List of Common Freshwater Fish Species in Arizona [Updated]
Arizona is frequently perceived as a desert state, with some areas facing extremely arid conditions at the height of summer. This profile more adequately fits its southernmost reaches, where the Sonoran Desert is located. Contrary to common perception, the state does have its own remarkably productive wetland systems. Rivers extending from its eastern boundary support growing communities and a wealth of wildlife.
Nonetheless, a changing climate and the collective impact of anthropogenic activity have put Arizona’s freshwater security at risk. The Nature Conservancy reports that around 35% of the state’s rivers have already been lost or compromised. The Grand Canyon, with its twists and turns shaped by waters long gone, serves as an unforgettable reminder that water once flowed freely and forcefully. Today, even supplies from the great Colorado River stand to be lost.
Fortunately, river and groundwater restoration projects for the benefit of wildlife and water security are supported by local policies. These aim to protect major resources such as the Salt, San Pedro, Gila, Colorado, and Santa Cruz Rivers and more. These systems, along with standing lakes (Powell, Havasu, Mohave, and Mead) are home to many important native fish species, the populations of which have already undergone drastic declines.
1) Apache trout (Oncorhynchus apache)
Set apart by a golden belly and distinct black spots along the length of its yellow-brown back, the Apache trout is a medium-sized member of the Salmonidae family. It is considered one of the Pacific trouts that historically migrated into the state from the western coast of North America. Currently, it spawns in the Gulf of California and in the Colorado River, after which it returns to the streams and lakes of the White Mountain range.
Though it is rare to find Apache trout specimens that measure more than 10 inches (25 cm) long, those in their native streams can supposedly grow to about 24 inches (61 cm). It is known for hybridizing with rainbow trout and cutthroat trout. With populations that are currently threatened due to a significantly reduced range, O. apache is listed by the IUCN as a critically endangered species.
2) Brown trout (Salmo trutta)
Although brown trout are not even native to North America, their self-sustaining communities are found in some streams and lakes in Arizona. They favor conditions in the wetlands of the Mogollon Rim Country and the White Mountains, where they naturally reproduce. This dotted freshwater fish favors shorelines and pools with densely packed debris. On a diet that is mostly composed of aquatic invertebrates, it can grow to about 30 inches (76 cm) long!
As brown trout was deliberately stocked in state waters, its regulated harvest is incentivized. Licensed anglers that are eligible to fish brown trout under the state’s fishing regulations stand to earn as much as $33 for every adequately-sized catch. This program aims to reduce the pressures of growing brown trout populations on the survival of native fish.
3) Green sunfish (Lepomis cyanellus)
This heavy-bodied panfish is indigenous to the Great Lakes and Mississippi River systems, but it is now found throughout the US due to artificial introductions. Because of its colorful appearance and aggressive nature, it is valuable as a sportfish. Aquarium hobbyists have also recently taken to cultivating this species, which typically grows to about 7 inches (18 cm) long in adulthood.
The green sunfish is found in Arizona’s warm water streams and lakes. It favors freshwater bodies with rich structural diversity. Individuals are most commonly found above rocky substrates and heavily vegetated banks. There, they build their nests and spawn in late spring to summer. Notably versatile, they can tolerate a wide range of aquatic conditions and are often one of the first few fish species to populate disturbed areas.
4) Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus)
One of the most common freshwater fish species in the US, the channel cat is extremely popular as a food and sportfish. In Arizona, it is fairly widespread and is able to tolerate conditions in desert rivers. The best spots to catch impressively-sized individuals are warm streams, rivers, and reservoirs with a moderate current.
Channel cats tend to spawn in late spring to early summer, when water temperatures have considerably warmed. Adults make their way into shallow spawning sites, so this season is usually the best time to catch them. The rest of the year, these fish prefer to keep close to the bottom, where they can readily feed on smaller fish and all sorts of aquatic macroinvertebrates.
5) Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus)
Known for their vigorously fecund nature, bluegills are extremely prone to being present in excessively large populations, especially in the absence of predators. As a result, their populations can easily display signs of stunted growth. These versatile fish can occupy just about any type of freshwater system if provided with access to suitable prey. Found practically coast to coast in the US, their nutrient profile and relatively small size make them ideal prey for most gamefish species.
Bluegill wasn’t present in Arizona until 1932, when it was deliberately introduced. It favors ponds and lakes with shallow shorelines and heavy vegetation. Local anglers can easily catch them in slow-moving water systems with elevations below 5,000 feet. They will reportedly bite down on almost any type of bait that fits into their tiny mouths.
6) Desert sucker (Catostomus clarkii)
Also known as the Gila Mountain sucker, C. clarkii is one of Arizona’s native freshwater fish species. It is fairly abundant in many of the state’s productive river systems, where it prefers to stay close to bottom substrates. Quiet pools lined with clean gravel are favored by sexually mature individuals. When they spawn, they deposit their eggs and milt into the gaps between smooth and rounded sediments.
The desert sucker has failed to occupy lake and pond systems that formed due to the construction of dams. This is likely due to their preference for continuously flowing water. Though this fish is able to grow to a full length of about 31 inches (79 cm) in Arizona, it rarely reaches this size outside of the state. River basins tend to have their own subpopulations of this olive to dark-green sucker.
7) Black crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus)
The black crappie prefers ponds, lakes, reservoirs, and streams with minimal to no current. As it is a visual feeder, it favors high-visibility waters that are structurally diversified by vertical vegetation and fallen logs. Their peak feeding hours take place in the early morning and late at night, when light levels are low enough for them to remain hidden from potential predators.
Arizona’s black crappie populations are known for being prolific and widespread. Its congener, the white crappie (P. annularis), is also present in the state but has smaller populations and a more limited distribution. These fish are effectively baited with minnows, flies, spinners, and jigs. As they spawn in shallow, open, and warm waters, they are best targeted along shorelines with submerged brush piles.
8) Yellow bullhead (Ameiurus natalis)
A. natalis is a medium-sized catfish and is just one of three bullheads found across its native range. As implied by its common name, its scaleless body is distinguished by a yellowish underside and yellow-tinged flanks. It is easily told apart from other bullheads by the presence of white barbels extending from under its chin.
Unsurprisingly, this catfish is a scavenger with a taste for pretty much anything that is remotely organic and can fit into its mouth. It finds food by running its tastebud-covered barbels along bottom substrates. Most active at night, it can subsist on a diet of aquatic vegetation whenever aquatic animals and carcasses are scarce. It is most commonly found in Arizona’s warm and clear water systems.
9) Largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides)
One of the most highly sought-after sport fish, the largemouth bass is known for putting up an impressive fight and for reaching unforgettably large trophy sizes. In Arizona, the state record for this species was caught in 1987 in Canyon Lake. The hefty fish measured 28 inches (71 cm) long and weighed just north of 16 pounds (7 kg). This is still notably small compared to the world record, which was caught in Georgia and weighed 22 pounds (10 kg).
Given their massive gapes, largemouth bass are able to consume a wide range of live prey items. Some of the largest well-researched individuals reportedly ate small amphibians, birds, and mammals. An apex predator throughout its native range, its presence influences food web structure and local ecology. It prefers to spend most of its days in clear waters with vertical vegetation, where its favored prey items are likely to be found.
10) Bigmouth buffalo (Ictiobus cyprinellus)
In terms of appearance, the bigmouth buffalo looks like a hefty and robust fish. Unfortunately, despite its large size, lengthy lifespan, and capacity to become healthier as it ages, its native populations are in decline. It doesn’t help that it matures at a late age and that some populations have an age profile that is skewed to the right. These conditions make them highly vulnerable to overfishing.
