Click on each fish family to see images of sportfish in that family and for detail on each fish.
Scroll down further on this page for a description of each fish family. For a complete guide to fishes in Kentucky, view a PDF of the Kentucky Fishes book here: Kentucky Fishes
Temperate Bass Family
(includes White Bass, Yellow Bass, Striped Bass, and Hybrid Striped Bass)
(includes Rock Bass, Green Sunfish, Warmouth, Bluegill, Longear Sunfish, Redear Sunfish, Smallmouth Bass, Spotted Bass, Largemouth Bass, White Crappie, and Black Crappie)
(includes Grass Carp, Common Carp, Silver Carp, and Bighead Carp)
(includes Yellow Bullhead, Blue Catfish, Channel Catfish, Stonecat, Brindled Madtom, and Flathead Catfish)
(includes the Freshwater Drum)
(includes Sauger and Walleye)
(includes Grass Pickerel and Muskellunge)
(includes Rainbow Trout, Brown Trout and Brook Trout)
Three species of temperate basses occur in Kentucky, including the Striped Bass, which has been introduced as a sport fish. All species are deep-bodied and have two dorsal fins; the 1st has sharp spines and the 2nd has a single spine followed by soft rays. They are schooling predators inhabiting large bodies of water such as rivers and impoundments. Adults feed heavily on shad, silversides, and other forage fish. White Bass, Striped Bass, and their hatchery-produced hybrids are highly esteemed sport fish and are routinely stocked in rivers and large reservoirs.
The sunfish family includes some of the most popular and sought-after sport fishes in the state, such as Bluegill, Large- and Smallmouth basses, the crappies, and several other smaller species regarded as panfish. Kentucky is home to 19 species of sunfish, two of which have been introduced (Redbreast Sunfish and Redeye Bass). During late spring and into the summer, breeding males of several sunfish species become quite colorful and will aggressively defend their nests, which are saucer-shaped pits on the bottom near the margins of streams and lakes. Sunfish have a deep body that is thin from side to side and two broadly joined dorsal fins; the 1st has sharp spines and the 2nd has soft rays. Three species, referred to as the black basses, have longer bodies and are more elliptical in shape. Bass are strong swimmers that actively pursue fast prey (e.g., forage fish), which they engulf with their large mouths. Eleven of the largest and most common members of the sunfish family in Kentucky are presented below.
Kentucky has a rich assemblage of minnows, with 62 native species. Five additional species are exotic and have been introduced for biological control of vegetation and water quality in aquaculture ponds (Grass, Silver, and Bighead carps), food, or as ornamentals (Common Carp and Goldfish). Minnows are extremely diverse, occur in a wide range of habitats, and usually are more numerous than all other fishes combined. They are important as forage for larger sport fishes and are valuable ecological indicators of water quality. Below are six common native species most likely seen by people, as well as four of the well-known exotic species, including the highly invasive Asian carps.
Catfishes are easily recognized by their barbels or “whiskers” around the mouth and scaleless bodies. Kentucky has 18 species, including the White Catfish, which has been introduced. The largest portion of this family is represented by the small-sized, secretive species called madtoms. The bullheads and larger catfishes are important to anglers and commercial fishers. Catfishes have sharp senses, particularly taste and smell, which enables them to be active at night and in muddy water conditions. They also possess stout spines in the dorsal and pectoral fins, which can inflict a painful wound if handled carelessly. Six of the most commonly encountered species are presented below.
Members of this family are largely marine or brackish water fishes. The Freshwater Drum is the only species in North America that occurs strictly in freshwater habitats, including rivers, lakes, and reservoirs in Kentucky. The common name “drum” refers to the deep sounds that resonate from special muscles vibrating against the swim bladder. Drums are bottom-oriented and feed heavily on mollusks, crustaceans, and other small invertebrates. The Freshwater Drum, sometimes called “sheepshead” or “white perch” reaches a large adult size and has some value in sport and commercial fisheries of large rivers and reservoirs.
The perches represent one of the largest families of fishes in North America and the most diverse family in Kentucky. Seventy-seven species have been recorded within the state. Members of this family range from the small, but extremely diverse and variable darters to the large Walleye and Sauger. Many darter species are intolerant of pollution and other forms of stream degradation, making them valuable ecological indicators of stream health and water quality. Walleye and Sauger form a popular sport fishery in the state. Eight of the most common members of the perch family in Kentucky are presented below.
This family is represented by four species in Kentucky, one of which, the Northern Pike, has been introduced. Pikes are easily recognized by their long, slender bodies, “duckbill-like” snout, and jaws with many large, sharp teeth. All are predators feeding on other fish using ambush or “lie-in-wait” tactics. In certain parts of Kentucky, the Muskellunge is a popular sport fish because of its large size and willingness to take artificial lures. The Northern Pike and Chain Pickerel, while popular as sport fish in other states, are rare in Kentucky. The two most common species, the Grass Pickerel and Muskellunge, are presented below.
Four species of trout occur or have been reported from Kentucky waters. None of these fish are native to the state and optimal environmental conditions for their survival are marginal. One species, the Lake Trout, has been stocked in Dale Hollow Lake and Lake Cumberland, but its continued existence in these reservoirs is uncertain. The three remaining species (detailed below) are popular sport fish and may be found in suitable waters that are stocked. Rainbow Trout occasionally reproduce in the wild and there are a few small naturally reproducing populations of Brook Trout in the eastern half of the state. All trout in Kentucky have a streamlined body with small scales, a large mouth, and an adipose fin. Juveniles have a series of vertical oval-shaped dark bars along the side called parr marks.