Why are saltwater fish, on the average, bigger than freshwater? The answer is probably that there are lots of space and feeding opportunities in the sea, especially in the ocean. Or, it could be that the first fishes appeared in the ocean, and only later some of the species adapted to living in rivers and lakes. Whatever the reason, while there are numerous saltwater species that can weigh up to a metric ton, freshwater fish are usually on the small side.
However, rivers and lakes all over the world contain some species that can proudly wear the name “giant” as well. Some of them, including the giant Mekong catfish and the famous beluga sturgeon are now, unfortunately, critically endangered. But others can be targeted by sports anglers, and here are the list of five freshwater giants that should be on every angler’s bucket list.
The sturgeon family has a number of great members, including the beluga which is often quoted as being the heaviest freshwater fish. This, however, is a bit of tongue-in-cheek, as the beluga spends most of its time in the sea, only entering rivers to spawn. In any case, there’s no sport fishing for it for environmental reasons. Sturgeon fisheries in the Old World have been depleted by the demand for caviar. The North American Conservation Model, however, proved its efficiency once again, and anglers can pursue the white sturgeon in both the USA and Canada. The world rod-and-reel record stands at 3,76 meters (148”) and estimated weight of about 500 kg (1100 lb), for a fish caught in the Fraser River in British Columbia, Canada in 2012. If you count only the fish weighed and measured out of the water, then the credits go to Joey Pallotta, who caught a 2.85 meter (112”), 212 kg (468 lb) fish in California in 1983.
The Fraser River is believed to be the best destination for white sturgeon fishing, but other locations on the Pacific Coast may also produce excellent fishing experience. Bottom fishing with live bait is the most common method of white sturgeon fishing. Such a big fish prefers deep waters, so it’s best to fish from a boat, and when that’s not possible, pick a rod and reel that will allow you to make real long casts. The sturgeon tend to suck their food in, so don’t rush with setting in the hook when you feel a bait. An 8-10 foot fish is an excellent catch these days. This valuable and endangered species should be treated with care, so be sure to be quick with measurement, photos, and release, and do it without lifting the fish out of the water, no matter what size your catch.
The world angling record for this strange-looking, paddle-snouted fish stands at 126,55 kg (279 lb), for a fish caught in Texas. The broad snout of this fish is filled with sharp teeth and reminds one of the alligator, thus the name. The alligator gar is found in south-eastern North America. Like the arapaima, it has a visceral swim bladder that allows it to extract oxygen from air, which it gulps as it springs out of the water. The long body of alligator gar is covered with scales that are made of material similar to tooth enamel, and are very hard if not impenetrable.
“Everything’s bigger in Texas” is a saying that doesn’t always stand to scrutiny, but as applied to alligator gar it’s perfectly true. Florida, Louisiana and other states in the Mississippi basin offer great gar fishing as well. An ambush predator, an alligator gar can be taken by a variety of methods, including spinning and set rigs, but the most popular way appears to be rod-and-line with dead bait, such as pieces of the common carp. The mouth of alligator gar is very hard, and some anglers prefer to wait until the fish swallows the bait. When catch-and-release is the goal, however, anglers are encouraged to set the hook at once. Bowfishing is another popular method of taking alligator gar.
Arapaima is a native of the Amazon river basin, and is often described as “a living fossil”. This amazing ancient fish, that survived unchanged for millions of years, can use air oxygen, with the help of its swimming bladder, which is bigger than with most other fish species and is filled with lung-like tissue. It helps the arapaima to survive in waters with very low oxygen content, and in fact it can live up to 24 hours outside of water. It is also very big, with the current angling world record standing at 154 kg (339 lb). The arapaima has a surprisingly small head and tail for such a big body, and very strong, but also highly flexible, scales that resemble plywood in structure. Almost boneless, it’s a valuable food source for the local population, which has resulted in overfishing in some locations.
Peru is usually mentioned as the prime arapaima fishing destination, but in addition to their native habitat, arapaima are grown in stocked ponds in locations such as Thailand. The traditional way of arapaima fishing in the Amazon is harpooning. It begins with patient observation: from time to time, the arapaima will rise to the surface to gulp for air. This is how the anglers know where the fish is, and as it rises again, they spear it. Sports fishermen mostly use bottom fishing with live bait. The arapaima are very strong fighters in and out of the water, and can deliver a very painful strike with its hard, bony head as you try to measure and photograph the fish.
There are many species in the catfish family, and some can grow very big. But for this post I selected a variety that is both very big and widely distributed. If you’re looking for a big fish to catch without venturing far from civilization, the wels catfish is your choice – the current world angling record, 125 kg (297 lb 9 oz), is a fish caught in the river Po in Italy. An opportunistic predator-scavenger, the wels catfish has a big, wide head and a long body, covered in slime. It can feed on a surprising variety of sources, including fish, frogs, rodents, waterfowl, and a study in France proved that the wels catfish can plunge ashore and catch pigeons sitting at the edge of the water! Young wels catfish are quite tasty, but trophy-sized fish aren’t recommended for consumption, due to possible accumulation of heavy metals and other toxins, so fishing for them is catch-and-release only.
Originally found in the basins of the Black, Baltic and Caspian Seas, the wels catfish has been introduced as sports fish in many rivers of Western Europe. While the introduction has been questionable from the environmental point of view, there’s no doubt that fishing for wels catfish is an exciting pursuit. The most widespread method of wels catfish fishing is bottom fishing with live or dead bait. A unique technique of wels catfish fishing is clonk fishing. The clonk is a special tool that is used to strike the surface of the water and produce the sound like that of pulling the cork out of a wine bottle. It is not clear why exactly this sound attracts the cats – some experts link it to protection of breeding grounds, and others to feeding – but if a big wels catfish is nearby, it can’t fail to approach the source of the sound and grab the bait.
While there are bigger and heavier fish out there, one can’t simply omit the taimen. In fact, from the angler’s perspective taimen should probably be crowned as the king of freshwater fish. This is because it belongs to the salmonid family, and is an active predator that can be caught in a variety of ways, including fly fishing. The current world angling record is a 50 kg (110 lb) and 156 cm (5’ 4”) fish caught in 2020 in the Tugur River in Russia. Incidentally, this is lower by weight than the angling record for huchen (58 kg), another freshwater salmonid found in Donau basin, but taimen is still a bigger fish; commercial fisheries historically produced specimens weighing up to 100 kg.
In addition to Russia, a great destination for taimen is Mongolia. It is said that the Mongols had a taboo against eating fish, and therefore the local rivers are swarming with the scaly creatures. In any case, pursuit of taimen usually involves backcountry fishing trips into unspoilt wilderness – a treat in itself. Taimens love to feed on rodents, and one of the best taimen lures is the “mouse”. Siberians often make their own lures out of locally sourced components – a skin of a wood mouse or chipmunk pulled over a base carved out of wood or tree bark, and equipped with a couple of big hooks. Taimen is highly competitive: if a bigger taimen sees a smaller taimen chasing a prey, it will have to get ahead of the competitor and grab it for itself. This quality made it extremely vulnerable to anglers, and adopting a catch-and-release policy, even though it is not usually required by local fishing regulations, is strongly recommended to any ethical angler.
The five species mentioned here are not the only big freshwater fish that you can catch. Stay with us for more information on exciting fishing opportunities all over the world!