Buffalo Fish (Ictiobus cyprinellus): The Ultimate Guide


What is a Buffalo Fish?

The Bigmouth Buffalo Fish (Ictiobus cyprinellus) is one of the longest-lived freshwater fishes in the world. They can live to be older than 110 years old. Buffalo fish are native to North America, and are the largest North American species in the Catostomidae or “sucker” family.

Ictiobus is Greek for “bull fish” and cyprinellus is Latin meaning “small carp”, but the Bigmouth Buffalo is not a carp. They are easily confused with carp, but they lack the single serrated spine at the beginning of the dorsal fin that is present in carp. None of the other fish in the sucker family are carp, either. They share the same order, but they belong to different suborders and are native to different continents.

The Bigmouth buffalo fish goes by many names. Some of the commonly seen names for the buffalo fish are gourdhead, marblehead, redmouth buffalo, buffalofish, bernard buffalo, roundhead, and brown buffalo.

A French-born American scientist, Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmalz, discovered and named the fish back in 1819. He discovered the Smallmouth Buffalo first and named it Ictiobus bubalus, which is Greek for “Bull Fish”.

These fish have played a role in history too. First, the Native Americans used Bigmouth Buffalo. Next, Lewis and Clark harvested them on their journey in 1804. Lastly, they have been a prized catch in the commercial fishing industry since the 1800s.

What Does a Buffalo Fish Look Like?

The Bigmouth Buffalo is typically a brownish olive color with dusky fins, but the color can vary between individual fish. It is the largest member of the sucker family and can grow to be longer than 4 feet and weigh close to 80 pounds.

It has a long dorsal fin like other suckers but has a large oblique terminal mouth with thin sucker lips. It does not have teeth in its mouth, but it does have pharyngeal teeth, which are teeth in the pharyngeal arch of the throat. It does not have any barbells or spines. The Bigmouth Buffalo fish has a very broad and moderately long tail that is forked with pointed tips. 

Buffalo Fish Care

Bigmouth Buffalo fish can be found in a semi-large portion of the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Interior, “Bigmouth Buffalo can be found from Lake Erie south through Ohio and Mississippi River basins to the Tennessee River in northern Alabama, west to Arkansas, south to near the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana, northwest through eastern Texas and Oklahoma (rare), north through Iowa and South Dakota to the Milk River in central Montana.  From Illinois in the Mississippi River drainage northwest through western Minnesota and north in the Red River into Manitoba and west into Saskatchewan.”

Generally, buffalo fish live in sluggish areas of large rivers and in lakes and prefer slow-moving water. According to scientists, they can be found in waters from 22.5 to 38.0 °C, but their preferred temperature is between 31 and 34 °C. The optimal temperatures for incubation and hatching of eggs are from 15 to 18 °C, but they can develop in temperatures reaching up to 26.7 °C.

Buffalo Fish Size

The average size for a Bigmouth Buffalo is 43-52 centimeters, or about a foot and a half, long. They have been known to reach up to 4 feet long and weigh more than 80 pounds. The biggest Bigmouth Buffalo fish on record measured 49.5 inches and weighed 76.8 pounds. It was caught on an 8-lb-test line on the Wisconsin River at Devil’s Elbow, by 13 year old Noah LaBarge.

Buffalo Fish Tank Size

Bigmouth Buffalo fish are not commonly kept in tanks as pets. They are a large fish who are usually found in the deeper pools of larger streams, shallow overflow ponds, lowland lakes and human-made impoundments.

Buffalo fish are farmed commercially. In fish farms, people raise them in large ponds and use them as food or fish meal. Scientists say they are tolerant of changes in habitat and easily adapt to a variety of conditions including reservoirs and ponds.

They prefer waters with a moderate to slow current, and do not intentionally swim in waters with a steep gradient. Reports say Bigmouth Buffalo fish prefer water shallower than 5 meters but deeper than 1.5 meters.

Buffalo Fish Diet

The Bigmouth Buffalo is a filter-feeder, using its very fine gill rakers to strain zooplankton from the water. They sometimes feed near the bottom, using short up-and down movements to filter through the water.

The juveniles and adult buffalo fish are mostly limnetic plankton feeders. Bigmouth Buffalo are known to feed on invasive zebra mussels during the mollusk’s larval planktonic stage. They also eat cladocera, copepods, algae, Chironomidae, ostracods, and other insect larvae and invertebrates depending on availability.

