A Few Recommendations Regarding Freshwater Foraging

Our ancestors were dependent on freshwater foraging, and the great leaks and rivers in North America provided them with an abundant source of protein. Even today, freshwater foraging is a skill that is being used by Americans, although fish is not as abundant as it was back then.

If you plan to use freshwater foraging as your main method for procuring meat, the following article should help you figure out what to do when that time comes.

A history of freshwater foraging

Centuries ago, the initial explorers of North America viewed and reported vast freshwater fisheries resources along the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts. Early New Englanders disclosed numerous anadromous runs of Atlantic salmon, shad, sea-run trout, along with interior populations of char, landlocked salmon, lake trout, pickerel, etc.

Encountered along the Gulf, as the voyageurs proceeded inland, were giant bass in Florida, and catfish exceeding 100 pounds in weight inhabiting the Mississippi Delta. The West Coast was not unnoticed. Vast runs of sea-run trout, salmon, and sturgeon of enormous proportions swelled in the streams connecting to the sea. Interior mountain streams and lakes brimmed with indigenous trout, char, and other fish. The resource was vast, the waters coast-to-coast pristine and unadulterated.

As the white man penetrated the interior in search of furs, “manifest destiny,” and so forth, he discovered lake chains and mammoth (Great Lakes) waters, interior “seas” abounding with trout, walleye, and other highly desirable fish.

Prior and during this age of discovery, many coastal and interior Indian tribes engaged in fish harvesting activities varying from “casual” capture by hand or thrown objects (rocks, logs) to more advanced and dependable spears, bows, and arrows.

Freshwater Foaging Lakes

Several Indian cultures in coastal zones and large interior lake regions developed highly organized commercial “fish factories” that relied on elaborate netting and trapping systems, resulting in fresh and dried fish sustenance available for year-round consumption.

The white man, too, learned to harvest the bounties of the “sweet water” streams and lakes, but in many instances, his shear numbers and more advanced harvesting technology captured the fish at a greater rate than their natural replacement. Greed over-shadowed logic. Salmon, trout, sturgeon, catfish, etc., harvested in excess were disposed of as fertilizer and feed for crops and livestock.

One colonial era report mentioned barrels and hogsheads, filled with salmon and trout, left to spoil as shipping methods lagged well behind fish production. Another account stipulated that employers of servants could not serve salmon in excess of three times per week to their hired help.

Man’s impact on freshwater foraging

These unspoiled resources finally “felt” the impact of man. Man’s use of the land and water, in many instances, began to alter fish habitat. Deforestation for agricultural use, a necessary activity of the spread of civilization, produced pronounced ecological change.

Cold temperature streams that flowed at predictable volumes and “quality,” now either dried up in late summer, or their water temperature exceeded that for trout survival. The cooling overstory of trees that helped control both water temperature and volume had been replaced by farms and towns. Vast grasslands of the plains, tilled by “sodbusters,” created a vast grain belt.

However, fish frequenting this region experienced increased turbidity, and reduced summer/fall flows with unchecked floods of spring, all resulting in changes in fish types (species) and numbers. Many coldwater types were displaced by the more durable (not necessarily desirable) “rough” fish of warm water origin (with their inherent toleration of more severe environ-mental factors).

Other factors reduced fish populations further. Dams prevented migrations and regional movements, as well as drowning out needed spawning and feed locales, pollution in a diversity of types: oxygen-demanding wastes originating from municipal sources, livestock and factory operations, and toxic elements, the byproducts of technological advancements.

These are substances that kill many forms of aquatic life outright or weaken and mutilate existing life (fish) to the point of being susceptible to naturally occurring diseases or even worse, a total genetic mutation resulting in limited to zero reproduction. Or, in other cases, fish populations that visually appear healthy are lethal “time bombs” laced with chemicals. Once these are ingested by man, they accumulate throughout his body.


