live nightcrawler soaking on the bottom to soft plastics and spinners. In my opinion, however, nothing beats a topwater strike from a heavy “bronzeback.” I don’t care if I’m throwing a popper fly or walking a Spook—the surface takes are simply exhilarating.
Bluegills, pumpkin seeds, longears, and all the other types of sunfish don’t get enough credit as gamefish. For most of us, they’re a starter fish, or a gateway drug, if you will. When we think of them, worms and bobbers come to mind instantly. Granted, there’s not a sunfish in the country that won’t eat a worm, but if you elevate the approach to catching these fish, they present new challenges and quickly level up from “child’s play.” (Before you target sunnies on the fly, check out our list of the best flies for catching panfish.)
To give you an example, anyone can catch “sunnies” with a worm or cricket, but the method is indiscriminate. In other words, you have little control over the size and quality of the sunfish that eats the bait. By leaning into lures like in-line spinners and small poppers, however, you reduce the odds of little fish taking the shot. You may catch fewer sunnies, but you’ll increase your chance of scoring palm-sized specimens. One of my favorite ways to target them is with popper flies, as little fish will peck at them and often miss, but big bluegills and pumpkin seeds will inhale them. So, most of the time, if I connect, it’s with a high-quality sunny.
When you’re talking about the different types of catfish, blue catfish and flathead catfish grow much bigger than your average channel catfish, but channel cats are available to far more anglers. They’re also a bit overlooked in the hierarchy of gamefish, mostly, I believe, because they’re so common across the country and relatively easy to catch that there’s an overall lack of angler excitement for them. Personally, I can’t get enough of them.
Like many fish, the beauty of channel cat fishing is that you can make chasing them as serious or chilled-out an endeavor as you please. If you’ve got a tub of chicken livers or some cut up hot dogs, you’re set up for success on any bank. They’re great fish for kids, as they tussle much harder than bluegills, but not so fiercely that a little tyke can’t crank one in. On the flip side, if you put more effort into the hunt, get strategic about you location, fish in off times like early spring and early winter, and lean into fresh local bait like shad, channels weighing north of 20 pounds are very attainable.
I am not ashamed to admit that I’m not a fan of walleyes. In my opinion, the only reason to target them is because you crave them for dinner. If that’s your modus operandi, cool, but I judge my fish by the entire package. I’ve caught a lot of walleyes in a lot of places over the years, often having to put in a lot of effort to score the bites, but if you ask me, it’s too much work for a fish that barely fights. Still, while I may not go out of my way to catch them, I certainly understand their appeal to other anglers as one of the best freshwater fish and their cultural significance throughout the country. (To help you catch a limit of walleyes, here’s our list of the best walleye lures.)
In the Midwest and along the entire Great Lake’s shoreline, walleye drive the recreational fishing economy more than any other species. Thousands and thousands of anglers chase them, and while it’s arguably easier to find success in a boat, a perk of walleyes is that they can be caught by shore-bound anglers as well. During their spring spawning runs, walleyes work their way into river systems where fishermen line the banks and a simple curly-tail grub and jighead can secure plenty of good eats.
Crappie are interesting fish in terms of popularity. Though they exist in most of the country, the zeal for them fluctuates by region. In the southern states, crappie are big business and a big deal, drawing fanatics to lakes, rivers, and reservoirs to employ specialized tactics like dock shooting and spider rigging. Head to the Northeast, conversely, and catching crappie becomes more a seasonal pastime or an addendum to a day focused more on bass or trout. Regardless of how serious you want to be about the pursuit, however, they’re loads of fun and delicious on the table, earning them a spot in our list of the best freshwater fish. (Check out our picks for the best crappie lures.)
All you really need for success is a slip float and a tiny jig. Crappies tend to be more aggressive than other panfish, and they also have larger mouths than species like bluegills and yellow perch, which means you can also catch them on small spoons, spinners, and diving crankbaits. The tricky part about crappies is that unlike bluegills, they change location more frequently throughout the season. In summer they gravitate to deep water, whereas in the spring and fall you can find them closer to the bank. If there’s a fallen tree or stump field within casting range of the bank at your local lake, it’s the perfect place to start, as wood draws crappie schools in like a magnet.
Yellow perch are often thought of as a cold-water fish associated with the Upper Midwest even Canada. That’s not inaccurate, as those regions do grow some of the biggest perch and the deeper, colder water helps them reach trophy sizes. However, yellow perch are some of the most adaptable fish in North America, far more tolerant of warmer and shallower water than their cousins, the walleye. Point being, there’s a strong chance these fish exist closer to home than you might think, it’s just that it often takes a bit more effort to locate and catch them than species like bass and bluegills.
Yellow perch can be found as far south as Texas and Alabama, and one reason why many people don’t know they’re in their home waters is because smaller perch have tiny mouths, incapable of getting pinned on a hook small enough for even little crappies and bluegills to swallow. They are notorious bait stealers, capable of pecking a piece of worm off your hook in a flash.
The easiest way to score on this best freshwater fish species is to downsize you hook significantly, use only a tiny bit of worm, and scale your line down to just 2- or 4-pound test. This method, of course, will catch plenty of perch, but perhaps not ones big enough for the frying pan. The other approach is leaning into small live minnows or small in-line spinners and crankbaits, as they’ll tempt heftier specimens actually worth filleting. You might need to get a bunch for a good feed, but the effort is worth it, and, in my opinion, yellow perch is the sweetest, most delicious freshwater fish that swims.