We applied an Index of Biotic Integrity (IBI) used on Wisconsin/Minnesota waters of the upper Mississippi River (UMR) to compare data from two systemic sampling programmes. Ability to use data from multiple sampling programmes could extend spatial and temporal coverage of river assessment and monitoring efforts. We normalized for effort and tested fish community data collected by the Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program-Great Rivers Ecosystems (EMAP-GRE) 2004–2006 and the Long Term Resource Monitoring Program (LTRMP) 1993–2006. Each programme used daytime electrofishing along main channel borders but with some methodological and design differences. EMAP-GRE, designed for baseline and, eventually, compliance monitoring, used a probabilistic, continuous design. LTRMP, designed primarily for baseline and trend monitoring, used a stratified random design in five discrete study reaches. Analysis of similarity indicated no significant difference between EMAP-GRE and LTRMP IBI scores (n = 238; Global R = −0.052; significance level = 0.972). Both datasets distinguished clear differences only between ‘Fair’ and ‘Poor’ condition categories, potentially supporting a ‘pass–fail’ assessment strategy. Thirteen years of LTRMP data demonstrated stable IBI scores through time in four of five reaches sampled. LTRMP and EMAP-GRE IBI scores correlated along the UMR's upstream to downstream gradient (df [3, 25]; F = 1.61; p = 0.22). A decline in IBI scores from upstream to downstream was consistent with UMR fish community studies and a previous, empirically modelled human disturbance gradient. Comparability between EMAP-GRE (best upstream to downstream coverage) and LTRMP data (best coverage over time and across the floodplain) supports a next step of developing and testing a systemic, multi-metric fish index on the UMR that both approaches could inform. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.