Between the early sunrise frog bite and the schooling stripers at sunset, bass will always be top of mind in the heat of our Texas summers. But with the additional pressure on bass this summer in large part due to COVID-19, a new, less-targeted fish has shot to the top of my list: smallmouth buffalo (Ictiobus bubalus, from the Greek for “bull-fish” and “buffalo”).
What is Smallmouth buffalo?
Most consider buffalo to be part of the carp family, but in actuality, this species is in the Catostomidae family of suckerfish. While these giants can be found cruising the flooded banks grouped in with common carp, any die-hard carp angler will tell you that the buffalo is an entirely different game of chess to play. Smallmouth buffalo prefer waters with dense aquatic vegetation and a silty bottom.
Their diet is primarily that of a detritivore, using its ventral sucker mouth to pick up consuming zooplankton, insect larvae, mollusk larvae, and small crustaceans. They are scientifically smarter than bass, have great eye sight, and can be super skittish.
Why target Smallmouth Buffalo?
For reasons I will never understand, most native Texans tend to look down on this species. But as a wise person once said, “the difference between a flower and a weed is a judgment.” I couldn’t agree more with the comparison of buffalo to other popular game fish. Stalking the flats, locating a buffalo, and having a short window of opportunity to present your fly within its sightline presents a challenge for even the skilled fly angler. And frankly, I don’t care what kind of fish it is, if it has shoulders and is over 10 pounds cruising in less than a foot of water, buck fever kicks in!
Techniques to Catch a Buffalo on the Fly:
These fish will eat flys if presented in the correct way. For me, this has meant laying down the fly as quietly as possible in the path the buffalo is cruising in. Unlike a standard game fish that you can coax into getting a reaction strike, these fish have to be in the right mood to eat. They can be very sociable and are typically found in groups or pods hanging out or tailing in less than a foot of water in the dead heat of the middle of the day. It’s when their nose is pointed down, munching the bottom, that you will have your chance at hooking up.
It’s important that the buffalo see your fly in their sightline. After getting the fly within a 3/4ft distance of its eye sight, it’s not necessary to put much action on the fly – instead, put just enough for the fish to spot it. Sometimes just a little wiggle is all it takes for the buffalo to “b-line” towards it with interest and usually suck it right up.
As far as what flys to use, any carp fly will get the job done but it’s best to have a range of options. If fishing gin-clear water, matching the bottom is best (olive/ brown). If the water is off-colored or stained, I find it crucial to use a loud color (pink/orange/chartreuse). Louder colors also help keep your fly visible in the water, helping you to line up the fly in the buffalo’s path.
Persistence and precision are the recipe for hooking up and landing these special fish. So if you find your typical largemouth spots overrun by new anglers looking for a socially-distanced hobby, I recommend targeting smallmouth buffalo for the challenge of feeding an intelligent beast of a game fish that has been overlooked for far too long.
Recommended Gear for Smallmouth Buffalo
When the conditions are good, low wind/full sun, we tend to use smaller rods that increase the “fun factor” 5wts and 6wts can definitely make the fight pretty intense! But in most cases, an 8wt with a 9-12ft leader is my go to.
Recommended Flies for Smallmouth Buffalo
Fly selection is 100% dependent on the water clarity, a lot of times the fish won’t see the fly in muddy water, so we like to use really bright flies, pink & chartreuse backstabbers, carp tease, carp crack patterns, carp dusters, and even sometimes bonefish butters work really well.
Article, photos, and video from Jeff Spangler, be sure to check him out on Instagram at @spangfish2. Music in the video from @cutdowntrees. Other anglers and photos from @highfiveangler and @kristian_cole.