Buffalo Fish Lifespan

The oldest recorded Bigmouth Buffalo Fish is 112 years old. Scientists previously believed this fish could only live to be 26 years old. The new evidence was met with surprise and skepticism, but scientists were able to prove the age of the fish by bomb radiocardon dating. Bigmouth Buffalo are the oldest age-validated freshwater fish in the world. Some reports say that even at a century old, buffalo fish show no age-related declines.

Buffalo fish form the native counterpart to the invasive bighead and silver carp. They compete with the invasive common carp, but currently, these invasive species are outcompeting the native Bigmouth Buffalo.

Buffalo Fish Tank Setup or Pond Setup

Buffalo fish are not good animals to keep in aquariums as pets. They reach a relatively large size, so an extremely large tank would be needed to house them. However, some buffalo fish are raised on commercial fish farms for food.

These fish seem to prefer warmer, eutrophic waters. Scientists speculate that the gradual movement of the buffalo fish into Canadian waters might be a result of the water temperatures rising due to climate change.

Bigmouth Buffalo are hardy, adaptable fish. Reports show the species is able to endure low oxygen tensions, mild salinity, and high water temperatures. They appear to have a tolerance for high turbidity, and are usually most abundant in more turbid areas of rivers.

Buffalo Fish Breeding

Bigmouth Buffalo fish will hybridize (or mate with) smallmouth buffalo and black buffalo fish. Scientists believe Bigmouth Buffalo spawn in very shallow water during the spring. The fish wait until the water temperatures reaches between 60 and  65°F. Then the eggs hatch in about 10 days.

Bigmouth Buffalo are group spawners, meaning there is no nest preparation or parental care of the eggs. Researchers say another potential problem for reproduction for this species  is the salinity of the water they inhabit.

Buffalo Fish Disease

Bigmouth Buffalo kept in holding tanks or pond cultures seem to be more susceptible to parasitic infestation, specifically from myxosporidian spores. These spores are enclosed in cysts on the fish’s gills, and can severely debilitate populations by inhibiting the fish’s ability to eat. 

G.L. Hoffman, a researcher, listed two species of trematodes, five cestodes, two nematodes, three anancephalons, one leech and two crustacean parasites of Bigmouth Buffalo in North America.

Buffalo Fish Tank Mates

In the wild, buffalo fish live in schools. Bigmouth Buffalo share an environment with many large predaceous fish. Their young become prey to several of those fish including walleye, northern pike, catfish, and alligator gar.

Scientists speculate that the large adult fish are probably free from predation because of their shape and size. They also believe Bigmouth Buffalo may have a selective advantage in occupying a food niche that overlaps both benthic and limnetic feeding.

Where to Find Buffalo Fish for Sale

Buffalo fish are mostly a wild or commercially farmed fish. They are not sold as aquarium fish. Buffalo fish meat is sold in grocery stores across the country.

Where to Find Buffalo Fish in the Wild

All of the buffalo fish types (bigmouth, smallmouth, and black buffalo), are native to the U.S., as well as parts of Canada, Mexico, and Guatemala. These are still the only regions in the world the fish can be found and caught.

Bigmouth Buffalo Fish prefer high areas of vegetation. They lay their eggs in areas rich with vegetation because their babies feed on microscopic algae and plankton that are abundant in that environment.

It takes a buffalo fish nearly a decade to mature making this species particularly vulnerable to overfishing.

How to Catch Buffalo Fish?

Bigmouth Buffalo are known to be a rough fish to catch, but they are highly prized in many areas. The Bigmouth Buffalo has recently become a sportfish in addition to being a fish farmed for food. Commercial harvesting of Bigmouth Buffalo is regulated, but sport bowfishing is not.

Bowfishing is a common method of fishing for buffalo. Anglers use a light to attract the fish to the surface. When the fish pops up, they are shot with a fishing-modified bow and arrow and reeled in.

While this method is becoming more popular, it also drastically increases the average fish harvest. Until the appropriate laws are passed to protect the buffalo fish populations, fisherpeople will want to be careful to not harvest more than they need.

A rod and reel can also be used to catch buffalo fish. Experts suggest casting from the shore while standing several feet into the water. Wearing shoes for protection is highly encouraged while performing this activity. When the hook goes into the fish’s mouth, the line will start to jerk. Hang on tight and reel in. Be ready, because buffalo fish are known for their strength and roughness. 

What Bait Should Be Used to Catch Buffalo Fish?

