From marshy backwaters and iced-over lakes to clear cobbly mountain rivers, from tidal flats and murky bays to the wild blue outback of the offshore ocean, anglers in North America enjoy the pursuit of some of the finest game fish anywhere. And here at Mountain House, we’ve been helping fuel fishing trips since 1969–including with just-add-water meals that pair nicely with fresh-caught trout or panfish!
To celebrate the marvelous diversity of North American game fish, let’s put the spotlight on some of the most popular—and some of the most all-out legendary—from both freshwater and saltwater habitats. (That includes the “anadromous” game fish, such as salmon, that run between fresh- and saltwater.)
We’ll start things off by looking at those fish that, statistics suggest, are the most-cast-for among anglers in the United States, and then celebrate a non-exhaustive roster of game fish that can be called genuine finned legends.
According to the most recent (2016) National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation produced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, these are the most popular game fish in the U.S.
Freshwater—excepting the Great Lakes:
We don’t have the room to do a truly comprehensive runthrough of the most all-out esteemed freshwater and saltwater game fish of North America. But the following certainly all deserve a place on such a list. What constitutes “greatest?” Well, it’s certainly subjective, but these fish all demonstrate the significant fighting spirit, elusive wiliness, or impressive size—sometimes all of the above—which really fire anglers’ dreams.
Among the black-bass genus, Micropterus, are two of the most iconic freshwater sportfish on the continent: the largemouth and smallmouth basses. Largemouth bass strike lures across a large native range of eastern North America—from the Hudson Bay and Great Lakes drainages down into the Mississippi and throughout the South and Southeast—but have also been widely introduced elsewhere on the continent and around the world. Basis of a major multibillion-dollar recreational angling industry, largemouths favor lakes, marshes, swamps, and sluggish alluvial waters, and prey on other fish, frogs, and crayfish.
Smallmouth bass—even more renowned than largemouths for pure fighting spirit—are less tolerant of warm waters than their largemouth cousins, not extending into the Deep South. They’re also more likely to be found in colder, swifter streams and rivers.
This toothy, zombie-eyed fish, found from the Arctic Mackenzie River down to the Mississippi and introduced extensively outside this native geography, inspires obsession among warm-water and icefishing fanatics alike. Record walleyes have spanned 3.5 feet and weighed 25 pounds. Fond of big, murky, shallow lakes and boasting sharp low-light vision, walleye often hunt at night and in the crepuscular (twilight) hours. The walleye’s smaller relative, the sauger, is another prized game fish.
The mighty “muskie” is the king of the widespread pike clan and found only in North America, where it occupies the Hudson Bay, St. Lawrence, Great Lakes, and Mississippi basins. This apex freshwater ambush predator—which gobbles everything from other fish such as yellow perch and gizzard shad to muskrats and waterfowl—may exceed six feet in maximum length and weigh upwards of 70 pounds or more. Despite the muskie’s typical hovering or slow-cruise mode, it can burst to 30 miles per hour to strike. Besides its important role topping the aquatic ecosystems it inhabits, this “fish of 10,000 casts” is coveted and challenging quarry.
The muskie’s only slightly smaller relative, the northern pike also ranks as the most broadly distributed freshwater fish in the world, prowling a huge Eurasian range as well as much of northern and central North America. A common predator targeting fish, frogs, small mammals, and waterbirds in clear lakes and alluvial backwaters, northerns are also well known for their cannibalistic tendencies. The long-standing North American record for northern pike is a 46-pound, 2-oz. fish hauled from New York’s Sacandaga Lake back in 1940.
These beautiful salmonids haunt many an angler’s dream from the Southern Appalachians to the temperate rainforests of the Pacific coast. From brook trout in the east and “lakers” in the Northland to cutthroats, rainbows, and the anadromous steelhead, North America’s trout and char are big-time quarry for spincasters and fly-fishers alike. And boy, does trout-fishing take you into some drop-dead gorgeous country… (Check out our roundup of some of the best trout streams in the U.S.!)
