Fish Of The French River

Designated as a Canadian Heritage River in 1986, the French River flows 110 kilometres (68 miles) from Lake Nipissing to Georgian Bay. With many bays, shoals, and rich bio-diverse vegetation they have made the river system a fisherman’s paradise.  Having such a large body of water, many fish species have come to inhabit the French River, Northeastern Ontario. Below is a comprehensive list and description of all possible fish species any angler can encounter in the French River.  

Sunfish – Centrarchidae

One of the largest and most diverse freshwater families is the Sunfish, often classified as “True Sunfish”, “Crappie” and “Black Bass”. In the French River, they include Largemouth & Smallmouth Bass, Pumpkinseed, Black Crappie, and Rock Bass.

Black Bass – Micropterus

Black Bass is a genus of freshwater fish native to North America. There are currently 13 recognized species, only two of which (Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass) are in the French River. Most species in the Black Bass family have been widely introduced around the world and even became invasive to some such as Japan.

Two Trophy French River Largemouth Bass presenting slight colour variations within the species.

Largemouth Bass – Micropterus salmoides

A favourite among many North American sport fishermen, the Largemouth Bass has made its home in the French River water system. This game fish is often prized by many for its tenacity.  The Largemouth is an olive-green to greenish-gray fish. They have markings with dark to blackish blotches in a jagged horizontal stripe from their eyes to their tail fin. Largemouth are best characterized by its “large” mouth compared to its close relative the Smallmouth.

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Smallmouth Bass – Micropterus dolomieu

The other popular Black Bass in North America, the Smallmouth Bass, is a powerful swimmer. They spend most of their life hunting in open water and current, hunting for prey. This game fish has distinct coloration from its bigger cousin. Smallmouth Bass are golden-olive to dark brown with dark splotches and vertical bars on its body.

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A French River Smallmouth Bass. When the fish is not distressed, the black vertical bars will not be as visible and can appear clear like this.

Crappies – Pomoxis

The name Pomoxis means “sharp cover” in Greek – this is in reference to this genesis’s gill cover. Only two species of fish exist in the Pomoxis genesis (White and Black Crappie) and while both are in Ontario, the French River is home only to the Black Crappie. White Crappie prefer warmer waters compared to Black Crappie and therefore mostly reside in Southern Ontario.

Man sitting on the nose of a fishing boat holding a French River Black Crappie

Black Crappie

While not having the fanfare as their distant cousins, Black Crappies are important to the French River ecosystem. They prefer areas with little current and clean water with abundant cover for them to feed on small fish, plankton, crustaceans and larva.

While the French River does not have White Crappie, Black Crappies are identified by the seven or eight spines on their dorsal fin. They’re also smaller and darker. Black Crappies are usually silvery-gray to green in colour with mottled black splotches all over its body. Being a panfish, there are fewer restrictions on the season for fishing.

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True Sunfish

An example of a young brightly coloured French River Punkinseed Sunfish.

Pumpkinseed

Part of the most prolific family in the Sunfish family, the Pumpkinseed has made its home in our Northern River System. While they are often confused for Bluegill, which can be found in Southern Ontario, they are in fact different. Pumpkinseed are bright coloured Sunfish with bright yellow bellies.  These fish offer great opportunities for kids to learn to fish.

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Rock Bass

Red Eye Rock Bass are part of their own genus of Amblopites. Red Eye Rock Bass can be confused with True Sunfish but they grow larger than most and have six spines in their anal fin. They are often darker brown to olive colour and have white bellies. When distressed, some of the fish’s scales will darken in a blotchy camo pattern. The last key distinguishing characteristic is their bright “red eyes”.

A young French River Red Eye Rock Bass displaying it’s blotchy “camo”.

Esocidae

Sight-based predators, Esocidae, contain the genus of Esox. Members of this family include Muskie, Northern Pike and Pickerel. The French River ecosystem only has Pike and Muskie. Grass Pickerel are found in Southern Ontario.

George Taylor with an impressive 53 inch Trophy French River “Clear” Muskie caught and released during Spring Opener.

Muskie – Esox masquinogy

A prized freshwater Trophy game fish, the Muskie is one of the largest fish in Northern Ontario. They are similar in appearance to their cousin the Northern Pike. Often, they grow larger and come in a larger variety of colours and patterns than Pike throughout Ontario.

