When you think of fishes native to Massachusetts, what species come to mind first? Brook trout? Striped bass? Alewife? While these native species receive much of the attention because of the sport they provide and the impressive conservation efforts underway to restore their populations, there are numerous other indigenous fishes that fly well under the radar. I’ve written about why these native species are important in the past, especially those underappreciated ones that don’t receive the same attention as those favored by anglers.
In total, there are 55 species of fish native to the waters of the Bay State. In order to make this list, these species have to spend at least some part of their lives in freshwater, as well as appear in the Peterson Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes. Of the 55 species, members of the minnow family form the largest group, coming in with 19 individuals. Due to the location and geography of Massachusetts, there is a good mix of both coldwater and warmwater species indigenous to the state. Some fish are anadromous, while others live in coastal rivers year-round, and others yet inhabit inland waters. Some of these species are only native to one or two watersheds in the state, but were introduced elsewhere in the commonwealth where they aren’t native.
As a quick preface to this list, it is necessary to point out that I am not a professional fisheries scientist, only a well-informed citizen of Massachusetts and researcher. Still, many hours of research went into creating this list, mainly using the aforementioned Peterson Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes and the USGS Nonindigenous Aquatic Species page, which includes detailed maps of the native ranges and invasive occurences of most fish species in the United States.
Alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus): An anadromous shad species closed to angling in Massachusetts. Alewife spawn in coastal rivers and the ponds connected to them.
American brook lamprey (Lampetra appendix): A threatened, non-parasitic lamprey species. These fish spawn and live in clear, cool streams, and as such are good indicators of water quality.
American eel (Anguilla rostrata): A catadromous eel species native to coastal rivers. American eels travel all the way to the Sargasso Sea to spawn.
American shad (Alosa sapidissima): The largest of the anadromous shad species in Massachusetts. Efforts are underway across the East Coast to improve their river spawning habitat for their springtime spawning runs.
Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar): An anadromous salmonid species, they are essentially a unicorn in the 21st-century. Not to be confused with the landlocked Atlantic salmon, which can still be found in strong numbers in the state.
Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrhynchus oxyrhynchus): An endangered, anadromous sturgeon species, and the largest fish that can be found in freshwater in Massachusetts. Their eggs (caviar) were the source of the “Black Gold Rush” in the late 1800’s.
Banded killifish (Fundulus diaphanus): A killifish species native to the entire state. These baitfish inhabit many lakes, ponds, and slow-moving rivers and streams.
Banded sunfish (Enneacanthus obesus): A small sunfish species found almost only in the eastern part of the state. This species lives in water unfit for most other species, especially when weeds are prevalent.
Blacknose dace (Rhinichthys atratulus): An important minnow species for all coldwater streams in Massachusetts. They are more tolerant of poor water quality than brook trout, but often found in the same water bodies.
Blueback herring (Alosa aestivalis): An anadromous shad species. Blueback herring are nearly indistinguishable from alewives.
Bluntnose minnow (Pimephales notatus): A minnow species native only to the far-west side of the state. These fish are omnivores, eating a wide variety of aquatic insects and algae.
Brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis): The jewel of the East, this char species is indigenous to the entirety of the Bay State. A sea-run form of brookies, known as salters, can still be found in streams on the Cape and South Shore.
Brown bullhead (Ameiurus nebulosus): This small catfish species is also known as a hornpout. Bullhead are famous for eating stinky baits like nightcrawlers and chicken liver in warm backwaters.
Burbot (Lota lota): This cod look-alike is native only to the Connecticut, Merrimack, and Housatonic watersheds. Burbot are listed as a species of special concern in Massachusetts because of the loss of suitable coldwater habitat in their range.
Chain pickerel (Esox niger): This feisty member of the pike family inhabits a variety of water types throughout the state. Pickerel have sharp teeth and are known to bite right through line or flesh if anglers aren’t careful.
Common shiner (Luxilus cornutus): A minnow species encounterable across the state. Common shiners take on vibrant hues of fiery red, lavender, and turquoise during their spawn in the spring.
Creek chub (Semotilus atromaculatus): Another minnow species that can be caught in nearly all of the state, but is only native to the western half and Merrimack watershed. Creek chubs often take over streams no longer inhabitable by brook trout due to increased water temperatures.
Cutlip minnow (Exoglossum maxillingua): Only found in the western part of the state, cutlip minnows are part of the minnow family. The purpose of their namesake slits in the mouth is unknown, but it may be the source of their unusual aggressiveness.
Eastern creek chubsucker (Erimyzon oblongus): A sucker species similar to, but much smaller than, white suckers. Chubsuckers are important forage fish for pickerel.
Eastern silvery minnow (Hybognathus regius): This minnow species only inhabits the far west part of the state and the Connecticut River system. These fish don’t live for very long, rarely making it past the age of three.
Emerald shiner (Notropis atherinoides): Native only to a small northwestern portion of Massachusetts and introduced elsewhere, the emerald shiner is yet another minnow species. Emerald shiners prefer relatively warm waters (77 degrees fahrenheit) compared to many species in the state.
Fallfish (Semotilus corporalis): One of the most underappreciated species in the state, fallfish are the largest of the minnow family. Contrary to what many people think, fallfish are actually vicious carnivores.
Fourspine stickleback (Apeltes quadracus): Indigenous to the coastal waters of the southern and northeastern parts of the state. As their name implies, sticklebacks have sharp spines that make it uncomfortable for predators to prey upon them.