However, all is not grim. The art and science of fish management, sponsored by knowledgeable fishery personnel, in conjunction with waste treatment experts, have changed in most instances this course of destruction, resulting in many positive gains. Water quality, for the most part, has been improving. Treatment for waste at all levels of production has been initiated and implemented.

Numerous large impoundments devised for water storage, navigation, flood control, and power generation have created thousands of square miles of new fish habitat. Literally, millions of “farm ponds,” created by dams and excavations and existing coast-to-coast, provide fish production sites.

Original cold water stream watersheds have been reforested. Suitable high production fish habitats now exist once again. Federal, state, local, and private organizations maintain and produce billions of fish from highly sophisticated hatchery systems.

Introduced species, such as the “German” brown trout, filled, in many instances, these newly created biological slots created by land/water alteration. Land use modified the cold water brook trout streams. The brookies lost out. The slightly elevated temperature and turbid waters now provide excellent habitat to the browns.

Suggested article: Survival Fishing: How To Catch A Fish Without A Fishing Pole

On the other side of the coin, eastern brookies, through stocking, now frequent in sizeable numbers, their new homes in the western mountains. Largemouth bass of central drainages are now available coast-to-coast.

Some introduced species, such as the German carp, have adjusted too well, crowding out more desirable species, or have taken up the slot created by the demise of a less tolerable species (i.e., trout, etc.).

One of the current “success stories” of note, is the “rebirth” of the Great Lakes fishery, a massive project that included control of parasitic lampreys that enter the “land-locked” Great Lakes via the St. Lawrence Seaway, pollution abatement from municipal/commercial sources, stocking of forage fish for salmon and trout, and reintroduction of the “sharing” warm water fish: the walleye, perch, and bass.

The Future

lt appears that massive destruction of fish habitat has been halted or reduced, in most cases. However, land development, especially in the form of wetland drainage, is a crucial area of concern. Arid and semi-arid regions are still affected by irrigation operations, which, even though essential for agricultural production of foodstuffs, produce lower (lowering) water tables and increased salinity and temperatures, along with reduced stream flows.

On the other extreme, with the creation of dams on large rivers that originate in snow-covered mountains. Nearly year-round stable flows have been created, thus vastly improving the numbers of fish present.

The Future Of Freshwater Foraging

These fish management situations are not unique to North America. They are occurring worldwide. Man creates the problem. He is also the solution. Our inland fisheries have gone through changes and will continue to do so as long as the world exists. The future is bright, if we, the custodians of these fisheries, don’t lose sight of the overall picture.

Protein sources through freshwater foraging

Within the confines of the North American Continent, are many sources of animal protein in the form of freshwater habitat fish and associated creatures. Numerous species of finfish and a smattering of crustaceans, bivalves, amphibians, and reptiles are abundant, nutritious and are readily available to the survivalist in search of foodstuffs.

It is essential that a potential freshwater forager be able to identify the various “freshwater systems readily.” Following is a basic summary of physical features that enable the freshwater forager to discern such systems. He then will be able to fish each encountered system effectively (i.e., using salmon methods on a lake inhabited by bass might catch some bass).

Standing Waters

Generally speaking, “standing waters” are lakes and ponds, usually comprising open basins filled with water possessing limited internal water motion (there are exceptions—sub-surface inflow of water “springs,” as well as water circulation that is associated with the wind).

To confuse matters even further, in many locales, “standing water” areas exhibiting greater surface acreage are called ponds while smaller basins are labeled lakes. The usual nomenclature is that lakes are larger bodies, ponds smaller.

For this article, “standing waters” have been reduced to the following simplified classifications:

  1. Large, deep, cold water basins;
  2. Medium/large shallow warm water basins;
  3. “Two-story” cold/warm water basins;
  4. Man and animal constructed impoundments
  5. Medium/ large reservoirs;
  6. Stock and farm ponds;
  7. Beaver flowages.

“Moving” or no contained waters, for survival purposes are:

  1. Large major warm water river systems;
  2. Major cold water systems;
  3. Streams, brooks, spring-lets of cold water;
  4. Small, warm water creeks and tributary streams.

