List of Common Missouri River Fish Species [Updated]
Holding the title of being the longest river in the United States, the Missouri River runs south for 2,341 miles and drains water into over 500,000 square miles of land. The Missouri River starts in southwestern Montana, where the Gallatin, Jefferson, and Madison Rivers converge, and the Missouri empties into the Mississippi River in St. Louis, Missouri. Not only is the Missouri River impressive in its size, but it also has quite a monumental history.
Long before any settlers arrived in the Americas, many Native American tribes lived along the Missouri River, including the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota Sioux tribes. The river provided the tribes with bountiful water and fertile lands to grow crops. There was also an abundance of many different animals, including buffalo, that were extremely beneficial in the survival of the native people.
In 1637, the first documented Europeans, Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette, arrived at the Missouri River and were in awe at the grandeur of the river’s mouth. After a few more European explorers ventured their way through the Missouri River and created maps of the area, Lewis and Clark decided to take their chance at exploring the river under the orders of President Thomas Jefferson.
In May of 1804, Lewis, Clark, and 40 other men embarked on a journey up the Missouri River starting at the river’s mouth. The purpose of this expedition was to explore the Missouri River and see if it was a viable route to the Pacific Northwest. This expedition was detrimental to the Native American tribes that lived along the Missouri River, but the journey also helped the United States secure land in the west for expansion.
Missouri River Animals & Bio-diversity
Lewis and Clark helped discover 178 plant species and 122 animal species through their travels. Many of these species that were discovered are what make the Missouri River a beautifully diverse ecosystem, although the ecosystem structure has drastically changed since the expedition.
The Missouri River was once known for flooding very large areas and transporting sediments to different areas, but since the 20th century, seven dams have been built that have altered the river’s ecosystem in some negative ways. Today, the river does not see large variability in water flow rates and there is much less sediment transfer throughout the river, which has diminished the varying types of ecosystems throughout the river. Because flooding has been controlled and eliminated in certain floodplain areas, there has also been a decrease in plant, fish, and animal diversity in the floodplains.
Although the Missouri River is not like it once was before settlers came to the United States, there are still many magnificent creatures that call the Missouri River home, including North American river otters and several species of bats, migratory birds, amphibians, and reptiles. One of the most abundant groups of animals that reside in the Missouri River, however, are fish. There are over 200 species of fish that can be found in the Missouri River. Below are some of the most common and/or interesting fish species that swim in the great Missouri River.
List of Fish Species in the Missouri River
1) Longear sunfish (Lepomis megalotis)
Longear sunfish inhabit areas of the Missouri River where the water is very clear and there is plenty of vegetation. This species closely resembles other panfish, but they have a few distinguishing characteristics. One distinguishing characteristic is their orangey-red bodies, which are covered in light blue spots. This species also has an elongated ear flap that lacks a dot, unlike pumpkinseed sunfish. Longear sunfish also have a blue streak on the top of their mouths that other panfish do not have.
These fish average about 5 – 8 inches in length and weigh around six ounces. Unlike many other sunfish, longear sunfish like to feed near the surface of the water on aquatic insects, microcrustaceans, fish eggs, and juvenile fishes.
2) Longnose gar (Lepisosteus osseus)
Longnose gar can be found throughout the Missouri River, and they prefer to live in slow water 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 seven 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.
3) Blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus)
Blue catfish can be found in more rocky areas of the Missouri River where the water has a faster flow. 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 five 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.
4) 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 comes in handy when hunting for snails, fishes, snakes, frogs, insects, aquatic plants, and even birds.
5) Burbot (Lota lota)
Burbot are the only freshwater cod species in North America, and they enjoy the cold, clear waters that can be found in parts of the upper Missouri River. These fish come in a variety of colors from gray to brown to olive, and they have dark mottling covering their whole body. Burbot also have very long dorsal and anal fins that almost seem to attach to the caudal fin, and their microscopic scales make them appear to be scaleless.
Burbot are relatively long-lived fish, so it takes about six or seven years for them to grow around 16 inches long and 3 – 5 pounds in weight. As juveniles, burbot mainly feed on zooplankton and insects, and adults will primarily eat other fishes.
6) Rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss)
Rainbow trout come in two forms: freshwater resident and anadromous. Rainbow trout that reside in freshwater, like those in the Missouri River, are typically a lighter silver color with intense dark markings along the body and have a light pink line running laterally from head to tail. Rainbow trout typically grow between 12 – 20 inches and usually weigh 1 – 4 pounds. This species is also closely related to the cutthroat trout, but unlike cutthroat trout, rainbow trout do not have basibranchial teeth.
Rainbow trout primarily feed on larvae that float through the water. Relying on this food source saves a lot of energy since they are not actively foraging, but adults will also eat other fishes, crustaceans, and worms. Rainbow trout are an incredibly popular sport fish, and this species has been introduced to every continent except for Antarctica.
7) Westslope cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii lewisi)
Cutthroat trout have more than 10 subspecies in varying geographic locations, and each subspecies looks slightly different from each other. In the upper Missouri River basins, the westslope cutthroat trout is the subspecies that can be found. These fish have bronze or green backs and greenish-gold sides. Much like all cutthroat trout, they also have red marks on their lower jaws and teeth on the base of their tongue called basibranchial teeth.
Westslope cutthroat trout range from about 8 – 12 inches in length. Cutthroat trout feed on algae, small crustaceans, and insects when they are young, and adults will feed on just about anything including other fishes.
