Trash Fish Tuesday: Bigmouth Buffalo

Trash Fish Tuesday
Trash Fish Tuesday: Bigmouth Buffalo

Trash Fish Tuesday is a new project from the MeatEater Fishing Department investigating, explaining, and celebrating some of our misunderstood and under-appreciated native fishes.  There’s a whole lot more swimming around down there than bass, trout, walleye, and catfish. Just because you don’t know them doesn’t mean they’re trash. Enjoy.

Our culture loves comebacks, Cinderella stories, and diamonds in the rough. Take for instance, the story of a sweater purchased at a North Carolina thrift shop for 58 cents in 2014. Turns out, the sweater originally belonged to legendary football coach Vince Lombardi. A year later, that sweater sold at auction for $43,020. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”—an old adage, slightly stale, but no less true.

Trash vs. treasure—a dangerous and capricious conceptual binary. A moth-eaten sweater goes from fetid to fortune based on whose sweat has been washed out of it. Certain shiny rocks are precious, others worthless weight. Some fish are iconic; people spend their whole lives and literal fortunes to catch the right ones. Others, depending on your perspective, are considered aquatic refuse, unworthy of the molecules they monopolize or the water they displace.

But what about that one moment before you know what you’ve got? The fisherman’s version of Schrodinger’s Cat? The hook has been set, the drag spins, the adrenal juices flood, but the fish remains a mystery. Is it the biggest brown trout in the river or a goddamn whitefish? A majestic coho salmon or a nasty chum? A monster bass or a slimy bowfin?

Names matter. 42 of the 76 North American sucker species are endangered, threatened, of special concern, or extinct. And other native fishes including gars, bowfin, and drum are not officially designated as “game fish.” Instead, they get lumped into a category of maligned undesirables under the umbrella “trash fish.” This distinction is more than just semantic: Species recognized as game fish are managed differently by state and federal agencies. They get money and attention that other species don’t.

“The ‘trash fish’ designation automatically derides these native species and implies they are of lesser value than other fishes,” said Dr. Solomon David, assistant professor at Nicholls State University and one of the country’s foremost researchers of native non-game fishes.

The origin of the label stems from tendencies in early North American commercial fisheries. “Rough fish,” caught in excess, were not marketable and sent off as garbage or fertilizer. Today, the label persists because these species are still inaccurately perceived as detrimental to more desirable fish, no good to catch, and unappetizing to eat.

“I hope more anglers and people in general, will come to recognize the value of these traditionally ‘non-game’ or ‘rough fish’ species,” David continued.

Our new series “Trash Fish Tuesday” is hoping to accomplish just that. We’re going to investigate and appreciate some fish that are just as American as bass and walleye but suffer from a long-standing PR problem.

Bigmouth Buffalo: Swimming Antiques
An early 1900s hand-carved Heddon lure, a coveted “man-tique” fishing treasure, can snag upwards of $10,000. Back when James Heddon was carving those lures in rural Michigan, some juvenile fishes were swimming in the waters nearby. Those particular fish would outlive a majority of Heddon’s lures and the man himself, according to a recent study conducted by researchers at North Dakota State University. The bigmouth buffalo, a fish native to North America, often misunderstood and even misidentified, can live longer than 100 years. Using radiocarbon dating, the researchers aged one at 112.

Bigmouth buffalo are the largest member of the Catostomidae, or sucker family of fishes. They’re often mis-labeled by anglers as “buffalo carp,” as our very own Ryan Callaghan did in a recent episode of Cal’s Week in Review. These fish have lived through two World Wars and the Great Depression; Lombardi coaching the Packers to their first two Super Bowl titles; Armstrong walking on the Moon; the growth of the American conservation movement. And, chances are, you think they’re carp, which is kind of like calling a bison a cow.

Now consider this irony—when one of our country’s greatest conservationists, Theodore Roosevelt, served as president, these long-lived bigmouth buffalo emerged in shallow backwaters amid woven mats of vegetation. Roosevelt has been credited for saving the American buffalo, the highly regarded terrestrial namesake with a well-documented history of population decimation and subsequent conservation. Perhaps if Roosevelt had focused his famous spectacles below the surface of this country’s waters as keenly as he did on the plains, the present-day perception and status of many native North American fish species might be different today.

