List of Fish Species in Lake Cumberland 2023 [Updated]

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List of Common Lake Cumberland Fish Species [Updated]

Lake Cumberland
Lake Cumberland is in Kentucky and sprawls over 65,000 acres! Brian Stansberry, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Lake Cumberland, located in the state of Kentucky, sprawls over 65,000 acres and reaches depths of almost 200 feet.

One of the largest lakes in the eastern United States, with a shoreline stretching 1,255 miles, Lake Cumberland is actually a man-made reservoir. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built Wolf Creek Dam on the Cumberland River in 1952; the construction of the dam led to the creation of what we now know as Lake Cumberland. It was originally made to protect the surrounding area from floodwater and to conduct hydroelectric power.

Due to the lake’s extreme variations in depth, it creates a perfect environment for a variety of fish species. The lake is home to bass, crappie, walleye, and sturgeon to name a few. The deeper water allows fish to stay cool during the warmer months. The topography of Lake Cumberland gives space for numerous coves and inlets, with some areas having scenic waterfalls.

Fishing is a popular sport in this area of Kentucky and Lake Cumberland certainly permits fishing. The only requirement before setting out on a fishing trip is to have a Kentucky Fishing License, according to the Kentucky State Parks website. From five different types of bass to two different types of gar, the reservoir is known for its rich biodiversity.

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List of Fish Species in Lake Cumberland

1) Striped bass (Morone saxatilis)

Striped bass in aquarium
Striped bass have 7 – 8 dark stripes on each side of their bodies. Steven G. Johnson, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to the Atlantic coastline of North America

Striped bass get their name for the seven or eight dark, horizontal stripes on each side of their body. The Applied Ecology department at NC State University describes striped bass as having completely separated dorsal fins; the first fin has between eight and ten hard spines and the second has ten to 13 soft rays. The anal fin has three hard spines and between seven and 13 soft rays. These fish are not equipped with eyelids – this means they retreat to deeper water as the sun begins to rise to avoid the excess light and heat.

Commonly known as stripers, these bass are opportunistic predators. They feed on plankton, crustaceans, and even other small fish throughout the different stages of their development. As an anadromous species, stripers usually stay in saltwater as adults and then migrate to freshwater rivers to spawn. Fresh, running water is a necessity for these eggs until they hatch. While stripers favor cooler water, the seasonal levels of dissolved oxygen usually keep landlocked bass in slightly warmer temperatures.

2) Largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides)

Largemouth bass in man's hands
Largemouth bass are top aquatic predators; some even prey on other bass! Thecatsmilk, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to eastern-central North America

Largemouth bass inhabit clear, vegetated lakes. While these species prefer a sand, gravel, or mud bottom to spawn, they spend most of their time hiding in aquatic weeds and under submerged tree limbs to escape predation. Spawning begins in spring when temperatures are in the low sixties (Fahrenheit).

The Texas Parks and Wildlife website describes largemouth bass as green with dark spots along each side of their body and a light green or white underside. Largemouth have an almost divided dorsal fin with the anterior part having nine spines and the posterior having 12 to 13 soft rays. These fish have an upper jaw that reaches beyond the rear margin of the eye, which helps them capture their prey.

Largemouth bass are top aquatic predators; adults feed on other fish and invertebrates such as crayfish and some of the larger adults even prey on other bass in the area. When largemouth fry reach about two inches they become active predators.

3) Smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu)

Smallmouth bass underwater
Smallmouth bass are the smallest in the bass family, reaching about 12 inches in length when they are 3 – 5 years old. Photo by Engbretson Eric, USFWS on Pixnio

Native to eastern North America

Similar to largemouth bass, smallmouth bass prefer sand, gravel, or rocky bottoms for spawning; however, these fish spend their time in the shallow and rocky areas of lakes. Smallmouth also spawn in the spring when water temperatures reach about 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

Smallmouth bass can be identified from their green color and dark, vertical stripes. These fish have between 13 and 15 soft rays in the dorsal fin. Their upper jaw never extends beyond the back of their eye. This species feeds on smaller fish and invertebrates when they are adults but stick to larvae and zooplankton as fry. It usually takes between three to five years before smallmouth bass reach 12 inches in length, making them the smallest in the bass family.

4) Spotted bass (Micropterus punctulatus)

Spotted bass fish
There is a thriving spotted bass population in Lake Cumberland. Noel Burkhead & Howard Jelks / CC BY-SA 2.5

Native to North America

Spotted bass, like their largemouth cousins, tend to hang out in aquatic weeds and under submerged tree limbs. While they are less common in reservoirs than they are in streams and rivers, Lake Cumberland has a thriving population. These bass have horizontal lines of dark spots across the lower side of their body and, according to the Kentucky Fish & Wildlife website, have a circular patch of teeth on their tongue.

Their spawning season is most common from mid-April to early June. Spotted bass are carnivorous fish and feed on smaller fish, invertebrates, and aquatic insects.

5) White bass (Morone chrysops)

White bass swimming
White bass spawn in early spring, with large females being able to release up to a million eggs! Eric Engbretson / Public domain

Native to eastern-central North America

Adult white bass are often confused with juvenile striped bass due to their dark horizontal stripes. These fish are a silvery blue-grey color and fade from dark shades to almost white on their underside.

