The Five Most Challenging Freshwater Fish in North America

The Five Most Challenging Freshwater Fish in North America

At a certain point, every human on earth finds a natural need to test themselves. Whether you’re playing a video game on the hardest difficulty or deciding to climb Mount Everest, there will come a time when you choose not to push the easy button and embrace the challenge. This is especially true in the outdoor world. While most hunters embrace this ideology and are constantly upping their game by pursuing species like mountain goat in the backcountry and utilizing difficult hunting methods like tracking, few realize that the same thing can be done with fishing.

If you’re the sort of angler who gets tired of using the same simple worm and bobber rigs, you can level up by trying more challenging techniques like fishing with lures or by Spey casting. Or you can start moving away from those easy-to-catch species like panfish and perch and start targeting bigger game like bass, trout, or pike. If you’ve already got this stuff down, you can really see what you’re truly made of as an angler by pursuing some of the most challenging freshwater fish in North America. All of these fish are a guaranteed challenge and will push your patience, dedication, and fishing skill to the very limit.

Atlantic Salmon

Often referred to as the sport of kings, Atlantic salmon fishing is probably the most simultaneously difficult and rewarding freshwater fishing that can be found on the planet. Native to the North Atlantic Ocean, these salmon are well known for their amazing leaps and fighting ability, their beautiful colors, and perhaps most infamously—for being a major pain in the ass to hook.

There aren’t a lot of places left with large enough salmon populations to allow for recreational angling because they’ve been wiped out from most of their native range by overfishing or just general mismanagement. So the few places you can fish for salmon are heavily regulated, only allowing anglers to use techniques that generally aren’t very productive such as fly fishing with a single hook and barbless fly.

Like their Pacific counterparts, Atlantic salmon are anadromous, meaning that they live in saltwater and then run into freshwater rivers to spawn. But unlike other sea-run species, such as striped bass which feed fairly regularly when they are in the river, salmon don’t eat at all as they make their way upstream. Instead, they rely on the body fat accumulated in the ocean to push themselves up rapids and waterfalls to their spawning area. This creates a unique and frustrating challenge for anglers pursuing them as they must figure out a way to get a fish to strike a lure or fly when it’s not eating.

“I guess one fact that makes them so hard to catch is that you’re fishing for a fish that isn’t eating and isn’t hungry, so it makes using a scientific approach or matching the hatch almost pointless,” 30-year veteran Atlantic salmon guide Robert Chiasson said. “Sometimes the fly you use doesn’t matter at all, and sometimes it does. The little nuances in salmon fishing can’t be learned in books, they must be learned on the water and it can take hours and hours and years and years to get an understanding of what you’re doing, and even then, you could be completely wrong.”

However, the challenge of Atlantic salmon fishing is one that can be well rewarded when you do it right. Hooking into one of these majestic fish is one of the greatest thrills in all of fishing and is something that sticks with you throughout your angling career.

“They’re not called the leaper for nothing, they’re one of the strongest fish, fastest, best-fighting freshwater fish and that’s it in a nutshell,” Chiasson told MeatEater. “Every salmon you catch, it feels like the first time. The excitement is always there, and I guess that’s why I’m still chasing them. To be able to see a salmon take a fly either on or very close to the surface is the ultimate thrill in fishing. They’re very surface oriented, and that’s a special aspect of salmon fishing as well. The pinnacle of fly fishing pursuit is being able to catch an Atlantic salmon on a dry fly. Once you see it, it will keep you chasing salmon for the rest of your life.”


Muskie have their own mystique. They haunt the waters that they live in like wraiths, drifting slowly through the deep and shadowy depths of rivers, lakes, and even small streams, waiting to strike and devour their unsuspecting prey. Having a big muskie on your wall or even a good grip-and-grin photo on your social media sets you apart from other anglers, letting others know that you have the patience and angling skill to have hooked and landed one of these aquatic monsters.

What makes a muskie so difficult to catch is that they only feed in short windows of time. Their ability to eat large, calorie-packed prey means that they only need to eat once or twice a day or even once or twice a week. This gives anglers a short period to get a lure or fly in front of them when they’re in the mood to feed.

So when you’re targeting muskie, you have to spend a lot of time on the water and cover as much of it with your baits as humanly possible. Often called “the fish of 10,000 casts,” muskie fishing is about making long, repeated casts with large, heavy lures and flies from daylight to dark, with each cast feeling like a fervent prayer that may never be answered. Yet the challenge presented by muskie has created a sort of obsession that is almost entirely unique in fishing culture. Muskie anglers are completely dedicated to the pursuit and possibility presented by the big fish despite the difficulty found in catching one.

“In our part of the world, there’s nothing better,” Wisconsin muskie guide Chris Willen said. “The big muskie you dream about, the one that you’re really after, is old. She’s smart, and she’s seen it all before. Her feeding windows are short, and more than likely she’s not in the usual haunts. It takes pinpoint timing and presentation upon hours and hours, months, seasons, and even years so that you may find that fish. They’re rarely easy, and that’s what keeps us all coming back.”


Though a lot of anglers are familiar with rainbow trout as the fish are stocked heavily and live naturally in lakes, rivers, and ponds across the United States, few are as familiar with the unique process that makes these popular gamefish into steelhead. When rainbows are born in rivers that connect with the Pacific Ocean or even in the Great Lakes, many of the fish will leave the streams where they were born and head out into the big water where they undergo a serious transformation. These massive and powerful water bodies almost distill inside of the trout, giving them all the strength, power, and beauty of the sea. When they return to the rivers from whence they came, they come back as giant, bright silver titans that offer some of the most unique and challenging fishing you may ever experience.

