For many anglers in North America, freshwater fish are the primary target during a day out on the water. Whether you're dead drifting a fly on a cold mountain stream or bobbing a hook and a worm at the town lake, freshwater fishing is fun, exciting, and accessible. Though some trophy species only live in saltwater, some of the most popular species for anglers are freshwater fish.

In this article, we'll give a general overview of freshwater fishing. We'll be looking at some of the most common species found while freshwater fishing and some tactics used to catch freshwater fish. This will include an overview of some gear options, bait options, and other tactics that can help you become a successful freshwater angler.

What Is Freshwater Fishing?

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Freshwater vs Saltwater Fishing 

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Freshwater fishing is fishing that occurs in lakes, rivers, ponds, and other water sources that do not have saltwater. This may seem like an obvious distinction, but salt in the water makes a huge impact on what types of fish you may catch and how you fish for them. When fishing on the ocean or its saltwater tributaries, anglers must consider a whole different set of practicalities including tides, boat safety, and offshore fishing regulations.

Freshwater fishing usually offers greater access to water as you're not limited to beaches, piers, and offshore boats. Fishing from the bank of a river, stream, lake, or pond is common while freshwater fishing. Many anglers, especially trout fishermen, choose to wade out into streams as well. Though saltwater anglers can often fish at greater depths, freshwater anglers have the freedom to explore the nuances of a water source at their own pace.

Cold Water And Warm Water Fish

Freshwater fish are often broken down into two groups—warm water and cold water. Freshwater fish that prefer cold water are typically related to salmon and are, therefore, referred to as salmonids. These are often found in rivers, streams, and deep lakes that are spring fed or cold with mountain runoff. Warm water fish like bass and panfish tend to hang on the edges of lakes and ponds where sunlight keeps temperatures up.

Cold Freshwater Fish

  • Rainbow trout
  • Brook trout
  • Brown trout
  • Lake trout
  • Steelhead salmon*
  • Coho (silver) salmon*
  • Chinook salmon*

*These salmon species are anadromous, meaning that they begin their life in freshwater, migrate to saltwater in maturity, and then return to freshwater to spawn.

Warm Freshwater Fish

  • Muskellung
  • Chain pickerel 
  • Northern pike
  • Walleye
  • Crappie
  • Bluegill
  • Largemouth bass
  • Smallmouth bass

While freshwater fish of all types move between different water temperatures, cold-water fish prefer to stay below 59 degrees Fahrenheit. Warm water fish, on the other hand, will commonly live in water of temperatures up to the 70s. Water temperature will greatly affect your choice of fishing locations as mountain lakes and streams tend to stay colder while marshes, ponds, and river flows will tend to provide better habitats for warm freshwater fish.

What Do I Need To Catch Freshwater Fish?

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Freshwater fishing gear starts with a few fundamentals. Like all fishing, you will need some form of a rod, reel, line, and bait. There are many varieties of each, however, depending on what types of freshwater fish you plan to target.

To Fly Or Not To Fly

The first major distinction between types of freshwater fishing gear is fly fishing or non-fly fishing. In the simplest terms, fly fishing gear uses lures made to emulate bugs that appear to act naturally in their native habitat. This attracts fish who believe these fly lures are real bugs. Fly rods tend to be longer and more flexible than non-fly rods and the reel of a fly rod is essentially a simple spool for stripping out line and reeling it back in.

While fly fishing, the weight of the line does most of the work, providing momentum to the fly that pushes it through the air towards the desired fishing spot. This technique can take years to master and fly fishing is often associated with a deep knowledge of bugs and their life cycle. Traditional fly fishers often target trout in pristine mountain streams, but any type of fish can be targeted with fly fishing equipment.

Spinning And Baitcasting Gear

Those seeking simpler and more versatile gear often opt for spincasting or baitcasting setups. A spincasting rig includes a shorter and stiffer rod with a reel that sits directly below the rod handle. A locking ring, called a bale, guides the fishing line onto a spool when reeling. The bale is opened manually allowing line to strip out with ease while casting with a spincasting rig. This is a great option for medium-weight lures like a hook with live bait or small spoons.

