Posted By Joel on July 3, 2011
A Ray Roberts smallmouth buffalo - TOUGH to hook!
I get emails and comments from time to time asking specific questions regarding techniques used on the freshwater flats. Recently, a lot of traffic has come my way regarding buffalo, especially the smallmouth buffalo in local impoundments.
First, a little taxonomy. There are three species of buffalo in the US (all members of the sucker family – Catostomidae), the Bigmouth Buffalo (Ictiobus cyprinellus), the Black Buffalo (I. niger), and the Smallmouth Buffalo (I. bubalus). All species have overlapping ranges with most concentrated on the Mississippi/Ohio drainages. Smallmouths require cleaner/deeper lakes and rivers than the bigmouth and blacks seem too like rockier areas. All are primarily benthic feeders that feed on copepods, caldocerans, bottom plants, aquatic insects, mollusks, small fishes, and fish eggs. The bigmouth is actually a filter-feeder.
The fish that is seen on the Ray Roberts flats is the smallmouth buffalo (an excellent name for this fish). They will be seen as singles, pairs, or small groups of up to 6-7 fish. 8 or 9 pounds is about average and the largest I have caught was just over 14 – the infamous Boga snatcher. These guys put up an amazing fight if hooked in shallow water and will clear a reel in seconds if fought in a clear area. The only down-side is the slimed leader you end up with after the ordeal!
So, the problem is actually hooking the fish. I know that people catch buffalo in rivers around here (like the Brazos below PK and the Red below Texoma) and that some of these fish are actually hooked in the mouth and not snagged. Fish in a river seem to feed differently than buffalo on the flats. In the rivers, I assume they feed with the current and pluck particulate matter out of the flow. This must be very difficult, however, as their small mouth protrudes down at almost a 90 degree angle to the body. The bigmouth buffalo is much better designed for this with a more superior mouth. Over half of the buffalo I’ve ever caught in a river were snagged in some fashion.
On the flats, these fish swim slowly along the bottom, feeling/smelling prey and then sucking up the organic material with their extended mouth. THEY DO NOT FEED BY SIGHT. This is tough for fly-fisherman to wrap their minds around. We are used to fish that grab our flies because they SAW it (or at least sensed its presence with their lateral line . . . like a popper). Gamefish will zero in on a stripped or drifting fly and then use their sense of sight in the last seconds to take it. A buff on the flat will not move even an inch out of its way to suck in a fly no matter what it looks like or how it is retrieved – they’re just not programmed like that.
Buffalo mouth - designed for sucking material off the bottom (NOT sight-feeding)
Look at the photo of the buff mouth above. It’s no larger than my thumb. And the fly we’re using is about the same size. Here’s your problem. These two things need to come together at the same time and place – pretty tough. To achieve this, your fly has to be ON THE BOTTOM, in front of the fish as it passes over it. The buffalo needs to sense slight movement under it’s head and then it will turn on the suction like a ray over a crab.
Most anglers that cast ahead of a buff actually end up lining the fish with the leader. The optimal presentation is one in which the buff is coming at you or at a slight angle. Use a fluoro leader for maximum sink rate of fly AND LEADER. Cast far enough ahead of the fish so that the fly is on the bottom and you can strip it forward if needed for correct position. As the fish swims over the fly, SLOWLY lift the rod or strip the fly (depending on depth/distance). If you feel anything, set the hook. You have to do this quickly, they will spit out inorganic material just like any other fish.
I don’t believe fly selection is that important . . . AGAIN, they don’t see it – they FEEL it. something that sinks quick with some nice, moving rubber legs will do the trick. We have the best luck with bonefish bitters.
If you want to get a visual as to how difficult this is (and why it is such a low-percentage game) put a nickel in a coffee cup. The nickel represents the size of the mouth/fly and the coffee cup is roughly the size of the area a buffalo will search as it moves along. Imagine how exponentially difficult it is to get that nickel in that coffee cup as distance increases! Fun, huh? The good thing is that buffs are not very spooky on the flats and will let you get within 10 – 12 feet and cast at them several times.
Finally, a word on identification. As mentioned earlier, buffs are members of the sucker family. Carp are actually minnows (Cyprinidae). The smallmouth buffalo has a deeper body than the carp and is usually paler in color with a dark tail. Carp also have a dorsal spine that the suckers lack.