Top 25 California Freshwater Game Fish Species
This article will list the top 25 California freshwater game fish species. California offers anglers a wide variety of angling opportunities and many different species to target. Most warm water species can be found in the state along with many cold water species as well.
Top 25 California freshwater game fish species
The top 25 California freshwater game fish species will be listed by group, in no particular order. These are bass, panfish, trout, catfish, salmon, and “other” species. Enjoy the pics of some nice fish by some terrific lady anglers!
California offers anglers several different bass species to chase. These are largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, spotted bass, striped bass, and white bass. They are found in a wide variety of waters throughout the state.
1) largemouth bass
Largemouth bass are one of the most popular freshwater game fish in North America. California has some outstanding fishing for them! The large lakes are predicted to produce the next world record, the current state record is 21 pounds, 12 ounces. Anglers catch these giant largemouth bass by casting huge swimbaits that resemble the trout that they feed on.
Anglers can read more about largemouth bass fishing in this article by Capt Jim
Plenty of more average sized largemouth bass are found in California lakes, ponds, and rivers as well. The standard techniques that fool bass everywhere work here as well. Most bass are caught by anglers casting lures, though live bait certainly can be effective, too. Largemouth bass are first on the list of top 25 California freshwater game fish species.
2) smallmouth bass
Smallmouth bass are found in the state as well. The state record fish is 9 pounds 13 ounces. They are next on the list of top 26 California freshwater game fish species. Smallmouth prefer clear, cool water and are found in large lakes and rivers. Crayfish are a favorite forage and many of the top lures mimic them. Smallmouth bass also feed on bait fish, especially shad. Like their cousins the largemouth bass, most smallmouth bass are caught by anglers casting lures.
Click to read more about smallmouth bass fishing!
3) spotted bass
Spotted bass are a bit of a mix between largemouth and smallmouth bass. They are most often caught in open water in large lakes. Spotted bass school up in deeper water over structure such as channel edges, bluffs, and submerged islands. The California record spotted bass is 10 pounds 4 ounces. Vertical presentations are very effective on them.
4) striped bass
Striped bass were introduced into California waters in the late 1800s. The Sacramento River system is the top spot in the state to catch them. Several large lakes also have decent populations of land locked striped bass, especially in the Colorado River system. Anglers catch then by trolling primarily, though casting and drifting works as well.
Check out Capt Jim’s article on fishing for striped bass
5) white bass
White bass are smaller cousins to the striped bass. They are small, but aggressive and are great fun on light tackle. They have the habit of schooling up and feeding on the surface, making them easy to locate and catch. White bass are good to eat. The state record is 5 pounds 5 ounces.
Panfish are arguable the most popular of all freshwater game fish species. They are aggressive, abundant, readily available, and are great eating. What more could an angler ask for? The most popular panfish in California are crappie, bluegill, and redear sunfish. Most are found in lakes and ponds with good aquatic vegetation as well as fallen trees, docks, bridges, and other structure. Live bait is used by most anglers, though artificial lures produce as well.
Crappie are the largest member of the panfish family. They are growing in popularity, partially due the the increasing number of tournaments. Crappie are number 6 on the list of top 25 California freshwater game fish species. There are two crappie species, black crappie and white crappie. The state record black crappie is 4 pounds 1 ounce and the record white crappie is 4 pounds 8 ounces.
Read more about crappie fishing tackle and lures
Both crappie species behave the same and look similar. They feed on minnows primarily. The top live bait is a minnow and the most popular lure is a small jig. Anglers catch a lot of fish by trolling, but casting is productive as well.
Bluegill are the most popular panfish species throughout the country. They are plentiful in the state of California as well, inhabiting just about every warm body of water from small ponds to large lakes. They are a forage base for many large predators as well. The record bluegill is 3 pounds 14 ounces.
Read this detailed article by Capt Jim on bluegill fishing!
Bluegill are also the most aggressive of the panfish species, readily attacking lures and flies. However, most bluegill are caught by anglers fishing with live bait; worms and crickets in particular. They prefer wood of any type, fallen trees and docks being prime locations. Submerged vegetation holds a lot of bluegill as well.
8) redear sunfish
Redear sunfish grow larger than bluegill and are considered the best eating of the panfish species. They feed on mollusks and are called “shellcrackers” in many parts of the country for their affinity for shellfish. Most are caught on worms in slightly deeper water over sand or shell bottom. The record in California is 5 pounds 3 ounces.
California anglers have the opportunity to catch several trout species. Most of the top spots are in the northern half of the state where the water is cooler. They inhabit many streams and rivers as well as larger lakes. Rainbow trout are heavily stocked and are the most plentiful trout species. Brown trout, brook trout, cutthroat trout, golden trout, lake trout, and steelhead trout are also available.
Learn more trout fishing tips in this article
9) rainbow trout
Rainbow trout are one of the most recognizable fish species in North America. They are a beautiful fish that fights hard, leaping high out of the water. Many anglers consider them to be very good to eat. The state record in California is 28 pounds 5 ounces.
Check out the top 13 rainbow trout fishing lures!
Rainbow trout can be caught using several techniques. Fly fishing in streams is the classic approach and draws in many anglers. Lures such as spinners can be used as well. Trolling is a very productive technique in larger lakes where trout must be located. Live bait works for anglers fishing from shore. Anglers can rainbow trout ice fishing as well.
