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Freshwater Fishing Basics

Freshwater Fishing Basics
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How-to Freshwater Fish

Any angler can tell you there is nothing better in this world than casting your line out into the water with the sun on your back, breeze on your face, and the promise of a strike with a solid fight to follow. Whether you have been freshwater fishing for years, or you are a new angler still testing the waters, there are plenty of things to know and learn about the art of freshwater fishing. Here are some of the basics to help you learn how to freshwater fish.

Common Freshwater Fish Species

One of the first things to learn about freshwater fishing is the three different categories of freshwater fish species. These categories are based on the water temperature and the resulting amount of oxygen in the water. Different fish will prefer, or simply need, different temperatures and oxygen levels to thrive. Knowing this information becomes critical when it comes time to search out a specific fish species, as it will determine not only where, but also when you fish.

person holding brown trout

Coldwater Fish

As the name suggests, coldwater fish need to live in cold water temperatures, between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. This means you can find them mainly in the northern United States and areas of higher elevation with cooler wind temperatures.

Three common coldwater fish species are:

  1. Brook Trout
  2. Brown Trout
  3. Rainbow Trout

person holding a walleye fish

Coolwater Fish

Coolwater fish species live in temperatures that range between those of the coldwater and warmwater species, or between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of this, they are often found in the midwestern and northern United States.

Four common coolwater fish species are:

  1. Muskellunge
  2. Northern Pike
  3. Walleye
  4. Yellow Perch

catfish swimming underwater

Warmwater Fish

Warmwater fish can survive in a wide range of conditions, which generally means they can be found throughout most of the United States and will be easier to find and hook than some other freshwater species. With that said, these species are going to flourish in 80+ degrees Fahrenheit water temperatures, so when seeking them out be sure to keep that in mind.

Five common warmwater fish species are:

  1. Bluegill
  2. Catfish
  3. Crappies
  4. Largemouth Bass (Most popular freshwater game fish.)
  5. Sunfish

When to Go Freshwater Fishing

If you are targeting a specific freshwater fish species, you can use your knowledge of the three categories to help you decide when you should go freshwater fishing. Turnover, the time of year and the season are all going to affect how easy, or difficult, it is to catch the species you are after. So, to have a solid foundation as a freshwater angler and to up your chances of success, you need to understand how the following events will affect your freshwater fishing experience:

Seasonal Changes

Spring Turnover: When the surface water begins to heat up, it will sink and be replaced by deeper, cooler waters. This exchange will stop once the water temperature is uniform throughout the body of water. Seek out more shallow waters to increase your odds of getting a fish on your line.

Summer Stagnation: During summer, the water will undergo a process referred to as stratification, in which the surface of the water will heat up to create a layer over colder water. There’s an area between these two layers, the thermos cline, between two and ten feet deep. This is where you want to fish during stagnation.

Fall Turnover: When the surface of the water begins to cool it will steadily begin to mix with the cooler, deeper waters below, creating a uniform temperature that invites the fish to move about more freely. This typically makes it more difficult to find the fish and coax them onto your line.

fish swimming under water's surface

The Influence of Temperature Change

Remember that all fish species have a temperature range in which they can survive. Turnover, or the exchange of bottom and surface water in a body of water like a lake or pond, is going to influence the temperature of the water and where you can find the fish. Warmwater fish species are going to feed near the surface in warmer times of the year and near the bottom in cooler times. The opposite can be said of coldwater fish, which will feed deeper in the water in warmer times of the year and closer to the surface in cooler times. Combining this information with knowledge of when seasonal turnovers and stagnation occur will give you a more solid idea of when you should prepare your rods, reels and rigs to head out to the water.

Where to Go Freshwater Fishing

You picked out a target. You know when to go. Now, you just need to know where to go freshwater fishing. Where you end up casting your line relies heavily on the fish you are trying to catch, but from natural to man-made bodies of water there is certainly no shortage of options to choose from.

Natural Lakes: From small mountain lakes to the Great Lakes, natural lakes are the result of natural events such as plate tectonics or melted glaciers. Lake fishing can be done near the headwaters of a river or stream.

Man-Made Lakes: Man-made lakes are the product of damming or mining activity, which results in water levels that fluctuate more than those of a natural lake.

