6 Surprising Fish You Could Catch in Massachusetts

Massachusetts anglers are well versed with a myriad of fish species. On the eastern coast, striped bass, bluefish, and bluefin tuna rule the choppy Atlantic waters, drawing spin and fly fishers alike. Further inland, warmwater species like largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, and pickerel abound. During the spring and fall, four species of trout are stocked throughout the Commonwealth, and further west, wild populations of these fish stick around all year.

Besides these commonly found fishes, many lesser-known species can be caught (both on purpose and by accident). While they certainly aren’t as famous, these varieties of fish deserve just as much respect and attention as those that define the fisheries of Massachusetts. Some are native and wild, while others were transplanted from far-away drainages and have taken hold; others yet are maintained through stocking.

While I surely could have included species such as tilapia and snakehead that have been caught on very rare occasions in the state, I want to focus on the species that can actually be regularly caught or observed by Massachusetts outdoors people. Honorable mentions that are either too rare to be a part of the list or are slightly too well-known to be considered surprising include sea-run brown and brook trout, lake trout, American eel, redfin pickerel, and white catfish.

Walleye: While not nearly as popular as the famed ‘eyes of the Midwest, walleye can still be found in a couple Massachusetts waters. Stocking programs for these coolwater fish existed in the past throughout the state, but now the only catchable populations are wild. Walleye can be caught in decent numbers throughout the Massachusetts stretch of the Connecticut River, and another much smaller and less talked about population can be found in the Merrimack River.

The walleye of New England don’t reach the legendary sizes of Great Lakes walters or Lake Winnipeg Greenbacks, but there are some decent fish to be found. The Massachusetts state record is a 29 1/2″ beauty caught out of the Connecticut in 2018, and walleye up to 24″ are not uncommon.

The most popular ways to catch these spring spawners are by trolling and casting lures such as curly tail grubs, crankbaits, jerkbaits, and jigs. Although these fish tend to hang deep, they can also be caught on streamers when they’re fished deep or the fish are up shallow.

A healthy Massachusetts walleye. Photo credit: On The Water.

Landlocked Atlantic Salmon: Although landlocked Atlantic salmon in Massachusetts are non-native, their sea-run brethren are native, and used to run thickly up the larger rivers of the Bay State. Now, wild salmon are found only in the two largest reservoirs in the state, Wachusett and Quabbin. Landlocked salmon in Massachusetts can be found in surprisingly large numbers in the waters they inhabit, not hindered by the southerness of their range.

Again, somewhat surprisingly, Massachusetts landlocked salmon lack none of the size of their northern counterparts. The state record is 27.5″ out of the Quabbin Reservoir, and fish above 20″ are commonplace.

Landlocked Atlantic salmon above 20″ aren’t hard to find in Massachusetts, as evidenced by this nice hen. Photo credit: David Belson.

In the Quabbin Reservoir, anglers troll with lures and flies to haul in these dwellers of the deep. At the ‘Chu, where fishing from boats is prohibited, those fishing from shore occasionally hook into a salmon while targeting other species. During the fall spawning runs, when the fish enter tributaries of the reservoirs by the hundreds, spin, fly, and centerpin anglers target these brutes with a myriad of flies, lures, and baits, most of which take advantage of the salmon’s primal instincts.

Bowfin: This relatively new, invasive species to Massachusetts is highly underappreciated, both for its looks and aggressive nature. Indigenous to the Southeast and Midwest where they’ve lived for millions of years, the closest native population can be found throughout Champlain drainage in New York and Vermont. Although they are currently only found in the Connecticut River and Taunton River watersheds (and hopefully will remain that way), these snakehead cousins can be caught in decent numbers when you know where to look.

The Bay State record dogfish is 31″ long from the Taunton River. Unfortunately, not every specimen is this large, but like landlocked salmon, they frequently attain 20 or more inches.

Bowfin are best targeted with reaction-style bass lures, articulated streamers, and a wide range of baits from chunked bluegill to crayfish, and everything in between. Like snakeheads, bowfin have the ability to momentarily gulp air out of water, allowing them to live in shallow, infertile areas with low dissolved oxygen concentrations. This makes patches of weeds in 1-3 feet of water perfect areas to find these fish, especially before and after their spawn in the spring, during which time their fins and belly become frighteningly lime green.

Bowfin take on outrageous green hues during spawning season. Photo credit: Fly Fisherman.

Atlantic/Shortnose Sturgeon: Both the Atlantic sturgeon and shortnose sturgeon are endangered, anadromous, native species that can be found in some of the Bay State’s coastal rivers, namely the Merrimack, Taunton, and Connecticut. The easiest way to tell these species apart is their mouths; Atlantic sturgeon have far narrower mouths than shortnose sturgeon.

These prehistoric-looking beasts can reach gargantuan sizes. The larger of the two species, Atlantic sturgeon, stretches the tape to over 13 feet on occasion, weighing over 800 pounds.

While no longer numerous, both shortnose and Atlantic (pictured) sturgeon can get very large. Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Sturgeon have a varied diet, consisting of crustaceans, small fish, and worms vacuumed from the ocean floor. They use barbels to feel for their food, and their sucker-like mouths to inhale it.

Due to their status as endangered, these fish are illegal to purposely catch EVER. If you happen to accidently hook one of these monsters of the depths, whether during their time in rivers during the spring to spawn or while they patrol inland waters for food during the rest of the year, the fish should be released immediately while causing the least possible harm. This means leaving the fish in the water, foregoing pictures, and cutting the line as close to the hook as possible.

Tiger Muskellunge: These sterile northern pike/muskellunge hybrids have been stocked in 16 water bodies in semi-recent years. Tiger muskies are obtained from New Jersey hatcheries when they are around 3-12″ long and take several years to reach maturity. You can tell these mongrels from their parents by the extraordinary size of their heads. Also, seeing as we don’t have any true muskies in Massachusetts, any large Esox with the telltale barring of a muskellunge will most definitely be a tiger.

Even though these fish are stocked small, they can reach remarkable sizes in short order. The state record was caught a while ago now, but it remains quite a fish at 46″. Tiger muskies grow quickly, but they have short life spans, so they must be caught relatively soon after stocking.

Massachusetts anglers are all too familiar with chain pickerel, and their larger esox cousins are no different in the areas they prefer to inhabit. Shallow, weed-lined coves, choicely adjacent to drop-offs, are perfect areas to find these ambush predators. Since they don’t spawn as most other fish do, mood fluctuations of tiger muskies are based mainly on water temperature and available forage. Lures, baits, and flies like those used for muskellunge and pike all work; some favorites include large topwaters, bucktail spinners, big plugs, golden shiners, game changers, and sliders.

Tiger muskies are aggressive feeders, often attacking any gaudy lure or fly that enters their field of view. Photo credit: Flylords Mag.

Perhaps you have more species in your backyard than you knew a few minutes ago. Now all that’s left is to catch them!

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