Fish Species in Lake of the Ozarks (Updated)

We are 100% reader supported. We may earn commission at no extra cost to you if you buy through a link on this page. Read our disclosure.

Share this page!

Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri
Lake of the Ozarks is 93 miles long and is home to many different fish species. James St. John, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Lovingly dubbed “The Magic Dragon” by locals, the Lake of the Ozarks is a 93-mile-long serpentine lake winding through the Ozark Mountains and extending across four different counties.

This large, man-made reservoir was formed in the early 20th century by impounding the Osage River to power the Osage Power Plant. Construction began on the large Bagnell Dam in 1929 and was completed in 1931, permanently changing the landscape and economy of much of Missouri.

Several small tributaries feed into its main Osage channel, forming a variety of coves and adding ample mileage to its 1150-mile shoreline. While most of this shoreline is privately owned, 85 miles have been delegated as part of Missouri’s largest state park, Lake of the Ozarks State Park.

Lake of the Ozarks is a rich aquatic ecosystem teeming with life, complete with a variety of ancient, endangered, and fascinating fish species. This article will go over a handful of these species, from its well-known white crappie to the Missouri state fish, the elusive lake sturgeon, and more.

Fish Species in Lake of the Ozarks

1) White crappie (Pomoxis annularis)

Caught white crappie
The white crappie is a very common fish in Missouri and is active throughout the day. Austin R. Kelly / CC BY 4.0

Native to the United States

The white crappie is a medium-sized panfish that is often associated with the Lake of the Ozarks. It is one of the most common fish in Missouri and more widespread than its close relative, the black crappie.

This species is deep-bodied and laterally compressed with a distinctive humpback. It is silver with 5 to 10 dark vertical bars along the side of its body. Unlike many sunfish, it has a connected spiny and soft fin with no distinct break between them.

This adaptable carnivorous species thrives in most warm waters throughout the country, and is active throughout the day, hunting for small fish, insects, zooplankton, and crustaceans. The white crappie is a short-lived and fast-growing species, maturing at 2 to 3 years and only living for 3 to 4.

Due to its quick maturity, the white crappie can easily overpopulate waters and consequently stunt its own growth. Bodies of water with white crappies rely heavily on largemouth bass to keep their numbers in check and ensure a healthy ecosystem.

This species lays in colonies in early spring, with males digging out depressions for females to lay in. Males lead females to these nests to lay anywhere from 27,000 to 68,000 eggs and aggressively chase off all other fish once spawning is complete.

Males guard their young until hatching, which may take 42 hours in warmer waters and 103 hours in cooler waters. Larvae are born with their egg yolks attached to their heads and leave the nest once able to swim.

Another limiting factor to this species’ population is its high mortality rate of young fish in severe winters, with as much as 47% of the yearling crappie population dying out in one study.

2) Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus)

Channel catfish in hands
Channel catfish can be found all across North America in freshwater, brackish water, and even saltwater! Nick Kamm / CC BY-SA 4.0

Native to North America

The channel catfish is a highly adaptable fish with a massive range across North America. It is able to live in freshwater, brackish water, and even saltwater as needed. The channel catfish is easily recognizable due to its deeply forked tail, numerous black spots, and pale olive or blue coloring.

Most caught specimens weigh 2 to 4 pounds, but channel catfish grow throughout their 15-year lifespan, easily surpassing 10 or 20 pounds. The largest recorded specimen weighed a whopping 58 pounds.

The channel catfish is often referred to as a swimming tongue due to the taste buds spread across its entire scaleless body. These tastebuds are especially concentrated on the 2 barbels on its upper jaw and 4 on its lower jaw.

As a nocturnal species, channel catfish are able to forage or hunt with the use of these sensitive tastebuds, which allow them to detect various proteins in the water. Young individuals are omnivorous, but older specimens eat almost exclusively smaller fish.

In addition to these tastebuds, channel catfish heavily utilize their Weberian apparatus, a set of bones that connect their inner ear and swim bladder, essentially forming a large, sensitive ear. This allows them to hear other fish as they move.

These sensory adaptations are not only used for hunting but also for communication with other catfish. Although they are widely solitary, channel catfish are able to communicate by producing different frequencies by rubbing spines on their fins against cartilage on their body, the pectoral fin and girdle respectively. Additionally, pheromones are heavily used during mating season, when males turn dark and develop a thick pad on their heads.

3) American paddlefish (Polyodon spathula)

Adult American paddlefish
The American paddlefish is an ancient species that remains largely unchanged from its ancestors. shankar s., CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to the United States

As the Missouri-state fish, paddlefish are a truly unique species. This cartilaginous and sharklike species comes from a long line of primitive fish and is almost entirely unchanged from its ancestors in the early cretaceous period.