Buffalo fish are bottom feeders. According to one website, suspending the hook just above the bottom of the lake or river by using corn as bait is the best way to catch a Bigmouth Buffalo. Another website suggests balls of bread or dough as bait. Grasshoppers, crickets, worms, and nightcrawlers are all suggested to be excellent bait for buffalo fish.

Are Buffalo Fish Good to Eat?

The answer to whether or not Bigmouth Buffalo Fish is a good fish to eat seems to depend on personal preference. According to one site, Americans don’t like the fish that much, but another says it is a popular dish in the U.S.

Between WWI and WWII, buffalo fish were an important source of food for many rural communities in the U.S. The fish fell out of popularity after 1950 and is now considered a game fish. However, it is not that sought after within the U.S. angling community.

Buffalo fish appears to be popular in some Asian countries where it is considered a gourmet fish known for its sweet flavor and texture.

Buffalo fish harvests are transported to markets by trucks in oxygenated water tanks where they are sold alive. Commercial harvesters have to obtain annual permits to sell the fish, and they must report their harvest from each haul to their respective state agency.

How do Buffalo Fish Taste?

Articles describe the taste of buffalo fish as firm and flavorful. The taste has been compared to chicken by some while others say it has a flavor profile similar to oysters with a stronger seafood taste.

The fish flesh is firm and dense. This leads some cultures to describe the buffalo as rough and inedible, while others readily consume buffalo in a variety of forms. Though it has small bones suspended in its muscle tissue like northern pike, the good flavor makes it a valuable freshwater fish.

What are some good recipes for cooking Buffalo Fish?

Buffalo fish can be fried, broiled, baked, used in soups or casseroles. One of the most popular forms is fried buffalo, eaten in a variety of places along the Mississippi River.

There are recipes out there for a buffalo wing style buffalo fish, a Buffalo Fish cheesy bake, and more.

As always, safety is the number one priority. There are some risks involved in eating this fish. One of the recipe sites had this warning: “If you experience muscle pains, vomiting, dark-brown urine or muscle stiffness after eating buffalo fish, seek medical attention. A condition called Haff disease is associated with a toxin found in buffalo fish. If you have questions about eating fish caught or eaten in your area, contact your state’s natural resources or environment department.”

Largemouth Buffalo Fish vs Common Carp

Bigmouth Buffalo Fish (Ictiobus cyprinellus) and Common Carp (Cyprinus carpio) are two completely different species. While they do look similar, the Buffalo fish is the largest member of the North American sucker family, and the Common Carp belongs to the minnow family.

The buffalo fish originates in North America, while carp originated in Asia. Carp was discovered thousands of years ago, and they have since been domesticated and used as a food source. They are also exported to many regions all over the world.

Carp made its way to Europe and was brought to North America by English settlers. Since then, they have spread across the entire North American continent. Similar to the Buffalo fish, carp is no longer considered a food fish, it is now a game fish.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the American government stocked many rivers and lakes with carp as a means of providing cheap and accessible food to the rural populations of the country.

Both fish have the same body shape, long and lean, but these fish have many more differences than they do similarities. Their body coloration is a distinct difference that is easy to point out. Buffalo fish often have a washed out look, while the common carp is often brown or bronze in color.

The buffalo’s tail is dark and clearly distinguishes itself from the rest of the fish’s body. Carp have tails that are close to the same color as the rest of their body.

Arguably, the most obvious difference between the two species is the mouth. Buffalo fish have very small mouth openings, which can be no bigger than the diameter of an adult’s thumb. Its mouth and lips are rather hard and leathery. The buffalo’s mouth is turned down, a common trait in suckerfish, and they lacks whiskers and barbels.

The carp has a much larger mouth that makes it more difficult for an angler to keep them on the hook. Carp also have two distinctive whiskers that can grow to be pretty big.

When it comes to fighting skills, the buffalo will often charge away from danger as fast as it can. They rarely break the surface during a fight and instead use their power to break free and get away from the danger.

Carp try to bulldoze their way out of danger like the buffalo does, but they are known to be less controlled after being hooked. Anglers say they will swim in every possible direction, roll on the surface, dive into deeper water, aggressively shake their heads and sometimes even swim directly towards the angler.

It is important to note that both species are unbelievably strong in the fight and will not give up easily.

Fish Laboratory

With decades of collective fishkeeping experience, we are happy to share the fish care tips that we've picked up along the way. Our goal at Fish Laboratory is to keep publishing accurate content to help fishkeepers keep their fish and aquarium healthy.

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