List of Saguaro Lake Fish Species 2023 [Updated]

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saguaro lake from tonto trail in arizona
Saguaro Lake is 10 miles long, offering ample hiking, fishing, boating, and swimming opportunities. Photo by davidpinter, CC BY 3.0

Located in the beautiful Tonto National Forest of Arizona, Saguaro Lake is a serene desert reservoir providing endless opportunities for recreation. The lake was created in 1930 with the construction of the Steward Mountain Dam. The primary purpose of this dam is to control the flow of the Salt River and provide irrigation to nearby farmlands in the arid desert climate.

Saguaro Lake is located only 40 miles from the large city of Phoenix – many people enjoy taking a day trip to soak up the beautiful scenery, play in the water, or catch some fish. Saguaro Lake is 1,200 acres in size, and 10 miles long. It reaches a depth of 110 feet, and provides wonderful habitat for a wide variety of interesting game fish species!

What Fish Can You Expect in Lake Saguaro?

Here we’ll cover the 12 fishable species found in Saguaro Lake. Tilapia and yellow perch are not as common in the lake, and carp tend to only be found in the deepest parts of the lakes at the bottom, but we will cover them nonetheless as many anglers enjoy the challenge of trying to find these species.

The Forest Service, who manages the lake and the National Forest it’s contained within, advises getting to the lake early in the morning as there is a max boating capacity to help limit negative impacts to the lake and its residents. As one of the premier water attractions in an otherwise arid area, this capacity is reached early during the peak times of April through October, so be sure to wake up early and plan accordingly!

List of Fish Species in Saguaro Lake

1) Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus)

bluegill fish of saguaro lake
Photo by Scott Harden, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Often referred to as “bream,” “brim,” or “sunnies,” bluegills are one of the most common and popular sport fish in the United States. It is a sunfish, native to freshwater systems across North America, and is quite notable for its beautiful iridescent coloration.  

Bluegill are typically around 6” in length (15 cm), but can grow to be up to 12” long (30 cm). They can vary in color between populations but tend to be a very distinguishable deep green and blue color. They have a deep and highly compressed body shape, appearing ovaline and relatively flat.

Because they are opportunistic feeders, bluegill are not picky when it comes to eating. Their diet consists of a variety of insects, worms, larvae, and crustaceans and it can vary greatly based on location and the availability of resources.

Bluegill have high reproduction rates, and a single female can spawn three times in a season. Between the months of May and August, she will release anywhere from 2,300-81,000 eggs per spawning event. She will lay her eggs in a nest built in sand or gravel by male bluegill, where he will then fertilize and defend them.

2) Largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides)

a young largemouth bass swimming amongs rocks
Largemouth bass prefer areas with rocks and rocky substrate. Photo courtesy of Ken Hammond via the United States Department of Agriculture.

The largemouth bass, or “green bass,” is a carnivorous freshwater fish that is also very popular among sport fishers in the US. Adults can grow to be around 30” long (76 cm) and females tend to grow larger than males. Interestingly, they can live up to 25 years!

Largemouth bass have elongated bodies, and dark yellow-green coloration. They have a dark stripe running the length of the body, and can be distinguished from other species by their larger mouths.

As juveniles, M. salmoides feed on insects, zooplankton, and smaller fish. As they reach maturity, their diet shifts and they begin consuming larger insects, crayfish, and other fish. Sunfish, like the bluegill, are a favorite meal for largemouth bass.

In the springtime, males will build nests in shallow water, preferably in gravel substrate. Here, females will deposit their eggs and the males will come along and fertilize them. The eggs will hatch in just four to six days! The male parent will then protect his school of larvae/fry for about a month.

3) Smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu)

smallmouth bass in shallow water
Smallmouth bass are most easily distinguished from largemouth by the dark vertical bands on their body.

Smallmouth bass are usually caught when they are between 12 and 16 in (30 – 40 cm) in length. Within lake habitats, they tend to live in the shallower, rocky areas. While the related largemouth bass have a single horizontal dark stripe, the smallmouth can be distinguished by multiple vertically-oriented stripes along its body.

When they are young, smallmouth bass feed on plankton and small aquatic insects. Adults will eat crayfish, insects, and other fish. They are even known to have cannibalistic tendencies, and feed on other smallmouth bass!

Like their largemouth cousins, males will build their spawning nests in the gravel substrate of shallow waters. Here, a mating pair will perform a spawning ritual. Once the fertilized eggs hatch, the male will guard the nest until the fry are ready to live on their own. However, only a fraction of the males and females will reproduce each year.

4) Yellow bass (Morone mississippiensis)

yellow bass Morone mississippiensis swimming
Yellow bass have horizontal black stripes and a pale yellow coloration. Photo by Bclegg77, CC BY-SA 4.0

While yellow bass are not native to Lake Saguaro, they have been introduced here, as well as into other water systems across Arizona, and are now the most prominent fish species in the lake according to a 2016 survey conducted by the Arizona Game and Fish Department. These fish prefer to live in the quiet pools and backwaters of rivers and lakes. They grow to an average length of 9 in (24 cm). As their name suggests, the sides and underside of a yellow bass are yellow or pale cream in coloration.