A baitcasting rig is similar to a spincasting rig, but works better for heavier lures and bigger hooks with heavy bait. Baitcasting rods are usually a step heavier than spincasting rods and the reel often sits on top of the grip. Baitcasting reels also lock, preventing the line from unintentionally stripping out when a fish pulls on the line. This locking mechanism is often unlocked with the thumb during the casting process.

Lures And Bait

When fishing with spinning and baitcasting rigs you will have many choices of bait and lures. The main two options will be either live bait or lures. Both have pros and cons and there are tons of choices amongst them. Generally speaking, live bait is added to a bare hook that is pre-attached to your fishing line. Lures are tied or clipped on to a fishing line and attract fish using a combination for color, shape, and reflectiveness.

Common Live Bait For Freshwater Fish

  • Worms
  • Minnows 
  • Leeches
  • Grasshoppers
  • Crickets
  • Crayfish
  • Freshwater clams and mussels
  • Cut sections of larger baitfish
  • Eels
  • Cured fish roe (fish eggs)

Common Freshwater Fishing Lures

  • Jigs
  • Poppers
  • Spoons
  • Plugs
  • Spinners
  • Plastic minnows and worms
  • Crank lures
  • Tube lures
  • Vibrating lures
  • Blade lures
  • Surface lures

How To Catch Fish In Freshwater

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Learning to catch freshwater fish consistently is a craft that can take a lifetime, but there are a few key concepts that will help any angler improve their chances immediately. When seeking freshwater fish, the main considerations are water temperature, food sources/habitat, and time of day. Each type of freshwater fish has its own preferences and needs within these three elements.

Water Temperature

Finding the right water temperature can be critical to success when angling for freshwater fish. Unlike humans who breathe oxygen as a gas, fish absorb oxygen into their bodies through water. The amount of oxygen in the water is directly impacted by temperature with warmer water holding less oxygen and cooler water holding more oxygen. Cold water fish tend to prefer highly oxygenated water ranging between 42 degrees and 59 degrees, while warm water fish are more comfortable in less oxygenated waters and higher temperatures.

Many anglers carry digital or analog water thermometers with them and routinely test the water to ensure they are fishing at the right temperature. Do some research about the preferred water temperatures for the species of freshwater fish you are targeting and then keep moving until you find water that is in the appropriate range.

Habitat And Food Sources

Different types of freshwater fish prefer different habitats. Cold water fish like trout and salmon tend to stay in rivers and deep lakes where they can quickly access cold and oxygen-rich water. These fish often face into the current and watch for bugs, larvae, and minnows that can be easily snatched up and consumed.

Warm water fish like bass and crappies will often seek shallower waters with lots of weeds and submerged trees for cover. These conditions also make excellent hunting grounds for bugs and smaller fish that coast through the area unaware of a larger predator lying in wait. Hooking into a quality freshwater fish can often be as simple as finding their home waters and presenting bait that looks like an unsuspecting victim.

Time Of Day

Freshwater fish will often be the most active in the early morning and early evening. Not only does the rising and falling sun affect water temperatures, but it also gives freshwater fish better cover from predators like birds, otters, and bears. Windy days can also be effective times as fish feel better hidden from predators in choppy water conditions.

Conclusion

Freshwater fishing is a fun and exciting sport that can appeal to seasoned anglers and absolute beginners. Whether you're headed out for a day on a bass boat, or strapping on your waders for a day in a mountain stream, freshwater fishing provides a one-of-a-kind opportunity to reconnect with nature. For larger fish like lake trout, muskellunge, or pike, we recommend going with something heavier weight like a baitcasting setup or spincasting rig. For smaller fish like brook trout or crappie try a spincasting setup or even try your hand with a fly rod. Spend some time researching the preferred habitat, food sources, and water temperature for various freshwater fish and you'll have an excellent chance for success.

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