I really love fishing in rivers. Some of the best fish you can catch live in them throughout the country. And they also have a better variety than a lot of other bodies of water.
So in this article I will go through every type of fish you can commonly find in rivers and what areas they are most prominent. Then we will go through the best fish you can catch in rivers – including which are the biggest, which fight the best, which taste the best, and which are the easiest to catch!
Carp are a bottom-dwelling species that is actually only native to Europe and parts of Asia. While they are found in nearly all American rivers today, they are actually an invasive species that we have just adapted to.
They feed on small insects and crustaceans as well as different types of vegetation. Most people catch them with corn, dough balls, or other types of pre-made baits. But you can catch them occasionally with worms as well.
They can get to a pretty good size – up to 30 pounds if you find a real giant. But an adult carp will come in around 10 to 20 pounds.
If you are struggling catching them from your river, read this article that will guide you through it.
There are many species of black bass including smallmouth and largemouth most notably. While largemouth bass generally take over lakes, smallmouth bass often take control in river systems. Black bass are generally a trophy fish – meaning that professionals target them over many other species and tournaments are generally geared towards catching them.
They feed on insects, crustaceans, and other fish mainly but will even eat things like frogs or small ducklings. They are predators by nature and will eat most anything that moves they can fit in their mouths, so there are many different types of baits you can use to catch them. This is my favorite lure for bass.
Generally an adult bass will be 2 pounds or heavier, but largemouth variations can grow up to 10 pounds and above. Smallmouth generally stay a little smaller, with a trophy smallmouth being anything larger than 5 pounds in most river systems.
I love bass fishing and write tons of articles like this about them.
Sunfish technically includes a variety of different sub-species like black bass, crappie, and other species I have listed separately as they are a little more specifically targeted. But for most fisherman, sunfish speaks to the species of smaller fish more readily available. This includes pumpkinseed, green sunfish, and bluegill.
These fish generally eat small insects and crustaceans in river systems, very rarely getting big or bold enough to eat other smaller fish species. You will probably have most luck catching them on little bug imitation lures or a good old fashioned nightcrawler.
Anything over a pound is considered a good catch in the sunfish family and the majority will not even be larger than your hand. But they are very plentiful in most river systems and still a lot of fun to catch, particularly for novice or children fishermen.
Here is a guide for what size sunfish you’ll want to keep.
A fish sometimes mistaken for a variety of sunfish is the perch, which actually contains two different sub-species, at least in America: the European and Yellow perch.
These are similar looking to sunfish but are slightly more slender. They also don’t grow to great lengths and feed on a very similar diet as sunfish. Although larger perch are known to feed more on smaller fish like minnows or shiners. So you can catch them on a variety of different baits.
Perch can grow up to 2 pounds and are slightly longer than sunfish, but are by no means a big fish. They are extremely tasty though and very beautiful – particularly the Yellow perch.
Often shortened to muskie, muskellunge are a rare species to catch even though they are populated throughout many river systems in America. They are one of the longest species you will find and come with sharp teeth – unusual for most fish you’ll find in rivers.
As you might guess, they use those teeth to prey on a variety of smaller fish species. So you will be wise to use lures that imitate smaller fish. And make sure you have steel leader on your line, as they can just bite through regular fishing line.
Muskie can get quite large – up to 30 or 40 pounds for a real trophy specimen. And they are also one of the longer fish that you will catch in rivers – getting as long as 5 feet! Though you are much more likely to catch them around 2 feet or so for an average adult.
Perhaps the best tasting fish on this list, crappie are a member of the sunfish family that are so often targeted they get their own place on this list. They can get slightly bigger than other sunfish species and come in black or white variations, which can be hard to tell the difference for the untrained novice.
Crappie feed on the same things as other sunfish – though they are more likely to feed on small minnows than other species. Many people find that white or pink minnow imitation type lures are the best way to catch crappie from rivers.
Any crappie over a pound is a great trophy size, as they don’t often get much bigger. Because they are also well-known to be a good fish to eat, they don’t grow large because fishermen take them out once they are a good eating size.
Here is an article that will help you catch more crappie.
Trout are native in rivers that can maintain cooler temperatures, though they are only native to very few rivers on the western part of the United States. Because they are so fun to catch, particularly for fly fisherman, they have been introduced in rivers throughout America.
Trout will feed on small crustaceans, minnows, and bugs. They are known to jump clear out of the water to feed on bugs hitting the top of the water. Farm-raised trout that are stocked in rivers will also eat powerbait, a ball of food that mimics fish food they were raised on.
While stocked trout seldom grow larger than a pound or two, wild trout can grow into several pounds and put up a great fight on lighter gear. They are another species that grows longer instead of fatter as well, so adults are longer than a foot and make for great pictures. Plus, they don’t have scales! So no need to descale if you want to eat them.
I love catching trout on powerbait, read this to learn the best types!
Many people recognize catfish, as they are one of the most populous fish across America and can be found in most lakes or rivers. While the channel catfish is probably the most common, several other types of catfish exist such as the blue catfish – a fish that can grow to giant sizes.
