List of Common Freshwater Fish Species in Alabama [Updated]
The southeastern state of Alabama is home to a rich array of natural resources. Its landscape is dotted with canyons, beaches, cave systems, and wetlands that are full of both rare and endangered life. Though the state is relatively small, its variation in terrain is nothing short of diverse. Some of the most ecologically important regions, such as the Appalachian Ridge and the Piedmont Upland, contain valuable rivers.
Alabama boasts an abundance of water. In fact, one-sixth of the state’s total land area is covered in freshwater resources like lakes, estuaries, reservoirs, ponds, and springs. Several of these contain water that is clean enough to drink and is thus perfect for the needs of many aquatic animals and plants. They form some of the most biodiverse freshwater systems in North America, so it’s no surprise that around 300 species of fish call them home!
Freshwater fish can thrive in Alabama’s wetlands due to a unique combination of factors. The rivers contain gentle substrates such as gravel and sand, making them desirable spawning sites. The discharge rate of cool water is also sustained throughout the year, benefiting the long-term health of fish. It’s no surprise, then, that the Alabama watershed is perceived as the Amazon of the US.
1) Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus)
The channel cat is an economically important species. It is grown in aquaculture farms and is fished commercially in some of Alabama’s most productive freshwater systems. Found in a wide range of water bodies, including swamps, backwaters, and reservoirs, this species likely expanded its range throughout the continent from within Alabama’s wetlands and those of its neighboring states.
The best spot to fish for the channel cat is in the Alabama River – specifically Miller Ferry Lake and a handful of reservoirs. It is considered one of the most abundant gamefish species in the area, and the chances of catching impressively large individuals are quite high with the right gear. The state’s largest ever individual, which weighed around 40 pounds (18 kg), was fished in 1967.
2) Blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus)
Reaching massive lengths, the blue cat is the largest catfish species in the Nearctic. It favors murky waters, where it has a high tolerance for pollutants. Able to feed on practically all forms of living and decaying animals, this phenomenal species is likewise abundant in the Alabama River. The local variation in prey types and wide range of bottom habitats enable its high spawning success rates.
In Alabama’s waters, mature blue cats can easily weigh more than 50 pounds (23 kg) each. Their productive populations make them highly sought after as a sport and food fish. Coastal areas with weed beds and fallen plant material, especially those located in the river’s lower delta, are ideal spots for blue cat fishing.
3) Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus)
A favored forage fish for many of North America’s large aquatic carnivores, the bluegill plays an important role wherever it is found. Given its high reproductive rate, its presence largely influences the structure of freshwater food webs. Its populations help control the growth and spread of macroinvertebrates and, in turn, serve as a vital food source for secondary and tertiary consumers.
Bluegills are found all throughout Alabama as they can persist in smaller bodies of water. Able to thrive in clean springs, reservoirs, and ponds (both private and public), it can easily sustain its local numbers through the annual production of millions of juveniles. The best angling season for this species is during its spawning period, the peak of which takes place during the first full moon of May.
4) Redear sunfish (Lepomis microlophus)
Also known as the shellcracker, the redear sunfish is most abundant where its favored prey types – mollusks and snails – are found. Its hard, pharyngeal teeth allow it to break tough exoskeletons, giving it a competitive edge in macroinvertebrate-rich lakebeds. Popular among many local recreational anglers, it is distinguished from its bluegill cousins by its coloration.
Redear sunfish are more populous in the lower half of Alabama, where they may often be found in slightly saline waters. Their tolerance for moderate salinity makes them outnumber bluegills in this area. One of the best locations for shellcracker fishing is Mobile Bay.
5) Largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides)
Arguably unrivaled in its capacity to consume large prey, the largemouth bass is considered a formidable predator and a valuable sport fish. It is the largest of all black bass species as its adults are able to weigh as much as 25 pounds (11 kg) in productive waters. Apart from fish, they are able to consume many types of amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals. They may also consume young of their own kind if food is scarce.
Largemouth bass are most abundant from April to May, when water temperatures go up to about 17 – 20˚C (63 – 68˚F) and they are able to spawn. Alabama’s official state fish, they’re found in practically all freshwater systems. Interestingly, their impressive distribution is due in part to their tolerance for turbid waters. Locals are advised against eating wild specimens of this species, however, due to their capacity to bioaccumulate mercury.
6) Smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu)
Known for being an aggressive black bass, the smallmouth can easily out-compete larger types of bass despite its moderate size. Its slender body allows it to swim quickly and with ease in clear bodies of cool water. Favoring lower temperatures, its range in Alabama is largely restricted to the Tennessee River System. In summer months, it prefers to retreat into deeper, cooler waters.
Smallmouth bass are usually bioindicators of clean lake systems due to their poor tolerance for pollution. As they rely on visual cues to feed, their success rate as predators is best in high-visibility waters. Extremely popular as gamefish throughout the US, they reputedly put up the best fight (among bass species) and can be caught using both natural and artificial types of bait.
7) Black crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus)
Black crappies are known for being prolific breeders with a tendency to overpopulate small bodies of water. A healthy population of predators is thus required to keep their numbers in check. Though this makes them quite tricky to raise in private ponds, experienced fish farmers in the southeastern US continue to stock them. Fairly easy to catch, particularly when they are feeding, crappies are often caught in vegetated areas.
This species often hybridizes with its close cousin, the white crappie (Pomoxis annularis). Both species and their hybrids can be found in the lakes of Alabama. Distinguishing between these is very tricky as they possess the same pigmentation and are very similar to one another in size. Accurate identification requires a close inspection of the spines on the fish’s dorsal fins.
8) Chain pickerel (Esox niger)
The chain pickerel is the largest type of pike found in the state of Alabama. It can be found in silty streams, rivers, reservoirs, and swamps with a mild current. As a predator, it feeds by lying motionless in productive shorelines, only darting forward to catch unsuspecting prey. Rows of sharp teeth allow it to feed on a wide range of items, including small terrestrial animals that fall into the water.
Despite being a native species of Alabama, the chain pickerel is rarely targeted by anglers. Set apart by its lengthy bodice, it can grow to about 24 – 30 inches (61 – 76 cm) long. Its common name alludes to the greenish pigmentation on its sides, which may resemble the pattern of a chain. Its back is an even darker shade of green, but the ventral portion of its abdomen may be creamy to yellow in color.
9) Grass pickerel (Esox americanus vermiculatus)
A subspecies of the American pickerel, the grass pickerel is distinguished by its dusky colors and its light and dark bands. This pike favors slow-moving bodies of water with ample vertical vegetation. As a carnivore, it feeds on smaller fish. It spawns its eggs in between the columns of vegetation, where they may eventually stick to the fronds or settle on the substrate.
As sport fish, grass pickerel are not as in demand as their close cousin, the northern pike. At most, they usually grow to a modest length of about 13 inches (33 cm) and rarely weigh more than 2 pounds (0.9 kg) at maturity. They are thus considered one of the smaller members of the pike family. When this cylindrical-bodied fish enters larger river complexes, it is preyed on by many tertiary consumers.
10) Shadow bass (Ambloplites ariommus)
The shadow bass is a more elusive perciform due to its limited distribution. It occupies a narrow climate range, where it thrives best in the vegetative zones of streams. Though it favors slow-moving water and gentle substrates, it may occasionally venture into rivers. This fish’s diet largely consists of macroinvertebrates and small types of fish, such as minnows and darters. Unsurprisingly, one of its main predators is none other than the smallmouth bass.
In Alabama, shadow bass are called ‘goggle-eyes’ due to the cartoonishly-large appearance of their eyes. Adults grow to just 8 – 10 inches (20 – 25 cm) on average. Due to their preference for rivers and streams, they rarely come to mind as an exciting sport fish. They may also be tricky to catch as they rarely stray away from cover.
11) Warmouth (Lepomis gulosus)
Like the shadow bass, the warmouth is also referred to by the residents of Alabama as the ‘goggle-eye’. Other common names for this species are strawberry perch, molly, and red-eyed bream. A member of the sunfish family (Centrarchidae), it is characterized by brown mottling along its sides and back, a yellow- to gold-toned abdomen, and red streaks that extend from its eyes to its gill flaps.
Compared to many types of sunfish, the warmouth has a competitive edge in polluted waters due to its tolerance for low-oxygen conditions. As a carnivore, it is most successful in densely vegetated areas, where it can effectively ambush its prey. Practically all of Alabama’s river systems, especially those associated with planted streams, contain warmouth populations. Their highest abundance, however, is in the Mobile Delta.
12) Rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss)
Rainbow trout is deliberately stocked as a sport and food fish in many of Alabama’s lakes. Some of these boast year-round trout fishing opportunities, but strict possession limits must be observed. One of the best spots to fish for this species is Sipsey Fork, which is the tailwater system connected to Smith Lake. The waters here remain cool and clear throughout the year, keeping the stocked trout comfortable.
The state record for rainbow trout was fished in 2006. The fish, which was caught in Tannehill State Park, weighed a total of 9 pounds (4 kg). Many lake-dwelling forms of the species are able to grow up to 20 pounds (9 kg), but riverine forms are much smaller in adulthood and max out at around 5 pounds (2.3 kg). Known for their iridescent coloration, these fish are an angler favorite all across the US and Canada.
13) Walleye (Sander vitreus)
The walleye’s common name alludes to the appearance of its seemingly opaque eyes, which contain a special membrane that reflects light. This gives it the ability to search for prey in low-light and turbid conditions. A member of the Percidae family, this fish favors cool waters and is seldom associated with the freshwater systems of the warm, southern states of the US.
Fortunately, this fantastic food fish is naturally found in several of Alabama’s large river systems. The populations there are considered a subspecies of S. vitreus. Individuals found within the state supposedly have a decent lifespan of about 7 years. The largest specimens are able to measure as much as 31 inches (79 cm) long!
14) Alligator gar (Atractosteus spatula)
Often considered a living fossil due to its seemingly primitive characteristics, the alligator gar is one fish that will make any onlookers want to do a double take. A glimpse into the contents of its jaws reveals rows of sharp teeth. Given its V-shaped snout and carnivorous nature, its resemblance to an actual alligator is definitely apparent.
This carnivorous fish is found in many of Alabama’s rivers, large streams, and estuaries. The state record, which weighed a whopping 151 pounds (68 kg), was fished in the Tensaw River in 2004. The largest populations of alligator gar are found in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta system. Unfortunately, its local populations appear to be dwindling and it is now listed as an imperiled species by the Alabama Natural Heritage Program.
15) Common carp (Cyprinus carpio)
It’s difficult for most freshwater fish to match the expansive spread of the common carp, which is a remarkably hardy species. This exotic fish is one of the most troublesome invasive species on the planet. Introduced into North America via the aquarium trade and the aquaculture industry, its escapees have managed to reshape the food webs of many important lake systems.
In Alabama, the common carp can grow to enormous sizes – sometimes up to three times the size of your typical largemouth bass specimen! The best time to fish for them is in fall, when they are most likely to feed in the shallows.
16) Spring pygmy sunfish (Elassoma alabamae)
This exceedingly tiny sunfish, which rarely grows to more than an inch long, exists in just one part of Alabama’s Tennessee River system. Its fragile population is increasingly threatened by polluted runoff and dredging. The remaining survivors rely on the cover of vegetation in spring pools, where they can safely hunt for aquatic invertebrates.
Male and female spring pygmy sunfish exhibit markedly different coloration. Males possess vivid colors, whereas females may look muted in comparison. Females tend to blend in with natural substrates. These rare fish, which were discovered in 1937, were already considered extinct twice!
17) Alabama cavefish (Speoplatyrhinus poulsoni)
Another remarkably rare fish, the Alabama cavefish is found in just one cave system in the state – the Key Cave National Wildlife Refuge. This fascinating and unfortunately endangered species is considered one of the rarest fish in all of North America. Distinguished by a handful of bizarre features, it looks exactly like the sort of animal you’d find in a lightless environment.
Like many permanent cave dwellers, the Alabama cavefish lacks eyes and any traces of pigmentation. Its body may appear to be almost transparent. It is easily distinguished from other cavefish due to the constricted structure of its elongated snout. Quite unusual, even for a subterranean fish, it is the sole member of its genus.
18) American paddlefish (Polyodon spathula)
Frequently referred to as a shark due to the structure of its dorsal fin, this strange-looking fish is best known for its paddle-shaped snout. Though it isn’t technically a shark, it does have a largely cartilaginous skeleton and a smooth, grey-colored exterior. Adults can measure up to 5.9 feet (1.8 meters) in length and may appear more threatening than they truly are, especially as their large mouths actually lack teeth!
