A Beginner’s Guide to Lake Fishing for 2024

Jan 11, 2024 | 9 minute read
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Out of all the ways to get started in the world of fishing, lake fishing is certainly one of the easier ones. There’s no shortage of productive lakes in the US, and you don’t need any specialist gear for some good old Bass fishing. And even if you’re already an established saltwater angler, there’s always something new you can learn with a change of scenery.

An angler fishes on a lake with a treeline in the background.

Lake fishing is one of those things that are easy to learn but hard to master, and there’s no better time to start than right now. We’ll walk you through all the basics you need to know before heading out to your nearest freshwater lake. So without further ado, let’s talk fish!

What fish species can you catch in a lake?

Your choice of fish to target will mostly depend on the specific body of water you’re fishing in and the time of year you pick. To make things simple, we’ll walk you through some of the most popular lake fishing species in the US. Most of these you probably already know about, but expect a surprise or two along the way. Let’s dig in!

Salmon

An angler wearing sunglasses holds a Salmon he recently caught.

America’s favorite freshwater fish, it only makes sense we start this section off with Salmon. Lake Salmon tend to be bigger than their river counterparts, and landing a monster is more than worth the trip to one of the Great Lakes if you ask us. If you need a refresher on telling apart the many different Salmon species out there, be sure to check out our in-depth article.

The great thing about Salmon is that they cater to pretty much any kind of angler. Want to have a delicious dinner at the end of the day? Go after Sockeye. Itching for non-stop action? Coho Salmon will give you a run for your money. Looking for the biggest fish in the sea (or lake, as the case may be)? There’s a reason why Chinooks are commonly referred to as “King” Salmon.

Trout

A smiling angler holds a large Trout he recently caught on a lake fishing trip.

Another hugely popular fish, Trout are a lake fishing staple for good reason. You can find them pretty much anywhere, they taste good, and are hard fighters — what more can you want? Fishing for Trout in a lake is a bit different than going after them in a river, so prior knowledge will only take you so far. During summer, they’ll stay in the deeper sections of the river, before coming closer to shore as it gets colder.

Trout come in many shapes and sizes, with Rainbow, Brook, and Brown Trout among the most popular with lake anglers. Lake Trout are another common species, but their name’s a bit misleading as they actually belong to the Char family. We won’t hold that against them since they’re a lot of fun to catch, especially if you plan on going ice fishing.

Bass

An angler on a boat holds a Largemouth Bass he just caught.

Bass are the ideal fish for an angler who’s just starting out. If you aren’t sure what to target on your first lake fishing adventure, look no further! Highly aggressive and voracious, Bass are perfect for trying out different techniques and rigs until you settle on something that works for you. Spend some time targeting these light tackle superstars and you’ll quickly be ready to move onto bigger prey.

Compared to the previous species we mentioned, the different varieties of Bass are much more simple to wrap your head around. Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass are the two main types you’ll find strewn across lakes in the US. Typically, the best time to go after either of them is during their spring spawning season.

Walleye

A young angler holding a Walleye he caught on a lake fishing trip.

Another staple of lake fishing in North America, Walleye are an especially big deal in the Upper Midwest. Walleye aren’t the easiest fish for a beginner to grapple with but those tasty fillets at the end of the day make the struggle more than worth it. Most of the difficulty lies in finding them, since they prefer to run deep and feed in low-light conditions. Because of this, the prime times for targeting Walleye are just before sunrise and right after sunset.

Figuring out their movement patterns can be a tedious task even for an experienced angler, so don’t be discouraged if you’re having a slow day or two. On the other hand, if you think you have it all worked out, why not switch things up a bit and look for Walleye under the ice?

Catfish

A smiling angler holding a Catfish she recently caught.

Last but not least, we have the ever-present Catfish. These fish are widespread not just in North American lakes but across the entire world, and you can safely go Catfishing at pretty much any time of year. During their spring spawning season, you’ll be able to find them in the more shallow parts of a lake, while for the rest of the season they’ll head a bit deeper than that.

As far as US lakes are concerned, the usual Catfish varieties you’ll encounter are Channel, Blue, and Flathead Catfish. Channels are the most common of the bunch, but also the smallest. On the other hand, Blues are easily the largest, with some growing as big as 150 pounds.

And More!

There are lots of other fish like Bluegill, Pike, Crappie, and Sauger that you can also find in lakes across the country, just keep your eyes open. And if you’re up for something completely unique – you can even find Redfish in a couple of freshwater lakes near San Antonio, Texas. Definitely not something you see every day!

How do I fish on a lake?

Now that you know what you’re up against, we’ll move on to discuss the different ways by which you can go lake fishing. Different lakes and species will be better suited for different techniques, so make sure to do your due diligence for the specific lake you want to fish.

From a Boat

A charter boat cruising on Lake Erie.

Charter fishing on a boat is certainly the most hassle-free way to take your first steps into the world of freshwater fishing. Not only will you have an experienced guide show you the ropes, but you also won’t need to worry about buying gear. If you’re looking for a family-friendly option, this is definitely the way to go.

