List of Common Mississippi River Fish Species [Updated]
The Mississippi River is one of America’s most famous rivers due to its size and importance to the creation of the modern United States. Spanning at 2,348 miles long, the Mississippi River is the second largest river in the United States. The river originates at Lake Itasca in Minnesota and empties into the Gulf of Mexico from Louisiana, and it is the third-largest watershed in the world.
The Mississippi River runs through or borders Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, which means there is a great diversity in habitats that attracts many different species. Not only does the Mississippi support a diverse ecosystem, but it also harbors significant cultural and economic values to the United States.
The history of the Mississippi River can be documented to around 12,000 years ago when Native Americans first started occupying the area. The Mississippi River provided indigenous groups with a plethora of plants and food as well as a means to travel and trade. Native Americans have used the river for thousands of years, but when settlers began to make their way from Europe into North America, they began fighting for the land that bordered the river and the area’s rich resources. Eventually, the Mississippi River officially became property of the United States after the War of 1812, and soon after, the river became an essential part of the industrialization of America.
Unfortunately, the Mississippi River was leveed, dredged, and diked in an attempt to gain control of nature, and this has led to the degradation of many habitats around the river. Today, there are many efforts to help restore the Mississippi River in order to help the thousands of species, including over 120 species of fish, that call the river home. Below are the most common fish species found in the Mississippi River today.
List of Fish Species in the Mississippi River
1) Freshwater drum (Aplodinotus grunniens)
Freshwater drum, also known as sheepshead, is a fish commonly caught in Mississippi waters. 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 benthic creatures and inhabit water with silty or rocky bottoms.
They 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 possibly even invasive zebra mussels.
2) 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, wing dikes, shorelines, sand bars, and other protected and covered areas. 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.
Catfish use their barbels to sense their surroundings in murky waters. These barbels also contain taste buds, much like the rest of their bodies, which come in handy when hunting for snails, fishes, snakes, frogs, insects, aquatic plants, and even birds.
3) Flathead catfish (Pylodictis olivaris)
Flathead catfish are also in abundance in the Mississippi River, and they inhabit areas with rocky or woody coverings. Flathead catfish are generally bigger than channel catfish, and 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. These barbed spines are covered in mucus, and they may cause infection if poked, so it is important to be aware of this defense mechanism when fishing for these species. 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.
4) Blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus)
Blue catfish are slightly less common to find in the Mississippi River compared to other catfish species because they like to inhabit deeper holes surrounded by rocks instead of smaller upstream pools. These fish have a blueish-gray back that fades to a white belly, and they possess no spots.
Blue catfish generally range between 23 – 59 inches in length, and have an average weight of around 50 pounds; however, a record-breaking blue catfish was recently caught in the Mississippi River that weighed in at an astonishing 131 pounds. Blue catfish have jaws lined with tiny teeth that help them eat just about anything they can catch including insects, fish, worms, and crustaceans.
5) Walleye (Sander vitreus)
Walleye are often found in the deeper regions of the Mississippi River, but they will typically stay in waters around 20 – 60 feet deep. This species has a brownish-green body that fades to a cream belly complete with dark horizontal lines, and they average about 11 pounds.
Walleye get their name from their big, glassy pupils, and these eyes look like this due to a reflective layer on the inner eye called the tapetum lucidum, which helps walleyes see prey in times of low visibility. This layer makes walleyes sensitive to bright light, however, so they often hunt for their prey, like fishes and mudpuppies, at dusk or night.
6) Sauger (Sander canadensis)
Sauger, also known as the sand pike, is closely related to walleye and can be found in deeper waters than walleyes are usually found. Saugers and walleyes look similar; however, saugers have a few distinguishing characteristics including dark blotches on the body, scales on the cheek, and dark spots on the first dorsal fin. Saugers are also smaller than walleyes, weighing in at around 1 – 5 pounds on average. Much like the walleye, saugers also have tapetum lucidum, so they exhibit similar behaviors when hunting for prey such as fish and crustaceans.
7) Largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides)
Largemouth bass are found in the mid to upper Mississippi River, and they prefer to live in slow-moving, shallower waters covered by vegetation. Largemouth bass have thick 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 they can get much larger.