8) Brown trout (Salmo trutta)
Brown trout prefer to live in the slow-moving and deeper areas of the Missouri River. These fish have a brown or olive-green body with dark colored spots, and their undersides are tannish. Adult brown trout range from about 7 – 22 inches in length and weigh anywhere from 1 – 52 pounds. Female brown trout tend to have a larger abdomen and a smaller head compared to males. Brown trout primarily feed on invertebrates and crustaceans, but larger individuals will prey on other fishes.
Brown trout have been introduced to waters all over the world, and they are considered invasive in many areas. While they are a popular sport fish, brown trout seem to be having many negative impacts on ecosystems including the decline of other fish species, as well as the alteration of algal biomass in certain waters.
9) Lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush)
Lake trout are mainly found in lakes with very high concentrations of dissolved oxygen, but they can still be found in some of the drainage areas of the upper Missouri River. Lake trout have a greenish-colored body that is full of cream-colored spots from the head all the way to the tail, and the lower fins are usually an orange-red color.
This species has an average length of about 20 inches and usually weighs 5 – 15 pounds, but they can get much larger as well. Lake trout are piscivores, but if this species has to move to deeper water in the warmer summer months to keep cool, they may have to feed entirely on zooplankton.
10) Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha)
Chinook salmon are more common in areas like Alaska and Canada; however, there are a few chinook salmon populations that call the cool, clear parts of the Missouri River system home. This species can be identified by its blue-green back, silver sides, and white belly. There are black speckles dotted along the back, dorsal fin, and tail fin, and they also have relatively small eyes as well as blackish gums.
During spawning season, both male and female chinook salmon turn a reddish color on their sides, but the sexes can be told apart by the hooked nose and rigid back that the males possess. Chinook salmon are the largest of the salmon family, and they can easily reach over five feet long and weigh over 100 pounds. Chinook salmon will eat plankton, terrestrial and aquatic insects, amphipods, crustaceans, and other fishes.
11) Largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides)
Largemouth bass are found throughout the Missouri 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 five 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.
12) Smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu)
Smallmouth bass are found in similar regions and habitats in the Missouri 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.
13) Bigmouth buffalo (Ictiobus cyprinellus)
Bigmouth buffalo can be found throughout much of the Missouri River. These fish prefer slower-moving water and will be 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.
14) Black crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus)
Black crappie are primarily found in cool, clear, and deeper bodies of water because they have a very low tolerance to turbid water. Black crappies have compressed bodies that are 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 fishes, crustaceans, and insects.
15) White crappie (Pomoxis annularis)
White crappies are often found in the reservoir and drainage systems of the Missouri 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 crappie 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.
16) Northern pike (Esox lucius)
Northern pike are often found in the Missouri 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.
17) Yellow perch (Perca flavescens)
Yellow perch are one of the most common types of perch, and they are found throughout Missouri River watersheds in brackish waters and near reservoirs. 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 river with their subterminal mouth, and they will search for items such as benthic macroinvertebrates as well as smaller fishes. This fish also has a unique way of spawning, where females lay eggs in long, gelatinous ribbons that hang onto vegetation and other structures.
18) Walleye (Sander vitreus)
Walleye are often found in the deeper regions of the Missouri 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 walleye 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.
19) Sauger (Sander canadensis)
Sauger, also known as the sand pike, are closely related to walleye and can be found in deeper waters than walleye are usually found. Sauger and walleye look similar; however, sauger have a few distinguishing characteristics, including dark blotches on the body, scales on the cheek, and dark spots on the first dorsal fin. Sauger are also smaller than walleye, weighing in at around 1 – 5 pounds on average. Much like the walleye, sauger also have tapetum lucidum, so they exhibit similar behaviors when hunting for prey such as fish and crustaceans.
20) Common carp (Cyprinus carpio)
Common carp, also known as European carp, are found in most of the Missouri 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.
21) Muskellunge (Esox masquinongy)
Muskellunge, more commonly known as muskies, can be primarily found in the lower Missouri River in areas where the water is very clear and slow-moving. These fish come in three subspecies that have slightly different patterning and native ranges, but they 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, although they can reach up to 70 pounds in certain waters.
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.
22) Bowfin (Amia calva)
Bowfin can be found in the Missouri River where waters are very clear and there is lots of vegetation; however, they are able to breathe air, so they can survive in areas that are subject to desiccation if they bury in the mud. These fish have long, slim bodies with an elongated dorsal fin and a round tail. Their bodies are olive or brown with dark mottling, and their bellies are cream or white in color. Bowfin also have no scales on their heads. Instead, their heads are covered in bony plates.
These fish grow to about two feet long and generally weigh less than 20 pounds. Bowfin have powerful jaws and many sharp teeth, so they are easily able to ambush many types of prey including fish, frogs, small snakes, and birds.
23) American paddlefish (Polyodon spathula)
American paddlefish are the last living member of the paddlefish family, and they can be found throughout much of the Missouri 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.
24) Shovelnose sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus platorynchus)
Shovelnose sturgeon are found in the Missouri River 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.
25) Pallid sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus albus)
Pallid sturgeon are an endangered prehistoric fish that swim the waters of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. Although uncommon, these fish may be spotted in deep, turbid channels of the Missouri River where the water currents are relatively strong. These fish have long, slender whitish-gray bodies, and they are covered with bony plates (scutes) much like the shovelnose sturgeon. Pallid sturgeon are much larger than shovelnose sturgeons, however, as the pallid sturgeon can reach six feet in length and weigh around 80 pounds. These fish also have a long, flat head and a snout with barbels and a toothless mouth.
Pallid sturgeon are bottom feeders, and they use their mouths to suck up immature aquatic insect larvae and small fishes. Because the pallid sturgeon is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, efforts are being made to help protect and conserve the species.