A thick-bodied sunfish with a large mouth (the upper jaw extends to or behind the middle of the eye) and with several distinct dark lines radiating back from the eye. The tongue has a small patch of teeth that can be detected by rubbing a forefinger over the upper surface. The spiny part of the dorsal fin usually has 10 spines, and it is broadly connected to the soft part of the dorsal fin.
The back and sides are rich olive-brown with numerous dark brown markings, fading to light yellow on the belly. A characteristic feature is the 4 or 5 reddish-brown streaks radiating from the eye across the side of the head. The iris of the eye is red. Fins are strongly spotted and banded with dark brown (most noticeable on soft dorsal and anal fins). In breeding males, the ear tab is often tipped with bright red and pelvic and anal fins tipped with white.
Similar species: The northern rock bass (which also is sometimes called "goggle-eye") has 6 instead of 3 spines at the front of the anal fin.