Plenty of Fish in the River: The Best Eating Freshwater Fish

American seafood menus often focus on saltwater fish and shellfish found in the Atlantic and Pacific. But even if you don’t live near the beach, there are plenty of delicious fish waiting for you in the lakes, rivers, and streams of your own backyard. 

Check out the following 10 best options, plus a few honorable mentions, and enjoy the delicious taste and numerous health benefits of freshwater fish.

Top 10 Best Freshwater Fish for Eating 

While they vary in size, flavor, and difficulty catching, these ten freshwater fish are a great experience both for your tackle box and your table. 

1. Bluegill

If you’re a novice fisher and want to catch a tasty meal for yourself, the bluegill is a great choice to start with. Native to North America, the bluegill is a small fish (normally under 12 inches long) that’s easy to catch. You can find it in most bodies of water throughout the United States, but it’s particularly plentiful along riverbanks. 

Note that even though it’s an easy fish to catch, the bluegill can be tough to clean out fully, so be prepared to put in a little elbow grease if you want to eat one. However, we think it’s worth it for the firm, flaky meat it provides. Like most freshwater fish, bluegill tastes fantastic pan-fried, and its small size suits it well to this cooking method.

2. Catfish 

Catfish is a freshwater fish commonly found in the United States. It has a distinctive flavor and is considered a delicacy in some parts of the country, particularly the southern states. You can catch catfish or get them from a commercial fish farm. 

Unlike other fish on this list, catfish meat isn’t all white—it has some yellow tint. Although many don’t think it tastes as traditionally “fishy” as other specimens, it still has a strong flavor. Catfish are also notable for having leathery skin in place of scales, which can be difficult to remove. Try using a special pair of catfish pliers to get the skin off your catfish effectively. 

There are lots of different delicious ways to cook a catfish, but perhaps the most popular is battering and deep frying. Serve alongside some hushpuppies for an authentic Southern meal!

3. Trout

There are few foods more evocative of the American camping experience than a freshly caught trout cooked over the fire. Closely related to salmon, trout are an anadromous species, meaning they can live in both freshwater and saltwater. Each variety of trout has a slightly different habitat—for instance, rainbow trout are mainly found in coastal waters, while brown trout are common in most North American rivers. 

Trout has a delicious sweet flavor and a flaky tenderness similar to their cousin, the salmon. You can cook trout in various ways, including pan-frying, roasting, or grilling, but anglers agree that the fresher the trout, the better—so be ready to cook it fast! Trout is also an extremely healthy fish to eat, containing many healthy fats and omega-3 fatty acids. 

4. Walleye

If you’re a northerner looking for an exciting and delicious catch, try your hand at angling for walleye. As the largest specimen of the perch family of fish, walleye is native to the northern United States and Canada and is commonly found in the Great Lakes. Walleye fishing is a popular sport in these areas. These fish are sensitive to light and tend to populate dark, muddy waters. 

Walleye are relatively large freshwater fish, but they’re not difficult to clean, and they make excellent fillets. They’re an extremely versatile fish as far as cooking styles go—once you fillet a walleye, you can bake, broil, fry, or grill to your heart’s content, or get creative and put them in tacos or soups. Walleye has a mild, vaguely sweet flavor that is frequently compared to that of chicken. 

Be aware that walleye meat can spoil quickly, so be sure to get it on the ice as soon as possible if you intend to cook and eat it. 

5. Bass

Although sea bass is a classic dish in many seafood restaurants, many freshwater bass species are equally delicious. Largemouth and smallmouth bass are both native to the freshwater bodies of North America. They’re notoriously difficult to catch, making them a thrill for any angler to chase. In fact, many anglers will release the large bass they catch since these are usually breeding females of the species. 

If you do decide to eat the bass you just caught, you’ll enjoy a sweet, flaky white meat similar to their cousin, the bluegill. Most basses are pretty large, so it’s common to fillet them before cooking. For the best tasting bass, try to catch one in cold, clear, and clean waters. 

