Past and present Missouri River management practices have resulted in native fishes being identified as in jeopardy. In 1995, the Missouri River Benthic Fishes Study was initiated to provide improved information on Missouri River fish populations and how alterations might affect them. The study produced a baseline against which to evaluate future changes in Missouri River operating criteria. The objective was to evaluate population structure and habitat use of benthic fishes along the entire mainstem Missouri River, exclusive of reservoirs. Here we use the data from this study to provide a recent-past baseline for on-going Missouri River fish population monitoring programmes along with a more powerful method for analysing data containing large percentages of zero values. This is carried out by describing the distribution and habitat use of 21 species of Missouri River benthic fishes based on catch-per-unit area data from multiple gears. We employ a Bayesian zero-inflated Poisson model expanded to include continuous measures of habitat quality (i.e. substrate composition, depth, velocity, temperature, turbidity and conductivity). Along with presenting the method, we provide a relatively complete picture of the Missouri River benthic fish community and the relationship between their relative population numbers and habitat conditions. We demonstrate that our single model provides all the information that is often obtained by a myriad of analytical techniques. An important advantage of the present approach is reliable inference for patterns of relative abundance using multiple gears without using gear efficiencies. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.