Large, deep, cold water basin types of standing waters exhibit the following physical and biological conditions:

  • they contain a pronounced ratio of depth to the surface area, usually layers of cold, well-oxygenated waters at mid to lower levels;
  • bottom composition is primarily composed of ledge, rock, gravel, sand with minimal emergent/submerged water vegetation (i.e.. Lilly pads, coontail. etc.), and limited amounts of organic material (i.e., usually in the form of decomposing leaves/needles of surrounding land-based vegetation).

The actual amount of living plankton (minute organisms at the beginning of the fish food chain) is low, in other words, a water basin of limited biological productivity. Nevertheless, such basins are prime exhibitors of high dissolved oxygen levels, coupled with cool year-round water temperatures and low turbidity (suspended solids in the water column), which in turn foster the habitat of many coldwater species, including the trouts, chars, and salmon.

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Shallow, warm water basins possess their own specific qualities, both physical and biological. In essence, a relatively shallow depth to surface area ratio is present. Bottom composition could be a combination of ledges, rocks, gravels, and sands, but usually with a high percentage of muds comprising organic materials (i.e., leaves, needles, remains of dead submergent/emergent vegetation such as Lilly pads, coontail, cattails).

In many instances, dissolved oxygen levels are lower, while the water temperature is higher than cold water basins. Many basins of this type exhibit stratification. In many instances, the usual high temperatures of mid-summer waters deplete the oxygen level, thus narrowing the comfort/survival factors of many fish and limiting the species that reside in those waters: largemouth bass, catfish, pickerels, pikes and panfish.

“Two-story” cold/warm water basins possess the characteristics (physical/biological) of both deep cold water basins and the shallow water type. Essentially a mixture of physical components temperature, dissolved oxygen, bottom composition, depth) and biological components (organic muds/vegetation or lack of) with each specific site being inhabited by preferred species.

For example, trout might locate in a deep, cold, well-oxygenated hole, largemouth bass along the dropoff, with still other bass and accompanying chain pickerel content amongst the emergent Lilly pads of a shallow soft bottom (organic mud) cove of several feet in depth.

Water Basin

Man-made impoundments can be found in all previous categories. One must simply evaluate the existing physical/ biological conditions present. An impoundment is usually identified by a visible dam or dike constructed of cement/ concrete, gravels, or sod-covered earth. The surface area can vary from 10 to 20 acres upwards to hundreds of square miles.

Stock and farm ponds are small, often overlooked sources of protein. These “miniature fish factories” can be further categorized by being either cold or warm water basin types.

Coldwater types usually contain trout or char, often planted (stocked) fingerlings or fry. Subsequent stocking of small fish is essential to maintain fish production unless a suitable spring or inlet stream is available, thus providing the proper physical/biological site for spawning (water temp., rate of flow, gravel of proper proportion to construct nest, etc., to be discussed in detail in an upcoming article on freshwater aquaculture).

Warm water types usually contain self-sustaining populations of warm water species (i.e., largemouth bass, bluegill, catfish, etc.). Suitable spawning/nursery sites are usually at hand.

Beaver flowages often offer a readily available source of fish protein. The dam structure is easily recognized by the “control random piling” of sections of tree trunks and branches. Dams erected on cold flowing year-round streams or springs, usually possess excellent populations of cutthroat trout in the West, while the upper Midwest and New England usually harbor good populations of “native” or brook trout.

Other fish many times found in association are bullhead catfish and suckers, all good candidates for the survivalist’s freshwater food program. Beaver ponds located in southern regions often provide suitable habitat for warm water species, primarily catfish, largemouth bass, and an assortment of panfish.

Moving Waters

Moving or non-contained water systems include:

1. Large warm-water rivers (including brackish sections) usually characterized by large, moderately deep rivers varying from several hundred yards in width to several miles across (i.e., Mississippi River, lower).

The physical bottom, in many instances, is composed of organic muds, laced and mixed with clays, gravel, sand, occasional rock ledges, and similar outcroppings. The water temperature range is usually severe (i.e., 32F. to 80/90F.) with both cold and hot water periods (varies with climatic influence).