10) brown trout
Brown trout are also found in good numbers in the state. They are next on the list of top California freshwater game fish species. Brown trout can tolerate a wider temperature range and warmer water. They are found in the same waters as rainbow trout. They do grow large, with the state record being 26 pounds 8 pounces.
11) brook trout
Brook trout are widely distributed in California. They are found in the classic small streams high up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Larger fish are found in lakes. Brook trout are aggressive fish and generally speaking are easier to catch than other trout species. They are a beautiful fish! The state record is 9 pounds 12 ounces.
12) cutthroat trout
Lohontan cutthroat trout are found in the cooler streams and lakes, mostly in northern California and the other higher elevation areas. They feed on insects and thus fly fishing is the top technique. Cutthroat trout vary greatly when it comes to coloration. The state record is 31 pounds 8 ounces.
13) golden trout
Golden trout are arguable the most beautiful freshwater game fish on the planet! They are small, but aggressive, and require cold, clean water. They are native to two stream systems on the eastern side of the Kern River; Golden Trout Creek and the South Fork Kern River. Golden trout were also stocked in the Sierra Nevada streams. Most anglers fly fish for them. The record is 9 pounds 8 ounces, though most are much smaller.
14) lake trout
Lake trout are found in the large, deep lakes in California. They are usually caught by anglers trolling large spoons and plugs. They grow large, the record is 37 pounds 6 ounces. Ice fishing for lake trout is productive as well.
15) steelhead trout
Steelhead trout are rainbow trout that moved out into the Pacific Ocean then return to their native freshwater rivers. They grow very strong and take on a silvery color. These fish are considered to be one of the top game fish anywhere! The California state record steelhead is 27 pounds 4 ounces.
Catfish are another extremely popular freshwater game fish species across the country. They grow large, offering anglers the chance to catch a trophy fish. Catfish are also highly adaptable, thriving in a wide variety of environments. Most are very good to eat, especially smaller to medium sized fish. Catfish are generally caught on live or cut bait, but will take a lure on occasion.
Read more about catfishing rigs and baits
16) channel catfish
Channel catfish are the most numerous catfish species in North America. They tolerate a wide variety of environments, but thrive in slow moving rivers. Channel catfish average a few pounds but grow larger. The state record is 53 pounds 8 ounces. They are very good to eat. They can be caught on many different baits including nightcrawlers, cut bait, crayfish, doughballs, livers, and commercial baits.
17) blue catfish
Blue catfish are an aggressive, apex predator. They have been introduced into the larger lake and river systems in California. They are definitely on the list of top California freshwater game fish species. Blue catfish grow to over 10 pounds, the state record is 113 pounds 5 ounces! Most are caught on fresh cut bait.
18) flathead catfish
Flathead catfish, also know as yellow catfish, are a more solitary fish. They prefer cover in sluggish, slow moving rivers. Live panfish are by far the top bait. Most flathead catfish are caught by anglers specifically targeting them. The California record is 72 pounds 14 ounces.
Salmon are a very popular California freshwater game fish species. They are also caught by saltwater anglers. The Sacramento River sees a huge run of salmon. Many lakes also have decent numbers of landlocked salmon. Coho, chinook, and Kokanee salmon are available.
19) chinook salmon
Chinook salmon are also known throughout the country as king salmon, and for good reason. They grow quite large and are a terrific game fish that is fantastic to eat. In freshwater, they are caught in the Sacramento River system and in land locked lakes. Most are caught by anglers trolling. The freshwater record in the state is 20 pounds 15 ounces and the state record is a whopping 88 pounds!
20) coho salmon
Coho salmon, also known as silver salmon, are the second most popular salmon species in California. They are found in the rivers and tributaries in the northern part of the state. Unfortunately, their numbers have been seriously declining the last few decades, due to habitat loss, over-fishing, and other factors. The record fish is 22 pounds.
21) kokanee salmon
Kokanee salmon are the land locked version of sockeye salmon. They only live a few years and were stocked in California lakes in 1941. They are a schooling fish most often caught by anglers trolling spoons and plugs in cold, deep lakes. They are fairly widespread throughout the state. The record fish is 5 pounds 2 ounces.
Other California freshwater game fish species
There are a few other California freshwater game fish species that really do not fall into another category. These include arctic grayling, sturgeon, whitefish, and carp.
22) arctic grayling
There are only a few places in the United Sates where arctic grayling can be found, and northern California streams and cold lakes are one of them. Grayling are like trout in habit, most are caught by anglers fly fishing or casting lures. The record fish is only 1 pound 12 ounces, but they are a beautiful, prized species.
Carp are found in the warm waters throughout the state. They prefer little or sluggish currents. Carp grow large, the California record is 52 pounds. Most are caught by anglers using worms and doughballs. While some consider carp to be a “rough” fish, they can be quite challenging.
24) white sturgeon
White sturgeon are the largest freshwater fish in North America. They grow very large, the California state record is 468 pounds. Most California sturgeon are caught in the Sacrament and San Joaquin River systems.
Mountain whitefish are found in higher elevation lakes in northern California. The record fish is 3 pounds, 1 ounce. They school up and are aggressive and good to eat. Anglers ice fishing for whitefish do very well as the actively feed even in very cold water.