White bass are migratory open-water fish and they spawn in the early spring. These fish prefer running water with gravel or rock bottom for spawning. Large females can release nearly one million eggs during the spawning season and their eggs hatch in two to three days.

White bass can be found in schools near the surface of the water; they feed mostly on concentrations of small crustaceans and aquatic insects. White bass will begin to feed predominantly on smaller fish as they grow in size.

6) Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus)

Channel catfish being held
Channel catfish can be told apart from other catfish species by their scattered black spots, among other things. Clara Dandridge / CC BY 4.0

Native to North America

Channel catfish are distinguished from other catfish by their deeply forked tail fin, scattered dark spots, and the outer margin of their tail fin being rounded slightly outward. Like other species of catfish, these fish have barbels (“whiskers”) around their mouth and enjoy cooler, darker water. Channel catfish are known to mate with blue and flathead catfish, creating a hybrid species that blend the traits of the parents. Depending on the area, channel catfish spawn in late spring or early summer.

Adult channel catfish can grow to be anywhere between 12 and 32 inches, weighing in between one and 15 pounds; however, the North American record is a whopping 58 pounds. Catfish are actually omnivorous, feeding on anything from lake plants to mollusks. When channel cats are introduced to non-native waters, they can have a seriously negative impact. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service says that since channel cats are such opportunistic feeders, they can outcompete the native fish for both food and habitat.

7) Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus)

Adult bluegill
Bluegill aren’t particularly fussy about where they live – as long as there’s no extreme pollution. Brian Gratwicke / CC BY 2.0

Native to North America

Bluegill is an extremely common fish species throughout all of North America. They spawn in late spring and early summer and release anywhere between 2,300 to 81,100 eggs each spawn; female bluegill can spawn up to three times in one summer, allowing for incredible rates of reproduction.

Bluegill are able to live in almost any body of water as long as there is no extreme pollution. They are part of the sunfish family, along with white and black crappie. They are easily distinguishable due to their sun-colored features. They are light green with dark green stripes on top and they sport a blue spot near their ear. Under their mouth they have orange coloration, causing them to look a little bit like a sunrise (hence, sunfish!). Bluegill are opportunistic feeders but are hindered by their smaller size. Growing to only about 7.5 inches in length, they feed on insects, insect larvae, small crustaceans, and worms.

8) White crappie (Pomoxis annularis)

White crappie fry in hand
White crappie fry feed on zooplankton until they grow big enough to eat small crustaceans. USFWS Mountain-Prairie, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to eastern North America

White crappie are silvery-olive in color with faint but dark bars across their body. They prefer cool backwaters or pools that have cover, such as log jams, submerged vegetation, and undercut banks. Their spawning season, like bluegill, is late spring to early summer.

While their diet does depend on their location, adult whites typically feed on small fish such as minnows and large invertebrates such as crayfish and hellgrammites. White crappies begin life as filter feeders and feed on zooplankton until they develop enough to eat small crustaceans. They typically reach this development in the autumn and winter months. White crappie are prey to both largemouth bass and walleye, which is why they prefer shallow, covered waters.

9) Black crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus)

Black crappie underwater
Black crappies are nocturnal – they most commonly feed between midnight to 2 a.m.! Eric Engbretson / Public domain

Native to eastern North America

While black and white crappies are very similar, the easiest way to distinguish them is by counting the rays on their back. White crappies typically have six dorsal-fin spines whereas blacks typically have seven or eight. Blacks also have dark spots or blotches, versus the whites having dark bars. They share a similar habitat, enjoying cool and covered waters to protect them from predation.

They spawn throughout the summer months and release an average of 40,000 eggs each season. Black crappies are a nocturnal species and possess scotopic vision which allows them to feed at night; they most commonly feed between midnight and 2 a.m. Adult blacks feed on small fish, crustaceans, and insect larvae.

10) Walleye (Sander vitreus)

Walleye swimming along lake bottom
Walleye fish prefer deeper lake water and have special pupils that allow them to see in low-light conditions. Photo by Engbretson Eric, USFWS on Pixnio

Native to north-eastern North America

While there is only one species of walleye, they have many common names: blue pike, grey pike, dory, glass eye, and marble eye. These fish prefer deep lake water but they move to shallower water to feed in the evening and night. Walleye are top predators, meaning that they have no natural predator in their habitat apart from humans. They are strictly carnivorous fish. Adults feed on fish, crayfish, insects, and even mudpuppies (a species of salamander). Walleye are even known to eat small mammals when their local fish supply is low.

Walleye can grow to be 36 inches but typically are between 12 and 30 inches. Weighing between 2 – 10 pounds, walleye have canine teeth that aid their predation. Their large opaque glass-like pupils earned them their name and help them see in low-light conditions.

