Black Buffalo

Black Buffalo, picture courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife


Often mistaken for the other buffaloes, it is colored much like the bigmouth, except it is a darker, gunmetal blue and lacks the brassy luster. The body is slightly compressed, almost round, and the back is not arched. Its head is large and rounded, with a blunt snout, broad and round. The mouth is small, ventral, and the tip of the upper lip is far behind the margin of the eye. Pharyngeal teeth are short and fragile and have about 195 per arch. The dorsal fin is sickle-shaped with 27 to 31 rays; the anal fin has 8 to 9 rays and the pelvic fins have 9 to 11 rays. The lateral line is complete with 36 to 39 large scales. Fish less than 12-inches long are difficult to separate from Smallmouth Buffalo. Black Buffalo often hybridize with other buffalofish, which further complicates positive identification. It is the largest of the buffalofish often weighing over 80 pounds.


Black Buffalo Distribution

Black Buffalo are rare to common in the Mississippi River and the large interior rivers. They are native to the Missouri River, but their occurrence has diminished in this stream since channelization. This species prefers habitats with swift currents in deep waters over substrates of sand, gravel and rock. It is not as widespread in Iowa as the other buffalofish. Despite historic occurrences in the Des Moines River and Cedar River basins, the only recent collections of the Black Buffalo in Iowa’s interior waters are from Iowa River watersheds. Although currently not listed as endangered or threatened, protecting this species from further decline in its abundance and distribution may be needed.


A variety of small mollusks, aquatic insects and their larvae, small crustaceans and other animal matter.

State Record

63 lbs 6 oz., 48.9 in. - Mississippi River Pool 9, Allamakee County, 8/14/1999 - Jim Winters, Jesup, IA

Expert Tip

Black Buffalo love strong currents, as evidenced by the nicknames “buoy tender” and “current buffalo” given by commercial fisherman.


The Black Buffalo lives in a variety of habitats with only occasional abundance. In the Mississippi River, it is more abundant in the un-impounded section below the mouth of the Missouri River than in the canalized section above. Investigators in Arkansas, Kansas and Wisconsin find that the Black Buffalo lives in impoundments and reservoirs; and in Ohio it is found occasionally in turbid, mud-bottomed, shallow overflow ponds and sloughs. Whether in large rivers, shallow riffles or impoundments, strong current is a common denominator of the Black Buffalo habitat, as evidenced by the nicknames “buoy tender” and “current buffalo” given by commercial fisherman.

Spawning occurs in late April through June at water temperatures of 65-70 degrees. The fish spawn over sand or gravel bottom in 8 to 12 feet of water where the current is moderate to swift. A gravid female and several males separate from the spawning group to spawn at random. Maturity in both sexes is reached at age 2 in southern latitudes and one year older at more northerly locations.

Growth rates are incomplete for this fish. Four fish from the Mississippi River, varying from 5 to 8 years of age, had estimated lengths of 2.0, 16.1 and 22.3 inches at the first, fourth, and eighth years of life. Black Buffalo are long-lived with fish up to 20 years old common. 

Black Buffalo, like all buffalofish, are seldom caught by anglers, and are unimportant for fishing. Occasional fish are taken by commercial fishermen, along with other species. The Black Buffalo is viewed as vulnerable according to the Iowa Wildlife Action Plan, but it is not on Iowa's endangered, threatened, or special concern species list (571 IAC 77.2(2) (2015)). As a result, this fish is currently unprotected by fishing regulations, but further decline in its abundance and distribution might warrant protection in the future. The problem in protecting the Black Buffalo lies mainly in identification of this species by fishermen not trained in fish taxonomy.

Recent stream sampling information is available from Iowa DNR's biological monitoring and assessment program.


Harlan, J.R., E.B. Speaker, and J. Mayhew. 1987. Iowa fish and fishing. Iowa Conservation Commission, Des Moines, Iowa. 323pp.

Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Iowa Wildlife Action Plan

Loan-Wilsey, A. K., C. L. Pierce, K. L. Kane, P. D. Brown and R. L. McNeely. 2005. The Iowa Aquatic Gap Analysis Project Final Report. Iowa Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Iowa State University, Ames.

Photo credit: Picture courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife.

Present in these Iowa water bodies:
Lake/Stream County Location Acres/Length
Iowa River (Iowa Falls to Marshalltown) Marshall This stretch is located in Hardin and Marshall County. A popular access is located in Pine Lake State Park, just east of Eldora on County Road S56. 66.00
Cedar River (La Porte City to Cedar Rapids) Linn This stretch is located in Benton and Linn County. A popular river access is in the Dudgeon Lake Wildlife Area right of Hwy 150 on the North side of Vinton. 56.00
Cedar River (Cedar Rapids to Moscow) Cedar This stretch is found in Linn and Cedar County. A popular access is found in Palisades State Park which is on Hwy 30 between Cedar Rapids and Mount Vernon. 55.00
Wapsipinicon River (Troy Mills to Oxford Junction) Jones This stretch is located in Linn and Jones County. A popular access on this stretch is in Pinicon Ridge Park, just off Hwy 13 by Central City. 53.00
Iowa River (Coralville Lake to River Junction) Johnson This stretch is located in Johnson County. A popular access is the Tailwater East Ramp located right below the Coralville Lake Dam, East of North Liberty and Coralville. 29.00