With its close relative, the Chinese paddlefish, being declared extinct in 2019, the American paddlefish is now the only known member of its family. Also known as the spoonbill, it is named for its long, blade-like snout. This snout, known as a rostrum, is a complex electrosensory organ that is used to sense plankton as it swims. The paddlefish swims through the water with its mouth open, filtering tiny crustaceans and insects in the same manner as a baleen whale or whale shark.

It has a deeply forked tail and gray body, and is almost entirely scaleless other than a small patch on its tail. This species is rapidly growing, typically reaching 10 to 14 inches long within its first year of life and continuing to grow at a rapid pace through its 30+ year life. Many specimens surpass 7 feet, and a 140-pound specimen was recently caught in Lake of the Ozarks.

The paddlefish is primarily found in the great lakes, as it requires ample room and plenty of free-flowing water for it to properly rake through the water and feed. Unfortunately, paddlefish have begun to decline and have been declared extinct in many states it formerly occupied. One reason for this decline is excessive harvesting, as each breeding individual is critical for the survival of this late-maturing species. Additionally, dams impact their ability to spawn and feed upstream.

4) Largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides)

Man holding largemouth bass
Largemouth bass have greenish-black bodies and are the largest members of the black bass family. Matt Garvin / CC BY-SA 4.0

Native to North America

Largemouth bass, named for their long upper lip that extends fully past their eyes, are the largest members of the black bass family. This greenish-black species is regularly stocked in Lake of the Ozarks and features a horizontal band of dark blotches along its midline and a creamy underbelly.

Largemouth bass are vigorous ambush predators that thrive in warm, shallow waters with plenty of coverage. They easily reach 3 pounds but regularly surpass 10 or even 20. Largemouth bass spend much of the year hunting near a preferred area of submerged vegetation and retreat to lake depths during the hottest days of summer.

Spawning is based primarily on water temperature, with those in northern regions spawning in late spring and those in southern regions spawning in late winter. Largemouth bass mature at an early age, often as few as 3 months. Males form nests in shallow waters and lure females to spawn in their nests. Although females typically mate with multiple males and provide no parental care, there have been instances of monogamous pairs who both guard their eggs and fry together.

Typically, males guard their eggs alone. Despite aggressively protecting their young from other fish and predators, they are known to eat their own fry upon getting hungry. This practice is relatively commonplace and does not heavily impact population numbers.

5) Lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens)

Lake sturgeon
Lake sturgeon have been in decline in Lake of the Ozarks since 1931, but there are efforts to boost their population by stocking 6-month-old individuals from Wisconsin lakes. Engbretson, Eric, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to North America

The lake sturgeon is a long, shark-like fish that is the oldest and largest species found in the Great Lakes. This ancient giant has remained relatively unchanged for the last 150 years. Much like other ancient species, it has sharp bony plates known as scutes rather than scales and a large sucker-mouth.

This migratory species spends much of its time in lakes but spawns in large, fast-moving rivers. Young lake sturgeons spend their first year of life in these rivers, then move downstream. Adults often return to the specific area they were born in to spawn.

Individuals are incredibly long-lived and grow throughout their life. Males may live up to 50 years and females have been known to live up to 150 years. Individuals who are not prematurely harvested can easily reach 8 feet and 300 pounds. A 50-pound individual was recently caught and released in Lake of the Ozarks per state regulations. These regulations are in place for good reason — lake sturgeon is an endangered species that may take up to 15 – 25 years to become mature and often spawns only every 3 to 5 years.

Lake sturgeon numbers in Lake of the Ozarks first began to diminish in 1931, when the Bagnell Dam made their spawning waters permanently unable to be accessed. Since the 1980s, the Missouri Department of Conservation has made successful efforts to reintroduce lake sturgeons by stocking 6-month-old individuals from Wisconsin lakes. In recent years, the movement of these stocked sturgeons has been tracked with radio tagging to observe migratory patterns and potential spawning grounds.

6) Black crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus)

Black crappie in hands
There are fewer black crappies compared to white crappies in Missouri due to their sensitivity to silt and turbid water. fishesoftexas / CC BY-SA 4.0

Native to the United States

As close relatives to the white crappie, black crappies are an abundant species that easily overpopulate the waters they are introduced to. This species has somewhat limited numbers in much of Missouri compared to the white crappie due to its sensitivity to turbid water and silt.

In recent years, clearer waters in Lake of the Ozarks have led to black crappie numbers rising and competing with white crappies. This is due to the black crappie’s visual hunting style. Black crappies often feed in the early morning in loosely organized schools, gathering near coverage and vegetation.