Turbidity is usually a factor, with much water-conveyed silt being suspended, especially during the spring flood periods. All these physical characteristics combine to produce a moderately harsh aquatic environment, with varying amounts of D.O. (dissolved oxygen) present.

The usual finfish populations are of the “durable” variety, with bass, pike, sunfish, walleyes habituating the “tamer” sections (more favorable D.O., temperature, turbidity, etc.), with tolerant catfish and rough fish (carps, buffalo, etc.) being the greater poundage of the fish biomass.

2. Major cold water river systems (including brackish sections), usually exhibit relatively cold waters that are well oxygenated, which conditions prevail year-round.

The sources of these relatively consistent waters arc numerous springs, brooks as well as infiltration through porous gravels that line the flowage. Bottom and shoreline composition are primarily of rock, gravel, and sand, thus affording suitable spawning habitat for salmon, trout, char; with pike, bass, and suckers spawning in the warmer sectors (these areas might be a small man-made impoundment or “meadow/valley stretch of the stream).

Salmon On American River

Stream width might vary from 50 yards to 500 yards or more. Biologically, the cold waters are relatively low on the productivity scale; nevertheless, much protein may be procured if fished intensively and properly. The bottom is usually relatively free of submerged vegetation and lacks large areas of organic bottom compositions.

3. Springs, brooks, rivulets of cold water emit flows of ice-cold water year-round, “warm” in winter, cold in summer.

Small volume flows (counted in cubic or fractions of cubic feet per second) provide habitat for surprisingly large populations of small trout and other edible finfish. The bottom composition might vary from rock and gravel in the Rockies of Utah to unweadable organic “muck” bottoms of a hemlock swamp stream in Maine. In both instances, the angler can either literally step across or jump across such fish producers.

4. Small warm water stream creeks and tributaries, physically may vary from 10 to 100 feet in width, usually possessing a relatively mild gradient (When compared to the majority of cold water streams. Exception to the rule is a meadow type trout stream of the Rocky Mountain foothills).

The bottom composition is varied: rock, ledges, sand, clays, silts with pockets, and pods of organic base muds. Many such systems are subjected to severe seasonal flooding (with its accompanying turbidity) combined with seasonably rather warm water temperatures (lower D.O. and reduction of comfort/survival range of fish), only moderate stress-durable fish would be en-countered (largemouth bass, assorted panfish, catfish and “rough” fish, the carp, sucker, buffalo, etc.).

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Flab Availability

A prime factor that influences the availability of freshwater food fish is pollution, in organic form, industrial/chemical origin, and thermal form (water of excessive temperature that robs D.0.).

Pollution encourages a variety of fish diseases brought on by the additional stresses. In areas of nuclear waste, either from everyday power plant discharges, or nuclear accidents, from waste storage sites or from weapon detonation (“the big one”), special care must be taken by the survival forager to ensure health. Avoid these sites at all costs.

Of equal importance are the carcinogenic contaminants found in apparently healthy food fish, all possessing harmful levels of heavy metals, PCBs, insecticides, herbicides, defoliants, etc. Questionable sites include drainages (pond, lake, or stream) located on or with “watershed” (areas in which water flows downhill, either surface visible streams, or subterranean-percolation-moving through porous stratum gravels and sand) near industrial/chemical/manufacturing plants that discharge wastes and cooling waters.

Other sites to avoid are municipal sewer discharges (often containing large amounts of heavy metals and toxic wastes, especially if there is no pre-treatment, as the majority of municipal wastewater plants are not equipped to do so), near dumps or sanitary landfills, and near areas of intensive agriculture where the use of fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, and woody plant defoliants is prevalent (farm crops, fruit trees, golf courses, powerline rights of ways).