Reservoirs and Flowages: Reservoirs and flowages are created by the man-made addition of a dam to a river or creek bed. To fish in these waterways, seek out where there is a change in water depth or structure.

Ponds: Ponds can be located on public or private land since they are usually created for recreational or agricultural purposes. If you are fishing on a private pond, be sure you have permission from the property owner before casting in your line, and follow all state fishing regulations.

Rivers and Streams: Rivers and streams offer anglers one of the most convenient fishing experiences, since they can be fished while wading, canoeing, or kayaking. For the best chances at getting a strike, seek out where the fish will be protected from predators and the water’s current, such as sunken trees.

Types of Freshwater Fishing

Once you know where you plan to fish, it’s time to decide how. This can also be determined by the type of gear you have access to; for example, whether or you have a fly rod, a spear, or a boat.

man fishing
man fishing from dock
man fly fishing

Dock Fishing

Dock fishing is an excellent introduction to freshwater fishing for any new angler, including children, and does not require any special gear, such as a boat. While you should never expect to get a strike from a trophy fish while fishing off the docks, it is a great way to get a feel for the waters as you practice the art of fishing and hooking.

Spearing or Noodling

Spearing is a great method to catch larger river fish that tend to ignore baited hooks. Noodling is a very basic fishing method as it uses the angler’s fingers to wiggle and become the bait, tempting the fish to grab onto their hand. One of the most popular fish to catch by spearing or noodling is Catfish.

Boat Fishing

The most popular type of freshwater fishing is boat fishing, because it gives the angler access to a larger variety of fish species. The boat can be a large boat, small rowboat, or even a canoe or kayak depending on where you are fishing. A boat can be beneficial for trolling, when the situation allows, but typically just provides a way to get to different sections of the water before casting your line.

Freshwater Fly Fishing

If you are fishing in waters where it is safe to wade, then you may want to try fly fishing. Fly fishing uses a tied fly designed to imitate the look of a natural insect to trick the fish onto the line. It is a great way to target trout and other species, but requires more knowledge and technique than other fishing methods.

Ice Fishing

Popular in the north, ice fishing is typically done on lakes or ponds using an auger, a special hole-making tool, to create a hole in the ice and grant access to the water beneath it. This method is a great way to catch larger Northern Pike, or other species that can be caught in the summer such as Crappies and Bass.

Freshwater Fishing Bait

Before you head out to the water, you need to make sure you are equipped for success. That means choosing freshwater fishing bait to get the fish you want to strike, whether it’s a Bass, Crappie, Northern Pike or another species. For a new angler this can be one of the most difficult decisions, as there are as many different types of bait as there are fish; yet, if you ask yourself three questions, and speak to some local seasoned anglers, you will have a good idea of what you need:

  1. What fish are you going for? Knowing what your target species eats is going to make a huge difference when you are choosing bait.
  2. Do you want live or artificial bait? This is usually a decision an angler will make based on preference or past experience.
  3. How much bait do you need? Fish are fickle. One day you will find yourself struggling to get a nibble, but the next you will catch fish after fish using the same bait as the day before. If you are wondering how much bait you need, remember that having options will increase your odds at getting a strike in case one of them just isn’t doing the trick. As a general guide, speak with local anglers and pick out the top three baits they recommend for your target species.

Freshwater Fishing Gear

Once everything is all set and you are almost ready to head out, it’s time to pick up your gear. Some anglers will tell you that all you need is a rod, reel, hook and some bait, while others will give detailed explanations about how technology is going to completely change your fishing game. Neither angler is right or wrong. The freshwater fishing gear you pick out is going to be largely dependent on your own preferences. If you speak to other anglers for advice and suggestions, just remember that fishing is an art and as your technique changes for certain species, your gear will too, so what works for one angler will not necessarily work for you. As a general guide, the following are some items to consider as you are investing in your freshwater fishing gear and accessories:

  • Fishing Rod
  • Fishing Reel
  • Fishing Line
  • Fishing Hooks
  • Nets
  • Rigs
  • Bait, Lures, and Tackle
  • For Freshwater Boat Fishing: Fish Finders, Electronics, Electronics Box, Storage Bag

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