1. Little is known about native communities in naturally fishless lakes in eastern North America, a region where fish stocking has led to a decline in these habitats. 2. Our study objectives were to: (i) characterise and compare macroinvertebrate communities in fishless lakes found in two biophysical regions of Maine (U.S.A.): kettle lakes in the eastern lowlands and foothills and headwater lakes in the central and western mountains; (ii) identify unique attributes of fishless lake macroinvertebrate communities compared to lakes with fish and (iii) develop a method to efficiently identify fishless lakes when thorough fish surveys are not possible. 3. We quantified macroinvertebrate community structure in the two physiographic fishless lake types (n = 8 kettle lakes; n = 8 headwater lakes) with submerged light traps and sweep nets. We also compared fishless lake macroinvertebrate communities to those in fish-containing lakes (n = 18) of similar size, location and maximum depth. We used non-metric multidimensional scaling to assess differences in community structure and t-tests for taxon-specific comparisons between lakes. 4. Few differences in macroinvertebrate communities between the two physiographic fishless lake types were apparent. Fishless and fish-containing lakes had numerous differences in macroinvertebrate community structure, abundance, taxonomic composition and species richness. Fish presence or absence was a stronger determinant of community structure in our study than differences in physical conditions relating to lake origin and physiography. 5. Communities in fishless lakes were more speciose and abundant than in fish-containing lakes, especially taxa that are large, active and free-swimming. Families differing in abundance and taxonomic composition included Notonectidae, Corixidae, Gyrinidae, Dytiscidae, Aeshnidae, Libellulidae and Chaoboridae. 6. We identified six taxa unique to fishless lakes that are robust indicators of fish absence: Graphoderus liberus, Hesperocorixa spp., Dineutus spp., Chaoborus americanus, Notonecta insulata and Callicorixa spp. These taxa are collected most effectively with submerged light traps. 7. Naturally fishless lakes warrant conservation, because they provide habitat for a unique suite of organisms that thrive in the absence of fish predation. ?? 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.