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Smallmouth Buffalo

Smallmouth Buffalo, photo courtesy of Konrad Schmidt, copyright Konrad Schmidt


Body color is bluish-gray dorsally blending into silvery blue sides, fading into white or yellowish on the belly. Its body is compressed, and the back is elevated giving a hump-backed look. The mouth is small, sub-terminal, nearly horizontal and extends distinctly downward. Its head is small and compressed with thick strongly-grooved lips. The lateral line is complete with 36 to 38 large scales. The dorsal fin is sickle-shaped with 26 to 31 fin rays.


Smallmouth Buffalo Distribution

Abundant and widely distributed throughout the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Less often collected in the large tributaries of these rivers, including the Des Moines, Cedar, Iowa and Big Sioux Rivers. Occasionally taken in Iowa’s natural lakes, especially East and West Okoboji and Spirit Lakes.


Smallmouth Buffalo are opportunistic feeders that eat a variety of food items from season to season. Stomach content samples show that it is mainly a bottom feeder foraging on a variety of aquatic insect larvae, attached algae, detritus and zooplankton.

State Record

43 lbs; 36 in. - Wapsipinicon River, Jones County, December 1, 2021 - John Dirks, Anamosa, Iowa

Expert Tip

While it is possible to catch these fish on a hook and line, snagging or bow fishing are the most likely ways to get this fish.


At one time this species was rare in all Iowa waters, surpassed in occurrence by both black and bigmouth buffaloes. In recent years its abundance has increased to where it currently is equal to the latter species, and it is more abundant than Black Buffalo. 

The Smallmouth Buffalo lives in the deep pools of streams, large rivers, backwaters in the mouths of tributaries and oxbows with moderate current, rocky bottoms, clear water and debris, such as “deadfalls” or log drifts. It lives in clearer water than the Bigmouth Buffalo and slower currents than the Black Buffalo. In Iowa, it prefers clear, deep waters of moderate to swift current over a mixture of sand, gravel and silt. In the Great Border Rivers, the Smallmouth Buffalo seeks out rip-rap structures and scour holes around wing dams. It is often found in large schools along with Bigmouth Buffalo.

Spawning occurs in late April or June at water temperatures of 60 to 65 degrees. Maturity varies, but most are sexually mature and spawn in the third year of life. Spawning occurs over shallow water from 4 to 10 feet deep in slow to moderate current as the fish gather in large schools. Often the spawning grounds are found over submerged gravel or sand bars that are next to river channels. Eggs are broadcast at random, fertilized by several males and sink to the bottom where they stick to any object. Incubation lasts 8 to 14 days. An age 2 female produces 18,200 eggs. Growth of fish from Pool 10 of the Mississippi River was 4.4-inches at age 1, 9.6-inches at age 2, 13.6-inches at age 3, 15.4-inches at age 4, 16.9-inches at age 5, and 18.2-inches at age 6.

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.

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: Photo courtesy of Konrad P. Schmidt, copyright Konrad P. Schmidt.


Present in these Iowa water bodies:

Lake/Stream County Location Acres/Length
Pool 19, Mississippi River Lee Amenities listed are at City of Ft. Madison boat ramp. Amenities vary by location in Pool 19 33500.00
Pool 18, Mississippi River Louisa Amenities listed are for the Toolsboro Ramp. The ramp at Toolsboro is paved but the road to the ramp is gravel. There is some shore fishing along the parking area and at the outlet of Lake Odessa. Amenities vary by location in pool 18 13300.00
Pool 16, Mississippi River Scott The amenities list are for Buffalo Shores campground in Buffalo, Iowa. Amenities at other locations in Pool 16 vary by location. 13000.00
Pool 17, Mississippi River Muscatine Amenities list for Muscatine City Ramp. This ramp is located in downtown Muscatine. Amenities vary by location in Pool 17. 7580.00
Coralville Reservoir Johnson 4 miles north of Iowa City 5340.00
Saylorville Reservoir Polk North edge of Des Moines 4970.00
Big Timber Complex Louisa Two miles south of Muscatine, IA off of X-61/Stewart Rd. 1252.00
Lake Macbride Johnson 4 miles West of Solon 940.00
Lake Manawa Pottawattamie Southwest edge of Council Bluffs 784.70
Iowa River (Marshalltown to Coralville Lake) Iowa This stretch is located in Marshall, Tama, the SW corner of Benton, Iowa, and Johnson County. A popular access is at the Hwy 21 Access, which is part of the Iowa River Corridor Wildlife Area, just south of Belle Plaine. 104.00
RAPP Park Lakes Page north edge of Shenandoah 95.00
Prairie Park Fishery Linn 1.5 miles SSE of Cargill on Otis Road, along the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids 66.80
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
Wapsipinicon River (Oxford Junct to Mississippi R) Scott Wapsi River Environmental Education Center : 31555 52nd Avenue, Dixon, Iowa 52745. Northeast of Dixon along the Wapsi River. And Sherman Park across the River in Clinton County 66.00
Skunk River (Coppock to Mississippi River) Des Moines Mac Coon Access is located five and one-half miles north of Lockridge just east of Willow Blvd. 65.00
Missouri River (Sioux City to Little Sioux) Harrison Chris Larsen Park: 1280 Larsen Park Road/Sioux City, IA. Located on the Sioux City riverfront along the Missouri River. Larsen Park offers 110 acres on the Sioux City Riverfront. Managed by the City of Sioux City. 64.00
Missouri River (Council Bluffs to state line) Fremont Lake Manawa State Park: 1100 South Shore Drive/Council Bluffs, IA 51501 phone: 712-366-0220. Managed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Lake Manawa State Park has boat ramps on the Missouri River within the park. 61.00
Des Moines River (Stratford to Saylorville Lake) Polk The Highway 30 Access is in the middle of this river section and is located 3 miles west of Boone on the north side of Highway 30. 57.00
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
Missouri River (Little Sioux to Council Bluffs) Pottawattamie Wilson Island State Recreation Area: 32801 Campground Lane/Missouri Valley, IA 51555 phone-712-642-2069. Managed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Wilson Island Recreation Area has 544 acres along the Missouri River near Missouri Valley Iowa. 53.00
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
Folsom Lake Mills 2 miles west of Glenwood 45.00
Cedar River (Moscow to Columbus Junction) Muscatine Saulsbury Bridge Recreational Area :•2007 Saulsbury Road, Muscatine, Iowa 52761 •From Highway 61 in Muscatine go 2.5 miles north on Mulberry Rd., then 4 miles west on Saulsbury Rd. 32.00
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
Mohawk Park Lake Linn East side of the Cedar River off J Ave. 26.00
Seminole Valley Park Lakes Linn Along the Cedar River in Northwest Cedar Rapids 12.00