Like salmon, steelhead don’t feed when they return to the rivers, so they must be triggered by using gaudy lures and flies that create aggression in the fish and cause them to strike. This can be limiting for anglers unfamiliar with techniques like nymphing, swinging flies, or back trolling with large and garish lures, and is made all the more difficult by a steelhead’s habits once they enter a river. Unlike other anadromous fish that travel in large schools, steelhead generally travel the river alone or in pairs, meaning that you’ll only have one or two fish in every section of water that you fish.

When you do finally hook a steelhead, all of that condensed power that resides in them, helping them to swim upstream and jump waterfalls, is completely unleashed. Hooking into one is like lassoing an aquatic freight train, where the fish runs hard downstream, often snapping lines and even rods in the process. This means that after spending days and even weeks slogging through rivers trying to find a fish, your only real contact with a steelhead is a broken line and a broken heart. However, it also means that every single one you bring to hand is a life-changing accomplishment.

Brown Trout

Brown trout are easily the most popular and sought-after member of the trout family. Native to Europe and more closely related to Atlantic salmon than they are to other trout species, browns are considered to be the smartest trout. Now, when you’re talking about an animal whose brain is the size of a pea, “smart” is relative. They aren’t swimming around reading Shakespeare or doing advanced mathematics, but it does seem that browns learn things better than other trout species.

In heavily pressured rivers where brookies, rainbows, and cutthroats are ready and willing to eat the same flies and lures repeatedly, brown trout quickly learn to avoid certain baits and grow particular about presentation. When a fly is drifting too fast or too slow or a lure or bait is being fished unnaturally, most browns will completely avoid them.

Additionally, brown trout are also much more predatory than other trout and have a tendency to become almost completely nocturnal. This means that big browns will often ignore large hatches in favor of eating other fish, or they will be completely uninterested in feeding until nightfall. These habits make them incredibly difficult to find and to stay on top of when you’re fishing for them.

“Brown trout can be challenging because they basically behave like little (or big) devils in the river,” Montana fly fishing guide James Mugele told MeatEater. “You can find them sipping mayflies like the rest of the trout in the system, or you can find them laying in ambush, acting more like a pike or muskie than a salmonid. They relate to structure more than any other trout, forcing anglers to think outside the box to be successful.”

That’s the thing that makes catching a big brown trout such a challenge. They’re a moody and mysterious fish that are incredibly hard to pattern, yet that’s also what makes the struggle worth the rewards. When you put a big brown in the net, you know you’ve really got something special. Brown trout are a fish of the old world that somehow connect you more with the natural cycles of the river.

“Besides being beautiful, anglers should fish for browns because they bring us a little closer to the circle of life,” Mugele said. “Are the browns feeding on insects today or on other fish? I truly believe that by targeting them, we can gain a better understanding of what’s going on down under the water. They simply make you a better fisherman.”


Traditionally thought of as a trash fish, burbot have recently undergone a sort of renaissance in angling circles that is quickly making them a valued gamefish. They have a high-quality flesh and have become prized among those who favor a good fish fry. However, along with this newfound glory has come the realization that burbot can be extremely hard to catch. Due to their previous unpopular status, very little research has been done on the fish, both by scientists and anglers looking to learn more about their movements and habits. Spread out in deep lakes and even brackish estuaries across the northern tier of North America, burbot maintain healthy populations in most of the waters they reside in, yet much of the time when you’re fishing for them, you’d swear the lake was empty.

A species of freshwater cod, the little we do know about burbot is that they are an extremely inactive fish. Outside of the spawn when they will move into water as shallow as two feet, burbot spend most of their time lying on the bottom in deep water, often moving as little as two to three feet away from their lie throughout the entire day! Yet when they are moving, burbot are some of the most voracious predators in any given water body they reside in, competing with other species like lake trout and walleye for the same forage.

The challenge in catching burbot is both in finding the fish and in fishing at the exact right time. Like muskie, burbot only have short feeding windows, so when they’re not in the mood to eat, you can drop bait right onto their heads and it won’t matter. A very popular ice fishing target, most successful burbot anglers locate the fish with electronics and then camp out above them throughout the day. They’ll jig baits continuously, just waiting for that moment when the big fish will suddenly turn on and decide that now it is the time to strike. Successful burbot anglers are those that have both the patience and wisdom to target them and are skilled enough to know the exact right baits and the exact right methods to use during a burbot's feeding window. The challenge of fishing for them makes every fish you catch and every bite of succulent burbot meat you eat all the more delicious.

Bragging Rights

Doing things the hard way always comes with a certain pride. Not so much in a way that has you blustering around like one of those showoff ego-lifters at the gym. Rather it gives you a sort of spiritual satisfaction in knowing that you truly accomplished something. In fishing for and catching a challenging fish species, you’re moving well beyond the simple realms of tossing a worm off a dock and further into the realms of angling and being an angler.

However, on the other side of the spectrum, just like shooting a big buck or a big bull elk way back in the mountains adds a bit of swagger to your step, landing one of these fish does give you some serious bragging rights. The kind that may earn you a few extra beers at the bar or a mysterious hole being suddenly punched in your boat or waders, depending on what kind of fishing buddies you have. So if you’re tired of just going down to the lake and filling a bucket with bluegills, or if you’re just looking to make fishing more of an adventure, why not give one of these challenging species a try? They’re out there waiting for you.

Feature image via Tosh Brown.

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