Freshwater fishing basics. Learning the fundamentals.

While fishing may not be for everyone I can honestly say I don’t know of a single person that has been on a fishing trip, caught fish, and DIDN’T have a blast.  However, every fishing excursion unfortunately will not end up with that outcome. You can increase your chances though, by studying some freshwater fishing basics and learning the fundamentals. During extreme temperature swings, storm fronts, very muddy, or clear water conditions different tactics must be utilized to experience a productive day. In the next few paragraphs we will start with the easiest freshwater fish to catch and work our way to the more difficult. Let’s get started! 


When most people think of Panfish they are primarily broken into two types being Bluegill and sunfish but perch and crappie technically fit into the definition as well. They have earned the name “Panfish” for the reason you are most likely thinking of in that they are small enough to fit into a campfire size cooking pan. If you’re just getting started or taking kids fishing these are by far the easiest to catch and the best way to begin your freshwater fishing basics. You’ll also find that many times when targeting other species these can be bothersome “bait thieves”. To get started reeling panfish in learning the fundamentals is the the most straightforward. Most any store that sells fishing gear will carry fishing combos containing a rod, reel (with pre-spooled line), some hooks, sinkers, bobbers, and an assortment of small lures usually being rooster tails and jigs. One of these combos that usually start around $20.00 along with some fresh nightcrawlers, meal worms, or crickets will have fish biting within a few minutes of casting in the water. Bait presentation is as important as what bait you cast and panfish tend to prefer a suspended or off the bottom (using a bobber) bait as opposed to one laying on the lake bottom. A bonus to a suspended bait is that it’s less likely to become snagged on one of the many pieces of “structure” you will find that fish cling to for cover and protection. 


There are about 45 types of freshwater catfish but in North America this is narrowed down to the primary 3 being Channel, Blue, and Flathead. Catfish are mostly bottom dwellers and feeders that have an appetite for almost anything. I have heard stories my entire life regarding the wide array of baits used to catch these fish. Items ranging from bubble gum, soap, and roadkill. Having said that, despite having an expansive palette they do have particular taste that will trigger a bite faster than others. Catfish tend to be more active at night in my experience and roam shallow waters during this time whereas preferring deeper waters during the daylight. Like all fish, they like structure for cover and can be found under rock ledges, lying in wait underneath logs, and will converge into a sunken car, boat, or other man made “home”. Most catfish I have caught were with a bait on the bottom or using a catfish rig to have the bait a few inches off the bottom. Baits I have had the most success with are chicken liver, cut-bait (shad or bluegill cut in half) or good ole’ Canadian night crawlers. This works well for channel and blues but the flathead is a more selective eater at times and I have found most success fishing a live shad, bluegill, or sunfish anchored near rocks or logjams in the river. Usually a medium to large circle hook through the back of a baitfish with a 1/2-3/4oz slip sinker about 12″ up from the hook on a heavy action rod/reel combo with 20lb-30lb line is a great start. However, back to the freshwater fishing basics. On the banks of a good farm pond with a medium action rod and reel, 10lb-12lb line, a medium size hook with split-shot sinkers and nightcrawlers will land channels, blues, and bullheads on the bank. It is important to note that catfishing may not be the best for kids starting off. Catfish are usually a “slower bite” than other fish and patience is usually needed. Personally, I like to bait a line for catfish and throw an ultra-light for panfish and small bass while waiting for the catfish to find my bait.  Caution if you attempt this approach! Don’t get too far away from your catfish rig and alway set the bait clicker or allow your reel to free spin, and above all, anchor your gear! Many fishers have walked away too far and had their rig dragged into the murky depths.  