Like carp, catfish are bottom feeders by nature which means they eat most of the things that exist on the bottom of a river floor. They are attracted to very strong smells – which is why many people use chicken livers as a bait of choice. I wrote a whole article on baits for catfish in rivers – check it out here!
Catfish vary widely in size, with the majority of adult catfish being 10 pounds or so. But some catfish can grow up to 50 pounds or more. The blue catfish, the largest species of catfish, can even grow to 150 pounds. Take a look at this world record!
Most people think of shad as the small baitfish that exists in many larger lake systems that feed bigger predatory fish like black bass, pike, or walleye. However, the American Shad (technically not related) exists in many river systems on the east coast and have been introduced in western rivers as well.
These fish feed on crustaceans, insects, and smaller fish species like most of this list. So you can use a variety of lures to catch them. They are unique in that like salmon they group in schools to go up rivers to spawn – or make more fish – and that is the time most fisherman target them.
Shad that you find in lakes grow to only a few inches, but the American shad can grow up to 2 feet and weigh to 10 pounds. Generally, anything over a foot and within the 2 to 5 pound range is more common and what fisherman are trying to catch.
Another species that can be found in any American river system is the sucker. It contains 78 species within it but all have some resemblance of a fish that would “suck” food off the bottom of a river and are most easily identified by this unique mouth pattern.
Since they use their mouth to suck food off the bottom of the river, you can imagine what you need to use to catch them. Worms and other natural baits that sit on the bottom of a river are likely to make them bite.
They generally don’t grow too large, with the majority of catches being well under a foot long and only weighing a few ounces. Some species can grow a bit larger though – up to 2 feet long and several pounds.
The reason salmon are so interesting is because they are one of the few fish that live in salt and freshwater. They migrate from their ocean homes up tributaries and into river streams across the United States to spawn, then make their way back to saltwater afterwards. This is often called a “run” and is when many fisherman target the species.
Salmon feed primarily on smaller fish and have a very similar diet to trout. You will have most luck using similar types of lures to catch them, though when in rivers they aren’t usually looking to eat. They’re looking to mate and make babies.
Salmon can grow to great catching sizes – with the average you’ll find in a river about 4 pounds or so. This makes them one of the most fun species to catch and also a great eating size.
Perhaps the most interesting looking fish on this list, many people don’t realize that eels live in river systems as well as the ocean. Eels refer to 800 species that exist in a variety of ecosystems, with all of them resembling some likeness to a snake and fish mix.
Eels feed on a variety of things in the river system and it’s very unlikely that you’ll find many fisherman purposefully targeting them. However, fisherman have been known to catch them accidentally on a variety of different lures.
Size ranges can vary, but eels grow long and slender rather than wide and heavy. So you won’t be likely to catch one heavy enough to break your line but it might scare you greatly when you pull a several foot long slender snake-looking fish from the riverbed!
The biggest fish you can catch in rivers
If you’re looking for the absolute biggest fish you can catch in a river, you’re going to be targeting a catfish. As shown above, they can grow up to 150 pounds and catching a good sized one is actually pretty common. They’re also available in almost any river across America, so you don’t have to plan a trip specifically to target them.
One honorable mention that wasn’t listed above because they are endangered and not widely available is the sturgeon. They are actually prehistoric fish – existing during the times of the dinosaurs. Sturgeon can grow up to 16 feet long and 800 pounds – making them the largest fish you can possible catch in a river. But you generally need to book a charter to catch them.
The fish you catch in rivers that fight the best
While you might think the biggest fish is the best fighting fish, you would actually be wrong. A 100 pound catfish will definitely take a while to get in, but when fish get that big they don’t really “fight” like a more nimble fish can. So you’ll actually get a better fight with a fish that is more agile in the water.
Black bass provide a great fight and are common in almost any river system, so they are probably the best fighting fish. But salmon are targeted specifically using light line techniques and can grow to similar sizes as black bass – even bigger in some cases. So both are great fish to target if you want a great fight.
The best tasting fish you can catch from rivers
Taste is a matter of personal preference, but I think most people would agree that salmon is the best tasting fish you could catch from a river. Some underrated options though are trout and crappie. Crappie are easy to catch and many fishermen will catch a mess (50 or so) in one trip to have a delicious fish fry. Trout also taste great and because they have no scales, you can clean and cook them more easily.
The easiest fish you can catch from rivers
If you just want to catch something in a river, you should probably target one of the sunfish species. Bluegill, pumpkinseed, or green sunfish are readily available in most rivers and will bite easily. Children only a few years old can even easily catch a sunfish. Just put a worm on a hook and you can catch them easily.
If you want a fish that is a little bigger, then try catfishing. You just need a good sized weight to get you to the river bottom and put something big and stinky on a hook. Remember to look at this article for the best baits. But all you have to do is sit and wait, and they even hook themselves most times.
Have more questions about river fishing? Leave them in a comment below! We are always looking for more articles to write to answer your questions.