Department of Environmental Conservation

D E C banner

Go Fish!

Level(s): 3-5
Time: 30 - 45 minutes
Group Size: 20-35

NYS Learning Standards Core Curriculum MST

Standard 4: Living Environment
Students will: understand and apply scientific concepts, principles, and theories pertaining to the physical setting and living environment and recognize the historical development of ideas in science.

  • Key Idea 1: Living things are both similar to and different from each other and nonliving things.
  • Key Idea 2: Organisms inherit genetic information in a variety of ways that result in continuity of structure and function between parents and offspring.
  • Key Idea 3: Individual organisms and species change over time.


This lesson introduces students to the fish families indigenous to New York State by playing I FISH NY's card game, "Go Fish". Students will also learn about the classification system and the external anatomy features of fish.


  • Students will be able to identify basic external anatomy of fish and the function of each part
  • Students will be able to explain why it is important to be able to tell fish apart
  • Students will be able to name several different families of fish indigenous to New York


Go Fish! Lesson Plan complete with handouts (PDF) (1.6MB)


  • Anal Fin- last bottom fin on a fish located near the anal opening; used in balance and steering
  • Caudal/Tail Fin- fin on end of fish; used to propel the fish
  • Dorsal Fin- top or backside fin on a fish; used for balance and protection
  • External Anatomy- the outside body parts
  • Gills- organ a fish uses to obtain oxygen from the water
  • Inferior Mouth- a mouth that opens downward (usually bottom feeders)
  • Lateral Line- organ a fish uses to "feel" low vibrations; tiny pores
  • Nares- organ a fish uses to smell; similar to nostrils
  • Operculum- flexible bony plate that covers the gills
  • Pectoral Fin- chest fins on a fish; used for balance
  • Pelvic Fin- aka ventral fin, bottom or belly fins on a fish; used in balance and steering
  • Scales- protective cover on a fish; similar to skin
  • Scientific Classification- systematic grouping of organisms based on similarities in structure
  • Slime Layer- covers scales; layer protects from bacteria, parasites, etc.
  • Superior Mouth- a mouth that opens upward (usually surface feeders)
  • Taxonomic Classification- hierarchical system in which organisms are classified into groups based on their similarities, moves from largest and most general to smallest and most specific
  • Terminal Mouth- a mouth located at anterior end of fish's body (mid water feeder)
  • Vertebrate- organism with a backbone

anatomy of fish/ bluegill


It is important to be able to identify fish for many reasons: to follow the rules and regulations, for protection against sharp teeth or protruding spines, for the safety of the fish, and for consumption or eating purposes. When identifying fish, scientists and anglers use specific vocabulary to describe external anatomy or outside body parts. These body parts are common to most fish. The difference in the body parts is what helps distinguish one fish from another, while their similarities are used to classify them into groups. There are approximately 29,000 fish species in the world. In order to identify each type of fish, scientists have grouped them according to their outside body parts, specifically the number and location of fins, and body shape.


Using scientific classification, scientists arrange all organisms into groups based on their similarities. Carolus Linnaeus proposed the first system of classification in 1753. Linnaeus believed that each organism should have a binomial name, genus and species, with species being the smallest organization unit of life. Using Linnaeus' system as a guide, scientists created a hierarchical system known as taxonomic classification, in which organisms are classified into groups based on their similarities. This hierarchical system moves from largest and most general to smallest and most specific: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. For example, fish belong to the kingdom Animalia, the phylum Chordata , and from there are grouped more specifically into several classes, orders, families, and thousands of genus and species. A sample classification of the largemouth bass, Micropterus salmoides is shown below {See Figure 1: Classification of the Largemouth Bass}.

Figure 1: Classification of the Largemouth Bass
Taxon Latin Name
Kingdom Animalia
Phylum Chordata
Class Osteichthyes
Order Perciformes
Family Centrarchidae (Sunfish)
Genus Micropterus
Species Salmoides

External Anatomy Features

Common external anatomy features of fish include: dorsal fin, anal fin, caudal fin, pectoral fins, pelvic fins, gills, lateral line, nares, mouth, scales, and body shape.


All fish have external appendages called fins. Like human limbs, fins provide fish with balance, steering, and protection. Fins are either single along the centerline of the fish: the dorsal fin, anal fin, and tail fin; or paired fins: the pectoral fins and pelvic fins. Pectoral fins help fish balance. The back fin or dorsal fin is typically used for balance and protection and in some fish families (pike and gar) it is used for propulsion. The pelvic fin and anal fin are located on the bottom or belly of fish and help with steering as well as balance. The tail fin, also called the caudal fin, helps propels fish forward.


Located on either side of fish, gills transfer oxygen to fish from the water. The gills are covered by a flexible bony plate called the operculum. Some fish have spines located on the operculum as a defense mechanism to protect them from predators.

Lateral Line

Running down the length of a fish's body is the lateral line. This organ is used to feel low vibrations in the water. The lateral line is made up of a series of tiny holes located just under the scales of a fish.


All fish can smell. Located on a fish's snout are paired holes, or nares, used for detecting odors in the water. Nares are similar to nostrils but are not used for breathing. Some fish, like catfish and eels, have a heightened sense of smell.

