List of Fish Species in Okoboji Lake 2023 [Updated]

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List of Common Okoboji Lake Fish Species [Updated]

West Okoboji Lake
Okoboji Lake is split into two bodies of water: West and East Okoboji Lake. West Okoboji Lake is larger than its eastern counterpart. Mary Fairchild / CC BY-SA 2.0

Okoboji Lake is a natural glacial lake that is part of the Iowa Great Lakes, and it gets its name from the Native American word, “Okoboozhy”, meaning “reeds”.

This popular lake is actually split into two bodies of water: East Okoboji Lake and West Okoboji Lake. West Okoboji Lake is the second largest lake in the chain of the Iowa Great lakes as it covers 3,847 acres. This lake has an average depth of 38 feet, but its maximum depth is 136 feet, making it the deepest natural lake in Iowa. East Okoboji Lake is a smaller lake spanning 1,835 acres with an average depth of 10 feet and a maximum depth of 22 feet. Together, these lakes make for a popular vacation destination for many due to the beautiful blue waters. The lakes are also surrounded by many state parks including Mini-Wakan State Park, Gull Point State Park, Elinor Bedell State Park, and Pikes Point State Park.

In addition to the many parks found throughout the area, Okoboji Lake has many boat access ramps, piers, boat rental opportunities, and fish cleaning stations that make this lake a perfect fishing spot. In fact, there are about 50 species of fish that inhabit the lake. Below are the most common species of fish that are found and caught in both East and West Okoboji Lake.

List of Fish Species in Okoboji Lake

1) Bigmouth buffalo (Ictiobus cyprinellus)

Bigmouth buffalo head
Bigmouth buffalo look very similar to common carp, but lack chin barbels that carp have. Alus164, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to North America

Bigmouth buffalo are more commonly found in West Okoboji Lake, and they enjoy the shallow, standing water; however, they are also found in deeper locations during certain times of the year. These fish can withstand many different water qualities from low oxygen content to higher turbidity, but they prefer clear waters with muddy bottoms.

Bigmouth buffalo are an olive or bronze color with a lighter color belly, and they closely resemble a common carp. The main difference between the two is that bigmouth buffalo lack the two chin barbels that carp possess. This species is the largest member of the suckerfish family, growing to about 15 – 27 inches long and 2 – 14 pounds. Bigmouth buffalo get their name from their very large sucker mouth that faces terminally, and they use this mouth to feed on zooplankton, benthic larvae, crustaceans, and detritus.

2) Common carp (Cyprinus carpio)

Common carp on shore
The common carp is a widely distributed fish in Iowa and prefers still or very slow-moving warm water. mefisher / No copyright

Native to Eurasia

Common carp, also known as European carp, is one of the most abundant and widely distributed fish in Iowa, and they prefer areas where water is warm and still or very slow moving. 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 in addition to catching 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. This species, as well as bigmouth buffalo, are considered nuisance species in Okoboji Lake, and researchers believe that the removal of these two fish species may improve water quality in lakes.

3) Black bullhead (Ameiurus melas)

Black bullhead
Black bullheads are more prevalent in West Okoboji Lake, where the bottom is silty. moxostoma / CC BY 4.0

Native to central and eastern North America

Black bullheads are a type of catfish that can be found mainly in West Okoboji Lake 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, but bullheads in Iowa heavily rely on midge and mayfly larvae as well as fathead minnows.

4) Brown bullhead (Ameiurus nebulosus)

Brown bullhead
Brown bullheads are usually around 8 – 14 inches long and have 8 barbels on their head. Mikael Nyman / CC BY 4.0

Native to Canada and the United States

Brown bullheads can be found in both West and East Okoboji Lake where the water is slow moving and contains vegetation, but overall, this species is not incredibly common in Iowa. Brown bullheads are a type of catfish that have dark brown, scaleless skin. The head of the brown bullhead is a solid color, but the trunk has dark mottling.

Brown bullheads average around 8 – 14 inches long and weigh 1 – 3 pounds. This species also has eight barbels on its head that sense touch and chemical stimuli. They use these barbels along with their terminal mouths and tiny teeth to feed on insects, small fish, fish eggs, mollusks, plants, leeches, worms, and crayfish on the bottom of the lake.

5) Yellow bullhead (Ameiurus natalis)

Yellow bullhead in hand
Yellow bullheads are fussier eaters than other bullhead species and have yellow or white barbels. David Weisenbeck / CC BY 4.0

Native to the eastern United States

Yellow bullheads are another type of catfish species that is more abundant in West Okoboji Lake where water has a slow flow. This species is generally a yellow-green color with a light yellow belly, and they can sometimes have brown mottling across the sides. These fish grow around 7 – 12 inches long and will generally weigh less than two pounds.