With their epic journeys between pelagic ocean and interior spawning rivers—journeys involving almost unbelievable physical strength and endurance—salmon capture the imaginations of anglers and non-anglers alike. They support huge recreational and commercial fisheries. North America’s species include Atlantic, coho, Chinook (king), sockeye (including the land-locked kokanee form), chum, and pink salmon. The Atlantic salmon and the bigger-yet Chinook are the biggest, historically tipping the scales past 100 pounds.
The much-admired striper ranks as the largest of the temperate basses, seven species of which call North American waters home. This sturdy fish—which can reach six feet long and weigh north of 100 pounds—is, like salmon, anadromous, feeding in the ocean and spawning in rivers. Unlike most salmon, though, an individual striped bass can make multiple spawning runs in one lifetime. Stripers inhabit the Atlantic coast from about the mouth of the St. Lawrence south to the tip of Florida as well as the Gulf of Mexico, with introduced populations on the Pacific coast and in numerous landlocked lakes. Surf-casting is among the go-to methods for landing stripers, which are strong fighters and impressive jumpers.
The hard-hitting red drum—aka redfish, aka spot-tail bass—delights inshore anglers, especially along the Gulf Coast, and especially when the migratory schools of spring and fall course through inlets and bays. Most coveted are the biggest redfish, the “bullreds,” which in exceptional cases may reach five feet and weigh on the order of 90 pounds.
The unmistakable mahi-mahi—also called dorado or dolphinfish—is among the flashiest sportfish of the pelagic realm, what with its vivid bluish-green body, its long dorsal crest, and the agile fleetness it employs in pursuit of flying-fish and other prey. That vibrant mahi-mahi body—which can reach seven feet in length—is marvelously sleek, but the head is distinctively blunt and high-browed. Offshore anglers chase mahi-mahi on the Atlantic coast from Massachusetts southward, in the Gulf of Mexico, and off California and Hawaii.
Sleek the mahi-mahi may be; sleeker yet is the wahoo (ono in Hawaii), that great dart-shaped speedster of the high seas. “Hoos” are big mackerels, capable of reaching six feet and more than 180 pounds, and just about everything about them—from the pointy tips of the needle-tooth jaws to the forked tail—looks sharp-edged. The thrillingly fast wahoo, which snaps up squid and small fish, is a celebrated, energetic fighter (and also popular for eating).
Supporting a major commercial industry, yellowfin tuna are also legendary sportfish, renowned for their size, their beauty, and their stunning speed and agility. Reaching seven feet and 400-plus pounds, yellowfins range in the Atlantic from Massachusetts south and in the Pacific as far north as California’s Central Coast.
Easily on the shortlist of greatest saltwater game fish of North America, the tarpon is the spectacular “silver king” of the subtropical Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. These hulking, heavy-scaled fish, which may reach eight feet and weigh more than 300 pounds, would be impressive enough from a size perspective alone, but it’s their tremendous strength, mettle, and aerial ability that takes them into rarefied status.
Billfish account for some of the biggest, most visually striking, and swiftest of all fish, and certainly their ranks include arguably the most coveted saltwater game fish on Earth. Smaller species in North American waters (though all of them very large bony fish) include the lovely sailfish, longbill spearfish, and the white and striped marlins. The swordfish—the hulking “broadbill”—is a grand fighter that may reach 14 feet and more than half a ton. And then there’s the superlative blue marlin, that swift, high-leaping, utterly incredible giant that can exceed 16 feet and more than 1,800 pounds. It’s hard to imagine a more impressive beast on the other end of your line.
Now, we’re entirely aware there are many fantastic species we’ve left off the above list, from heavyweight blue catfish and white sturgeon to king mackerel, permit, and bluefish. But hey, that’s the wonderful diversity of the saltwater and freshwater game fish of North America!
Meanwhile, whether they’re biting or not, make sure you’ve got some delicious, just-add-water Mountain House meals along for your next angling adventure! (Bonus: You can even use a Mountain House pouch to cook a fish.)