List of Common Fish Species in Lake Mattamuskeet [Updated]

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Lake Mattamuskeet
There are several canals that connect Lake Mattamuskeet to estuaries, which were built to drain the lake. bobistraveling, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Less than four miles from the Atlantic Ocean lies North Carolina’s largest natural lake, Lake Mattamuskeet. It measures 18 by 7 miles (29 by 11 km), but has an average depth of only around 3 ft (0.9 m), with a maximum depth of 5 ft (1.5 m). While this may seem small compared to many other lakes, Lake Mattamuskeet is an important part of the increasingly rare wetland coastal ecosystem.

Around 50% of wetlands in the lower 48 states have been lost since the arrival of Europeans, and coastal wetlands are both uniquely vulnerable and important. They serve as wildlife habitats, water filters, protection from storms and storm surges, and as sites of ecotourism. Yet they become smaller and more fragmented every year due to coastal built environments. Lake Mattamuskeet itself is only one-fifth of its former volume– it was drained in 1838 to create more useable land. The lake has seen constant human intervention since the late 1700s, mostly harmful, but sometimes helpful.

In 2016 the lake was declared to have impaired waters, largely caused by the invasive common carp (Cyprinus carpio) overgrazing aquatic vegetation, leading to sediment suspension. In addition, fertilizer runoff has caused algal blooms, which deprive the rest of the ecosystem of dissolved oxygen. As a shallow lake, Lake Mattamuskeet is particularly vulnerable to hydrologic disturbances.

What Wildlife Can Be Found in Lake Mattamuskeet?

Swans and teal on Lake Mattamuskeet
Lake Mattamuskeet is relatively small but plays a very important role in the increasingly rare coastal wetland ecosystem. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region / CC BY 2.0

From a wildlife standpoint, Lake Mattamuskeet is known primarily as a wintering site for migrating birds, especially Anatids (ducks, geese, and swans), and it is maintained as a National Wildlife Refuge for these populations. Like most coastal lowlands, the lake is also home to an abundance of macro-invertebrates, particularly crustaceans, and crabbing is a common pastime in the region.

Lake Mattamuskeet has its share of fish as well, mostly freshwater, but sometimes brackish or saltwater specimens. Sources differ on the number of species that can be found there, likely because the composition seems to vary over time. There are usually around 40 different fish species, with around a dozen making up the majority of the biomass, and most of them prefer the murky, stained waters found in shallow lakes with high nutrient input.

Several canals connect the lake to nearby estuaries, which were built to drain it. These canals are usually closed by gates, as the lake is actually below sea level, but they are opened to allow excess water to drain, and to allow anadromous fish and crustaceans to enter and spawn in freshwater. Shore fishing (and crabbing) is allowed year-round, and boat fishing from March to October. What follows is a description of some of the more common and interesting fish found in Lake Mattamuskeet.

List of Fish Species in Lake Mattamuskeet

1) Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus)

Person holding channel catfish
Channel catfish have a pronounced lateral line that detects changes in water pressure. Clara Dandridge / CC BY 4.0

Native to eastern North America

Named after their whiskers (or barbels), catfish are benthic feeders which rely on their exceptional senses of taste and smell to find food along lake and river bottoms. As omnivores, catfish consume most edible matter found in the lake, including fish, mollusks, crustaceans, plants, algae, and even decaying matter. The channel catfish, however, prefers crayfish and small fish and is the most abundant catfish species in the United States.

Channel catfish are slender, smooth, and have an olive-colored body and white belly, a highly forked caudal fin (tail), and black spots along their sides– punctatus being the Latin word for ‘spotted’. Like many fish species, they often have a pronounced lateral line – a line of sensory organs from gill to tail that detects changes in water pressure, and often shows where a fish’s color changes from back to belly. In Lake Mattamuskeet, channel catfish, along with several other species, prefer to spawn and congregate in and around the canals connecting the lake to nearby estuaries, due to the canals being deeper than the lake itself.

2) Largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides)

Largemouth bass held in hands
The largemouth bass can open its mouth abnormally wide and can swallow prey up to 50% of its own size! Thecatsmilk, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to North America and northern Mexico

The largemouth bass is an agile and voracious predator and is a popular game fish due to its size and fighting spirit on the line. They are the largest member of their genus of black basses, and their olive-colored bodies can grow to up to 30 in (75 cm). They prefer slow or still waters with lots of structure, such as vegetation, docks, or dropoffs.

The largemouth bass has pharyngeal jaws, which allow it to open its mouth abnormally wide, and with a quick, powerful inhalation it can swallow prey up to 50% its size. As an adult, it is typically an apex predator but is sometimes preyed upon by raptors – birds of prey. Ospreys, for example, which are abundant on Lake Mattamuskeet, are piscivores – obligate fish-eaters.

Conservation efforts in Lake Mattamuskeet have led to a healthy largemouth bass population in recent years, with the average sampled length increasing to 16 in (40 cm) in 2019. Large carnivorous fish tend to have long lifespans and grow continuously (the largemouth bass can live 25 years), and increasing average sizes indicates an improving population.

3) Black crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus)

Black crappie swimming
The spikes on a black crappie’s fins reduce its palatability to predators. Eric Engbretson / Public domain

Native to eastern North America

Black crappies are medium-sized schooling fish that eat insects, crustaceans, and other fish. Their body is covered in spots, and like all crappies, their dorsal fin and operculum (gill cover) are highly spiked, which reduces its palatability to predators (the genus’ name Pomoxis means spiked operculum in Latin). Like bass, the crappie’s mouth is folded and protrudes past its eyes, and can rapidly open to suck up other fish, which are particularly slippery prey.

Black crappies are of least concern for conservation.  They are found in most freshwater lakes in the eastern United States and have a high reproductive rate.  If anything, they themselves may overwhelm an ecosystem if not kept in check by other predators.

4) Warmouth (Lepomis gulosus)

A juvenile warmouth fish
The warmouth is a hardy type of sunfish and can be bottom feeders like catfish. Bclegg77, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to the eastern United States

The warmouth, along with bass, crappie, bluegill, and pumpkinseed – all found in Lake Mattamuskeet – are sunfish (Centrarchidae), a family of freshwater fish native to eastern North America, with rayed fins and laterally compressed bodies. The warmouth has a pronounced jaw and large eyes that are surrounded by distinct purple to red streaks, which become mottled through the rest of the body. Another name for the warmouth is strawberry perch.

Warmouth can grow to be up to 12 in (30 cm) and 2 lbs (0.9 kg) but are usually only around half that size. They tend to be hardier than other sunfish and can tolerate muddier waters than bass or bluegill. Like catfish, they can be bottom feeders, and cleaner tasting fish come from cleaner waters.

5) Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus)

Bluegill fish underwater
Bluegill fish eat common carp eggs, helping to control the population of a very disruptive species. Brian Gratwicke / CC BY 2.0

Native to North America

Bluegill is another medium-sized omnivorous sunfish, though it can grow to be larger than crappie and warmouth, due to its dorsal-ventral elongation. Like crappie, they have a high reproductive rate and are important as secondary consumers. They feed heavily on insects and smaller fish but they themselves are also readily eaten by larger fish. Species at this trophic level tend to have hardy populations, however the bluegill is more vulnerable than other sunfish to overfishing, since males tend to congregate at and guard nesting sites, and can be caught at these times by anglers en masse.

In Lake Mattamuskeet, the bluegill is periodically stocked by the tens of thousands, as they eat the eggs of the common carp, an invasive species responsible for recently disrupting the lake’s ecosystem.

6) Common carp (Cyprinus carpio)

Group of common carp
Common carp have worsened the water quality in Lake Mattamuskeet and plans are underway to reduce their population. Leonard G. at English Wikipedia, CC SA 1.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to Central and Eastern Europe

The common carp is one of the world’s worst invasive species. Domesticated in Europe hundreds of years ago, they were deliberately introduced to rivers and lakes around the world in the nineteenth and early twentieth century as food stock. However, their lack of natural predators, high reproductive rate, and omnivorous diet has led them to outcompete many native species.

The size of the common carp can vary widely depending on age and the size of the water body. The largest one caught in North Carolina was 48 lbs (22 kg), while the largest one ever recorded was 100 lbs (45 kg), from a sportfishing lake in France.