In the French River, many 50+ inch fish have been caught and released over the last 40 years. Bear’s Den Lodge is home to two Line Class World Record Muskie.

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Northern Pike – Esox lucius

Found in sluggish streams and shallow weedy bays to cold clear rocky waters, Northern Pike are one of the most common game fish in the French River. They are often confused with Muskie, but they do not grow as large and have a specific white spotted “chain-link” pattern on their bodies. Pike also prefer cooler water temperatures as they spawn earlier than Muskie.

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A nice sized French River Northern Pike. Notice the light spotted “chain-link” pattern of fish compared to their larger cousins.

Perch Family – Percidae

A family of ray-finned fish characterized by having a split dorsal fin is the Perch Family. A distinguishing feature of these fish is the front half of their dorsal fin contains spines while the back half contains soft rays. Members of this family that can be found on the French River are Walleye, Sauger, Yellow Perch and Common Logperch.

A child holding a French River Walleye.

Walleye – Sander vitreus

Walleye (aka Pickerel) are the most sought-after game fish in Ontario. Many Canadian anglers agree that Walleye and White Fish are among some of the tastiest freshwater fish to catch. They are sight predators with specialized ghostly white eyes that help them see in low-light conditions. Often many anglers on the French River find success in the turbid and windy waters. While they are normally golden yellow, some anglers are even lucky enough to catch ‘Blue’ Walleye.

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Sauger – Sander canadensis

Like many watersheds that cohabit Walleye and Sauger, it is often hard to distinguish the two species. While there isn’t a remarkable difference in meat quality or slot sizes – it can be handy to be able to discern the differences. Besides Sauger being a darker brassier colour, below is a detailed article about how their differences also affected their hunting behaviours.

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While similar in appearance, Sauger are darker than Walleye among other things.

Young boy holds a yearling French River Yellow Perch.

Yellow Perch – Perca flavescens
Yellow Perch are the smallest members of the Perch family in the French River system. Often referred to as “Perch”, they’re often brightly coloured green through to olive and golden brown. They have distinct black vertical stripes breaking up the bright glow of their scales. They play a vital role in the food chain. Without them, neither Walleye nor Largemouth Bass would survive as easily.
Common Logperch – Percina caprodes

The Common Logperch is a unique member of the Perch family. They are a darter from the subfamily of Etheostomatinae, which contains well over 200 species in North America. 

The Logperch lives a short life of up to three years and grows to 18 centimetres (7.1 inches). Their body is long and slender with many dark vertical bars running from head to tail breaking up their bright golden-greenish to light olive body colour. Logperch spends most of their lives foraging for food as bottom feeders. They prefer habitats with clear, swift water and rocky or sandy bottoms. Logperch’s diet primarily consists of mosquito larvae along with many other types of bug larvae. They are however opportunistic feeders and will either feed on other fish fry or eggs. While foraging, they use their snouts to overturn loose stones.

Interestingly, the Logperch are also important for reproduction with an endangered species of Snuffbox Mussel in Southern Ontario.

 

Common Logperch Resting on a gravel bottom. Image originally provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Catfish – Siluriformes

French River Cannel Catfish – Photo Credit Mark Annan

Named after their prominent barbels (whisker-like sensory organs) surrounding their mouth like cats. Catfish can be found in three varieties in the French River. They are Channel Catfish (Ictalurus punctatus), Black Bullhead (Ameiurus melas) and Brown Bullhead (Ameiurus nebulosus). Catfish are also unique from most freshwater fish. While their barbels are soft and harmless, like cat whiskers, they have three hard and pointed spines – one located on the dorsal (back) fin and each side with the pectoral (front) fins. 

All French River Catfish have mild venom at the tips of their spines like bee stingers. While normally harmless, unless allergic to catfish venom, it’s unpleasant with a sharp initial lingering pain.

Bowfin – Amia calva

Quick photo of a French River Bowfin before release.

The Bowfin, also known as Dogfish, is the last known member of the Halecomorphi. A taxon of ray-finned bony fish. Bowfins are related to Gars and distantly to Sturgeon, all of which are found in the French River Provincial Park. 

