By David Graham: 2-2-2024
The following is a list (in no particular order) of TEN American freshwater fish that every American angler should experience at some point in their life. It was hard to condense it down, a lot of amazing species left out (this time)! I chose these fish based on their size, history, character, ambiance of the pursuit, and overall sporting qualities.
1. Alligator Gar
The alligator gar is simply king. Among the most impressive creatures that swim in freshwater on planet earth, there are no other fish like it. A prehistoric behemoth with the propensity to reach over 8 feet long and 300 pounds it is a true monster fish. This uniquely American brute has overcome a long history of persecution, myth, and misguided perception among the American angler... but in recent times the alligator gar has seen a renaissance of sorts.
With a physical appearance and stature that will engage the conscience and imagination like no other fish, holding an alligator gar in ones arms and peering into its ancient eyes is an indescribable experience.... One that can only be appreciated in a deep and profound way.
Unlike some of the other species mentioned in this list, this isn't a fish with beautiful coloration living among pristine mountain streams and aesthetically pleasing landscapes. In many cases the alligator gar is found deep in the bayou and swamp, or in the winding and twisting muddied waters of rivers cutting across rural American cattle ranches and farms. A 'gentle giant'... a supercharged mass of muscle that is generally passive in temperament but capable of remarkable bursts of speed, aerial jumps and head shakes... one of the most incredible experiences an angler can find in America to be sure.
2. White Sturgeon
While some fish may push an angler mentally and emotionally, others will downright push you with sheer power and physicality. The white sturgeon is our grand champion - the heavyweight king of North America... and in the conversation and debate for the largest freshwater fish on planet earth. White sturgeon are, by nature, an anadromous species. Still... they're born in freshwater - and have adapted in many cases to life exclusively in freshwater.
It's a no brainer that if we compile our list of 'must-do' fish... there be a call to experiencing the BIGGEST. An angler finding themselves at the end of the rod versus a 10 foot long white sturgeon may soon be finding themselves tapping on the gunnels in submission. This is a fish capable of tremendous power. To watch a released sturgeon slowly push away under the power of its enormous tail is akin to standing at the mountain top and planting ones flag. It is the summit of freshwater monster fish.
There are few fish in the country or world that will push an angler to their limit quite like a muskie. A fish so infamous for its difficulty to find, its been labeled the "fish of 10,000 casts". The ultimate solitary predator, and one of our largest. While smaller specimens may not be as difficult to encounter, many anglers have driven themselves crazy in the countless days, months, and years chasing the fabled specimen over 50 inches. Its widely known as a paradigm shifting experience that will leave anglers changed, a course altering species that will alter ones entire perception of what fishing is all about.
The muskie is an iconic measuring point for a fisherman's resolve. All American anglers should, at some point, roll up their sleeves - clear their brow - and push hard to check this one off the list!
4. Brook Trout
Wild brook trout are truly symbolic of American persistence and adaptability. Nestled deep in pristine North American wilderness, our native brookies are the only truly native trout still living in the cold, clear streams of the eastern United States. The experience in the pursuit is a step back into the pristine wilderness that characterized North America before its colonization. A truly wild fish that strictly inhabits narrow mountain streams and creeks where they have maintained and flourished without introduction (unlike other species) for hundreds of thousands of years.
The hunt of brook trout will take American anglers to elevation through hills and mountains into the clean, clear and cold water streams and rivers they thrive in. Its an experience that transcends the mere encounter of the fish - but allows anglers to immerse themselves in pure American wilderness.
Maybe the most underappreciated or under recognized native freshwater fish in the country. The buffalo can be broken down into three distinguishable subspecies (bigmouth, smallmouth, and black). Still, for a group of fishes that lives longer than any other freshwater fish in the country (or world for that matter), and has the propensity to reach over 70 pounds... we should be asking ourselves why more anglers aren't chasing them!
Our native buffalo have all the sporting features of a carp, without the guilt that comes along with a carp's status as 'non-native'. Many an angler will dabble with basic dough recipes or flies for smaller buffalo... but tapping into the truly monster sized specimens is an extreme dedication and total change of scenery that will force anglers way out of their comfort zone.
A non native? Yes that's right, but they're here! Ignoring the fact won't change that bullseye snakeheads and northern snakeheads are here to stay - and are now a viable target for anglers by rod and reel in the US. The reason American anglers should be adding snakeheads to the 'to do' list is simple... don't knock it til' you try it. Every mouth in the game represents a new puzzle to solve. These relative newcomers are perception changers. We're told what we need to think of them, and accept that as law. But every American angler should consider taking a stab at these formidable predators to see the truth about them first hand.
7. Peacock Bass
Again a non-native!? Peacock bass have been intentionally stocked in areas of Southern Florida for decades. Today there are established populations of Peacock Bass in South Florida lakes, ponds, and canals. Their populations are contained by South Florida's subtropical climate - creating isolated and contained quarries of these awesome sportfish.
Florida's peacock bass present the opportunity for budget anglers to make a 'cheap' alternative route for a species that would otherwise be sending them into the depths of Amazonian jungle. It is among the most sought after exotic sport species on the planet in freshwater.
8. Flathead Catfish
There is a deep culture behind North America's catfishes. The flathead catfish is, in my opinion, the king of North America's catfish species. Although it may not grow quite as large as our blue catfish - the predatory nature of the flathead and its proclivity for reclusive dark cavernous dwellings adds a 'lone wolf' element to the species. Its tendency to attack live prey means it can be more readily enjoyed by proactive anglers who prefer throwing lures - but its habit of staying in and around heavy cover means that approach will be layered with added difficulty.
The flathead catfish can grow in excess of 100lb, although this is becoming increasingly rare. Overharvest, encroachment, and constantly changing habitat are resulting in fewer and fewer 'giants'. American anglers should appreciate the opportunity that this species presents as one of our largest predators.
It should be no surprise the ultimate underdog species (often referred to as dogfish) would make this list! After all, we should highlight the diamonds in the rough that many American anglers will go their entire existence without ever trying their hand at - or even know exist.
The bowfin is a long tenured staple of American made fish, and we should appreciate that. But beyond the sentiment of its mere existence are the indisputable sporting characteristics this species possesses that should excite any curious angler. The bowfin is the ultimate brawler. Above all of its mixed opinions and superstitions is this one consensus, they come for war. An outstanding target for lure and bait fisherman keen on a first rate battle. The unique bowfin presents challenges in its pursuit that take anglers deep into the weeds literally and figuratively.
Like the aforementioned white sturgeon, the steelhead is technically an anadromous species that will spend part of its lifecycle in the ocean... but they are born far up fast flowing, gravel bottom rivers and streams rich in oxygen. This is a species that is overwhelmingly found and targeted in freshwater environments by anglers - while some even stay landlocked or in freshwater their entire lives either naturally or 'artificially' - reclassified as 'rainbow trout'. There are some morphological and behavioral differences... but genetically the same.
Its a species and a topic grounds for debate - a trout that behaves like a salmon... and fiery conversations around whether or not certain strains of steelhead are 'true' as specimens are found progressively further East, away from their natural range.
All debate aside, the steelhead is an exceptionally challenging target by rod and reel. Pure steelhead migrating up rivers are focused on little more than spawning. A supercharged piece of muscle with thousands of miles in 'reps' behind their shoulders.