List of Common Atchafalaya River Fish Species [Updated]
The Atchafalaya River is a distributary of the Mississippi River, meaning that it branches off of the Mississippi and never returns back to the major river. The Atchafalaya River, however, was not always a part of the Mississippi River. Before the 15th Century, the Red River and Mississippi River ran parallel to each other in Louisiana, but in the 15th Century, the Mississippi River began to naturally bend west, and it intersected the Red River.
This intersection is what created the Atchafalaya River; however, the river was blocked by a log jam for a long period of time, which made the river’s use impractical. In the 1950s, the log jam was finally cleared, and the Atchafalaya River became wider with the larger flow of water that was able to pass through. Today, the Atchafalaya River runs 150 miles through southern Louisiana and drains into the Atchafalaya Bay, an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico.
The Atchafalaya River Basin is North America’s largest floodplain swamp that drains almost 900,000 acres of land, and it has proved to be a valuable resource for North America. For one, the Acadians that were exiled in 1755 found refuge in the river basin, where the area was peaceful and had bountiful nutrient soil to grow food.
By the 1920s, Americans figured out that oil and gas were precious resources found in the Atchafalaya River Basin, which caused many to move near the area. Not only has the river been great for people, but it is an incredibly diverse ecosystem that is home to over 300 species of birds, around 65 species of reptiles and amphibians, and about 90 species of fish and crustaceans. Below are some of the most common fish species that can be found in the Atchafalaya River and swamplands.
List of Fish Species in the Atchafalaya River
1) Largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides)
Largemouth bass are found throughout much of the Atchafalaya River, but they are most popular in the Atchafalaya Basin in areas where the water is slow-moving and there is plenty of cover. Largemouth bass get their name from their mouth, which extends past the eye, unlike smallmouth bass. Largemouth bass have olive-green bodies with dark mottling along the back and speckles along the sides.
This species has an average length of 13 inches and will generally weigh less than 5 pounds, although the largest largemouth ever recorded was 22 pounds and 4 ounces. Largemouths are carnivores that primarily feed on crayfish but will also eat other fishes and insects. The daily creel limit for this species is 10 fish in Louisiana, but there are certain areas where there are tighter regulations.
2) White bass (Morone chrysops)
White bass prefer to be in large, open areas of the Atchafalaya River where the turbidity is very low. These fish are a silvery-white color, and they wear 6 – 8 black stripes laterally across their bodies. They have an underbite mouth, much like the largemouth bass; however, white bass are more closely related to striped bass that reside in the more brackish areas of a river or the sea.
White bass are a mid-sized fish, and they average about 16 inches in length. This species is highly aggressive when it comes to feeding, and schools of white bass will hunt together for items such as gizzard shad, perch, carp, and other fish species. These fish are relatively abundant in Louisiana, so the daily creel limit in the Atchafalaya River is currently 50 fish.
3) Striped bass (Morone saxatilis)
Striped bass can be found throughout the Atchafalaya River Basin in waters that are cool, clear, and deep. Striped bass have bodies that are laterally compressed with green or blue backs and silver iridescent sides. These fish also have 6 – 9 black stripes that run horizontally across the body.
Striped bass are larger fish that can grow to about 2 – 3 feet in length and weigh between 10 – 30 pounds. This species is generally piscivorous and will hunt for other fishes at night. In Louisiana, there is a current daily creel limit of five striped bass, and no more than two of those bass can be over 30 inches long.
4) Yellow bass (Morone mississippiensis)
Yellow bass are found throughout the Atchafalaya River, and they prefer areas that have little vegetation and low turbidity. This species is characterized by its olive-green back and yellowish sides. They also have seven dark horizontal stripes on the mid to upper portion of their bodies and broken lines on the lower middle portion.
Yellow bass are relatively small, growing to about 6 – 10 inches long and weighing around 8 – 11 ounces. These fish do not have teeth or tongues, but they still are able to hunt in schools for insects, crustaceans, and other fishes. Currently, there is a 50 fish daily creel limit in Louisiana.
5) Bowfin (Amia calva)
Bowfin can be found in the Atchafalaya River Basin where waters are very clear and there is lots of vegetation; however, they are able to breathe air, so they can survive in areas that are subject to desiccation if they bury in the mud. These fish have long, slim bodies with an elongated dorsal fin and a round tail. Their bodies are an olive or brown color with dark mottling, and their bellies are cream or white in color. Bowfin also have no scales on their heads. Instead, their heads are covered in bony plates.
These fish grow to about two feet long and generally weigh less than 20 pounds. Bowfin have powerful jaws and many sharp teeth, so they are easily able to ambush many types of prey including fishes, frogs, small snakes, and birds. In Louisiana, bowfish eat a lot of crawfish and shrimp, which makes them desirable in the caviar industry because it gives the fish eggs a distinctive flavor.
