Underrated Giants: fly fishing for smallmouth buffalo By: Bennett Anderson

Underrated Giants: fly fishing for smallmouth buffalo By: Bennett Anderson

As summer approaches, many fly anglers in my fishery of southwest Ohio have their minds on smallmouth bass. Personally, I’m thinking about smallmouth buffalo.

In Most of western Appalachia and the Midwest, during the dog days of summer when the river is low, clear, and warm you will usually see the shadows of dozens of buffalo taunting you along the river’s shallows. Often weighing well over 5 pounds, it is hard to understand why this species isn’t targeted more often by fly anglers.

Ranging from the Mississippi all the way to the western half of the Appalachian mountains, the smallmouth buffalo’s diet consists primarily of insect larva and algae, posing a notable challenge when trying to get them interested in a fly. I have had luck with small eggs and nymph patterns but look forward to experimenting with some algae patterns this summer. When buffalo are feeding in the current, you will notice streaks of sediment flowing downstream. They have plenty of food sources on the river bottom, so they don’t tend to want to move very far at all to take a fly. Getting a fly in front of their face requires combining the perfect cast with the right amount of weight and distance from the indicator, which will ultimately take a decent amount of experimentation.

The excitement of fishing for buffalo for me, is being able to sight fish for them. On hot, sunny days, dozens of them will stack up in the shallows foraging on the river bottom. Approaching them successfully requires observing the water from a distance, making a plan, and sticking to it. Stealth is key here and I will often crouch in the tall grass on the bank and carefully flip my nymph rig, high-sticking past them. Targeting the fish at the back of the group first will help limit the number of fish spooked as you work through them finding one interested in your offering. Once you hook one, hold on and get ready for a fight because these things are big.

One convenient aspect of targeting buffalo is that because they aren’t a popular sport fish, you will probably have your spot all to yourself. Instead of having to drive 1-2 hours away to fish crowded smallmouth bass or trout water, I can drive 5 minutes down the road and experience world class buffalo sight fishing opportunities in solitude. As the sport of fly fishing grows, many of us are looking for fishing opportunities closer to home with less pressure and I think that expanding our personal definition of “sport fish” will allow us more time on the water and grow our skills as fly anglers.

There isn’t much information on fly fishing for smallmouth buffalo, so I implore anyone reading this to open your mind and get out there and explore your local water for fish that might be overlooked by others. More species to fish for means more fishing opportunities which means more time spent on the water with a fly rod, which is what it is all about.


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