The back is olive brown with a broad dark stripe along its midline. Sides are silvery with two black stripes separated by an iridescent golden stripe: A prominent black stripe extends to the tip of the snout, paralleled above by a narrow and sometimes indistinct secondary stripe. The stripe along the midline of the back is very dark and broader than the base of the dorsal fin. Gill opening has a prominent, crescent-shaped bar. Belly is silvery white.
Breeding males have darker markings, and parts of the head, body and fins are bright red. Breeding tubercles are largest on the head but are also present on foreparts of body and some fins.
Similar species are the cardinal and duskystripe shiners, but the bleeding shiner has the dark bar along the rear edge of the gill opening, and the dark stripe along the midside is abruptly narrowed just behind the gill opening and does not touch the lateral line beneath the dorsal fin (except in breeding males).