Have you ever been to a local restaurant and ordered buffalo fish fritters? If you have not, you should! Buffalo fish fritters have been a favorite at restaurants in towns up and down large river systems in the Midwest for generations.
Not to be confused with the large American bison (commonly, but incorrectly called buffalo) that still roam the Great Plains, there are three species of buffalo fish that are common in our midwestern rivers as well as many lakes. In many places, including the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, the most common of these is the smallmouth buffalo (Ictiobus bubalus).
The smallmouth buffalo is present throughout the state of Illinois and ranges from Montana to Pennsylvania and Minnesota to Texas.
An adult smallmouth buffalo can be quite large, reaching sizes of 30 inches long and 35 pounds; however, adults are more commonly found at sizes of 16–22 inches long and 5–10 pounds. Smallmouth buffalo attain these sizes by feeding along the bottom of rivers and lakes in search of small crustaceans, invertebrates and whatever other food items may be available (algae, detritus, etc.).
All three buffalo species—smallmouth buffalo, bigmouth buffalo, and black buffalo—are highly valued by commercial fishermen as food fish.
Despite being a bony fish (having bones in the fillet unlike a bass, bluegill, and crappie, which have a boneless fillet), buffalo are popular at restaurants due to a technique called “scoring”, which can be done on a machine or by hand with a regular fillet knife. Scoring involves making a series of cuts into the fillet across the bones, allowing cooking oil to soften any small bones when deep frying, and culminates in a boneless, delicious, deep fried buffalo fillet, often called a buffalo fritter. Buffalo fritters help make the smallmouth buffalo, bigmouth buffalo, and black buffalo some of the most commercially harvested fish in North America.
Despite being heavily harvested as a food fish, smallmouth buffalo remain abundant throughout the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, according to a recent study led by Zachary Klein of the University of Idaho and published in the scientific journal Fisheries. The buffalo fishery on these two rivers is one of a small number of fisheries that have shown an ability to sustain harvest over 60+ years without collapse due to overfishing.
Despite buffalo’s importance as a food fish and subsequent commercial value, our knowledge of them is very limited when compared to other commercially-valuable river fishes like catfishes, sturgeons, paddlefish, or carps.
For example, until very recently we thought smallmouth and bigmouth buffalo generally lived no more than 10–15 years. Now, a partnership of researchers led by Illinois Natural History Survey scientists have shown that smallmouth buffalo live well into their 30s throughout the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, despite market-driven fishing pressure.
Additionally, recently published research by Alec Lackmann of North Dakota State University has shown that bigmouth buffalo can reach a maximum age of 112 years old! This obliterates the previous age estimates of bigmouth buffalo and makes them older than every one of the 12,000+ known freshwater fish species.
It is important to note that previous studies stating that buffaloes lived only 10–15 years were not wrong or poorly done; rather, many of those studies were done during the 1940s–60s and methods have improved over the decades. Newer methods used today allow us to make more accurate statements about not only ages of fish, but also many other aspects of their populations.