List of Fish Species in the Merritt Reservoir 2023 [Updated]

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List of Common Merritt Reservoir Fish Species [Updated]

Merritt Dam, Nebraska
There is a wide selection of sport fish that draws anglers to the Merritt Dam and Reservoir. Ammodramus, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Located in Cherry County, Nebraska, the Merritt Reservoir is a body of water that covers about 3,000 acres of land. This reservoir has an average depth of around 25 feet, but the maximum depth is 111 feet.

The reservoir was created by the United States Bureau of Reclamation in 1964 when they put up the 126-foot Merritt Dam, which impounds the Snake River that is located north of Merritt Reservoir. The creation of the dam was to primarily control the river water for irrigation purposes, and it is still used for this purpose today.

Once completed, the Merritt Dam was dedicated to J.M. Merritt, a man who was the Superintendent of the Valentine Fish Hatchery and who spent most of his life working with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. In addition to the reservoir and dam, J.M. Merritt also has his name connected to a beautiful recreation area that is enjoyed by many outdoor enthusiasts today.

The Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area covers 9,053 acres of land and water that attract people from all over. On land, the recreation area provides ample opportunities for camping, picnicking, and hunting for prairie grouse, turkeys, deer, and waterfowl. Along the 44 miles of the Merritt Reservoir shore, there are wonderful sandy beaches to relax on.

The shore also provides opportunities for fishing, and there are boat ramps that allow access to the water for more fishing opportunities. In fact, Merritt Reservoir is claimed to be one of the best fishing spots in Nebraska due to the cold, clear water that is not typically found within the state. The characteristics of this water allow for a delightful array of different sport fish that draws anglers to the Merritt Dam. Below are the most common species of fish that can be found in the waters of the Merritt Dam.

List of Fish Species in the Merritt Reservoir

1) Walleye (Sander vitreus)

Caught walleye
There is a daily bag limit of 4 walleye in the Merritt Reservoir. Adam Wilson / CC BY 4.0

Native to North America

The walleye is the Merritt Reservoir’s prized fish species, and they can be found in deeper areas of the reservoir near the bottom. This species has a brownish-green body that fades to a cream belly complete with dark horizontal lines. These fish are the largest of the perch family, and they average about 11 pounds.

Walleye get their name from their big, glassy pupils; these eyes look like this due to a reflective layer on the inner eye called the tapetum lucidum, which helps walleye see prey in times of low visibility. This layer makes walleye sensitive to bright light, however, so they often hunt for their prey, like fishes and mudpuppies, at dusk or night.

Every June since 2014, around 214,875 walleye are regularly stocked in the Merritt Reservoir to support the popular fishing industry. Currently, there is a daily bag limit of four walleye, and only one walleye can be 22 inches or longer. The rest of the fish caught must be over 15 inches in length.

2) Muskellunge (Esox masquinongy)

Muskellunge in net
The muskellunge is the largest member of the pike family, reaching up to 40 inches on average! Patrick Jackson / CC BY 4.0

Native to North America

Muskellunge, more commonly known as muskies, can be found in Merritt Reservoir because they prefer very clear and slow-moving waters. These fish come in three subspecies that have slightly different patterning and native ranges, but they will all have darker green or brownish backs that fade to light green sides and a whitish belly.

Muskies are the largest of the pike family, and they can reach about 30 – 40 inches long and 10 – 20 pounds on average, but the largest muskie caught in the Merritt Reservoir weighed in at 41.5 pounds! These fish have jaws lined with long, sharp teeth, and the roof of their mouths are covered in smaller curved teeth. They also have excellent vision both during the day and at night.

With these factors combined, muskies make for top predators that eat a number of larger fish species. In the Merritt Reservoir, there is a one-fish daily bag limit for muskies, and the muskie must be greater than 50 inches in length.

3) Northern pike (Esox lucius)

Man holding northern pike
Northern pike have torpedo-shaped bodies and are usually 15 – 25 inches long. Patrick Jackson / CC BY 4.0

Native to North America and Eurasia

Northern pike were not typically found in Merritt Reservoir, but starting in the 1990s, these fish started to appear on anglers’ lines. This species is characterized by torpedo-shaped bodies that are dark green or brown in color and covered in light spots. Northern pike grow to about 15 – 25 inches long and weigh around 2 – 5 pounds, but they can easily weigh in the teens at Merritt Reservoir. These fish also have pointed mouths that contain many sharp teeth that are pointed backward to ensure a tight grip on prey.

