A carpsucker, the quillbacks mouth is pointed downward. The back is moderately arched and the lateral line is nearly straight. They are silvery on the sides with a white belly and the lower fins can be orange or yellow. The tale and dorsal fins are gray to silver in color. The first several rays of the dorsal fin form a long quill. Unlike the river and highfin carpsuckers they have no fleshy knob on the front edge of the lower lip.