Five Freshwater Fish Species for the Rural American
Caleb D. Regan
Some quiet companionship on the lake is good for the soul. These boys are hard after it on Homer Lake in Illinois.
Virginia Pinkston Photography
Back when I was a boy, you didn’t go spend an afternoon at the farm pond and come home empty-handed, talking about the crappie you’d caught. Catch and release was not an option when the crappie switch got flipped to On. Had “empty-handed” happened, there would have been a looming sense of disappointment starting, no doubt, with my mother.
Crappie fillets were a delicacy in our household, elevated almost to the same height as apple pie. Any time my brothers and I were fishing and one of us landed a crappie, he’d put it on the stringer and fish the rest of the day, hoping that switch I mentioned earlier would come on and we’d get fishy. If we didn’t fill the stringer with a skillet-full of fish, of course, we’d let the lone crappie back into the pond, but the intention was never to let it go. Heck, crappie were the main reason for always carrying along a stringer in the first place. It was the best-tasting fish we’d catch and clean.
Later in life, while painting houses during college summers, I was introduced to walleye. I’ll never forget an older gentleman on the crew, Brian, who’d bring walleye he’d caught over the weekend to eat for lunch, even during July heat waves. Everyone thought he was crazy, bringing fish and not even keeping it in a cooler; room-temperature fish during the heat of summer.
I gave him grief all the time for this, until one day, in a weary-minded haze, I agreed to try some. It was a wonderfully thick, white fillet, not fishy at all and admittedly better than any crappie I’d ever had – which especially impressed me, given the circumstances in which the walleye was being served.
Now, every year as winter begins to turn to spring and the deer meat supply in the freezer seems unending – which I’m perpetually thankful to consume – I eagerly anticipate that first early, cold-water stringer-full of fish that I’ll clean and eat.
There’s no better way to eat healthy and local than to head on down to a favorite fishing hole, bait a line and catch some tasty freshwater fish that you can’t find at the
local market. You’ll be well served to secure these five species for your dinner table.
The walleye is probably the most sought-after fish in the north-central United States. Minnesota is renowned for its walleye fishing. Nowadays, walleye have been introduced in states farther south, and it’s largely due to the tastiness of the fillets.
The walleye is named for its pearlescent eye, caused by a reflective layer of pigment that helps it see and feed at night or in murky water. The fish is olive to dark gray in appearance, with gold-flecked sides. Average length is about 15 inches. By the time these fish get to that size – the length at which your local regulations will allow you to keep them – walleye are primarily feeding on smaller species of fish.
You can find them in lakes, reservoirs, slow-moving rivers and some ponds. In lakes, the spawn usually occurs in April and May. The best time to fish for wal-leye is about a month after the spawn. Like some other species, they are coming off winter and don’t feed all that much during the spawn, so the time period following, late April through May and early June, is typically when the most walleye are caught, says Tom Mosher, fisheries research coordinator with Kansas
Department of Wildlife and Parks.
Check your state regulations to see when walleye season is, and get out on the water. They do most of their feeding in the morning and right at sunset, so that’s when you want to have a line out.
My personal favorite is the crappie – not because I think it’s the best tasting, rather because it simply harkens back to my family farm pond, and they are fighters, which makes for fun fishing. The crappie is a member of the sunfish family and comes in two types, white crappie and black crappie; both are popular game fish. Black and white crappies are tough to tell apart. Both are flat-bodied, white and black speckled, and have the same behavioral patterns.
As the name suggests, the black crappie is darker than the white crappie, and the abundance of both species varies by region. In the northern United States, when you catch a crappie, it’s more likely to be a black crappie than a white, whereas in Kansas the opposite is true.
The spawn usually takes place in May or June when water temperatures reach 66 to 68 degrees. As the temperature begins to rise in the spring, crappie move to the shallows to mate, and that’s a good time to have a few bend your pole. Their diets are diverse, eating smaller fish as well as zooplankton, insects and crustaceans. Feeding occurs mainly at dawn and dusk. I’ve always had the best luck fishing with minnows, but Mom makes a case for worms as well. Crappie jigs are another option.