Scales and Slime

Most fish have scales covering the length of their body. Scales protect fish from injury, much like skin on the human body. On top of these scales is a mucus covering known as the slime layer. Slime protects fish from bacteria and parasites in the water. Anglers should be careful not to remove the slime layer when handling a fish.

Body Shape

A fish's body shape as well as the shape and size of certain external features can tell you a lot about that fish. For example, the body shape of a fish can indicate where that fish lives in the water and what type of swimmer it is.


The mouthparts of a fish will vary in size. Some fish have very small mouths while some have large gaping mouths. Some fish have teeth, depending on what the fish eats. The location of the mouth on a fish's body can also give us a clue as to what the fish eats. A superior mouth (a mouth pointing upward) means the fish will usually eat food located above it, whereas a fish with an inferior mouth (a mouth pointing downward) will usually eat food located below it. Fish with a terminal mouth, located at anterior end of fish's body, are usually mid water feeders.

Main Activity


  1. Introduce yourself
  2. Introduce day's activities:
    a. Fish identification, external body parts of a fish, classification system
    b. Create your own fish; lemon fish worksheet
    c. Go Fish! Card game

Fish Anatomy

  1. Ask students why is it important to be able to tell fish apart:
    1. To identify a fish
    2. To follow rules and regulations
    3. For personal safety, and safety for the fish
      i. Teeth/spines and other protective structures
    4. For consumption
      i. Poisonous, toxin accumulation
  2. Ask students how we tell fish apart.
    1. Analogize by asking students how they tell their friends apart. Have them be specific regarding differences in hair color, eye color, height, etc.
    2. Say: We have vocabulary to talk about human anatomy. Scientists and anglers need vocabulary to describe different parts of fish. These body parts are common to most fish. You can use differences in these body parts to help distinguish one fish from another.
  3. Identify external anatomy features.
    1. Using a fish model or picture go over fish body parts and their function.
    2. Hand out Lemon Fish worksheet.
    3. Draw a lemon fish on the board. Depending on your students' level of knowledge, label external anatomy features.
    4. Have students create their own lemon fish using the external anatomy features that they just learned. Be sure students label features.
    5. Have a few students share their worksheet
    6. Collect worksheet
  4. Ask students what a species is.
    1. Fish have the most species of any vertebrate on earth; there are over 29,000 different species of fish.
    2. Review the concept of families with students.
      i. Guide students to understand that family is one way to group species with similar traits.
    3. Certain fish families have specific traits.
      i. Flounders have both eyes on one side of their head
      ii. Sunfish have a spiny dorsal fin

Go Fish! Card Game

  1. Bring out the Go Fish! cards.
  2. Ask students how many have ever played Go Fish!
  3. Explain the rules.
  4. Show a card and mention that the fish are in a family of 4 and, that when playing, students must collect all 4 fish before laying cards down as a set.

Fish Identification

  1. Time permitting, identify other local fish species using models.
  2. Review safety information for each fish.
  3. Discuss slime layer and proper handling techniques with each fish.

Wrap up

Relation to fishing

End with a brief discussion on why it is important to be able to tell fish apart

  • to be able to identify them
  • to follow fishing rules and regulations
  • for our safety and the safety of the fish
  • for human consumption


  • Ask the students to name families of fish they recall from the game and the similarities between species in that family.
  • Ask the students to explain why it is important to be able to tell fish apart
  • Have the students name several different families of fish indigenous to New York
  • Pointing out specific body parts of a fish, have students identify the name and function of the anatomy feature
Questions for Discussion

Q: How do scientists classify fish into groups?
A: based on their structural similarities (fin shape, body shape, etc.)

Q: Can you name a family of fish that is native to NY?
A: Answers can vary: Salmon, Flounder, Sunfish, Pike, etc.

Q: Can you name a species of fish that is native to NY?
A: Answers can vary: Brook trout, largemouth bass, bluegill sunfish, striped bass,

Q: Can you name two fish that belong to the same family of fish?
A: Answers can vary: rainbow trout and brook trout, largemouth bass and bluegill sunfish, redfin pickerel and chain pickerel, four spot flounder and summer flounder

Q: What is the function of a dorsal fin?
A: Protection and balance

Q: What organ do fish use to sense vibrations in the water?
A: Lateral line

Q: How many species of fish are there on Earth?
A: over 29,000

Q: How many species of fish can you name?

Q: How many families of fish can you name?

Teachers can use Lemon Fish worksheet for additional assessment.

Related Materials

Freshwater Sportfish of New York Brochure (PDF) (741KB)

Nearshore Saltwater Sportfish of New York Brochure (PDF) (660KB)

Fisheries Biology and Management (PDF) (353KB) - background information on external and internal fish anatomy with illustrations courtesy of Maryland Department of Natural Resources

Web Resources

Freshwater Fish - NYSDEC site providing information on a variety of species, with over ten series on fish including: true bass, common minnows, common prey fish, sunfish, and trout.

Marine Fish - NYSDEC site providing information on a variety of species: scup, shortfin mako, striped bass, summer flounder, tautog, weakfish, and winter flounder.

  • PDF Help
  • For help with PDFs on this page, please call 631-444-0283.
  • Contact for this Page
  • I FISH NY Program
    NYSDEC R1-Stony Brook
    50 Circle Road
    Stony Brook, NY 11790
    Send us an email
  • This Page Covers
  • Page applies to all NYS regions