6) Common carp (Cyprinus carpio)
Common carp, also known as European carp, are found all over the Atchafalaya River in areas where the water runs slowly and the bottoms are soft. This species has a robust body with a brassy green back and white to yellow sides. They have large scales and two pairs of barbels on their upper jaw. These fish have a unique way of eating, which is to suck up mud from the bottom of the river and expel it from their mouths so that they can selectively feed on particles that are suspended in the water.
Common carp are a non-native species to North America, and they were brought to the United States in the late 1800s because they were a wildly popular food item for immigrants who wanted to be able to eat them when they came to the United States.
7) Bigmouth buffalo (Ictiobus cyprinellus)
Bigmouth buffalo can be found in many of the drainage areas of the Atchafalaya River. These fish prefer slower-moving water and are in shallow depths during the summer and deeper depths in the fall and winter; however, they can withstand many different water qualities from low oxygen content to higher turbidity. Bigmouth buffalo are an olive or bronze color with a lighter color belly, and they closely resemble a common carp. The main difference between the two is that bigmouth buffalo lack the two chin barbels that carp possess.
This species is the largest member of the suckerfish family, growing to about 15 – 27 inches long and 2 – 14 pounds. This species gets its name from its very large sucker mouth that faces terminally, and they use this mouth to feed on zooplankton, benthic larvae, crustaceans, and detritus. These fish have a daily creel limit of 25 fish in Louisiana, and fish that are taken must be over 16 inches long.
8) Freshwater drum (Aplodinotus grunniens)
Freshwater drum, also known as sheepshead, is a fish found all throughout the Atchafalaya River in many different water conditions This species gets its name from the drumming or croaking noise males can make with a specific muscle in their body to attract mates. Freshwater drum are characterized by their silver bodies with a lateral line that extends all the way through their caudal fin.
This species averages about 10 – 14 inches long, and they have large teeth that help them eat a variety of prey including snails, insects, small fish, and zebra mussels. In Louisiana, the daily creel limit is 25 fish, and fish must be over 12 inches in length in order to keep them.
9) Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus)
Channel catfish are one of the most abundant types of catfish in the United States. This species can be found near woody drift piles, shorelines, sand bars, and other covered areas in the Atchafalaya River. Like all catfish, the channel catfish does not have scales and has barbels on the upper and lower jaw; however, the channel catfish can be distinguished by its deeply forked tail, silvery body, and overbite.
These fish grow to about 10 – 20 inches long and weigh anywhere from 2 – 10 pounds. Catfish tend to eat quite a bit of food, so they use their barbels covered in taste buds to sense their surroundings in murky waters and find food like snails, fishes, snakes, frogs, insects, aquatic plants, and even birds.
10) Blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus)
Blue catfish are found in faster, deeper waters in the Atchafalaya River where there is plenty of oxygen. These fish have a blueish-gray back that fades to a white belly, and they possess no spots, unlike channel catfish.
Blue catfish generally range between 20 – 60 inches and length, and have an average weight of around 20 – 50 pounds; however, they can easily reach 100 or more pounds if they are older. Blue catfish have jaws lined with tiny teeth that help them eat just about anything they can catch including insects, fish, worms, and crustaceans.
11) Flathead catfish (Pylodictis olivaris)
Flathead catfish are found more towards the lower Atchafalaya River, and they inhabit areas with rocky or woody coverings. Flathead catfish are generally bigger than channel catfish, and flatheads are a mottled brown color with a square tail and an underbite. This species, like the channel catfish, have barbs on their dorsal and pectoral fins, which are used to poke predators or humans that may have startled them.
Flatheads are fierce carnivores, and they typically prey on a variety of fish species such as drum, shad, and other catfish species including their own. In Louisiana, all three types of catfish have a combined daily creel limit of 100 fish with varying limited length limits.
12) Warmouth (Lepomis gulosus)
Warmouths, also known as redeye, are found in the Atchafalaya River Basin where waters have lots of vegetation and logs and where the sides of the river have steep slopes. Warmouths are a type of sunfish that have a thick olive-brown body with dark brown mottling and three to five red-brown stripes across the gill cover. They average about 5 – 8 inches long and weigh around two pounds.
Warmouths get the nickname “redeye” because they have bright red eyes. These fish also have the name “warmouth” because they have very large mouths that extend to the pupil of their eyes! They use this mouth, along with teeth on their tongues and the roof of their mouths, to eat crustaceans, insects, and small fishes.
13) Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus)
Bluegills are most common within the lower Atchafalaya River Basin where waters are very slow, slightly warmer, and have plenty of vegetation for cover. Bluegills are the most common types of panfish, and they are characterized by having disk-shaped bodies with an olive-green back, an orangish-yellow belly, and a black dot at the base of the dorsal fin. These fish get their name from the bluish hue surrounding the gill covers.