There are 9 recognized species of freshwater bass. When you hear of fishing tournaments the largemouth bass is often the desired catch. Most of the large outdoor store chains contribute to tournaments in form of prizes in turn for advertisement. These fish are sought after because of the voracious fight they put up when caught and when fishing for them, the angler is in constant motion. Baits are very rarely left sitting for more than a few seconds and most of the time it’s a repeated cast, retrieve, and repeat motion. Walking into any outdoors section of a store (unless along coastal areas) you’ll find that bass fishing lures and gear is the most prevalent. I don’t want to anger any avid bass fishermen that happen to read this, but will try to give some generic rules to catch these because they are a lot of fun. Generally speaking the colder the water the slower the presentation of bait to the fish and personally I’ve done better fishing smaller baits. This has a lot to do with fish being cold blooded. A large meal takes energy and heat to breakdown in the stomach. Likewise, a fast moving prey takes energy to catch for them. Personally I like to throw “soft baits” for bass. Plastic worms, jigs, tubes, and some swim baits. One of the advantages to most of these is that the hook point is hidden within the lure (weedless) for getting the bait into heavy structure without snagging. Bass feed on a natural variety of food like smaller fish, crayfish, (or if you’re in the south like me, crawfish), frogs, and have even been known to take an unsuspecting mouse or snake as it swims. Most artificial lures will be a mimic of these types of prey in one form or another. Gear for these fish has a wide range depending on how serious you’d like to get involved. While they can be caught with basic rigs most use baitcaster and/or open-face type reels and line from 10lb-30lb test. A professional tournament fisher would have no less that $10,000 of gear at all times but I have seen some good quality fish taken by those learning the fundamentals from the bank with a cartoon character fishing rod combo. 

Crappie and Trout

Crappie (pronounced Kraa-pee) and trout are two of my personal favorite fish to target. There are two species of recognized crappie, white and black found in North America and about 9 species of trout. Only the brown trout is non-native to us originating from Europe and Western Asia. Both of these are considered a very clean fish due to diet and environment and therefore well sought after for eating. Crappie average size is about 10.5 inches (26cm) and most bodies of water require a 10in length in order to keep them. Trout on the other hand have quite a bit of variance simply due to environment. In the south they tend to range on the smaller size of 12-14inches whereas in the north, lake trout average over 19 inches and get up to 40lbs. Crappie are found more often in lakes but frequent rivers and streams as well and are usually caught on light gear, 2lb-6lb line, small jigs, and minnows. Crappie like all fish are found primarily around structure in the form of underwater trees, boat docks, and ledges. They rarely feed off the bottom and are most often caught by a suspending presentation and retrieval. Trout in my area (southeast) are most often found in small streams and rivers but as stated, in the north are a well known lake fish. While in small streams they can often be found not close to structure and simply blending in with the bottom waiting on unsuspecting food opportunities to drift by. Of all the fish listed I find trout to be the most finicky of eaters and can be very difficult to catch due to their environment of high oxygenated and clear water they need to survive. Trout will naturally forage on helgramites, crayfish, minnows, and unlucky insects that find themselves in the water. Trout have been portrayed as a more “glamourous” fishing with expensive fly rods, hand tied flies, and wading gear to get into the water for better casting of the fly rods. However, in my area I keep the fishing basics with an ultralight combo spooled with 6lb test line, and micro jigs or meal worms. Throwing these into the current and feeling for the line bump as it’s swept down is easy as it gets. However, Trout fishing is usually not a sit down sport. It typically involves quite a bit of walking only to stop periodically for a quick few cast then on to the next pool.  

Give it a try!

Now that you’ve got some freshwater fishing basics the next step is to find somewhere close by to wet a hook. A great way to get started is by looking up Public Fishing Areas in your state and if that doesn’t provide anything try looking on your states DNR site. From there you can find fishing areas open to the public, pay areas where fish are stocked and other valuable information such as licensing requirements. Usually these sites will also provide the next piece of information you’ll need in terms of the types of fish species found in that particular body of water. Above all, make sure you have the proper license to fish where you’re going. For example, In my state a trout license (or stamp) is an additional fee to other species because they’re stocked into streams and the licensing helps fund those projects.
Fishing is like most other hobbies or sports in that you can spend as much money as you want. For less than $75.00 you can catch fish without any problems. I’ve watched many $20-$50 challenges to catch fish and they’re always successful and you can be too! 

So, get out there and give it a try! If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to let me know in the comments below. I have a fair amount of experience in this and thoroughly enjoy helping others.  

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