RIVER VALLEY and OZARK AREA — I stopped by the White River recently and visited with several guys who were bank fishing for one of the fish I love most to eat: the buffalo. These guys weren’t just fishing, either; they were catching. A washtub in their truck bed was full of buffalo fish ranging in size from about 5 pounds up to 35. The fishermen were having a great time. I wished I had more time, too, so I could have stayed and fished with them.
Few recreational anglers go after buffalos, but commercial fishermen catch and sell millions annually from big rivers and lakes throughout the Mississippi River Valley.Buffalo fish are among our nation’s most important wild food fishes. Many are sold in riverside communities in Arkansas, where fried buffalo ribs long have been considered special delicacies. Some buffalo make their way to fish markets in New York, Chicago and other cities.
The buffalo’s flaky white flesh, streaked with dark veins of sweet fat, embodies the rich wild essence of the great rivers from whence they come. They are not just good; they are flat-out delicious. No other fish has a flavor that quite compares to the buffalo.
Three species - smallmouth, bigmouth and black - swim in Natural State waters. Some reach enormous sizes. When I was state fishing-records coordinator for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, I weighed a record 105-pound black buffalo taken by a bowfisherman on Harris Brake Lake near Perryville and, later, a 92.5-pounder caught on a rod and reel in Lake Maumelle near Little Rock. The heaviest smallmouth buffalo on record in Arkansas is a 74-pounder from Millwood Lake, and another south Arkansas lake, Calion, produced a 56 1/4-pound bigmouth buffalo. The fish are extremely abundant in many waters, but catching them using “normal” fishing tactics can be a lesson in frustration.
Buffalos feed primarily ontiny water animals, so they’re seldom tempted by anglers’ bait. They’re occasionally caught on worms, crickets or jigs, but for more consistent success, those who fish for buffalos using rod and reel have a trick that tempts these big bruisers. They bait a hole with livestock range cubes - hard, high-protein cubes used to supplement cattle feed that dissolve quickly in water. Buffalos are attracted to the odor of the dissolving cubes.
You can buy range cubes at farmer’s supply stores. Broadcast several handfuls around the spot where you’ll fish.Good locales include the shallows of river backwaters and flats near tributary mouths. While the cubes dissolve, prepare an egg-sinker rig using a 1-ounce sinker, one size-7 barrel swivel and one No. 2 bait holder hook. Run your main line through the sinker and tie it to the swivel. Make a hook leader by tying the hook to a 24-inch piece of monofilament. Tie the hook leader to the swivel’s free eye.
Bait the hook with several small worms or pieces of whole-kernel corn. Cast the rig into the chummed area, let it sink to the bottom, and then tighten the line to remove all slack.
Usually, buffalos pick up the bait and start swimming away. When this happens, count to 10, set the hook hard and prepare for action. A hooked buffalo fights like a lassoed steer.
During spring, when buffalo fish spawn, heavy rains often cause the big bottomland rivers these fish call home to overflow their banks. The barren crop lands adjacent the rivers may be flooded with several inches of water, and buffalos come out of the rivers in great numbers, spreading over the inundated fields. At these times, it is not unusual to see the dorsal fins of a dozen or more fish slicing through the water in weedy pockets of the backwaters. Larger fish exhibit a distinctive hump-backed appearance, and upon seeing this, even a layman has no doubt how these extraordinary fish, members of the sucker family, came to be dubbed “buffalos.”
The buffalos remain only a few days, then disappear as suddenly as the came, but their brief appearance is long enough to permit bowfishingfans to capture many for the dinner table. The archer brings in his catch with a hand line, a sturdy nylon cord between the arrow and a special reel attached to the bow. A large buffalo sometimes yanks the bow from the hands of its pursuer, and each fight, whether won by fish or fisherman, is exhilarating to the extreme.
In the rivers, before and after the spawn, buffalos are caught in commercial fishermen’s nets - hoop nets, trammel nets, gill nets and others - and sold in the fish market. In some Southern markets, the fish are kept alive in special holding ponds or tanks until the buyer arrives.The buyer then points out the fish he wants - much like a diner picks his lobster in a fancy restaurant - and the fishmonger dresses it fresh on the spot.
Want to try buffalos yourself? You’ll need to know the proper way to dress one. First, “fleece” the large scales off the skin in a single layer with a sharp knife. Insert the knife just forward of the tail, then working toward the head with short, sawing cuts, remove the scales along the side, leaving the skin intact.
Unless it will be cooked whole, fillet the fish after fleecing it, cutting through the ribs to produce fillets with skin on one side and the ribs attached. Cut the rib section off each piece, and slice between theribs, creating strips that each contain three or four ribs. Divide the remaining portion of each fillet into two long pieces by cutting lengthwise along the lateral line. Then remove the dark red meat along the lateral-line portion of each piece. Score each piece across the grain at 1/8-inch intervals along the entire length, slicing to, but not through, the skin. This virtually eliminates the free-floating Y-bones when the meat is cooked. If you like, cut each scored fillet into smaller, serving-size pieces.
You’re now ready to cook your buffalo, and the following recipes, two of my favorites, provide delicious means of doing so.
DEEP-FRIED BUFFALO RIBS Ingredients: 2 pounds buffalo ribs 1/2 cup evaporated milk 1 tablespoon salt 1 teaspoon black pepper 1 cup flour 1/2 cup yellow cornmeal 2 teaspoons paprika Directions:
Combine milk, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Combine flour, cornmeal and paprika in a large zip-seal bag. Dip the buffalo ribs in the milk mixture, then place in the bag and shake to coat with the dry ingredients. Cook the ribs in peanut oil heated to 370 degrees in a deep fryer. Cook until fish flakes easily when tested with a fork.
BUFFALO IN BEER Ingredients:5 pounds buffalo fillets Beer Salt, black pepper 1 cup flour 1 cup pancake mix 1 cup cornmeal 2 tablespoons chili powder 1 teaspoon garlic powder Peanut oil for fryingDirections: Soak the buffalo fillets in beer to cover for 1 hour. Drain and season to taste with salt and pepper. Combine flour, pancake mix, cornmeal and seasonings. Dredge fish pieces in flour mixture and drop in oil heated to 375 degrees. Fry until fish flakes easily when tested with a fork.