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Weekend Getaways

What lives at the bottom of the Ohio River?

Read on to see this amazing video

For millennia, the Ohio River has served as an important waterway for the people of the eastern and central parts of the United States. Numerous Native American tribes lived on its banks and used the river for shipping and as a trade route. Later, European settlers also relied on the Ohio River to expand into the Mississippi Valley and the Midwest. Today the area around the river is highly industrialized and populated. Almost 5 million people depend on the drinking water from the river. Additionally, thousands of barges cruise the river each year, transporting important trade products such as oil and steel.

Thomas Jefferson once said that the Ohio River is “the most beautiful river in the world”. 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. Red maples, cherry bark oaks, bald cypresses and pecan trees line the 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, you can find dozens of species of fish, amphibians and freshwater mussels in its waters. What are some of the special creatures you can find at the bottom of the Ohio River?

In this article, we will 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.

Across the Ohio River

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

©Corey B. Stevens/

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

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

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

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/

Like any activity, swimming or boating in the Ohio River comes with some risks. River currents, boat traffic, and submerged debris pose hazards to navigating the river. Before swimming or boating on the river, be sure to map the area and learn about potential hazards. Also, take precautions when swimming or fishing, including making sure you have proper safety gear, such as a safety gear.

According to numerous water quality monitors, the Ohio River is one of the most polluted rivers in the United States. The river contains extremely high levels of nitrates due to runoff from nearby agricultural production. Additionally, the river contains dangerously high levels of mercury, with some sources stating that mercury levels have risen by 500% in the last 15 years. Previously, the river suffered from significant pollution from chemical production. Among its many polluters, chemical company DuPont dumped thousands of pounds of PFOA, a fluoride derivative, into the river over 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? Zander and other fish species.


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


The zander also goes by the name of yellow pike or yellow pike. A close relative of the European walleye, the walleye range found throughout Canada and the United States. They get their name from their pearly eyes, which allow them to see well in dim light. Their eyesight allows them to hunt effectively at night and in rough or muddy waters. Walleye vary in size and appearance depending on the environment. In general, most specimens appear mostly gold and olive in color. They can grow up to 42 inches long and weigh around 29 pounds. However, most full-size specimens average around 31 inches and 20 pounds. Many anglers value zander for its mild flavor and decent size. The IUCN lists the walleye as a species of Least Concern.

Blue catfish

The blue catfish is believed to be the largest species of catfish found in North America. At maximum size, they can grow to nearly 65 inches in length and weigh up to 150 pounds. Blue catfish are also extremely long-lived and can live up to 20 years. They have large, dense bodies that are mainly blue-grey in appearance. Like other catfish, they have a characteristic prominent upper jaw and barbells on their faces. Blue catfish will eat almost anything they can catch, including frogs, clams, crabs, and other fish. They often prey on wounded fish and are willing scavengers. Their ability to adapt to different habitats has allowed them to spread beyond their original range. As a result, people in some areas consider them a pest because they often outrank local fish.

Crimson Catpaw Pearl Clam

Epioblast oblique oblique is better known as the purple pearl oyster. It is considered one of the rarest freshwater mussels in the Ohio River. As of this writing, only a few adult specimens remain in the wild and the species is listed as critically endangered. In the past, purple cat’s-foot pearl mussels could be found in the Ohio River and Great Lakes drainage basins. They prefer shallow, fast water to avoid getting buried in sediment. Crimson cat’s paw pearl oysters rarely move, but when they do, they use their muscular “foot” to pull themselves across the river bed. They have a medium-sized, narrow housing. Males can grow up to 70 millimeters long, while females are significantly smaller.

Eastern Hellbender

The eastern hellbender is the largest species of salamander in North America. A close relative of the Japanese and Chinese giant salamanders, the Hellbender salamander can grow up to 29 inches in length. Adults weigh between 3.3 and 5.5 pounds. They have a flat head and body and distinctive slimy, reddish-brown skin. Although they have functioning lungs, they primarily use their gills for breathing and their lungs for buoyancy. Eastern Hellbenders thrive in fast-moving, low-oxygen waters, making the Ohio River a prime environment for them. They can be very territorial and usually don’t stray far from one location. Their diet consists primarily of small fish and crabs, although they will also eat insects, tadpoles, and other salamanders. Due to habitat loss, the IUCN lists eastern hellbenders as an endangered species.

pirate bass

While a close relative of some perch trout, the pirate fish is the only member of its family, the Aphredoderidae. This small, carnivorous fish is native to the Ohio River and various regions of the eastern United States. They prefer areas with dense vegetation and debris where they can hide. Adults measure relatively small, reaching a maximum size of 5.5 inches at maturity. Externally, they usually appear dark brown and have a dark band on the tail. Solitary, nocturnal hunters, pirate bass use a unique form of chemical camouflage to sneak up on their prey. Their diet consists of smaller fish, insects, worms and glass shrimp.

Interesting facts

  • The Ohio River is the tenth largest river in the United States by length and third largest by discharge volume.
  • The Ohio River is home to over 160 species of fish, many of which are endangered.
  • The Ohio River is one of the most polluted rivers in the United States.
  • More than 5 million people depend on the Ohio River for drinking water.
  • The Ohio River takes its name from the Seneca tribe who gave it its name Ohi:yo’, which means “good flow”.


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