Gizzard shad (Dorosoma cepedianum): Unlike the other shad species in the Bay State, gizzard shad are not anadromous, but can live in brackish water. Gizzard shad are often thought of as important prey for large bass in southern states, but there are few fish in freshwater large enough to eat shad this size in Massachusetts.
Golden shiner (Notemigonus crysoleucas): Though this minnow species is native to the entire state, it does not mean it should be and was in every body of water. Golden shiners used as bait frequently end up establishing populations in waters they previously didn’t inhabit.
Hickory shad (Alosa mediocris): Another anadromous shad species. Though less common, these fish are often lumped with American shad.
Lake chub (Couesius plumbeus): Massachusetts forms the southern extent of the native range of lake chub. Lake chub spawn when the water reaches about 50 degrees fahrenheit.
Logperch (Percina caprodes): This darter species is catchable only in a small western portion of the state. Dams pose serious threats to many populations of these fish.
Longnose dace (Rhinichthys cataractae): The most widely distributed minnow species in North America. Like brook trout, longnose dace like cool, relatively fast-flowing water.
Longnose sucker (Catostomus catostomus): Native only to the northwestern portion of Massachusetts, but introduced elsewhere in the southern portion. This sucker is also one of two sucker species native to Asia.
Ninespine stickleback (Pungitius pungitius): Marine and landlocked populations of ninespine sticklebacks exist. Interestingly, this and other species of sticklebacks are closely related to sea horses.
Northern redbelly dace (Chrosomus eos): An endangered minnow species. Although they typically inhabit boggy ponds and streams, northern redbelly dace have retreated to clear, cool tributaries in Massachusetts, likely due to sedimentation and erosion.
Pumpkinseed (Lepomis gibbosus): Arguably one of the prettiest fish in the state, pumpkinseed are a native warmwater species. These fish are frequently the primary species first-time anglers catch.
Rainbow smelt (Osmerus mordax): Once caught by the bucketful in coastal rivers, diadromous rainbow smelt populations have declined in the Bay State. Smelt are a popular New England meal, especially when fried like french fries.
Rainwater killifish (Lucania parva): Typically a marine species, but occasionally enters freshwater. They are mostly found in the coastal streams along the Cape and South Shore.
Redbreast sunfish (Lepomis auritus): A river-dwelling sunfish species. Despite their size, redbreasts are surprisingly aggressive, eating lures like spinners and crankbaits.
Redfin pickerel (Esox americanus): The smallest member of the Esox family. Though they are quite abundant in many streams across the state, redfins are a relatively rare catch due to their preference for ultra-shallow water and undercut banks.
Rosyface shiner (Notropis rubellus): A minnow species inhabiting only the western part of the state. Rosyface shiners have an omnivorous diet consisting mostly of aquatic and terrestrial insects.
Satinfin shiner (Cyprinella analostana): A minnow species native only to the western part of the state. These shiners produce sounds that are a key part of reproduction.
Sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus): A lamprey species indigenous to the coastal waters of Mass. Unlike other bony fish, lampreys do not have fins, scales, or gill covers.
Shortnose sturgeon (Acipenser brevirostrum): The other native sturgeon species in Massachusetts, and another endangered species. These fish look just as prehistoric as they truly are, with bony scutes lining their backs.
Slimy sculpin (Cottus cognatus): Like brook trout, slimy sculpin are excellent indicators of water quality. These fish lacks a swim bladder, causing them to flutter and hop when swimming.
Spotfin shiner (Cyprinella spiloptera): A minnow species native only to the western part of the commonwealth. Spotfin shiners are summer spawners.
Spottail shiner (Notropis hudsonius): A member of the minnow family. Spottail shiners are an important food source for other game fish.
Striped bass (Morone saxatilis): Likely the most popular coastal species for Massachusetts anglers. Although they spend most of their time in the salt, stripers enter fresh and brackish rivers during the spring, and in rare occasions stay year-round.
Swamp darter (Etheostoma fusiforme): A part of the perch species native to the eastern part of the state. Swamp darters prefer to inhabit backwaters and stillwaters.
Tadpole madtom (Noturus gyrinus): A member of the catfish family. Tadpole madtoms are far smaller than the rest of their catfish brethren, reaching only around two-and-a-half inches.
Tessellated darter (Etheostoma olmstedi): A cousin of the swamp darter. Tessellated darters are a host species for larvae of the federally endangered dwarf wedge mussel.
Threespine stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus): Another stickleback species. These fish can be found in both inland and coastal waters.
Trout-perch (Percopsis omiscomaycus): Named for their adipose fin similar to those of trout, as well as their overall similarity to perch. They are native only to the western part of the state.
White catfish (Ameiurus catus): A catfish species native only to the northwestern portion of Massachusetts, but introduced elsewhere in the state. These fish look very similar to channel catfish, but don’t reach the same size.
White perch (Morone americana): A species more closely related to striped bass than another native perch, the yellow perch. Although they were originally anadromous, white perch have been introduced to many inland waters.
White sucker (Catostomus commersonii): A sucker species that typically inhabits moving water, but can occasionally be found in ponds and lakes. White suckers can frequently be seen during their spawn in the spring because of their preference for shallow water.
Yellow bullhead (Ameiurus natalis): Native only to the northwestern corner of the commonwealth, but introduced elsewhere. Found mostly in swamps and skinny, weedy water.
Yellow perch (Perca flavescens): A native member of the perch species. These fish are both predators and prey, and play a crucial role in the food chain.