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Editor’s note: This is a collaborative article written by American Carp Society Members Keith Thompson, Erick Maybury, James King, and Martin Rich, with an introduction written by ACS Operations Manager Clayton Lothrop.
Fishing for Buffalo: Introduction by Clayton Lothrop
The pursuit of carp angling brings with it several surprises – primarily large, trophy-class fish caught in your local waters. Captures could range from pristine, richly colored common carp to the elusive, heavy-scaled mirror carp and even wild koi. In some states, however, adventurous anglers could encounter an entirely different species known as the buffalo.
These are not the coarsely coated, plains grazing buffalo you might be imagining, but one of three variants of a native sucker (namely the smallmouth buffalo, black buffalo, or, more rarely, the bigmouth buffalo). While angling techniques for carp align almost seamlessly with catching buffalo, there are a few adjustments the savvy angler can make to target this more subtle-to-bite cousin of carp that experimentation and experience can reveal.
The American Carp Society and its members have a remarkable passion for carp – that goes without saying – but we also have a very soft spot for the native buffalo and are just as pleased to catch, care for, appreciate, photograph and release a buffalo as we are a carp.
Throughout this article, you will learn a bit about this often overlooked species and experience the respect and value our members hold for buffalo and understand why they see a bounty of opportunity where other’s may miss this awarding pursuit entirely.
An Intro to Smallmouth Buffalo: Keith Thompson
Smallmouth buffalo, which are members of the sucker family, are indigenous to the United States and native to the major tributaries off the Mississippi River. A close relative of the bigmouth buffalo and black buffalo, this fish is stockier and its mouth is under-slung. Although they are often referred to as “buffalo carp” and are similar in shape, the major difference is that buffalo have large black eyes and they do not have barbels like carp.
Their coloration ranges from pearly shades of white/grey to coppery green or even almost black and their scales are often iridescent, making them a beautiful fish. The average adult size ranges from 24 inches to 30 inches in length, with some specimens reaching 40-plus inches. Weights vary from water to water, with the vast majority of fish in the 20 to 30 pound range, whereas some waters produce very large fish. The current IGFA World Record stands at 82 pounds and 3 ounces, caught in Texas.
Being very hardy fish, they frequently live in moderate to fast flowing rivers but also can be found in lakes or ponds. They are most often found in water with dense aquatic vegetation and silty bottoms, which are their preferred feeding areas. Their diet is primarily that of a “detritivore,” using their mouth to pick up organic debris in the silt, scraping algae off of rocks and consuming insect larvae, mollusks, and small crustaceans. They use their pharyngeal “throat” teeth to crush their food while dispelling the shells and swallowing the meat.
Historically not considered a “sport fish” in many states, smallmouth buffalo are the most common commercially sold fish in the United States. They are becoming more popular for anglers to target using similar methods to traditional carp fishing. Being bottom feeders makes their bite difficult to detect and can often go unnoticed by less experienced anglers. These massive fish use their weight to stay on the bottom, giving the angler a good hard fight when caught.
“Buffalo Bob” and the Rise of the Buffalo: Erick Maybury
Since my interest in carp fishing began, buffalo were always present and part of the overall picture of angling I was introducing myself to. If there were a species of freshwater fish in the USA that receives the very least amount of attention, oddly enough aside from commercial interest, it would be our three species of buffalo.
Buffalo seem to live a life of anonymity. This is partly due to their likeness to the common carp and the confusion this brings to many anglers. Another factor is the buffalo’s ability to seldom be seen, aside from the occasional tell-tale, shark-like dorsal fin porpoise roll. When skimming through the pages of English carp fishing magazines and books during the mid-late nineties, it became apparent that these unique fish were neither available or pursued anywhere else on the planet. While that makes things exciting for anglers who feel buffalo are worthy of targeting, it even makes the species more illusive on a macro scale.
To be fair, it was not until the capture of “Buffalo Bob” by Bogdan Bucur in 2012 that international interest in the species ignited. At 66 pounds, Bob introduced many carp anglers to the scale in which these fish can regularly achieve. I have great memories of forming a long line of anglers with headlamps, walking down the bank during a very cold night in March, all wanting to see Bob in all of his glory. If you were to ask us then, I feel many would have never imagined getting a fish so large.
