A Few Important Freshwater Fish Identification Tips

By Andy Whitcomb

Sep 11, 2017

Depending on where you fish, the type of fish caught may vary greatly. Knowing how to identify freshwater fish is important. Here are some helpful tips.

An important part of fishing is just knowing what types of freshwater fish you caught. Fish identification can be tricky depending on where you are fishing. In general, the bigger the body of water, the more diverse the fish community.  A farm pond may only have three or four species, whereas a river system could contain a hundred types of freshwater fish. Here are some tips for freshwater fish identification.

Fish color can be helpful but shouldn’t be the sole characteristic for freshwater fish species identification. Habitat factors such as water turbidity and vegetation type can affect the color of a species. Fish names also may be misleading as a green sunfish may have more distinct blue “gills” (operculum) than bluegill and a black crappie may not appear darker than a white crappie.

The most important approach for freshwater fish identification is the examination of the actual fish anatomy. Not all fish are built alike. Some fish have obvious distinguishing features such as the “whiskers” on any catfish. Also take note of other proportions such the length to height ratio and mouth and fin size and shape.  For example, a flathead catfish will have the lower lip protruding past the upper.

Many freshwater fish have more subtle distinguishing characteristics. Check our freswater fish identification guide tool to explore different types of freshwater fish species and “key out” the exact type of freshwater fish. For example, to determine if it is a white or black crappie, count the dorsal spines. The black crappie has 7 or 8 dorsal spines, while the white crappie usually only has 6. With practice, you may even be able to identify hybrids such as the walleye/sauger cross, the saugeye, which exhibits characteristics of both.

Learning your freshwater fish identification helps when sharing the admiration of each species with fellow anglers, and even recognizing protected or invasive species.  Plus, it is important when it comes to regulations. When you are renewing your fishing license, pick up a copy of the state fishing regulations. Although common names may vary regionally, pay attention to the names of the types of freshwater fish listed in that publication to help avoid any regulation issues and know where to fish for certain types of fish.

Andy Whitcomb
Andy Whitcomb
Andy is an outdoor writer (http://www.justkeepreeling.com/) and stressed-out Dad has contributed over 380 blogs to takemefishing.org since 2011. Born in Florida, but raised on banks of Oklahoma farm ponds, he now chases pike, smallmouth bass, and steelhead in Pennsylvania. After earning a B.S. in Zoology from OSU, he worked in fish hatcheries and as a fisheries research technician at OSU, Iowa State, and Michigan State.