The black crappie can be distinguished from its more common counterpart by its irregular speckling pattern as well as its 7 to 8 dorsal spines, as opposed to the white crappie’s 6. It is able to live longer than white crappies, living an average of 4 to 7 years and with individuals reported as old as 15 years. This lengthened lifespan allows black crappies to grow large enough to compete with walleyes for prey. Despite their larger size, black crappies are known to prefer insects even as adults.

As with other sunfish species, parental care is exclusively done by males, who not only build nests but also guard eggs and larvae until fry leave the nest. In the case of black crappies, this process is streamlined, with larvae becoming independent only 5 days after spawning.

7) White bass (Morone chrysops)

White bass
The white bass is a short-lived fish, typically lasting 8 years in northern regions and 4 years in southern regions. Nick Kamm / CC BY-SA 4.0

Native to the United States

The white bass is an elongated, silver fish with faint, offset horizontal streaks along its body. It has a strongly arched back and is short-lived, rarely surpassing 3 to 5 pounds in Missouri. It grows rapidly within its short lifespan, which typically lasts 8 years in northern regions and as few as 4 years in southern areas.

White bass swim in large schools of similarly aged and sized fish and often hunt as a group in shallow waters. While smaller individuals typically stay near the shore to feast on worms, mollusks, and insects, adults work together to drive prey fish to the water surface. This results in dramatic displays known as jumps, where feeder fish are chased to the surface and leap out before being eaten. White bass in Ozark waters feed heavily on young gizzard shad and have a population size reflecting fluctuations in gizzard shad numbers.

During the spring, white bass schools begin to separate by gender. Males travel to spawning areas and wait for females to choose them. Females, which are larger in this species, indicate their chosen mate by darting to the water surface in front of them. Following her lead, the male will join her to spawn just below the water’s surface. The resulting eggs drift along with the current and receive no parental care.

8) Striped bass (Morone saxatilis)

Striped bass underwater
Most striped bass grow in the ocean and return to freshwater to spawn. Eli T. / CC BY 4.0

Native to North America

Despite their close resemblance and ability to breed with them to produce a hybrid known as wipers, striped bass have distinctly different lifespans, reproduction styles, and adult sizes than white bass. At a similar size, these two species are easily mistaken for one another with only a few key distinctions. Striped bass have distinct and unbroken black stripes which extend from the back of their head to the base of their tail. They are also more streamlined and lack a hunched back.

At most points in their lives, striped bass can be told apart from white bass due to their large size difference. Striped bass are fast growers, often reaching 24 inches long by their fourth year of life. They grow at a more gradual pace after this point, but typically reach 40 pounds within their 30-year lifespan. Striped bass over 60 pounds have been caught throughout Missouri.

The first two years of this species’ life are spent in small schools in the upstream freshwater areas it is born. Young fish feast on microscopic prey and migrate downstream once they have grown large enough. As a semi-anadromous species, many striped bass grow in the ocean and return to freshwater only to spawn. In landlocked regions such as Missouri, striped bass spend their entire lives in freshwater, migrating to large lakes and ponds to grow and returning upstream to spawn.

These downstream adults are still somewhat social, but it is common for individuals surpassing 30 pounds to become “lone wolves”. This is due in part to the dietary patterns of larger striped bass, who eat any fish smaller than them, including smaller members of their own species.

9) Flathead catfish (Pylodictis olivaris)

Juvenile flathead catfish
Juvenile flathead catfish feed primarily on invertebrates but become fierce ambush predators when they get larger. By Nick Loveland / No copyright

Native to North America

As its name would suggest, the flathead catfish is a yellow or gold fish notable for its distinctly flattened head and lower jaw extending beyond its upper jaw. Unlike other catfish species, which are known to be opportunistic scavengers, the flathead catfish feeds exclusively on live prey.

Young flathead catfish eat primarily invertebrates, but once they are large enough to ingest other fish, they become fierce ambush predators of other fish. They can easily become top predators but grow slowly and continually, usually only surpassing 3 feet in length by the time they are 10 years old. Throughout its 20+ year lifespan, flathead catfish are able to grow incredibly large, potentially reaching 125 pounds.

Flathead catfish have a hunting advantage over other fish not only due to their size but also their ability to hunt in dark and cloudy waters. Although it has the tastebuds and barbells associated with catfish, it hunts primarily with touch rather than taste. The lateral line is a sensory organ running horizontally along the side of the flathead catfish, which allows it to detect vibration, pressure, and movement. Flathead catfish use this organ to detect the wake produced by swimming prey and chase it to its source.