6. Crappie

Depending on what area of the United States you live in, you might know the crappie as a papermouth, strawberry bass, speckled bass, speck, calico bass, or, if you live in New Orleans, sacalait. No matter what you call it, it’s an absolutely delicious and flaky freshwater fish. 

There are two types of crappie: white crappie, which lives in large lakes and reservoirs and can be found in murky waters; and black crappie, which tend to prefer smaller, clearer waters. Both species are active throughout the winter months, making them a popular ice fishing catch in the Northern states. 

Similar to the catfish, the crappie is a popular delicacy in the Southern United States and is commonly fried. However, their small, flat size also makes them perfect for tossing in a frying pan. Crappies have an extremely delicate, flaky texture that some people compare to crab meat. Like trout, they contain omega-3 fatty acids that are essential for a healthy diet. 

7. Yellow Perch

When a freshwater angler uses the term “small but mighty,” there’s a good chance they’re referring to the yellow perch. Although specimens normally measure around just 7.5 inches long, the yellow perch puts up a dramatic fight that makes them a prized challenge for anglers. 

Yellow perch are common to the United States and Canada and are a particular delicacy among fish-eaters in the Great Lakes. They can be found in many lakes, streams, and rivers in these areas. 

Like crappie, yellow perch has a small size and flaky texture that suits it well for pan-frying; however, its texture is slightly firmer than that of crappie. If you’re feeling fancy, you can try out Perch á la Meuniér, a traditional French dish where perch is filleted, coated in flour, and served with browned butter. Bon appetit! 

8. Northern Pike

Some people dismiss pike as not being a good fish to eat, but it is quite delicious if prepared correctly! 

Northern pikes are easy to find and catch in North America—you can find them in pretty much any body of water that houses fish, including shallow areas as well as rough waters. An adult pike’s diet consists of smaller fish, but they are very aggressive, so any type of bait will likely do the trick.

Pike has a delectable white, flaky meat that is vastly underrated. The only drawback is that it contains an extremely high number of bones, so fully cleaning out a pike can be a considerable task. 

9. Gar

If you’re looking for a fishing challenge, try going after a gar. Native to North America, gar is a fiercely predatory fish that prefers to congregate in shallow, weedy waters. They’re famous for their sharp, needle-like teeth and their habit of striking their prey with the sides of their long heads. These are some seriously impressively sized fish, with some weighing up to 100 pounds, and will put up a considerable fight against you and your fishing pole. 

If you manage to successfully catch a gar, be careful to remove all its bones. Gar also has additional armor that can be tricky to remove. However, it makes for a delicious meal, particularly if you’re not a fan of the traditional “fishy” flavor, smell, and texture—gar isn’t flaky and tastes more like chicken than other fish species. 

10. Freshwater Drum 

Red drum fish, also called redfish, are popular saltwater table fare, but their freshwater cousins are largely overlooked. However, a freshwater drum makes a delicious meal. 

Freshwater drum fish are mainly found in the southern regions of the United States, particularly in the rivers of Tennessee and the Appalachians. It’s also called sheepshead and lives in many of the same waters where you’d find walleye. 

Some people don’t care for freshwater drum fish’s thick texture, but it is a tasty and versatile fish that is especially well-suited for soups, chowders, and kebabs. Just make sure to get it on ice soon after catching it, as its body fat can break down quickly, eliciting an unpleasant odor and taste. 

Honorable Mentions

If you’d like a few more freshwater fish to enjoy on your dinner plate, take a look at some other options that are fantastic for both catching and eating. 

  • King Salmon
  • Coho Salmon
  • Steelhead 
  • Tilapia
  • Dover Sole 
  • Carp 

We also have some other articles on related topics:

Reeling It All In 

While they may not be as glamorous as some of their saltwater cousins, freshwater fish still have the potential to be a culinary delight. Whether it’s a freshly caught trout roasted over a campfire or an expertly filleted smallmouth bass, any of the fish listed above is a great option for your next catch—and your next meal. 

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