Younger yellow bass feed mostly on smaller crustaceans and insects, and adults primarily eat other fish. Like smallmouth bass, yellow bass are also known to be cannibalistic by nature! They are invertivores and carnivores that tend to feed mid-water and near the surface.

Yellow bass reach sexual maturity between 2 and 4 years of age, and spawn between the months of April and June when water temperatures have increased power-winter. Females release their eggs in multiple clutches, and her eggs from each spawning are fertilized by more than one male.

5) Rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss)

a rainbow trout in the Pacific Northwest
The pink-red streak running along their sides has earned rainbow trout the nickname “redband.” Photo by U.S. Forest Service – Pacific Northwest Region

Sometimes referred to as redband trout, rainbow trout are a beautifully colored fish species that are often associated with clear, healthy mountain streams and lakes. They typically grow to be 20 – 30 in (50 – 76 cm) in length and around 8 lbs (3.5 kg) in weight.

Rainbow trout can vary greatly in color depending on habitat, age, and life stage. Adults generally display a blue-green or yellow-green coloration with a pink streak running horizontally down the side. They have a white underbelly and black spots adorning the backside and fins. 

The diet of the carnivorous rainbow trout consists of insects, crustaceans, and other small fish. They tend to feed at the water surface, and in the middle of the water column.

During reproduction, a male and a female lay side by side. The female releases her eggs, and at the same time, the male releases sperm. The female will proceed to cover the eggs with gravel substrate for protection – neither the female nor the male will practice nest guarding behaviors. 

6) Walleye (Sander vitreus)

Adult walleye in a lake
Photo by Animal Diversity Web, CC BY-SA 2.0

The walleye is a species of freshwater fish belonging to the perch family, Percidae. They are a popular sport fish, and commonly stocked in rivers and lakes. These fish can grow to be 2.5 – 3 feet (0.75 – 0.9 meters) and weigh up to 10 – 20 pounds (4.5 – 9 kilograms).

Named for its unique eyes, the walleye has a thin and reflective ocular film that allows it to hunt effectively at night and in murky water. They hunt by night, and eat small fish, invertebrates, and insects. Walleye are distinguishable fish – they are long and thinly shaped, with golden-olive coloration. They have two dorsal fins: one spiny, and the other soft-rayed. Dark spots pattern their backs and fins, and they have razor-sharp teeth that aid in predation. 

During a spawning event, the female will release up to 500,000 eggs into an area with shallow water. After becoming fertilized by a male, the eggs will hatch in about 10 days.

7) Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus)

Channel catfish
Channel catfish have smooth and scaleless bodies which sets them apart from many other fish species. Dominic / CC BY 4.0

Often referred to as “fork-tailed cat,” “fiddler,” “spotted cat,” or “lady cat,” the channel catfish is another species among the most popular game fish in North America. Catfish are named for their distinctive whiskers, or barbells, that help them locate food in dark, murky water. They can live up to 15 – 20 years, and prefer clean, clear waters, so finding one is an indicator of healthy water quality!

Channel catfish are light yellow-grey in color, often with small black spots, and their smooth and scaleless bodies set them apart from other species of fish. They have flat, broadly shaped heads, slender bodies, and forked tails.

I. punctatus have a very keen sense of smell and taste, and interestingly, they have taste buds that cover their body surface, enabling them to detect proteins in the water and thus hone in on potential food. They prey on small fish, crustaceans, insects, clams and snails, and even small mammals or birds if given the opportunity.

Channel catfish have monogamous mating structures, so they stick with one mate throughout a spawning season. They are cavity nesters, and a female will lay between 3,000 and 50,000 eggs in the nest crevice.

8) Flathead catfish (Pylodictis olivaris)

flathead catfish Pylodictis olivaris swimming
Flathead catfish are known for their…well…flat heads!

As the common name suggests, the flathead catfish can be distinguished from other species by the shape of its head (hint: it’s very flat!). Like the channel catfish, P. olivaris also has smooth, scaleless, blue-grey skin and barbels around the mouth. They can grow to be 3 to 4 feet in length (0.9 to 1.2 meters) and 100 pounds (45 kilograms)!

While many other catfish species are primarily scavengers, the flathead is a predatory fish that eats only other live fish. As juveniles, they tend to feed on invertebrates, but as they reach adulthood, flatheads will prey solely on other fish species, including bass, carp, suckers, sunfish, or even other catfish if other food is scarce.

During the spring and summer months, mature male flatheads will create their nests under logs or in bank cuts, where a female will then come along and deposit her eggs. After a fertilization event, the eggs will hatch in 4 – 6 days. The male will then defend the nest aggressively.