Bowfins have a unique appearance from other freshwater fish, they have a long dorsal fin that runs about two-thirds the length of their body with a small paddle-like tail. This gives the fish the appearance of the fin “bowing” around its body. They prefer dense weedy habitats and are bi-modal breathers, allowing them to breathe both water and air. Line class records are to be had as noted below from our lodge.

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Gar – Lepisoteidae

A French River Longnose Gar held by a fisherman in a Bear’s Den Lodge rental boat.

The name “Gar” came from the Old English word for “spear”. Longnose Gars, found in the French River Delta, have olive-brown to green skin. They have long torpedo-shaped bodies with thin elongated jaws and many sharp teeth. Because of their appearance, they often get the nickname “Gar Pike” due to their resemblance to Northern Pike (not related). They are one of the three fish species in the French River to have ganoid scales, the other two being Bowfin and Sturgeon. Their scales give a glassy appearance and are tough like tooth enamel protecting the fish’s body like plate armour. Longnose Gar likes brackish water and dense vegetation to hunt in.

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Sturgeon – Acipenseridae

Harry with his French River Sturgeon while Muskie Fishing, see the full story below!

Great Lake Sturgeons (Acipenser fulvescens) are a protected fish species in the French River. Despite being an ancient bottom feeder, the Lake Sturgeon can trace its lineage back to a common ancestor with the shark family. They are often the largest species of freshwater fish found in the French River living well into the 150+ year range.

Sturgeons have a streamlined body shape with a spade-like snout. Their snout has barbels similar to Catfish to help them forage for food and use their snouts to stir up muddy, sandy and gravely river beds. Lake Sturgeon lacks teeth, opting to vacuum up soft food.

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Suckers – Catostomidae

Art Barefoot removing a Jig from the mouth of a Longnose Sucker.

Made up of a family of 78 different species of “Suckers” the majority of which reside in North America. Closely related to minnows, all Suckers come in similar torpedo-like body shapes with a mouth located under their heads (subterminal) which their Order is named after. They are toothless and have thick fleshy lips to nibble and vacuum foraged food. They feed primarily on worms, insects, crustaceans, fish eggs and baitfish.  For the French River there are:

  1. Redfin Sucker
  2. White Sucker
  3. Brown Sucker
  4. Longnose Sucker

Minnows – Cyprinidae & Leuciscidae

Minnows are comprised of several types of genera between the families of Cyprinidae and Leuciscidae. The smaller fish in the subfamily of Leuciscidae are often considered by anglers to be the “true” minnows. Minnows are also related to members of the Sucker and Carp families. All of which share similar body shapes and soft ray fins. Minnows are a main staple of the food chain in the French River and come in a huge variety of shapes and colours throughout the season. Predators love them for their high fat and oil content besides being numerous.

Species of Minnows to be found on the French River include but are not limited to:

  1. Bluntnose Minnow
  2. Common Shiner
  3. Common Emerald Shiner
  4. Fathead Minnow
  5. Northern Pearl Dace
  6. Common Creek Chub
  7. Blackchin Shiner
  8. Stickleback

Carp – Cyprinidae

Often when people think of Carp in North America, people will often associate them with invasive species. While true most species of carp in North America have been “introduced” we do have a native species – Freshwater Drum. Most Carps are boney fish that is rich in oils, thus a delicacy in some cultures.

Sometimes it’s not a catfish or walleye when fishing deep.

Freshwater Drum – Aplodinotus grunniens
Native to the French River, Freshwater Drums are uniquely named from the sounds the fish produces. Male Freshwater Drum has a special set of muscles that surround their swim bladder during spawning. While they prefer clear water, they do tolerate turbid waters as they sift through sandy and gravel bottoms. Freshwater Drums are one of the few species of fish to eat mussels as adults have powerful jaws to crush their shells.
Conclusion

There are over 30 species of fish in the French River. To experience fishing, valuable information and resources are contained in our articles and experience as outfitters working closely with the Ministry of Forestry and Natural Resources (MNRF) in Ontario. We have been forerunners protecting our fishery for the last 40 years. Contact us or follow us and find your opportunity to learn, fish and experience the French River Provincial Park.