One Man’s Trash Fish is Another Man’s Ecosystem Treasure
Let me say this again because it’s worth repeating: bigmouth buffalo are not carp. Just because they have round rubbery lips doesn’t mean they’re related to the ubiquitous common carp or high-flying bighead and silver carp. Show a photo of a bigmouth buffalo to 100 everyday anglers at a boat launch on the Mississippi, at least 93 will identify the fish as a carp. I’d bet my tackle box on it. This is a problem.

Their native distribution stretches from Canada’s Nelson River drainage flowing north to Hudson Bay, to areas of the lower Great Lakes region, and throughout the Mississippi River drainage from Montana to Louisiana. These fish help maintain ecosystem balance in our lakes and rivers, while invasive carp can disrupt ecosystem balance. Despite colloquial similarities, common carp and bigmouth buffalo are quite distinct. Common carp are considered bottom feeders. They are not picky eaters. Carp disturb sediments, suspend nutrients, and uproot vegetation, leading to decreased water quality. Buffalo, on the other hand, filter feed, mostly consuming plankton. They are integral parts of aquatic food webs and help support game fishes and water quality. For instance, the world record 123-pound flathead catfish, when caught in 1998, had recently eaten a bigmouth buffalo estimated to weigh nearly 15 pounds.

For the record, bigmouth buffalo dislike carp as much as anyone. Several invasive Asian carps occupy a similar niche as buffalo. Their presence and competition with buffalo reduces individual sizes and overall populations, shifting native ecosystems out of balance.

One Man’s Trash Fish is Another Man’s Sporting Adventure
Like the terrestrial buffalo, bigmouth buffalo are stout. Equipped with drag-screaming shoulders, they often exceed 30 pounds. The all-tackle record bigmouth tipped the scales at just over 70 pounds. That’s assuming you can hook one, because big as their bodies and mouths may be, buffalo are not opportunistic predators like your beloved bass or musky.

If you go out looking for a bigmouth with rod and reel, which you should, finesse will be your friend. In shallow, still waters, bigmouth buffalo are often spooky. Anglers should seek actively feeding fish or persuade them to feed with heavily scented bait. Buffaloes are most easily located on inundated floodplains or in lake shallows prior to spawning, which generally occurs around May. Like other plankton feeding game fish, such as kokanee salmon, flashy presentations and vibrating lures can sometimes trigger a strike. That said, most of their food is barely visible to the naked eye, so fly anglers sometimes have a leg up on conventional anglers. Small nymph presentations or lightweight streamers dressed with a bit of flashy marabou dead drifted near slack water edges can alleviate some of their shyness. But landing a bigmouth on a 7-wt rod will prove challenging to the most adept anglers.

Across the country, sport and tournament bowfishing for various rough fish, buffalo included, has gained popularity over recent years. In addition to keeping their skills honed outside of hunting seasons, many participants believe their efforts help control carp and other “trash fish” populations. As we’ve already established, buffalo are beneficial to our waters, and there is no catch-and-release in bowfishing. Quick reflexes are necessary for successful bowhunters, but dangerous to buffaloes. Often a nighttime activity in murky water, it is nearly impossible to distinguish between the back of a carp and that of a bigmouth buffalo. While carp proliferate despite copious harvest, the opposite is true for buffalo. They are long-lived, slow-growing, and late-maturing. Too often, buffalo get shot alongside carp, either because bowfishers can’t distinguish between the two or see them as equivalent. It’s no big deal if you’re planning to eat the buffalo’s delicious, flaky white meat—but quite wasteful if you’re just going to bury it for garden fertilizer.

A recent study looked at the average ages of different buffalo populations and found that in many areas 85 to 90% of the fish are over 80 years old. The study is potentially concerning, because it suggests that in some places buffalo have not been successfully reproducing since the construction of dams in the 1930s. Each one of the octogenarians that gets harpooned and left to rot, either intentionally or accidentally, represents a setback for an important native fish. This is not a knock on bowfishing for carp, but make sure you know what you’re shooting.

In recent years, carp have gained popularity among sport anglers. It’s high time that buffalo earn similar status. Any one of these ancient, badass fish you happen to catch has likely been swimming around since long before you soiled your first diaper. Go ahead, get out and see if you can convince one to eat, and then hang on.

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” is derived from an expression first referenced by Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius: “quod ali cibus est aliis fuat acre venenum”— “what is food for one man may be bitter poison to others.” As it pertains to the present-day misnomer of “trash fish,” the sentiment is deservingly flipped. Over the next few months, we’re going to dig into a number of American fishes that have been branded as trashy.

Feature image via Dexter Levandowski

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