Strangely enough, my partner Jason Aylott and I have both since landed a Buffalo exceeding the weight of Bob, but we have Bob and Bogdan to thank! Prior to Bogdan’s capture of Bob, another angler by the name Jason Johonneson had an historic Buffalo capture at 70-plus pounds! That made headlines around the world just prior to the inevitable explosion of carp fishing on social media. If Jason’s fish had the exposure that is available today, it would be fairly safe to say the “Buffalo Boom” would have happened much earlier.
This is the segment in which anyone who knew me knew that I was eventually going to arrive at. Having caught many carp and buffalo, it became fairly obvious to me that buffalo provided a much different battle when hooked. While the common carp will generally provide a few steady runs that will get any angler’s clutch a much needed workout, the buffalo seems to prefer dragging low and slow to the basin until they decide to rise to the surface for a brief acrobatic display. This is something that just does not fit the appearance of this fish whatsoever.
While I appreciate the fight of our foreign king carp with their hair-raising runs and ability to just absolutely take on speeds seldom seen with other freshwater fish, I certainly admire the natural grace of our smallmouth buffalo in their environment more than that of carp. When I see buffalo in their natural habitat, the first thing that comes to mind is that I’m witnessing something very ancient, well refined, and concealed well enough in its environment that it was likely not meant to be seen by human eyes.
Above all, I have to thank the fish with the giant moon eyes and its animated features for exposing me to many anglers who have come far and wide to pursue them that I now call friends. Buffalo put Texas on the map for carp fishing (more so than the common carp). Now I’m not so certain that the buffalo is really a maligned fish. Just like the mighty Mahseer, which was once an enigma to the angling world, the buffalo shares a similar curiosity that attracts many anglers to the USA, and especially to Texas, to experience our very unique fish and, more importantly, quell anyone’s sense of adventure.
Setting Goals and Bagging Monsters: James King
Like many European transplants to the USA, I discovered the mighty smallmouth buffalo entirely by accident while fishing for carp. After a couple of times of having some smaller fish on the bank, a local Texas angler explained to me that these fish were known as “buffalo carp” and gave me some tips on where to find bigger specimens. On my very first trip to target these elusive fish, I was lucky enough to meet and become friends with one of the early pioneers of euro-style Buff-angling in our area, Keith Melrose, who gave me some starting points and insight to the slight differences in approaching buffalo vs. carp.
After many blank sessions, and minute, incremental adjustments to my set-up and techniques, I started landing more and more bigger specimens. I began to set myself specific goals: a 50 pound fish, then a 50 pound fish from all three area lakes, then 60 pound-plus fish. I became obsessed with achieving these goals for several years. I fell in love with buffs because of their unique nature on the bank. They are generally calm and magnanimous while out of the water, but the pound-for-pound pure power of the fight is what keeps me going back. Combine these traits with the often frustrating way they bite (they rarely one-tone), and the challenge is second to none.
There’s a strong camaraderie amongst those of us that target these fish, and that is a big part of the sport for me now. Having joined the American Carp Society a few years ago, it has given me a great number of angling opportunities that I would otherwise never have known about and has also allowed me to help others from across the country (and world), have an opportunity to experience these fish.
One of the most rewarding strategies is to team up with another angler, which I often do with another obsessed fisherman, Martin Rich, to plan and execute an extended mission after a specific fish or two. Sometimes it only takes a few weeks; other times, months. This strategy has helped us bag some monsters, including the granddaddy of them all, Martin’s 68 pound monster from October 2020. Good times!
Smallmouth Buffalo Angling and Moments to be Treasured: Martin Rich
I was completely unaware of these fish until I moved to Texas, but I’d been chasing specimen carp exclusively since I was a boy. After living here a year or so, I had become aware of another fish I could catch with similar tactics to carp fishing. Over the past few years, I have found myself chasing smallmouth buffalo as much, if not more, than the carp I’ve always fished for.
Smallmouth buffalo, having such a long lifespan, can also grow to epic proportions, often becoming some of the largest fish in the bodies of water which they inhabit. This is certainly a draw as an angler. Any interaction with fish that size are moments to be treasured!
We all go fishing for different reasons, but what brings us together is a passion for the fish. The anglers I go fishing with, myself included, take great care and have the utmost respect for the fish we catch. Smallmouth buffalo angling may still be in the pioneering stage, but I hope in time the fish get the recognition they deserve and the protection they need. I feel very fortunate to have found these often over-looked or misunderstood fish.