Due to the structure of their body, northern pike prove to be vicious predators and will wait motionless until the right moment comes to lunge and eat other fish, frogs, crayfish, small mammals, and birds. The daily bag limit for northern pike is three fish, and only one fish can be 34 inches or more in length.

4) Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus)

Bluegill in hand
The bluegill has a disk-shaped body and small mouth. Brett Ortler / CC BY 4.0

Native to North America

Bluegills can be found throughout the Merritt Reservoir in areas where there is lots of vegetation. Bluegills have 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.

Bluegill 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.

5) Pumpkinseed sunfish (Lepomis gibbosus)

Pumpkinseed sunfish in net
Pumpkinseeds are less abundant than bluegills in the Merritt Reservoir but can still be caught in areas with more vegetation. Alex Karasoulos / CC BY 4.0

Native to Canada and the United States

Pumpkinseed sunfish are slightly less abundant in Merritt Reservoir compared to bluegills, but they can still be found in areas with lots of vegetation. This species has a disc-shaped body that is speckled with olive green, blue, orange, and yellow, and they have orange and blue waves running across their faces.

These fish grow to about 5 – 8 inches long and weigh around 8 – 12 ounces. They are active during the day and will feed on insects, larvae, mollusks, snails, crustaceans, leeches, small fish, and detritus. At night, pumpkinseeds will rest near the bottom of the water or in vegetation, so they will not be spotted by predators.

6) Yellow perch (Perca flavescens)

Yellow perch
Yellow perch can’t survive in turbid water but can tolerate areas with lower oxygen levels. Sebastian Sigman / CC BY 4.0

Native to northern and central North America

Yellow perch are the most popular panfish species in Merritt Reservoir. Perch are relatively adaptable fish, and they can live in areas with low oxygen content; however, they will not be able to survive in waters with higher turbidity.

This species is known for its golden yellow to greenish body covered in 6 – 8 dark vertical bars. These fish have yellow or green eyes and orange-red tinted fins. Yellow perch generally grow to about 7 – 10 inches long and weigh around a pound, although this species is prone to having stunted growth in areas where food is limited. When food is abundant, adults will feed on the bottom of the reservoir with their subterminal mouth, and they will search for items such as benthic macroinvertebrates as well as smaller fish.

7) Black crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus)

Black crappie
The black crappie is a popular panfish species in the Merritt Reservoir, with the daily panfish catch limit being 15 fish. Michael Arden / CC BY 4.0

Native to North America

Black crappies are the second most popular panfish species in Merritt Reservoir, and they can be found near areas with submerged coverings. These fish 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. The daily bag limit for all panfish species (bluegills, pumpkinseeds, crappie, perch, etc.) combined is 15 fish.

8) Black bullhead (Ameiurus melas)

Black bullheads
Black bullheads prefer silty, still waters, but are tolerant of many different water conditions. Noa / CC BY 4.0

Native to central and eastern North America

Black bullheads are a type of catfish that can be found in Merritt Reservoir where the water is still and the bottom is silty; although they are incredibly tolerant to many different water conditions. These fish have black or dark olive bodies and a cream-colored belly. Black bullheads can be distinguished from other species of bullheads by a light-colored band that runs along the base of the tail.

This species grows to about 8 – 14 inches in length and weighs 1 – 2 pounds. Equipped with eight black barbels on their face, black bullheads navigate the waters to find anything they can eat including small crayfish, worms, small mollusks, crustaceans, and aquatic plants.

9) Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus)

Caught channel catfish
You can catch 5 channel catfish per day in the Merritt Reservoir, but only one can be more than 30 inches long. Tim / CC BY 4.0

Native to North America

Channel catfish are one of the most abundant types of catfish in the United States, and they are a very popular sport fish in Merritt Reservoir. This species can be found near woody drift piles, shorelines, sand bars, and other covered areas in all of Merritt Reservoir. Like all catfish, the channel catfish does not have scales, instead having 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, although the reservoir contains many trophy catfish reaching up to 40 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. In the Merritt Reservoir, there is a five-fish daily bag limit for channel catfish, and only one fish can be over 30 inches long.