There are several advantages to fishing from a boat. To start with the most obvious one, it allows you to make use of trolling — a particularly useful technique when going after Salmon and Trout. Additionally, it’s much easier to reach deeper waters using a boat, which will give you a better chance of success when fishing outside of spawning season.

On Foot

An angler holding a fishing rod while standing at the edge of a lake.

Fishing on foot is also a perfectly valid option, especially if you just want to try what’s biting at your local lake. Depending on the location and size of the lake, you’ll have a couple of different options available to you. For example, you can try casting a few lines from shore and see if you have any luck. You’ll want to move around and try other spots, though, if you don’t get a good bite straight away.

If it turns out you don’t have good access to the deeper parts of the lake, you can buy a pair of waders and get closer to the action. When wading, try to remain still and avoid unnecessary movement so you don’t spook your prey. This is especially important when in more shallow waters.

Ice Fishing

An ice fisherman smiles while raising up a fish he just reeled in.

For some anglers, a frozen lake means the end of the fishing season. For others, it’s only the beginning! Compared to regular fishing, ice fishing is a more static technique since you’re limited to the holes you drill for that given trip. On the other hand, actually reeling the fish in when it bites is as fun as ever.

You’ll need some extra gear if you want to make the most of your ice fishing experience, but you always have the option of hiring a guide to take care of that for you. Depending on the size of the lake you’re fishing, there may also be local businesses that specialize in things like ice shack rentals. Under the right conditions, this can also be a fun outing for the whole family.

Fly Fishing

An angler casts a fly while wading in a lake.

You can’t really talk about freshwater angling without a word or two about fly fishing. Compared to regular casting and spinning, this is a whole different ball game. You’ll need a completely separate set of gear, from a special fly rod to a whole myriad of different fly patterns you can either buy or make on your own time.

There are anglers who find the whole experience tedious and needlessly complicated, but a lot more who never looked back after casting their first fly. You won’t know which one you are until giving it a go yourself.

What gear do I need for lake fishing?

Closeup of a spin rod and tackle on a boat.

Keeping in mind the sheer amount of fishing you can potentially go after in different fisheries, we couldn’t possibly cover gear for all of them. To keep things simple, we’ll show you a good starter option for Bass fishing on pretty much any lake in the States. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Rod and reel. A 6’ 6″ spinning rod and reel combo is the simplest option for beginners. It’s light enough for easy casting and strong enough to reel the Bass in.
  • Line. Avoid complicating things when you’re starting out. An 8 lb monofilament (mono) line will do the job no problem.
  • Bait. For Bass, all you need is a worm on a 1/0 circle hook. If you want to, you can also get some minnows to swap out the worms later on.

These are the absolute basics you need for functional Bass fishing. You can easily take this to the next level by talking to a local angler who can tell you from experience what works best in your specific fishery.

Popular Fishing Lakes in the US

An aerial view of Lake Superior from the Canadian side.

Out of so many excellent lakes in the United States alone, it’s not easy to settle for only a couple. After a lot of consideration, we picked out five lakes we think every ambitious angler should tackle at some point:

  • The Great Lakes. Since this is a chain of lakes rather than an individual lake, you could say we’re cheating right off the bat. The thing is, the fishing here is simply too good to just pick out one of the bunch. Whether it’s Lake Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, or Ontario, here’s some of the absolute best lake fishing you’ll ever have.
  • Lake Champlain. Split between New York, Vermont, and Quebec, Lake Champlain is sometimes referred to as “The Sixth Great Lake.” Hardly an understatement, considering it has some of the best Bass fishing in the country. Salmon trolling is also very popular in the spring and fall.
  • Lake Okeechobee. Florida’s biggest lake definitely deserves a spot on our list. Known for its spectacular Largemouth Bass fishing, it’s a popular destination for beginners and pros alike. Other than Bass, you’ll also find plenty of Panfish like Crappie and Bluegill in these waters.
  • Lake of the Woods. One of the largest lakes on the continent, Lake of the Woods is particularly known for its excellent Walleye fishing. Other than that, you can also find plenty of Northern Pike, Crappie, or Perch for your fishing needs. To top it all off, it’s great for ice fishing if you’re up for some drilling and jigging.
  • Clear Lake. The oldest lake in North America is a hugely popular spot for family fishing trips. If you want to share your passion with your loved ones while reeling in Largemouth Bass, Catfish, Crappie, and Bluegill, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better place for it on the West Coast.

Lake Fishing – It’s Never the Same Old Song

An angler smiles while presenting a fish he just caught.

Whether you’re a newly-minted angler taking your first steps into the hobby or a seasoned sea dog looking for something new, there will always be something in the lake for you. You don’t even need a boat! Just a rod, reel, some worms, and a bit of patience that goes a long way.

What was your experience getting into lake fishing? Where do you usually fish? Any catches you want to brag about? Let us know in the comments below!

Author profile picture

Vuk's first memory of fishing involves casting his grandfather's fly line onto a nearby tree branch with confidence only small children have. Despite the rocky start, fishing would become a significant part of his life and writing career some years down the road. He's still a big clutz, though, so tangling lines is always a possibility regardless of how much you know about fishing.

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