Arizona’s bigmouth buffalos are only found in the Roosevelt and Apache lake systems. Fishing this species is not heavily regulated in spite of the threats to its long-term survival. As it is non-indigenous to the state’s waters, it can be caught using various methods, including those that employ the use of spearguns and crossbows.
11) Roundtail chub (Gila robusta)
The roundtail chub is a trout-like fish with a widespread distribution in the Colorado River drainage basin. Its populations are found in many creeks, rivers, and springs. Due to the genetic variation of some isolated populations, several subspecies are now recognized within the state alone. Sadly, though this species is notably prolific, it is now considered to be in decline.
Roundtail chubs grow to an average length of 10 – 12 inches (25 – 30 cm). Their mouths, which are somewhat big for their size, allow them to consume small fish, frogs, aquatic insects, larvae, and even crayfish. In Arizona, G. robusta is considered a delectable food and sport fish. Catching this fish may not be allowed for much longer as it is now a candidate for protection under the US FWS’s Endangered Species Act.
12) Cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii)
A fantastic target for flyfishing enthusiasts, the cutthroat trout is an attractive and energetic freshwater fish. It has anadromous, semi-anadromous, and fully-landlocked populations. In Arizona, it is deliberately stocked into the lake systems of the White Mountain range (in the northeastern part of the state). It rarely strays from these areas, so local anglers may be hard-pressed to find it in rivers and streams.
Throughout its native range, this species’ morphological features are quite varied. Adults range in size from 6 to 40 inches (15 – 100 cm) in length. The larger specimens are, of course, found in the most productive and well-oxygenated waterbodies. They feed on all the life stages of aquatic insects as well as those of terrestrial ones that veer close to the water’s surface.
13) Brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis)
Also known as speckled trout, brook charr, and mud trout, this attractive trout is distinguished by its dark, marbled coloration and its heavily dotted flanks. The bellies of mature males become notably reddish as their spawning period approaches. They grow relatively quickly, able to measure as much as 34 inches (86 cm) long within an average lifespan of 7 years. Warm temperatures tend to increase their growth rate.
In the 19th century, brook trout were deliberately introduced into many lake systems in the western US. Their new populations became well-established in these regions. They eventually became self-sustaining enough to develop into their own distinct subpopulations. In Arizona, they are most commonly found throughout the White Mountain range, where they share their habitat with other types of trout.
14) Walleye (Sander vitreus)
Arizona’s walleye populations are fairly widespread. During the day, they favor the cooler, deep water conditions of Apache Lake, Saguaro Lake, Fool’s Hollow, Lake Mary, and Lake Powell. At night, they venture closer to the surface, where they may feed on smaller fish and insects. Due to their highly sensitive eyes, walleyes prefer to hunt during low-light periods of the day. They often target prey items that are unable to see as well as they do.
Experienced anglers prefer to search for walleyes at night or in turbid ponds where their good eyesight gives them a competitive edge against other fish. The best time to fish for this species is when water conditions are quite rough. In productive lakes, walleyes can grow to a maximum length of 42 inches (1 meter) and weigh as much as 29 pounds (13 kg).
15) Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus)
An invasive species that has become naturalized in many parts of the world, the Nile tilapia often enters natural waterways as an escapee. Economically valuable, its cultivation in thousands of warm-water fish farms helps meet the global demand for high-quality proteins. Apart from serving as a tasty food source, its managed populations can provide many biological services.
Tilapia has been deliberately stocked into some of Arizona’s manmade lakes and canals. As it is an herbivorous fish, it is used as a biocontrol agent to minimize the growth of vegetation and algae. It favors insect larvae, including those of mosquitoes, so it also has the potential to aid in reducing the spread of malaria, yellow fever, and dengue.
16) Northern pike (Esox lucius)
A voracious carnivore with notably sharp teeth, the northern pike can grow to an impressive size in coastal lakes. This monster freshwater fish can measure as much as 59 inches (1.5 meters) long! Populations in North America, however, rarely have specimens that reach this maximum length. This species’ common name alludes to its pole or pike-like shape. Its elongated body is heavily marked with bar-shaped speckles.