Despite their long lifespan, flathead catfish mature early on, with males maturing at 3 to 5 years and females at 3 to 7 years. Spawning occurs annually in June and July, with males forming nests or scouting out appropriate spots. Females deposit eggs depending on their size at a ratio of 1200 eggs per pound. In the case of large females, up to 100,000 eggs may be laid in sticky clusters in a single nest. Males aggressively defend their nest, fanning eggs for 6 to 9 days until they hatch and continuing to guard their fry for several more days.

10) Blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus)

Caught blue catfish
Blue catfish are often confused with channel catfish, but can be told apart by a lack of distinct markings. Nick Newberry / CC BY 4.0

Native to North America

The blue catfish is the largest species of catfish in North America, having an average length of 2 feet but regularly surpassing 4.5 feet and 100 pounds. This slate blue or gray catfish is easily mistaken for channel catfish and can be distinguished from it by a lack of distinct markings.

Despite its large size and quick growth rate, the blue catfish is less common than either channel catfish or flathead catfish in Lake of the Ozarks. Those blue catfish that do inhabit a shared region of water have a distinct pecking order and may even cannibalize on those smaller than them.

While some states express concerns about its potential to overpower native species if introduced, it is actually a powerful inhibitor of invasive species. Many lakes intentionally stock blue catfish to reduce populations of highly invasive Asian clams and hydrilla. The blue catfish introduced to some of these lakes have been found to feed almost exclusively on Asian clam. Even in its native Virginian waters, blue catfish are known to heavily feast upon invasive Asian carp.

Male blue catfish are dedicated fathers, beginning spawning seasons by carefully creating or finding a suitable hollow as a nest. They court females by dancing in intricate patterns and rubbing their barbels across their chosen female’s face. Recent studies have shown that blue catfish are monogamous within a mating season and both parents contribute to the safety of their young. After spawning, males chase females off to begin organizing, fanning, and guarding their eggs. Rather than completely leaving, females remain at a close distance to ward predators away from the area and protect their fry.

11) Spotted bass (Micropterus punctulatus)

Adult spotted bass
Spotted bass migrate many times between rivers and reservoirs in their short lives. Brandon Preston / CC BY 4.0

Native to North America

In many waters, spotted bass compete and even interbreed with similarly-sized black bass such as smallmouth bass, but those in Lake of the Ozarks are mostly separated from other black bass species due to swimming in deeper waters. It has a gold-green body with a white underbelly and a dark horizontal stripe along its dorsal fin and its midline. Its upper jaw may reach to or just beyond its upper eye.

The spotted bass is one of the smallest species of black bass at an adult size typically under 5 pounds. It grows at a faster rate than the smallmouth bass but has a shorter lifespan at 6 years and therefore only grows to a measly 0.5 to 3.5 pounds. Due to its small size, the diet of the spotted bass consists heavily of crayfish and aquatic insects. It thrives in slightly turbid waters and often migrates between rivers and reservoirs throughout its short life.

Much like largemouth bass, the spawning season for spotted bass begins with males building disc-shaped nests in lake shallows, and spawning is initiated by females. Unlike other bass species, spotted bass are often monogamous, with males tending to the 3,000 to 30,000 eggs of whichever female chooses them and only occasionally building other nests.

12) Walleye (Sander vitreus)

Walleye in hand
Walleye are easily recognizable with their long, thin, golden bodies. By Dustin Minialoff / No copyright

Native to the northern United States and Canada

Walleyes are large, gold and olive members of the perch family which are the preferred catch of many anglers throughout the country due to their strong fighting spirit. In Missouri, they are widely overlooked in favor of more prominent crappie, bass, and catfish. They are easily recognized, with their long and thin body as well as the characteristic 5 or more vertical black bands along their back.

Walleyes are native to the Lake of the Ozarks but have also been continually stocked since the mid-1990s. At an average of 12 – 28 inches, they cannot compete in terms of size with many of the monster-sized catfish of Lake of the Ozark but they are still able to become top predators.

Due to a lack of parental care and random spawning, few walleye are able to reach adulthood, but this fast-growing species is often able to grow large due to their unique hunting strategy. During the day, walleyes rest under coverage in deeper waters and hide from predators. As crepuscular fish, they head to shallow waters to hunt specifically at dusk and dawn. Walleyes take advantage of this unique lighting with their tapetum lucidum, a layer of reflective pigment in their eyes that they are named for. This pigment allows them to have acute vision in low light and gives them an advantage over competition and prey.

Ane Liv B
About the author

Ane Liv B

By day I pursue a PhD in molecular ecology investigating Antarctic fur seal, but I am always keen on sharing my knowledge of all things aquatic. I have years of experience as a scientific educator, conveying complex topics in an accessible fashion.

Read more about Pond Informer.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.