10) Common carp (Cyprinus carpio)

Common carp
Common carp have large scales and two pairs of barbels on their upper jaw. Skyler Principe / CC BY 4.0

Native to Eurasia

Common carp, also known as European carp, are a relatively popular species at Merritt Reservoir for bow fishers. This species has a robust body with a brassy green back and white to yellow sides. They have large scales with a black dot on each and two pairs of barbels on their upper jaw. These fish have rows of pharyngeal teeth that they use to dig up aquatic plant roots to eat, and they also use these teeth to catch insects, crustaceans, and small mollusks.

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 continue eating them when they came to the United States.

11) White sucker (Catostomus commersonii)

White sucker in net
White suckers vary greatly in size, but adults can usually reach lengths of up to 10 inches. Richard Poort / CC BY 4.0

Native to Canada and the United States

White suckers enjoy the cold clear waters of the Merritt Reservoir. These fish have long, round bodies with dark brown or green backs, cream bellies, and clear fins. When males are breeding, they will gain a gold coloration on their backs as well as reddish stripes on their sides.

This species has a large size range, but adults typically grow to about 10 inches long and weigh about 1 – 5 pounds. White suckers have a unique mouth that is subterminal, toothless, and contains thick lips. With this mouth, they will feed on the bottom of the water and suck up anything like fish, fish eggs, plants, mollusks, insects, and algae.

12) Freshwater drum (Aplodinotus grunniens)

Freshwater drum
Freshwater drums look like they have a hunchback due to their steeply sloping body. moxostoma / CC BY 4.0

Native to North America

Freshwater drum, also known as sheepshead, is a fish that will most likely be found in the shallow, muddy waters of Merritt Reservoir. 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 drums are characterized by their silver bodies with a lateral line that extends all the way through their caudal fin. They also have a steeply sloping body that gives them the appearance of having a humpback. This species averages about 10 – 14 inches long and will usually weigh up to five pounds. Drum have large teeth that help them eat a variety of prey at the bottom of the lake including snails, insects, small fish, and zebra mussels.

13) Largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides)

Largemouth bass
In the Merritt Reservoir, largemouth bass can usually be found in weedy areas with lots of cover. David Weisenbeck / CC BY 4.0

Native to eastern North America

Largemouth bass are found in Merritt Reservoir typically near weedy areas where 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 2 – 4 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.

14) Smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu)

Smallmouth bass underwater
As their name suggests, smallmouth bass have smaller mouths than largemouth bass. Henrik Kibak / CC BY 4.0

Native to eastern North America

Smallmouth bass are also a common sportfish in Merritt Reservoir, and they can be found in similar areas as the largemouth bass. Smallmouths are an olive-green color with vertical bands on the side of the body, and they range from 12 – 18 inches in length and weigh around 1 – 4 pounds.

While smallmouths look very similar to largemouth bass, the major distinction between the two is that smallmouth bass have a smaller mouth that extends to the midpoint of the eye. Despite the difference in mouth sizes, smallmouths eat a diet similar to largemouth bass. The current daily bag limit for black bass species combined in Merritt Reservoir is five fish, and only one of the fish can be 21 inches or longer.

15) White bass (Morone chrysops)

White bass
Similar to the largemouth bass, white bass have an underbite mouth. Mathew Zappa / CC BY 4.0

Native to North America

White bass prefer to be in large, open areas of Merritt Reservoir, 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.

White bass are a mid-sized fish, and they average about 12 – 14 inches in length and weigh around two pounds. 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. In the Merritt Reservoir, there is a 15-fish daily bag limit for white bass, and no more than one fish can be longer than 16 inches.

16) Alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus)

Alewife on shore
Alewives aren’t particularly popular with anglers, but they’re an important forage fish for many other fish species. Leila Dasher / CC BY 4.0

Native to the Atlantic Coast

Alewives are typically an anadromous species, but there are freshwater populations that have been introduced to many bodies of water including the Merritt Reservoir. These freshwater populations tend to stay relatively deep in lakes and reservoirs and will come near the surface during spawning season and to feed.

This species is characterized by their dusky green backs and silver sides, and they have a black dot right behind their heads. These fish grow up to around 15 inches in length and generally weigh less than a pound. Alewives are a schooling species and will feed on zooplankton, shrimp, small crustaceans, small fishes, and fish eggs together. This species is not necessarily a great catch for fishers; however, alewives are very important for fishing and the ecosystem because they are forage fish that are eaten by the trophy walleye, northern pike, muskellunge, largemouth bass, and channel catfish found in the Merritt Reservoir.


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