Northern pike are aggressive ambush predators that favor sluggish conditions in heavily-planted streams. They have the impressive ability to keep still and well-camouflaged in the shade of vertical vegetation. Once they spot their prey, they quickly lunge forward to trap them in their jaws. Those in Arizona hunt in the shallow waters of Mormon Lake, Lake Mary, Long Lake, and Stoneman Lake.
17) Flathead catfish (Pylodictis olivaris)
The flathead cat was deliberately introduced into Arizona’s waters in the mid-90s. Its self-sustaining populations are now found in the Verde River and in the lower tributaries of the Colorado River. This catfish prefers to congregate in deep pools, where it can easily feed on smaller fish without having to swim against a current. Local specimens reportedly grow to a monstrous weight of about 70 – 80 pounds (32 – 36 kg)!
From spring to summer, flathead cats build their nests close to natural depressions along rocky shorelines and submerged caves. Their gelatinous eggs are deposited onto the substrate and are guarded by mature males until they hatch. Before eventually feeding on fish, their young subsist on a diet of insects and small crustaceans.
18) Desert pupfish (Cyprinodon macularius)
Now officially listed as an endangered species, the desert pupfish has a remarkably limited natural range. Despite its tolerance for extreme conditions, such as low dissolved oxygen and high salinity levels, it continues to be present in just a handful of freshwater systems. Local wildlife groups have attempted to reintroduce it into some of Arizona’s lake systems. The state supposedly has a total of 16 transplanted populations of C. macularius.
One of the most fascinating things about the desert pupfish is its breeding behavior. This small fish, which grows to a maximum length of 3 inches (7.6 cm), requires very close contact between sexually mature pairs. Males wrap their tails around the vents of females so that they can instantly fertilize the individually-released eggs.
19) Longfin dace (Agosia chrysogaster)
Two varieties of the longfin dace occur in a few of Arizona’s river systems – the Gila longfin dace (A. chrysogaster chrysogaster) and the Yaqui longfin dace (A. chrysogaster sp 1). Members of the Leuciscidae family, they are considered true minnows. This species has a rapidly expanding range, due in part to the gradually increasing water temperatures in rivers with elevations below 5,000 feet.
Commonly found in desert habitats, this fish is a vital part of the food chain due to its minute size and abundance. It becomes sexually mature after just a single year of good growth. Longer females have been shown to be significantly more fecund than shorter ones. During the spawning period, which lasts from September to January in desert regions, eggs are deposited into depressions along the benthos.
20) Gila trout (Oncorhynchus gilae)
Federally protected as an endangered species, the Gila trout is found only in the Gila River and its tributaries. Small populations continue to persist in these waterbodies, but they are threatened by habitat loss and by the introduction of their close cousins, the rainbow trout and cutthroat trout. They may hybridize with and compete for food with these congeners.
On average, Gila trout grow to about 12 inches (30 cm) long. They favor small streams and pools, where they feed on smaller fishes and aquatic insects. Their most distinguishing feature is a spray of black spots along the upper length of their flanks. The rest of their bodies exhibit yellowish coloration.
21) Sonora chub (Gila ditaenia)
Another member of the minnow family (Cyprinidae), the Sonora chub is a desert fish that rarely grows to more than an inch (2.5 cm) in length. Its common name alludes to its stout and “chubby” appearance. With markedly small scales and ray fins, it can be quite difficult to tell apart from the rest of Arizona’s tiny minnows.
In Arizona, this species primarily occupies the Rio de la Concepcion drainage system, which flows out into Bear Canyon. It is now listed as a threatened species. Sonora chubs prefer to stay close to the sandy bottoms of deep pools, where conditions are stable enough to maintain optimal survival rates of chub fry. There, they feed on algae and tiny insects.