What Lives at the Bottom of the Ohio River?

Written by Patrick Sather
Updated: July 21, 2023
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Key Points:

  • The Ohio River, at 981 miles long, is the 10th longest river in the United States when measured by the main stem.
  • According to water quality watchdogs, the Ohio River ranks as one of if not the most polluted rivers in the United States because of high nitrate levels due to runoff from nearby agricultural production.
  • Hundreds of different animals and thousands of plants call the Ohio River Valley home, including the great biodiversity of freshwater mussels and more than 160 fish species.
Infographic about the Ohio River.
The Ohio River is important in US history and commercial development.

For thousands of years, the Ohio River has functioned as an important waterway for people in the eastern and central parts of the United States. Numerous Native American tribes lived along its banks and used the river for navigation and as a trading route. Later, European settlers also relied on the Ohio River to expand into the Mississippi Valley and Midwest. Today, the area around the river is highly industrialized and populated. Nearly 5 million people rely on the river for drinking water. Additionally, thousands of barges travel along the river each year carrying critical commercial products like oil and steel. 

Thomas Jefferson once stated that the Ohio River “is the most beautiful river on earth.” Although Jefferson never actually saw the river with his own eyes, he wasn’t lying. Many plants and animals live in and along the Ohio River. You can find red maples, cherry bark oaks, bald cypress, and pecan trees along its banks. You can also see large mammals, including deer, bobcats, and coyotes. Hundreds of songbirds, including sparrows, thrushes, and robins, inhabit the Ohio River Valley. Meanwhile, within its waters, you can find dozens of species of fish, amphibians, and freshwater mussels. That said, what are some of the specific creatures you can find at the bottom of the Ohio River? 

In this article, we’ll explore 5 animals that call the Ohio River home. We’ll also cover details about the river and some of the features that make it dangerous. 

About the Ohio River

The Ohio River is the 10th longest river in the United States.

©Corey B Stevens/Shutterstock.com

The Ohio River begins in western Pennsylvania at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers. It briefly flows northwest before turning sharply south at the border shared by Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio. From there, the river first serves as the border between Ohio and Kentucky and then between Kentucky and Indiana. It briefly acts as the border between Illinois and Kentucky before it empties into the Mississippi River. 

From start to finish, the Ohio River measures 981 miles long. This makes the Ohio River the 10th longest river in the United States when measured by the main stem. That said, with an average discharge of 281,000 cubic feet per second, it measures as the 3rd largest river in the country by discharge. While the river directly flows through or along 6 states, its drainage basin covers 14 states. The Ohio River has many tributaries, the largest of which is the Tennessee River. Its list of tributaries also includes the Salt River, Green River, Scioto River, and Wabash River. 

The Ohio River’s name originates from the Seneca word Ohi:yo’, meaning “Good River.” It served an important role for several Native American tribes, who used the river as a means of transportation and as a trading route. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the river became an important transportation route for settlers and traders traveling into the American West. Today, it continues to function as a critical navigation route for commercial goods and a source of fresh drinking water for communities in its drainage basin. 

Where to Find the Ohio River on a Map

The Ohio River is a major waterway in the eastern United States, formed by the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. From there, it flows southwestward for 981 miles, forming the boundary between six states – Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. To locate it on a map, look for its source in western Pennsylvania and follow it as it meanders through these states before emptying into the Mississippi River at Cairo, Illinois. Its importance to commerce and transportation has made it a vital part of American history since colonial times.

Is the Ohio River Dangerous?

Sunset view over the Ohio River in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The Ohio River is widely considered one of the most polluted in the United States.

©ESB Professional/Shutterstock.com

Like any activity, swimming or boating in the Ohio River poses some risks. River currents, boat traffic, and submerged debris all pose dangers to travels on the river. Before swimming or boating on the river, make sure you map out the area and read up on any hazards. Also, take precautions when swimming or fishing, including making sure you have appropriate safety equipment such as life visits. 

According to numerous water quality watchdogs, the Ohio River ranks as one of if not the most polluted rivers in the United States. The river contains extremely high nitrate levels due to runoff from nearby agricultural production. Additionally, the river contains dangerously high levels of mercury, with some sources noting mercury levels increasing by 500% in just the past 15 years. Before then, the river suffered from considerable pollution due to chemical production. Among its many polluters, DuPont chemical company dumped thousands of pounds of PFOA, a fluoride derivative, into the river over the span of several decades. 

