When freshwater fishing in North America, no angler can catch every species in every body of water. With this guide, anglers can predict which species of fish might be found in their area based on water temperature, and also begin the identification process for some of the most popular fish in North America based on common characteristics.
In this guide, fish species are placed into three different categories based on temperature – coldwater species, coolwater species, and warmwater species. Various water temperatures are associated with different amounts of oxygen, thus providing homes for different species of fish. Since cold water holds more oxygen than warmer water, it is appropriate to infer that coldwater fish species require more oxygen than any other water temperature. Read on to find out more information about each temperature range and popular freshwater fish in North America.
Fish that live in cold water conditions require chilly temperatures and increased oxygen levels to survive. The most popular species of coldwater fish in North America are all in the trout family – Pacific trout, brown trout, and char. These trout species grow best in colder temperatures and tend to be found throughout northern parts of North America where there are cold wind temperatures and higher elevation.
Rainbow trout and cutthroat trout are considered to be Pacific trout, the most common type of trout anglers tend to target most. Rainbow trout have bright color patterns that are, often, very distinctive from other species of fish. Their body is mostly olive to light green with a pink hue on their sides and dark spots covering most of the body. The cutthroat trout coloring varies with bright orange, yellow, or red on each side near the jaw, sometimes giving the impression of blood, thus being dubbed “cutthroat” trout. While both species of trout can be found all over the United States, they tend to live in the northern parts of North America. When fishing for rainbow or cutthroat trout, the best bait to use includes cured fish roe, flies, jigs, and insects.
The name “brown trout” can be deceptive because this highly popular, cold-water fish can be yellow, golden, silver, or even bronze with black spots all over. Brown trout are often confused with salmon species because of their extremely similar body shape and coloring. You can fish for brown trout all over North America, spanning from the Great Lakes all the way through Texas and beyond. To encourage a bite from brown trout, anglers often use flies, jigs, and insects.
There are three main species of “trout” – lake trout, brook trout, and Dolly Varden trout – that are actually considered members of the char family, a close cousin of salmon and trout. Lake trout are the easiest to identify because of their size. They can grow to be up to 80-pounds and are typically found in northern regions of North America. Brook trout, on the other hand, rarely grow to be more than 5-pounds and can easily be identified based their distinctive, maze-like pattern on their backs and head. Dolly Varden trout are typically confused with many other cold-water species because of their lack of distinctive features. They tend to be silvery in color with very few spots, with most living along the northwest coast of North America. When targeting these members of the char family, anglers can use cut bait, live bait, spoons, flies, plugs, and spinnerbaits for best results.
Fish that live in cool water conditions prefer temperatures above coldwater fish species, but not as warm as warmwater fish species. Yellow perch, walleye, sauger, and northern pike are the most common coolwater fish in North America. The geographic range for finding coolwater fish species is much more expansive than the other two groups, but coolwater fish are mainly found in northern and midwestern portions of North America.
Yellow perch often have a golden yellow body with six to eight bands that extend from the back toward the belly. Yellow perch also have a forked tail fin with two dorsal fins – one smooth and one spiney. Yellow perch are prevalent in southern Canadian and northern US lakes, ponds, and rivers. They can often be found near or in deep weededges and drop-off areas. Yellow perch are most easily caught on small lures or live bait along with flies, jigs, spinnerbaits, spoons, plugs, minnows, insects, and leeches.
Walleye are gold and olive in color with a white belly and white tips on tail. They also have five or more black bands on their backs. They also have large mouths with sharp teeth and exceptional low-light vision to help find prey at night. They are common in southern Canada and most states except California, Delaware, Florida, Maine, and Alaska. Fortunately, walleye are very adaptable and can live in a variety of areas, including rocky/deep clear lakes, rivers, reservoirs. Walleye prefer to use weeds and wood as cover, can suspend in open water, and can live in still water or water with current. They are most active around dusk and dawn and are attracted to jigs, spinnerbaits, spoons, minnows, leeches, and plugs.
Sauger tend to be gray, dark silver, or yellowish-brown with a tubular body shape, black blotches along their side, and a large mouth. Sauger look similar to the walleye but are usually smaller in size. Sauger can be found in the northwestern, midwestern, and southern part of North America. Muddy rivers and reservoirs with dingy water are the best places to find sauger.
When targeting sauger, night fishing or early morning fishing with jigs, spoons, plugs, spinnerbaits, minnows, and leeches is recommended.
Northern pike are bluish green with a white belly, very sharp teeth, and bright yellow eyes. Their slender, muscular body has light kidney-shaped spots in rows. You can find northern pike in southern Canada and northern part of the United States. Northern pike hang out in tributaries, drop offs, submerged trees, beaver dams, or any underwater structure. Northern pike often are attracted to flies, plugs, minnows, spoons, and spinnerbaits.
Warmwater fish species require higher water temperatures (for at least a portion of the year) than the other two categories in order to survive. While the warmwater fish species can survive in a wide range of temperatures, they thrive in the 70-85 °F temperature range. Some of the most popular warmwater fish species are channel catfish, largemouth bass, black crappie, and bluegill. Warmwater species can be found all throughout North America.
Channel catfish are olive brown to gray in color with white or silvery underbelly and forked tail. Not known to be the most attractive fish in the water, channel catfish have a protruding upper jaw with barbels on its face. Channel catfish can be found from southern Canada into northern Mexico in reservoir and river environments or large streams with low current. Channel catfish are attracted to baits with a strong scent profile such as chicken, chum, fish parts, or cheese, but will also go after cut bait, minnows, bread, and jigs.
Largemouth bass live up to their name with a mouth that extends to, and often beyond, the back edge of the eye. Largemouth bass are brighter green in color than other bass and have a blotchy, black line on either side of their body from head to tail. They can be found in all states/areas in North America, besides Alaska. Largemouth bass often hang out in clear, vegetated lakes, swamps, and ponds along with pools, creeks, and rivers. Many anglers use artificial lures like soft plastic baits on a hook, crankbaits, spinnerbaits or live bait like minnows, frogs, crawfish, nightcrawlers, or earthworms to catch largemouth bass.
Black crappie are usually dark olive or black with irregular, dark blotches all over their bodies. They are native to the eastern region of the United States but can mostly be found anywhere in North America. Black crappie are typically found at the edges of underwater weeds or wood and prefer clear, still water. When targeting black crappie, anglers find most success when using small minnows and insects and smaller, lighter lures. One important tip when fishing for crappie: Use care when setting the hook to avoid ripping through the crappie’s mouth.
Bluegill can be slightly challenging to identify because of the large color variation from fish to fish. They can be shades of blue, purple, yellow, and even clear or colorless. One common feature of bluegill is their deep, rounded body with vertical, dark colored bars and small mouth. Bluegill can be found from southern Canada into northern Mexico in rivers, streams, ponds, and reservoirs with little to no current. They also like to hide out near weeds or shoreline structures. When targeting bluegill, anglers tend to use flies, insects, jigs, and minnows