That’s right, these shark-like fish have a diet that consists primarily of zooplankton. They use their extended rostrums to detect these microscopic animals, which they filter out using their gill rakers. As paddlefish are suspension feeders, they are usually found in fresh, open water. In Alabama, they mostly occur within the Mobile Basin, though some individuals may also be found in connecting streams and below dams.
19) Southern red belly dace (Chrosomus erythrogaster)
These minnows possess attractively vivid coloration in adulthood, especially during the breeding period. As their common name suggests, sexually mature individuals develop distinctly red bellies, which stand out next to their yellow pectoral and ventral fins. Measuring an average of 2.4 inches (6 cm), these fish serve as environmental indicators of relatively unpolluted systems.
The southern red belly dace is a visual feeder with a remarkably varied diet. With its tiny mouth, it feeds on practically all types of organic matter in the water column. Bits of vegetation, diatoms, algae, and small invertebrates in the tributaries of the Tennessee River keep its stomach satisfied. Upland and consistently cool bodies of water are preferred as feeding and spawning zones.
20) Watercress darter (Etheostoma nuchale)
In Jefferson County, Alabama, lies a small pond that houses one of the last living populations of the endangered watercress darter. The pond, called Thomas Spring, is in a state-protected area called the Watercress Darter National Wildlife Refuge. Public visitors are allowed to visit the refuge, but fishing, of course, is forbidden.
This stunningly colored ray-finned fish grows to a maximum length of just 2 inches (5 cm). If you are able to spot one, you should count yourself incredibly lucky! It favors habitats that are associated with dense stands of watercress, where it can safely feed and hide amongst the plant’s submerged shoots.
21) Gulf sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus desotoi)
The endangered Gulf sturgeon is an anadromous species that spends most of its adult life migrating between saltwater and freshwater systems. In Alabama, most individuals prefer to spend winter in the estuaries and along coastal waters, where they must feed in preparation for the upward migration in spring. They begin swimming inland in February and finally spawn in April.
Impressively, the largest and oldest specimens of this massive fish can measure about 12 feet (3.7 meters) in length. Compared to the Atlantic sturgeon, which is also a subspecies of A. oxyrinchus, the Gulf sturgeon is set apart by just a couple of minor morphological differences. To make visual identification even more tricky, the differences have to do with the relative lengths of the head and spleen. To tell them apart, you may have to do some math!
22) Alabama shad (Alosa alabamae)
Another anadromous species, the Alabama shad is an increasingly rare native fish. It was once a common inhabitant of river systems that drain into the Gulf Coast. Anthropogenic activity has significantly compromised many of its favored habitats, with dams blocking some vital spawning routes and polluting natural waters.
In spite of these impediments to their survival, some Alabama shad populations continue to spawn inland by migrating through river systems in the southeastern part of the state. They are most populous in the Apalachicola River watershed, which extends into Georgia and Florida.
23) American eel (Anguilla rostrata)
A. rostrata is an endangered freshwater eel that migrates into the Atlantic Ocean, specifically the Sargasso Sea, to spawn. Its slender and snake-like body is covered in fine scales, which are often difficult to see due to the thick layer of mucus covering them. This eel can grow up to 4 feet (1.2 meters) long, with females typically growing longer than males.
When it finds itself in inland areas, the American eel usually gravitates toward structurally diverse benthic zones in rivers, streams, and lakes. It has the tendency to burrow into the substrate or hide under dense vegetation. In Alabama, this fish has been caught in several rivers associated with the Mobile Basin.
24) Alabama sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus suttkusi)
Fairly large for a freshwater fish yet quite small for a sturgeon, S. suttkusi has been known to freshwater biologists for just a few decades. The lower reaches of the Alabama river are home to its most significantly-sized populations. It’s possible that no individuals exist outside of this area. As a result, it is now considered critically endangered.
Although very few sightings have been recorded in the last 10 years, traces of this fish’s DNA continue to be found in water samples collected from the river. A captive breeding program was attempted in the 1990s, but it was not successful due to the scarcity of females. This sturgeon’s native habitats, much like those of Alabama’s other endemic fish, are definitely in need of more effective conservation efforts.