9) Black crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus)

black crappie Pomoxis nigromaculatus adult
Black crappie are identified by their dark mottling and laterally compressed, circular bodies.

The black crappie has a deep and laterally compressed body, small head, and arched back. It has a white colored body beneath dark black mottling. Living up to 15 years, the black crappie usually grows to around 10” (27 cm) in length.

Black crappie tend to feed in the early morning hours, before sunrise. Small individuals prefer to eat small crustaceans and larvae, while larger specimens will feed on small fish like minnows and shad.

Spawning season occurs for black crappie between the months of March and July. Males build their nests in gravel, sand, or mud near the shoreline vegetation. Females will lay around 40,000 eggs on average, but the number varies based on her individual size and age. The male will guard and protect the newly hatched larvae for several days until they leave the nest.

10) Tilapia (Oreochromis spp.)

Tilapia in Saguaro Lake
The lateral bands may be faded or absent in adult tilapia. Photo by Germano Roberto Schüür, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Saguaro Lake actually holds the state record for the largest tilapia caught at over 7 pounds, 8 ounces, and 20 inches in length! Tilapia are hardy and fairly fast-growing, able to live upwards of a decade in the wild. Technically, tilapia are only native to Africa and are often considered invasive in the U.S., including Arizona. However, considering they are uncommon in Saguaro Lake and allowed to be fished, they are not much of a problem here. There are dozens of species of tilapia, all of which interbreed and make determining the exact species found here difficult.

Appearing similar to crappie, tilapia have laterally compressed bodies but can be distinguished by dark-colored vertical lines running parallel to one another on each of the tilapia’s sides, though these may be muted or completely absent in mature adults. The dorsal fin is long and extends along most of the back, with the front portion possessing notable spines when the fin is fully extended. 

Tilapia are hardy and can be found in a variety of lakes, ponds, and rivers, and do not seem to care if the water is turbid or cloudy. They mostly feed on plant matter such as aquatic plants, plankton, and algae, the latter of which can be rather a boon in helping to control algae populations. They are able to breed throughout the year in warm Saguaro Lake, and females can lay as many as 1,200 eggs per spawning! 

11) Yellow Perch (Perca flavescens) 

multiple yellow perch
Yellow perch have two noticeably separated dorsal fins. Photo by © Travis Gevaertsome rights reserved

The yellow perch is the most widespread member of the Percidae family, which can be distinguished from other families by their separated dorsal fins, of which the first is spiny and the second is soft. The yellow perch has a yellow to green body with 6 – 8 dark vertical stripes and two distinct dorsal fins. The lower fins can have a red to orange hue. Individuals often congregate and can be found in loose schools.

The yellow perch typically feeds around dusk and dawn, where they hunt for live insects, crustaceans, and small fish near the bottom among aquatic plants. During the night they rest on the bottom, staying relatively inactive. The yellow perch becomes sexually mature at around 3 years (the males often mature quicker than the females) and spawn in spring or late winter. They spawn annually and females may spawn up to 8 times in their lifetime. 

12) Common Carp (Cyprinus carpio)

A large Eurasian carp Cyprinus carpio
Common (Eurasian) carp are invasive in Saguaro Lake. Public domain.

An incredibly large and hardy fish, common carp were introduced as farming and sport fish around the world in the 1880s. Unfortunately, they have since then become regarded as a nuisance due to their invasive and destructive tendencies in local ecosystems. They often uproot aquatic plants while feeding, consequently muddying the waters they live in. It’s no wonder common carp are able to wreak havoc — the heavy-bodied fish can thrive in almost any condition and can spawn 300,000 eggs multiple times a year. Additionally, they can get incredibly large, regularly reaching a whopping 75 lbs.

Common carp, also known as Eurasian carp, can be distinguished from other members of its genus by the two pairs of barbells on their upper jaws. They have large scales and a relatively uniform coloration but can be green, yellow, brown, or silver. Common carp are closely related to koi and similarly long-lived, living upwards of 40 years. It seems these fish are not very common in Saguaro Lake – a 2016 census conducted by the Arizona Game and Fish Department included only two captured common carp, as compared to 325 bluegills and 241 largemouth bass. This is good news, considering their often invasive and destructive nature.

2 thoughts on “List of Saguaro Lake Fish Species 2023 [Updated]”

  1. The picture of the ‘Channel Catfish’ above is actually a ‘Blue Catfish’ which is a northern, cold-water species of catfish. The dark color and strong muscles in the back is a dead give away. The Channel catfish tends to be more tan or yellowish. It is lightly colored and has spots or speckles on its back and tail.
    The body tends to be longer and more streamlined.

    This is an excellent photo, but not the correct fish.

    • Hi Jed,

      Thank you so much for your feedback and observation! You’re completely right. I’m not sure how that picture slipped through editing process – a bit embarrassing! We’ll get that updated asap with the correct species picture. Really appreciate the comment!


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