Unlike the black and brown bullheads, yellow bullheads have light yellow or white barbels on their faces; however, all three species still use these barbels for hunting and navigating. Yellow bullheads are more selective in their food items compared to other bullhead species, and they will search the water primarily for insects and larvae, crustaceans, small mollusks, and crayfish.

6) Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus)

Channel catfish
The daily channel catfish bag limit at Okoboji Lake is 8. Tim / CC BY 4.0

Native to North America

Channel catfish are one of the most abundant types of catfish in the United States. This species can be found near woody drift piles, shorelines, sand bars, and other covered areas in all of Okoboji Lake. 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. These fish grow to about 10 – 20 inches long and weigh anywhere from 2 – 10 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. At Okoboji Lake, the daily bag limit for channel catfish is eight fish, and the possession limit is 30 fish.

7) Black crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus)

Caught black crappie
Black crappies have 7 – 8 spines on their dorsal fins, which is more than the white crappie. Eli T. / CC BY 4.0

Native to North America

Black crappies like the clear and still waters of Okoboji Lake, 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. Currently, there is a 25 fish bag limit for crappies at Okoboji Lake.

8) White crappie (Pomoxis annularis)

White crappie in hand
You’re less likely to catch white crappies at Okoboji Lake due to their preference for turbid water. fishesoftexas / CC BY-SA 4.0

Native to North America

White crappies are slightly less abundant than black crappies in Okoboji Lake because they do better in turbid waters that are not commonly found throughout the lake, but these fish can still be caught once in a while.

White crappies have compressed bodies that are silvery olive on the back and silvery white on the belly. These fish have dark vertical bands along the sides of 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 like mayflies.

9) Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus)

Bluegill in hand
Bluegills are a highly maneuverable species as they try to avoid getting eaten by larger fish, like largemouth bass. Clara Dandridge / CC BY 4.0

Native to North America

Bluegills are the most common sunfish in Iowa, and they prefer warm pools of water with lots of vegetation. These fish are characterized by having disk-shaped bodies with an olive green back, an orangish-yellow belly, and a black dot at the base of the dorsal fin. Bluegills get their name from the bluish hue surrounding the gill covers. This species averages around 7.5 inches in length and weighs 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. The daily bag limit for bluegills in Okoboji Lake is 25 fish.

10) Green sunfish (Lepomis cyanellus)

Caught green sunfish
The green sunfish is a light fish that is widely distributed across Iowa. threeagoutdoors / CC BY 4.0

Native to central North America

Green sunfish are a widely distributed fish in Iowa due to their tolerance to many different water conditions including high turbidity, low oxygen, and faster moving water; however, these fish are most commonly found around the shores of lakes where there is a lot of cover.

Green sunfish have bluish-green bodies covered in green or yellow reflections and a whitish belly. These fish also have a yellow and green mottled head, a black ear flap, and yellow edges on their fins. This species typically reaches around 3 – 7 inches in length and will rarely weigh over a pound. Green sunfish have very large mouths for panfish, and they use this mouth to eat aquatic insects, crustaceans, and smaller fishes.

11) Pumpkinseed sunfish (Lepomis gibbosus)

Caught pumpkinseed
Pumpkinseeds can be found in warmer areas of Okoboji Lake and there is a daily bag limit of 25. Tim / CC BY 4.0

Native to Canada and the United States

Pumpkinseed sunfish are not incredibly abundant in Iowa, but they can be found throughout Okoboji Lake where the water is warmer and has lots of vegetation to hide in. 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.

These fish 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 lake or in vegetation, so they will not be spotted by predators. The daily bag limit for pumpkinseeds is 25 fish at Okoboji Lake.

12) Freshwater drum (Aplodinotus grunniens)

Freshwater drum
Freshwater drums have a sloping body that looks like a humpback and a long lateral line that extends all the way to their caudal fin. fishesoftexas / CC BY-SA 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 Okoboji Lake. 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. Drums 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)

Person holding largemouth bass
Largemouth bass usually weigh less than 5 lbs, although the largest weight ever recorded was 22 lbs! kiwikki / CC BY-SA 4.0

Native to eastern North America

Largemouth bass are found throughout much of Iowa, and they enjoy the still waters of Okoboji Lake in 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 less than 5 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
Smallmouth bass are less prevalent in Iowa compared to largemouth bass, but can still be found in similar areas where largemouth bass are. Matt Garvin / CC BY-SA 4.0

Native to eastern North America

Smallmouth bass are not as widely spread throughout Iowa compared to largemouth bass, but some can still be found in similar areas as the largemouth in Okoboji Lake. 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 bag limit for black bass species combined is three fish, and the fish must exceed 15 inches in length.