Largemouth bass get their name from their mouth, which extends past the eye. Largemouths are carnivores that primarily feed on crayfish and other fishes, but they will eat less or stop eating in the colder months when their metabolism slows down.
8) Smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu)
Smallmouth bass are found in similar regions and habitats in the Mississippi River 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.
9) White bass (Morone chrysops)
White bass prefer to be in large, open areas of the Mississippi River where the turbidity is very low. These fish are a silvery-white color, and they have 6 – 8 black lateral stripes across their bodies. They have an underbite mouth much like the largemouth bass; however, white bass are more related to striped bass that reside in 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.
10) Northern pike (Esox lucius)
Northern pike are often found in the upper Mississippi River, and they prefer cooler waters but can tolerate many different conditions. This species is characterized by torpedo-shaped bodies that are dark green or brown and covered in light spots. They also have pointed mouths that contain many sharp teeth. Northern pike grow to about 18 – 25 inches long and weigh around 2 – 5 pounds. Due to the structure of their body, northern pike prove to be vicious predators and will lunge to eat other fish, frogs, crayfish, small mammals, and ducklings.
11) White crappie (Pomoxis annularis)
White crappies are often found in the reservoir and drainage systems of the Mississippi River because they do well in very slow-moving and 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 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 such as mayflies.
12) Black crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus)
Black crappies are found in cool, clear, and deeper bodies of water and are less likely to be in more turbid water. Black crappies have the same body shape as white crappies but are generally darker green on the back with dark mottling on the silvery sides. 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 weigh 0.25 – 1 pounds. This species is generally nocturnal, so they will hunt during the night for small fish, crustaceans, and insects.
13) European carp (Cyprinus carpio)
European carp, also known as common carp, are found in the upper Mississippi River, and they are able to tolerate more polluted and less oxygenated water compared to other fish species. Common carp 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 U.S.
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.
14) Common shiner (Luxilus cornutus)
Common shiners are found in upper Mississippi River basins where there are cool, clear pools of water in rocky areas. Common shiners are characterized by dark backs that have bluish reflections as well as silver sides and bellies. This species gets its scientific name, “cornutus,” which means ”horns” in Latin, from the tubercles on the males’ heads that develop during breeding seasons. Although these fish are technically minnows, they can actually grow up to 8 inches in length. Common shiners are opportunistic feeders; however, they will primarily feed on aquatic insects.
15) Shovelnose sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus platorynchus)
Shovelnose sturgeon are found in Mississippi River basins in areas where there is faster flowing water and rocky or sandy bottoms. 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.
16) American paddlefish (Polyodon spathula)
American paddlefish are the last living member of the paddlefish family, and they can be found throughout most of the Mississippi River drainage systems. These fish prefer deeper and slower-moving muddy waters. 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 rostrum that is covered in electroreceptors.
17) Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus)
Bluegills can be found in the upper Mississippi River in very slow-moving waters. Like other sunfish, bluegills have disk-shaped bodies, but bluegills have an olive-green back, an orangish-yellow belly, and a black dot at the base of the dorsal fin. These fish also have a bluish hue surrounding the gills, which is where they get their name from. 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.
18) American gizzard shad (Dorosoma cepedianum)
Gizzard shad can be found in slow-moving waters of the Mississippi River and in the river’s drainage areas. This species has a silvery-blue back that fades to white sides, and they average between 6 – 8 inches long and 1 – 8 ounces in weight. 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.
19) Bigmouth buffalo (Ictiobus cyprinellus)
Bigmouth buffalo can be found in many of the drainage areas of the Mississippi 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 grow to about 15 – 27 inches long and weigh 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.
20) Longnose gar (Lepisosteus osseus)
Longnose gar can be found throughout the entire Mississippi River basin, and they prefer to live in slow waters that may be warmer. This species has very long, cylindrical olive-brown or blue-gray bodies with white bellies and dark spots on the fins. These fish can vary in size depending on where they live, but they tend to be around 2.5 – 4 feet long and weigh about 7 pounds, although they can grow to be much larger.
Longnose gar also have a long narrow snout and mouth that contains razor-sharp teeth. When they hunt for prey, such as other fish, they will lay motionless at the surface of the water stalking their prey. When the prey is close enough, the gar will thrash its snout and impale the unsuspecting prey with its teeth.