In Lake Mattamuskeet, the common carp is responsible for decreased water quality due to its appetite for aquatic vegetation, the absence of which results in disturbed sediment. Efforts to reduce the carp population have been present since the 1950s, and in the fall of 2021, the county unveiled a plan to isolate and remove most of the around 1 million carp that inhabit the lake. While they can’t be completely eliminated, a severe reduction in population will improve the overall health of the ecosystem.

7) Bowfin (Amia calva)

Man holding bowfin fish
Bowfin are long, bony fish that can grow up to 43 inches long! Clinton & Charles Robertson from RAF Lakenheath, UK & San Marcos, TX, USA & UK, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to the eastern United States

The bowfin, also known as the mudfish or mud pike, is a long, bottom-feeding bony fish. They can grow up to 43 in (109 cm) and are named after their dorsal fin, which runs the length of their back like a bow. Like much of Lake Mattamuskeet’s fish, they prefer marshes, slow-moving water, and particularly lake bottoms. They can survive in lower oxygen environments than most other fish due to their ability to surface and breathe air, similar to lungfish.

Bowfin are often called living fossils, being the only surviving member of the order Amiiformes. They possess a number of primitive traits, such as a high proportion of cartilage in their skeleton, an oddity among bony fish. They are rarely fished intentionally, as their meat tends to be pasty and tasteless.

8) White perch (Morone americana)

White perch in aquarium
White perch are varying shades of green, brown, and gray to help them blend into murky water better. Cephas, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to the Atlantic Coast of North America

The white perch is not a true perch, but instead a type of temperate bass of the  Morinidae family. They are around 10 in (25 cm) long with laterally compressed bodies, and like many lake fish, are varying shades of brown, green, and gray, in order to blend in to murky water. The white perch prefers brackish water – estuaries where fresh and saltwater mix, however it can also live in freshwater, and its tolerance to saltwater has allowed it to move along the Atlantic coast, penetrating any waterway it comes across.

The completion of the Erie canal famously allowed the white perch to colonize the Great Lakes, to the detriment of native fish species in the region. It has also been introduced, accidentally or intentionally, to a number of river systems in the interior United States. In many states, such as Kansas, it is illegal to possess live white perch, in an attempt to curtail its spread. Lake Mattamuskeet, however, is an important site for native white perch populations, and one of the few places in North Carolina where you can find them.

9) Bay anchovy (Anchoa mitchilli)

Bay anchovy fish
Bay anchovies are small fish that can be occasionally found in Lake Mattamuskeet thanks to nearby canals. Smithsonian Environmental Research Center / CC BY 2.0

Native to the Western Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico

Also known as the common anchovy, this small schooling fish is common along the entire East Coast of the United States. Despite being a saltwater fish, it, along with other ocean fish, can occasionally be found in Lake Mattamuskeet, due to the canals that connect it to nearby bays.

While they appear to have no significant impact on the lake’s ecosystem, bay anchovies are an important part of the Atlantic Ocean’s food web. Growing to an average length of only around 2 in (6 cm), they feed on suspended microbiota such as algae, copepods, and crustacean larvae, and are then themselves eaten by numerous other fish and marine species. This species is sometimes used as baitfish, or ground into a paste for its oil.

10) Alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus)

Alewife fish in person's hand
The alewife is an anadromous fish that comes to Lake Mattamuskeet to spawn. NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory / CC BY-SA 2.0

Native to the Atlantic Coast of the United States

The alewife is an anadromous fish, meaning that it spends most of its life in saltwater, but migrates to freshwater to spawn. The alewife and its sister species, the blueback herring (Alosa aestivalis), are known as river herring, and both seasonally swim the canals into Lake Mattamuskeet to spawn.

They are around 12 in (30 cm) long, silver with a slightly green back, and have a black ‘eye’ spot near their gill. They are at risk of becoming endangered, due to the proliferation of dams and other waterworks reducing the number of spawning locations along the Atlantic Coast. In Lake Mattamuskeet, the canal gates have underdone several redesigns in order to allow certain species such as the alewife and blue crabs to come and go as they please, while keeping other species out.

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