15) Yellow bass (Morone mississippiensis)

Man holding yellow bass
Yellow bass are relatively small and can be found in the clear waters of Okoboji Lake. Dominic / CC BY 4.0

Native to Lake Michigan and Mississippi River basins

Yellow bass are not densely populated in Iowa, but they can be found in the clear waters of Okoboji Lake. This species is characterized by its olive-green back and yellowish sides. They also have seven dark horizontal stripes on the mid to upper portion of their bodies and broken lines on the lower middle portion. Yellow bass are relatively small, growing to about 6 – 10 inches long and weighing around 8 – 11 ounces. These fish do not have teeth or tongues, but they still are able to hunt in schools for insects, crustaceans, and other fishes.

16) White bass (Morone chrysops)

White bass
White bass are mid-sized fish and are closely related to striped bass. Juan Chavez / CC BY 4.0

Native to North America

White bass prefer to be in large, open areas of Okoboji Lake 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.

17) Muskellunge (Esox masquinongy)

There are ongoing efforts to stock muskies in Iowa, so there is a daily bag limit of 1. Rob Foster / CC BY 4.0

Native to North America

Muskellunge, more commonly known as muskies, can be found in all of Okoboji Lake 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, 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. Muskies are not necessarily naturally occurring in Iowa lakes, so there are efforts to stock muskies in many bodies of water in Iowa. Because of this, there is a daily bag limit of one muskellunge, and the fish has to be over 40 inches long in order to keep it.

18) Northern pike (Esox lucius)

Man holding northern pike
Northern pike are vicious predators that can grow to up to 25 inches long! Patrick Jackson / CC BY 4.0

Native to North America and Eurasia

Northern pike are common in the upper two-thirds of Iowa, 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 gold 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. At Okoboji Lake, there is a three-fish daily bag limit for northern pike.

19) Walleye (Sander vitreus)

Man holding walleye
The walleye’s reflective layer makes it sensitive to bright light, so it’s more likely to hunt at night. moxostoma / CC BY 4.0

Native to North America

Walleye are found throughout Iowa, but they prefer calm, cool, sandy-bottom lakes. 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, 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. Currently, the bag limit for walleye at Okoboji Lake is three fish, and only one of those fish can exceed 25 inches long. The rest of the fish kept must be under 19 inches long.

20) Yellow perch (Perca flavescens)

Yellow perch in net
Yellow perch have a preference for clear, cool waters, such as those in Okoboji Lake! Dylan Shaw / CC BY 4.0

Native to northern & central North America

Yellow perch are most abundant in natural lakes in Iowa, much like Okoboji Lake, because they prefer clear, cool waters. 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 lake 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. There is currently a 25 fish bag limit for yellow perch at Okoboji Lake.

21) River carpsucker (Carpiodes carpio)

River carpsucker
River carpsuckers have a protrusion on the middle of their bottom lip and a slight hunchback. fishesoftexas / CC BY-SA 4.0

Native to the United States and Mexico

River carpsuckers are widely distributed and highly abundant in Iowa, and these fish can be found in a variety of water including Okoboji Lake. This species has a brown or olive back that fades to silvery sides and a white belly. River carpsuckers also have a slightly hunched back and a protrusion coming from the middle of their bottom lip.

These fish are the largest of the carpsuckers, and they average around 12 – 18 inches in length and weigh 1 – 3 pounds. River carpsuckers tend to travel in schools, and they will search the sandy or silty lake and river bottoms for algae, protozoans, chironomids, microcrustaceans, plankton, and detritus to eat.

22) White sucker (Catostomus commersonii)

White sucker mouth
White suckers have toothless mouths with thick lips, which they use to suck up food from the lake floor. Sammie Alexander / CC BY 4.0

Native to North America

White suckers are extremely common in almost all types of water in Iowa, and they are very tolerant of many water conditions including high turbidity and polluted waters. These fish are characterized by long slender bodies that are olive-brown on the back, silver on the sides, and white on the belly. During breeding season, males will develop gold coloration on their backs and red stripes across their sides.

As adults, white suckers will reach about 10 – 16 inches long and will weigh less than two pounds. White suckers also have toothless terminal mouths with thick lips, which they use to suck zooplankton, larvae, fish eggs, and benthic invertebrates off of the lake floor.

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