These man-made contaminates enter the aquatic food chain, and finally, end up in the fin fish’s flesh. Of interest to the forager, is that a particular fish’s dietary habits will limit or vary the amount of toxicity in its flesh. Meat-eating predator fish (largemouth bass), consume smaller fish that have absorbed these waste. Each upward “rung” in the food chain ladder results in more concentration, right up to the man on the end of the food chain. Basic vegetable-eating fish like carp tend to have fewer concentrations of waste.

Other important considerations include the fat contents of a given fish species. Usually, the higher the fat count, the more the tissues “hold” the wastes. In addition, the age of the finfish will help determine the waste levels in the flesh. The longer a fish resides in such an environment, the greater its toxic level.

In a survival scenario, a moderately polluted river might harbor edible fish of vegetative eating habits under two years of age which are unsafe for consumption by resident predator fish and perfectly edible fish of migratory origin (i.e., shad, salmon, etc.) that have not “lingered” for sufficient time in the polluted environment to taint the flesh.

Again the degree of toxicity in the fish flesh will determine the safe/unsafe consumption rate. Some fish will be off-limits at all times (except during crucial survival scenarios). Others will be safe for moderate consumption (once a week but still off-limits to pregnant/lactating women), and still others will be fit for everyday use by all. The ideal fish producing locale is a “clean” one, but foragers will not always have this choice.

Yes or No

When considering a potential fish species for survival food from a questionable source, if the source is well-populated with fish and readily accessible in your domain, it is strongly recommended that tests be performed by a recognized laboratory on the said fish before the actual need arises.

Heavy metals, exotic chemicals, along with traces of agricultural chemicals, may be above established federal or state safe limits. Pollution, in a variety of sources (thermal, oxygen demanding, inert silts, chemicals, etc.), provides stress on the freshwater aquatic environment to a varying degree depending on the type and quantity induced, rate of dispersal, and physical and biological characteristics of the water system.

Water Pollution

If freshwater sources are possible food suppliers, check to see if species and quantities desired are available for harvest as pollution affects the type and volume of fish present. For example, a non-polluted-appearing trout or smallmouth bass stream of eastern Tennessee might seem to be a site for sustained fish production. A closer examination reveals acid seepage from an abandoned coal mine. The excessively acidic waters produce nil in fish biomass with a slight, gradual increase in fish biomass and diversity (types) as stream miles accumulate (downstream).

The first 2 miles downstream from the pollution source contain no appreciative finfish, miles 3 to 5 display a steady increase in suckers and other rough fish, miles 6 to 8 show a mixed population of rough fish and bass, miles 9 to 12 indicate a higher percentage of game to rough fish ratios (trout begin to appear in the census). A full 20 miles downstream, the waters have diluted sufficiently to create a “balanced” clean stream fish population. Check your potential food sources out before the potential food crisis.

Recommended reading: Preparation Techniques To Remove Contamination In The Fish You Catch

Acid rain is a form of airborne pollution (originating from industrial emissions and to a lesser degree. from internal combustion motors) that precipitates from the sky via rain or snow into streams, lakes, etc. This increased acidity lowers the pH levels in ninny waters affecting the productivity of it. Many waters are prune to lower, or elimination of, fish production, resulting in no fish populations (“dead” lake).

The serious forager should contact his regional department of environmental health to determine the safety of fish in question. If they fail to provide this essential information, consult a private laboratory.


Freshwater foraging was a good food-procuring method for our ancestors, and it’s still usable today. Preppers and survivalists should start by learning about their geographical region and figure out the best water holes for freshwater foraging. You may not be a good hunter or a successful trapper, but you can always learn how to fish using improvised methods or by building fish traps.

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1 thought on “A Few Recommendations Regarding Freshwater Foraging”

  1. An ecological catastrophe caused by the damming of streams and rivers has been the destruction of habitat of mussels, the American freshwater oyster, once so abundant they were the foundational protein of extensive cultures in North America. There are a few free running streams in Texas where mussels can still be found in numbers that would support survival. Easiest fishing there is, you just pick em up and steam them. It is forgotten they were once so abundant that Texas was the main supplier for the market in France after our Civil War.


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