Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency

TWRA's Region 4 - East Tennessee

Reservoir Fisheries Management Program

Smallmouth Buffalo - Ictiobus bubalus

(This page was last updated - 06/11/2007)

Scientific name: Ictiobus bubalus (Ictiobus - Greek for "bull fish", bubalus = Greek for "buffalo")

Common names: smallmouth buffalo, razor-back, highback, channel buffalo, humpback buffalo, quillback buffalo, rooter, roachback

smallmouth buffalo 
A typical Melton Hill Reservoir smallmouth buffalo - photo by Jim Negus

Species Overview

The smallmouth buffalo is one of three species of buffalo found in Tennessee. They are common in most of our river systems and are an important commercial food fish. They will sometimes take doughballs and provide excellent sport.

They commonly reach 25-30 lbs. The Tennessee state angling record taken from Percy Priest Reservoir in 2001 weighed over 62 lbs.



They are very similar in appearance to black buffalo, but easy to distinguish from bigmouth buffalo. Bigmouth buffalo or "gourdheads" are rare in East Tennessee and do not have mouths designed for sucking on the bottom. Both smallmouth and black buffalo have sucker-like mouths with the tip of the upper lip below the lower rim of the eye.

Smallmouth buffalo are distinguished from black buffalo in having a body depth measurement that goes less than 2.7 times into their standard length. In other words, they are more "high bodied" than black buffalo.

Their eye diameter is typically greater than the distance from the fleshy posterior tip of the mouth to the fleshy anterior tip of the lower jaw. In other words, their eye appears larger than that of a black buffalo.

Young smallmouth have little pigmentation and can easily be confused with the three species of "silvery" carpsuckers. The suboperculum of buffalo is symmetrical while that of carpsuckers is asymmetrical.


 young smallmouth buffalo
An immature smallmouth buffalo from Tellico Reservoir - photo by Jim Negus


Smallmouth buffalo are widespread in the Mississippi River Basin and Gulf Coast drainages. They are common in all of the large rivers of Tennessee.

Their diet consists of mostly invertebrates, crustaceans, zooplankton, and some vegetation.


Life Cycle

Smallmouth spawn in early to mid spring when water temperatures reach 60 F or so. Upstream migration has been observed and spawning takes place in shallow water over various substrates. Their eggs are adhesive.

They may live 15-20 years and reach a maximum size of 30-40 pounds. Record fish are problematic due to difficulties with identification.


 large smallmouth buffalo
A large Cherokee Reservoir smallmouth buffalo - photo by Clancey Deel


Etnier, D. and W. Starnes. 1993. The Fishes of Tennessee. The University of Tennessee Press.