11) Sauger (Sander canadensis)

Woman holding sauger fish
Saugers are closely related to walleye, with similar teeth that help them to prey on small fish. USFWSmidwest, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to northern North America

Saugers are found in deep, turbid waters with cooler temperatures. They have a highly-developed tapetum lucidum, which is a reflective layer in their eyes that helps them see in their preferred habitat. Saugers have two separated dorsal fins and range from dark yellow to brown in coloration. They are closely related to walleye and have similar canine-like teeth that help them prey on smaller fish.

Saugers are known to be migratory fish and will travel hundreds of kilometers to spawn if necessary. Their spawning season is between March and May. Saugers do not care for their young or build nests; once the eggs are released and fertilized they are on their own. Saugers eat a wide variety of small fish – anything from young walleye to sunfish.

12) Paddlefish (Polyodon spathula)

Paddlefish swimming
Paddlefish have long snouts that help them to locate zooplankton. Emőke Dénes, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to eastern North America

Paddlefish, like sharks, have a skeleton made of cartilage – not bone. This skeleton supports their long, paddle-like snout that makes them easily distinguishable from other fish species. Their snout is covered with electroreceptors that help them locate and filter feed on zooplankton. These fish can grow to be nine feet in length and weigh up to almost 160 pounds. They prefer turbid deep water but need access to sand or gravel bars for spawning.

Paddlefish have a long lifespan, typically in the range of 20 to 30 years, but are thought to live up to 55 years. Because of their large size, their only real predators are humans. They are valued for their roe, or caviar, and meat. Because of their cartilaginous skeleton, paddlefish rarely get cancer; the cartilage keeps blood from flowing to cancerous cells which stops the spread of cancer. This observation has made paddlefish a promising test subject for aquatic pharmacology.

13) Lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens)

Lake sturgeon underwater
Lake sturgeon are critically endangered; in Kentucky, it is illegal to possess this species and can only be caught and released. Photo from Piqsels

Native to the United States

According to the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources, lake sturgeon are critically endangered. In fact, lake sturgeon are listed as threatened in 19 of the 20 states that they inhabit. Due to this, they are a catch and release fish, and possession of the species is illegal in Kentucky. They spawn in the early summer and look for rocky bottoms with no mud.

They are the survivors of a prehistoric group, which resulted in several interesting traits; lake sturgeon have a shark-like tail and armor-like plates on their heads and bodies. Like catfish, sturgeon have barbels (whiskers) around their mouths that help direct food. The largest lake sturgeon on record weighed 310 pounds. They typically weigh almost 200 pounds and commonly grow to be around six feet long. Like paddlefish, sturgeon have long lifespans. While male sturgeon tend to live about 50 to 60 years, female sturgeon can live up to 150 years.

Since sturgeon are large, most people expect them to be top predators in their area; however, their diet consists of snails, insect larvae, crayfish, and sometimes small fish. Lake sturgeon are one of the few fish species to have taste buds on the outside of their mouth.

14) Brown trout (Salmo trutta)

Brown trout swimming
Brown trout are a coldwater species and prefer streams with little or no current. Frank Vincentz, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa (introduced to North America in 1883)

Brown trout are considered the most valuable exotic fish to be brought to North America. Reaching lengths of seven to 14 inches, brown trout are an olive color with brown and black spots along their bodies. They are a coldwater species but can tolerate warmer temperatures better than other fish in the salmon family. Though they prefer deep streams with little to no current they can be found in lakes such as Lake Cumberland.

Brown trout lay their eggs under a gravelly bottom and the eggs incubate for one to several months. Brown trout, like striped bass, are anadromous. These fish, when migrating to the sea, undergo a process called smoltification. Smoltification involves the trout changing their appearance to a silvery color. When brown trout stay in lakes their diet consists of detritus, algae, and zooplankton.

15) Alligator gar (Atractosteus spatula)

Adult alligator gar underwater
Alligator gar are an endangered species that have an alligator-like appearance. ProjectManhattan, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to the southern United States

Alligator gar get their name from their alligator-like appearance; they have long, slender bodies, jaws lined with many teeth, and they tend to float on the surface of the water. They are olive green with brownish spots on the top of their body. Like alligators, gars are sit-and-wait predators. They feed on almost anything including ducks, fish, and turtles. Alligator gar are large carnivores, reaching over nine feet in length and over 300 pounds in weight.

They are the only species on this list that have not been seen recently. In fact, they are currently listed as endangered by the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission and as a “Species of Greatest Conservation Need” by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) Wildlife Action Plan. KDFWR has committed to a plan of restoration for this species.

16) Longnose gar (Lepisosteus osseus)

Longnose gar
Longnose gar have elongated snouts that are twice the length of their heads! Ryan Somma / CC BY-SA 2.0

Native to North and Central America

Longnose gar are solitary creatures and are typically only found in groups during the spawning season (spring and summer months). Gar play an important ecological role; because of their role as top predators, they are critical to reducing overpopulation in forage fish. While gar meat is consumed by humans, their eggs are extremely toxic.

Longnose gar can be identified by their elongated snouts which are more than twice the length of their heads. They have built-in armor via their interlocked, rhomboid, ganoid scales. A unique fact about longnose gar is that they can survive indefinitely with aerial oxygen only. This is because they have highly vascularized swimbladders and can close their gills in low oxygen levels.

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