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Freshwater Fish of North America

Updated on August 9, 2011

North American Freshwater Fish

North America is home to hundreds of species of freshwater fish. Freshwater habitats of the continent range from frigid arctic streams to the Mexican desert, most of which support fish and other aquatic life.

bluegill sunfish
bluegill sunfish

Bass, Crappie and Sunfish

By far the most popular family of freshwater fish native to North America are the bass, crappie and sunfish.

This group of fish includes the black bass (largemouth, smallmouth, spotted, and others), sunfish, crappie and several specialized species such as rock bass, warmouth, flier and others.

Sunfish, crappie and other panfish are often caught using jigs or other small lures. Minnows, crickets, worms and other live baits are also effective. Live baits are usually fished under bobbers (floats).

Many of the best lures for crappie are also effective on the other members of the sunfish family.

a chain pickerel
a chain pickerel

Pike, Pickerel and Musky

Another popular group of freshwater fish includes the muskellunge (musky), northern pike, chain pickerel, and the twin sub-species of grass and redfin pickerel.

These species are characterized by their long, slender bodies, reptile-shaped mouths and sharp teeth. All are ambush predators, eating practically anything they can swallow.

a hickory shad caught using a shad dart
a hickory shad caught using a shad dart

Shad and Herring

Several members of the shad and herring family are icons of North American freshwater fishing.

Most species of shad and herring are anadromous; adults live in saltwater environments, migrating into coastal rivers and streams in spring to spawn. After spawning, they migrate back downstream until the following season.

The most well known member of this famous family of fish is the American shad. Once one of the most abundant of all North American fish, the species has declined greatly throughout much of its range.

A smaller species, the hickory shad, is smaller but similar. Hickories are also highly prized for their fighting ability. Both American and hickory shad are protected in most fisheries, with catch and release fishing allowed but not harvests.

River herring (blueback herring and alewives) are smaller, but are found together with shad during spring spawning runs.

Shad and herring are usually caught using traditional jigs called "shad darts" or with other small, flashy jigs, spoons or flies.

Favorite Fish

What is your favorite species of North American freshwater fish?

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Salmon, Trout and Char

Salmon, trout and char are among the most popular freshwater fish in North America. Many of these fish are anadromous; they are born in freshwater streams, eventually migrating to sea until returning to freshwater to spawn.

Most species of Pacific salmon are native to the Pacific Rim from Alaska to California. Freshwater salmon exist in the Great Lakes and a few other northern lakes, including non-native Chinook, coho and pinks. Landlocked Atlantic salmon also exist in the Great Lakes and other northeast lakes, supported by stocking programs.

Across North America, trout are found in cool water streams and lakes. Some species such as rainbow, brook and cutthroat are native to the continent, while others, such as brown trout were introduced from Europe.


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