Classification systems are valuable to ecological management in that they organize information into consolidated units thereby providing efficient means to achieve conservation objectives. Of the many ways classifications benefit management, hypothesis generation has been discussed as the most important. However, in order to provide templates for developing and testing ecologically relevant hypotheses, classifications created using environmental variables must be linked to ecological patterns. Herein, we develop associations between a recent US hydrologic classification and fish traits in order to form a template for generating flow–ecology hypotheses and supporting environmental flow standard development. Tradeoffs in adaptive strategies for fish were observed across a spectrum of stable, perennial flow to unstable intermittent flow. In accordance with theory, periodic strategists were associated with stable, predictable flow, whereas opportunistic strategists were more affiliated with intermittent, variable flows. We developed linkages between the uniqueness of hydrologic character and ecological distinction among classes, which may translate into predictions between losses in hydrologic uniqueness and ecological community response. Comparisons of classification strength between hydrologic classifications and other frameworks suggested that spatially contiguous classifications with higher regionalization will tend to explain more variation in ecological patterns. Despite explaining less ecological variation than other frameworks, we contend that hydrologic classifications are still useful because they provide a conceptual linkage between hydrologic variation and ecological communities to support flow–ecology relationships. Mechanistic associations among fish traits and hydrologic classes support the presumption that environmental flow standards should be developed uniquely for stream classes and ecological communities, therein. Published 2014. This article is a U.S. Government work and is in the public domain in the USA.