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NEUE TIBS Project Fish ID Guide

All information is from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Illustration of a freshwater drum

A big water fish, freshwater drum or sheepshead, can grow to be 20 plus inches in length and ten pounds in weight. These heavy-bodied fish have a blunt head and a pronounced humpback appearance. By using the muscles surrounding the swim bladder, these fish can produce a drumming sound, hence the name.

Freshwater drum have a long spawning season. They are unique in that they are the only North American freshwater fish that have planktonic eggs that float and drift with the currents. Spawning of drums has never been observed in the wild.

Freshwater drum have large otoliths or ear bones. These round, smooth bones, called “lucky stones,” are often picked up on the beach as a souvenir. On one side, there is an angled groove that forms an L for luck.

Illustration of a muskellunge

Similar in appearance to northern pike, muskellunge differ by having scales only on the upper half of both the cheeks and gill covers, and 12 to 18 sensory pores on the undersurface of the lower jaw. They often grow to over 40 pounds. Although actual body color ranges from barred to spotted to plain, muskies always have a light background with dark markings, just the reverse of the northern pike.

Due to their predatory nature, rapid growth, and large size, northern pike help control populations of smaller fish species. By feeding on small fish, they prevent over population and stunting.

Illustration of a lake sturgeon

The lake sturgeon is New York State’s largest completely freshwater fish. Mature adults average between three and five feet in length and ten to 80 pounds in weight, but can occasionally grow as large as seven plus feet and 300 plus pounds.

Adult lake sturgeon are a uniform dull grey color with the scutes the same color as the background. Younger sturgeon are brownish grey with clear green on the lower parts of the head and body.

Lake sturgeon have sharp, cone-shaped mouths with four smooth barbels on the underside. The mouth is wide and there are two smooth lobes on the lower lip.

As lake sturgeon age, their clearly-defined, pointed scutes smooth out. In certain older individuals, the plates are barely visible.

Illustration of a northern pike

Northern pikes can grow to over 40 pounds. Their bodies are dark green to brown with light bean-shaped spots. There is no distinct dark bar beneath the eye. The undersurface of the lower jaw has eight to 12 pores and there are often bright gold markings on both sides of the head.

Northern pike are very adaptable and occur in a wide range of habitats. They are one of the most widely distributed freshwater fish in the world, and the only members of the pike family to occur in arctic environments. Northerns prefer weedy portions of rivers, ponds, and lakes, but large adults will often move offshore into deeper waters.

Illustration of a walleye

Walleye, the largest members of the perch family, often exceed 20 inches in length. Walleye are similar in body shape to both sauger and yellow perch. However, walleye can be identified by the dark spot found at the bottom of their first dorsal fin and their large canine teeth. Saugers lack the dark spot and yellow perch lack the large teeth. Most walleye are yellow, but occasionally a variation occurs which gives the fish a blue color. Called “blue phase,” these fish are not blue pike.

Walleye prefer the deep water sections of large lakes, streams, and rivers. They have large, light-sensitive eyes that help them locate food in poor light. To protect their eyes from the sun, walleye stay in sheltered or deep water during the day and move into shallower water at night. They are voracious predators and use their large canine teeth to catch a variety of minnows and the young of other fishes. Yellow perch are often a favorite meal.

Illustration of a freshwater eel

A familiar shape to most people, the eel’s long, slender, snakelike body is hard to confuse with other fish. Small, embedded scales like those of burbot give eels a slippery feeling. American eels have both their dorsal and anal fins connected to the tail so they appear to have one continuous fin wrapped around the end of their bodies.

Eels are the only freshwater fish in New York State that are catadromous, meaning they migrate out to sea to spawn. It is not known exactly where and how they spawn, but the suspected spawning site is the Sargasso Sea. Spawning adults and eggs have never been found, and it is assumed the adults die after spawning.

Illustration of a smallmouth bass

Smallmouth bass closely resemble their cousins, the largemouths, in appearance but can be identified by looking at their mouths and body color markings. The upper jaws of smallmouths do not reach beyond the rear edge of the eye, as do the largemouths, and there are a series of eight to 11 thin vertical dark bars on the smallmouth’s sides, rather than the often pronounced dark horizontal stripe typical of largemouths.

Smallmouths are opportunistic predators, eating whatever live prey is available. The bulk of their diet consists of insects, crayfish, and other fish, but they will occasionally eat tadpoles and frogs. Early morning and evening are their most active feeding times.

Illustration of a largemouth bass

The largemouth bass is the largest member of the sunfish family and has been known to reach weights in excess of ten pounds. It closely resembles the smallmouth, but differs by its long upper jaw which extends well beyond the eye, and its pronounced wide, solid black lateral band. In addition, the largemouth is more of a dark green color than the smallmouth.

Largemouth bass are primarily fish-eating predators. They lie in wait in the cover of weeds and ambush prey as it swims by. Crayfish, frogs, and small animals, such as mice, are also eaten by this large sunfish.