There are numerous species of bass, most notably the largemouth and smallmouth. To tell these two species apart, look at the closed mouth. If it extends back beyond the back of the eye, the fish is a largemouth. If the mouth only extends back to the middle of the eye, you are looking at a smallmouth.
Probably best known as a sport fish, these fish also provide tasty fillets, especially in cooler temperatures during the early fishing season. The largemouth bass is one of the more scrappy species of freshwater fish. Jolting strikes, airborne leaps and good stamina make for a fun fight on your hands when you’ve got one on the end of your line.
Bass are more oblong, closer to a walleye than a crappie. I’d compare the shape to that of a football, and their color is gray, olive-green and silver, for the most part.
Bass are not a picky creature when it comes to diet. They’ll eat underwater insects, smaller species of fish, frogs, snakes, mice and sometimes even ducklings. They like to hang around in weed lines, shade of trees and other cover.
Though catfish is one of the freshwater fish you probably can find at the market, I’ve always found those I catch and fillet to be more rewarding and better tasting.
Catfish are so named because of the barbells resembling a cat’s whiskers that extend from the sides of the head on most catfish. Two common species are the channel and the larger flathead. To tell a channel cat from a flathead, look at the lower jaw and tail. The flathead has a slightly protruding lower jaw, like an underbite, and its tail is square, while the tail of a channel cat is forked.
All catfish and bullheads have a sharp spine on the front of the dorsal fin and two pectoral fins. These spines are what “sting” careless people, not the barbells. When alarmed, the fish raises and locks the spike fins in an extended position. The pain comes when a person accidentally pokes himself on the spine, not from any poison that’s released. Learn where those spines are, and you’ll have no problem handling a catfish. I hold them by cupping my hand under their belly, with my index and middle finger underneath the head. Put your thumb and pinky behind the pectoral fins and barbells.
These fish are bottom feeders and will eat insects, fish and many invertebrates. They feed at night, so it can make for some entertaining lawn-chair fishing. Grab a pole and line that will support the weight of a catfish, even one as big as 20 pounds, attach anything from a chunk of hotdog to chicken livers, weight it with a couple split-shot sinkers, toss it out and leave it on the bottom. Keep your eye on your pole, because when it starts dancing, the real fun begins.
A member of the sunfish family, the bluegill is another species generally regarded as excellent eating. They are rather small – occasionally exceeding a pound, but an 8-inch bluegill is considered decent, max would be about 16 inches. Catch enough of them to fill up the skillet, and you won’t be disappointed.
Found from Quebec to northern Mexico, bluegill are nearly ubiquitous. One notable marking is the blue or black “ear,” which is actually an extension of the gill cover. On the gill rakers (tooth-like structures on the inner edge of the gill arches), bluegill have a bright blue edging.
The bluegill spawn usually occurs in nests in the shallows beginning in late May and June. During this time, the color of the male body becomes fairly bold as they guard the nest. They show intense yellows, blues and oranges. The lower half of the body, especially toward the front, contains a yellow-orange hue.
One interesting aspect of bluegill biology is that some males assume the appearance of a female during the spawn – so the nest-guarding males aren’t as aggressive – then sneak into the nests in the shallows and spawn.
Bluegill will eat tiny fish, but for the most part feed on plants, invertebrates and zooplankton. They are notorious for their nibbling, so if your bobber is dancing a little and you repeatedly have your worm stolen off the hook, chances are it’s a pesky bluegill.
Fishing is both practical and recreational. I’ve eaten many a delicious meal after giving thanks for these beautiful fish and had some of my best days on the water without catching a single thing.
Knowing and constantly learning about what is going on below the surface of the farm pond or local lake is fascinating, and it will help you have more encounters than before with your fish of choice.
There’s no such thing as a crummy day with crappie.
An avid outdoorsman, GRIT Associate Editor Caleb Regan likes to spend his spring days on the water, even when the fish aren’t biting.