Wednesday, July 18, 2012

New Fly Rod "First":...the Smallmouth Buffalo!

I decided to head back to the little backwater area along the Des Moines River below Saylorville Lake...just downstream of the Cottonwood fishing pier.  The river is so low, there is a huge sandbar that separates a narrow water-filled channel near shore from the main river channel that is flowing near the opposite shoreline.    This narrow channel is pretty much "cut off" from the rest of the river right now.

During my last trip here this past weekend, I saw plenty of Carp, and suspected I was hearing Freshwater Drum.  I wanted to target both species, with special emphasis on the Drum since I haven't yet caught one on fly gear.  I read that black leech patterns, crayfish patterns, and white minnow patterns all catch Freshwater Drum, especially if you can keep them on/near the bottom.

I got on the sandbar near its downstream end, and started walking upstream along this stagnant channel.  I wasn't hearing the "drum" sound I'd heard last time.  Bummer.  I saw some Carp working the shallows.  I tossed an egg pattern to one.  It took the egg, I set the hook, and the line broke.  This was new line!  For some reason, I've been breaking a lot of the egg patterns off on carp during the hookset.

Next, I tied on a Mr. P's Carp Carrot and started working the deeper water of the channel, blind casting for Drum or whatever would hit.  I did get some strikes, but nothing hooked up.

Then I saw a small carp in the shallows working its way towards me, nosing into the bottom.  A dozen bad casts, and a couple good ones...I finally got the strike.  I set the hook, and had a good battle for a few minutes.  I discovered this was not a carp, but a Black (?) Buffalo (edit:  I've since learned that these are SMALLMOUTH BUFFALO)!  This is a new flyrod species for me, which is...AWESOME!  This one, 19.5" long, was caught on the Carp Carrot.

There were some Carp (or maybe Bigmouth Buffalo?) mouthing near the surface, so I switched my fly to a Blind Squirrel.  Eventually spotted another fish in the shallows and numerous casts finally got the fly where I wanted it.  The fish took it.  This was another Black (?) Buffalo (edit: SMALLMOUTH BUFFALO).  22.5" long.

I also caught a Bluegill on the egg pattern, a Hybrid Sunfish on the Carp Carrot, and 6 Green Sunfish on the Blind Squirrel.

Now... I need help figuring this out.  When I caught them, I assumed these two Buffalo were Smallmouth Buffalo.  But they really might be Black Buffalo.  I looked them both up online, studied descriptions and pictures...and I'm still not sure.  Lateral line scale counts and the habitat where these were feeding were slightly more suggestive of Black Buffalo.  But there is overlap on the scale counts between the two species.  Without a side-by-side comparison, I can't definitively tell by the other descriptive characteristics.  The Black Buffalo is typically darker in coloration, often with a bluish color on the sides.  Well, as you can tell from the first two pics, these certainly had some bluish tinting on the sides above their bellies, which was even more noticeable in person. The Smallmouth Buffalo has a larger eye, and is supposed to have lighter coloration (but this can depend on the waters where it is found, and they get darker during the breeding season...but that was several months ago).  There is a difference in mouth placement...and some have suggested the Black Buffalo has thicker lips.

Although I'm truly unsure (which is strange...I'm generally quite good with fish identification), I think for now I will go with Black Buffalo on these.  If there's anyone that has more experience with both of these species and thinks they can accurately tell which species this is based on my pictures, I'd LOVE to know!

Addendum:  I changed the title to this post to accurately reflect the new information I received regarding the species identification.  I had posed the question and pictures to my friend Ben, who is a Fisheries Biologist with the IDNR for our area.  Here is his response:
"It’s always tough when you are trying to ID from a photo, rather than having the fish in your hand.  These two species are tough to tell apart, so don’t feel bad! 

However, I believe that you caught 2 smallmouth buffalo.  There are some body measurement ratios that the professionals use to separate these two species.  I analyzed these ratios from your photos and both fish fall out as smallmouth buffs.  In addition, and this is probably the best method, the smallmouth buff will have a keel in front of their dorsal fin.  Unfortunately, I don’t have top-down photos to tell.

Hope that helps Dave and congrats on the catch!"

That is good enough for me!  These shall henceforth be known as Smallmouth Buffalo, and in the future I will check for the presence of the keel in front of the dorsal fin.


  1. I started using a furled leader this winter fishing for pike. These have an o-ring on the end of the leader to tie whatever size tippet. It's reduced my line breaks tremendously. I'm using a 5wt furled leader with 15-20lb mono for carp.

  2. That's a good tip. And in general, I probably just need to go heavier on the line...I'm using like 1x or 0x leaders, and 8 lb-10.5 lb tippet. I would guess I should probably go AT LEAST 12 lb tippet when I'm chasing carp. Good to know you've been able to go as high as 20 lb for carp. Lets face it...most Iowa waters aren't exactly CLEAR, so the warmwater fish generally aren't particularly line shy.

  3. Wish I could help with the Buffalo, send some this way! No don't, the feds will lock you up. I use heavy tippet as well with my eggs, typically 1X or 2X, but often Maxima which tests poorly but has incredible knot strength and abrasion resistance. My boys will use 20lb. spin line that allows no fly movement but they still catch fish. I use a loop to loop connection and my leader will last a very long time but I've thinking about the furled leader with a ring, glad for the report John. And, what a cool first!


  4. Thanks Gregg! I went to the local fishing store here during lunch today and bought a 0X (15 lb) 7.5' leader. Thought about going with 15lb tippet, but want the tippet to break before my settled on buying 13 lb mono tippet (1x, I think?), and 12 lb fluoro tippet. Oh wait...I just looked up some reviews on the cheaper fluoro line I bought (Stren Fluorocast)...and there's a lot of reviewers that say it breaks easily and is junk. Great...You get what you pay for!

  5. I abhor flouro because it all has terrible knot strenght, but everyone has their favorite tippet. I read the extra on the buffalo, cool!, and now you know what to look for.


  6. Hey Dave, what is the fight like onabuffalo?

  7. Very strong. They keep their nose down and try to head for deeper water when hooked. They will take line! Because you can't get their head up, they are hard to control. Fun!

  8. I've caught Smallmouth Buffalo (on fly gear) and Black Buffalo (only on bait). The first fish is a Smallmouth 100% certain. The second fish is tough, they are easier to ID as they get bigger. The length ratio is pretty much on the line. The mouth and body shape look more like a Black. Could be a small Black or a hybrid. If it is a Smallmouth it is a weird looking one.