What Lives at the Bottom of the Ohio River?

Walleye fish - catch and release.

What lives at the bottom of the Ohio River? Walleye and other fish species.


Hundreds of different animals and thousands of plants call the Ohio River Valley home. Historically, the river featured some of the greatest biodiversity of freshwater mussels, although their populations are now mostly in decline. You can also find more than 160 fish species in its waters. Let’s examine 5 different species that you can find at the bottom of the Ohio River. 


The walleye also goes by the name the yellow pike or yellow pickerel. A close relative of the European zander, the walleye range throughout Canada and the United States. They get their name from their pearlescent eyes, which allow them to see well in dim light. Their eyesight allows them to hunt effectively at night and in rough or muddy water areas. Walleyes range in size and appearance depending on their environment. Generally speaking, most specimens appear mostly gold and olive-colored. They can grow up to 42 inches long and weigh around 29 pounds. That said, most specimens average around 31 inches and 20 pounds at full size. Many anglers prize walleye thanks to their mild taste and decent size. The IUCN lists the walleye as a species of Least Concern

Blue Catfish

The blue catfish ranks as the largest catfish species found in North America. At maximum size, they can reach nearly 65 inches long and weigh up to 150 pounds. Blue catfish are also extremely long-lived, capable of living up to 20 years old. They have large, dense bodies that look blue-gray primarily. Like other catfish, they feature a characteristic protruding upper jaw and barbells on their faces. Blue catfish will eat almost anything they can catch, including frogs, mussels, crayfish, and other fish. They often prey on wounded fish and are willing scavengers. Their ability to adapt to varied habitats has allowed them to spread out of their native range. As a result, people consider them a pest in some areas because they often outcompete local fish. 

Purple Cat’s Paw Pearly Mussel

Epioblasma obliquata obliquata is more commonly known as the purple cat’s paw pearly mussel. It ranks as one of the rarest freshwater mussels in the Ohio River. As of this writing, few adult specimens remain in the wild, and the species is listed as Critically Imperiled. Historically, you used to be able to find purple cat’s paw pearly mussels throughout the Ohio River and Great Lakes drainage basins. They prefer shallow, swift water to avoid getting buried in sediment. Purple cat’s paw pearly mussels rarely move, but when they do, they use their muscular “foot” to drag themselves along the riverbed. They possess a medium-sized, narrow shell. Males can grow up to 70 millimeters long, while females measure significantly smaller. 


The sauger is a member of the family Percidae and a close relative of the walleye. These medium-sized fish are highly migratory and can disappear from river systems depending on the time of year. They tend to prefer large, deep, natural rivers, but due to their migratory habits you can find them in a wide range of environments. Saugers possess a spiny frontal dorsal fin and a soft-rayed rear dorsal fin. Other distinguishing characteristics include spots on the first dorsal fin, blotches on the sides, and rough scales on the gills. An average sauger measures between 8 and 12 inches long and weighs from 1 to 2 pounds. The diet of a sauger consists mainly of small fish and invertebrates. That said, their diet can vary depending on their age and the time of year.

White Bass

A member of the temperate bass family Moronidae, the white bass ranks among the most commonly caught game fish in the Ohio River. As its name implies, the white bass appears primarily white or silver but can also look pale green. While the sides and belly look whitish, the back and sides feature dark stripes. On average, most white bass measure between 12 and 15 inches long. White bass typically live near the bottom of large rivers and lakes in winter. In spring, they travel to small creeks, rivers, and streams to spawn. They are carnivores that prey mostly on invertebrates. However, larger specimens may also prey on smaller fish.

Interesting Facts

  • The Ohio River ranks as the 10th largest river in the United States by length and the 3rd largest by discharge volume. 
  • Over 160 fish species live in the Ohio River, many of which are endangered. 
  • The Ohio River is one of the most polluted rivers in the United States. 
  • More than 5 million people rely on the Ohio River for drinking water. 
  • The Ohio River gets its name from the Seneca tribe, who named it the Ohi:yo’, meaning “Good River.” 

The photo featured at the top of this post is © ESB Professional/Shutterstock.com

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