Bluegills average around 7.5 inches in length and weigh around half a pound as adults. These fish have very little mouths, so they will only eat smaller prey such as zooplankton, insects, worms, and snails. Bluegills are a main source of food for many larger fish such as largemouth bass, so they have adapted to be maneuverable. For instance, this species can make very quick stops by spreading out their pectoral fins.
14) Redear sunfish (Lepomis microlophus)
Redear sunfish are found in the Atchafalaya River Basin in areas where the water is warmer, runs slowly, and has a moderate amount of cover. These fish have laterally compressed bodies that are usually green, gray, or olive, and they will sometimes have dark flecks and vertical lines along the length of them.
Redear sunfish get their name from their black opercular (ear) flap that has a bright red border in males and an orange border for females. This species can grow up to 10 inches and generally weigh under two pounds. Redear sunfish are benthic feeders, and once they become adults and develop a strong jaw, they will almost exclusively feed on aquatic snails.
15) White crappie (Pomoxis annularis)
White crappies, Louisiana’s state fish, can be found throughout the Atchafalaya River Basin, and they do well in moving, turbid waters. White crappies have compressed bodies that are silvery-olive on the back and silvery-white towards the belly. These fish have dark vertical bands along the sides of their bodies, and their gill covers have spines.
Males look slightly different than females during breeding season because males will develop a dark throat. White crappies average about 9 – 10 inches long and are around 2 pounds as adults. These fish generally eat smaller fishes like minnows or shad, but they will also eat insects like mayflies. In Louisiana, crappies are a very popular catch, and there is currently a 50 fish creel limit in place.
16) Black crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus)
Black crappies are also found throughout the Atchafalaya River Basin, but unlike white crappies, black crappies prefer clear and still waters or backswamp areas. Black crappies have compressed bodies and are generally a darker green on the back with dark mottling on the silvery sides. They also have 7 – 8 spines on their dorsal fins, which distinguishes them from white crappies, who have 5 – 6 spines.
This species exhibits sexual dimorphism, so the males tend to be larger and darker than the females. Black crappies typically grow to about 8 – 12 inches and will weigh 0.25 – 1 pounds. This species is generally nocturnal, so they will hunt during the night for small fishes, crustaceans, and insects.
17) American paddlefish (Polyodon spathula)
American paddlefish are the last living member of the paddlefish family, and they can be found throughout most of the Atchafalaya River Basin. These fish prefer deeper and slower-moving muddy waters, but they do rely on faster-moving currents during spawning seasons.
American paddlefish have incredibly large, scaleless bodies that grow to about 40 pounds, and they can even reach up to 7.2 feet in length! Despite their large size, this species only filter feeds on zooplankton, and they are able to find their food in turbid waters with their long, protruding, paddle-like rostrum, or snout, that is covered in electroreceptors. In Louisiana, the daily creel limit for paddlefish is two fish, and they cannot be retained alive or be caught using snagging methods.
18) Spotted gar (Lepisosteus oculatus)
Spotted gar are found all along the Atchafalaya River, and they enjoy shallower waters where there is lots of brush, fallen trees, and vegetated shorelines. Spotted gar have very long, cylindrical bodies that are olive or brown on the back and silvery-white on the sides.
This species is characterized by its dark spots that are found along the head, body, and fins, which help them camouflage among vegetation. These fish are relatively large, growing up to three feet long and weighing up to eight pounds. Spotted gar also have elongated mouths that are lined with sharp teeth, which they use to ambush prey like crayfish and other fishes.
19) Gizzard shad (Dorosoma cepedianum)
Gizzard shad can be found in slow-moving waters all along the Atchafalaya River and in the river’s drainage areas. This species has silvery-blue backs that fade to white sides, and they average between 6 – 10 inches long and weigh less than a pound. These fish also have a long final ray on the dorsal fin that resembles a whip.
Gizzard shad get their name from their unique muscular stomach that acts almost like a bird gizzard, which breaks down plant matter and phytoplankton that the fish filter feed on from the water column. The current creel limit for gizzard shad in Louisiana is 50 pounds of fish.
20) Shovelnose sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus platorynchus)
Shovelnose sturgeon can be found in the Atchafalaya River in areas where there is faster flowing water and rocky or sandy bottoms, but these prehistoric fish are no longer very common in these waters. Shovelnose sturgeon are the smallest North American sturgeon species as they only average about 24 inches in length. This species has long and narrow brownish or tan bodies that are covered in bony plates rather than scales.
They are called shovelnoses because they have a very long snout and a shovel-shaped head. Shovelnose sturgeon also have four fringed barbels that are evenly spaced under their chins, and these barbels help them find insects and other invertebrates on the bottom of the river. In Louisiana, it is illegal to harvest any type of sturgeon from the water.