Many anglers lump bowfins, buffalo, carp, drum and gar under the label “rough fish,” dubbing the species coarse, offensive and vulgar.
I’ve never liked that.
My thesaurus says rough is a synonym for violent, fierce, savage and brutal. So in this context, I suppose, the moniker is appropriate, as so-called rough fish possess all of these fighting qualities. And I don’t know about you, but I like the thought of a violent, fierce, savage, brutal fish at the end of my line.
Not only do all of these ruffians fight tenaciously, they also frequently exceed the weight of world-class largemouths. They’re widespread and abundant, and when other fish have lockjaw, these boys can save the day.
If you’ve never fished for bowfins, buffalo, carp, drum or gar, conquer your prejudice and give them a try. When these roughhousing roughnecks are roughing up your tackle, you’re in for some serious fun.
Examine a bowfin, and you get the impression that, given a chance, it would chew your arm off, and if it were as big as an alligator, people wouldn’t be safe in the water. Nicknames include mudfish, dogfish and grinnel, but frazzled fisherman with broken line and mauled lures often use more vulgar names.
They are ambush predators with a distinct fondness for shady hideouts such as weedbeds, cypress hollows and submerged trees.
Target them with minnows and crayfish, or virtually any largemouth bass lure, especially those that resist snagging and weeds, as they can be easily worked through the bowfin’s gnarly lairs.
My top presentation is a black, Texas-rigged plastic worm. Other colors work, but in the tannin-stained waters where bowfins typically live, black is best. A sturdy, needle-sharp hook and heavy braided line increase hookups with these toothy, hard-mouthed brutes.
Cast the lure to cover, then slowly retrieve with pulls and twitches. If a hungry bowfin is near, you’ll soon know. The fish’s strike is as electrifying as a lightning bolt. Set the hook hard several times, then prepare for battle.
Bowfins commonly weigh 10 pounds or more. Pound for pound, they’re among the toughest freshwater fish.
· Bowfin (Amia calva) 21 pounds, 8 ounces; Forest Lake, South Carolina; Robert Harmon
Buffalo are important food fish, with millions of pounds harvested annually by commercial fishermen. Large specimens have a distinctive hump-back, which leaves no doubt as to how these sucker-family members got their name.
The three primary species—smallmouth, bigmouth and black—often reach double-digit weights, making them tempting targets.
However, because buffalo feed primarily on zooplankton, they are reluctant to take baits. You can overcome their reluctance by chumming your fishing area with livestock range cubes, a high-protein product used as a cattle food supplement. Fifty-pound bags can be purchased at farm-supply stores for about $12.
When placed in water, the cubes quickly dissolve, and their sweet odor attracts buffalo and puts them into a feeding frenzy. You can then catch the fish using worms or corn.
Good spots include the shallows of river backwaters and flats near tributary mouths. While the range cubes dissolve, prepare an egg-sinker rig using a 1-ounce sinker, one size 7 barrel swivel and one No. 2 baitholder hook. Run your main line through the sinker, and tie it to the swivel. Make a leader by tying the hook to a 24-inch piece of monofilament. Tie the leader to the swivel’s free eye.
Bait the hook with several small worms or pieces of whole-kernel corn, then cast into the chummed area, letting the rig sink to the bottom.
Buffalo typically bite light, so watch for line movement. When a fish takes off with the bait, set the hook and hang on.
· Black Buffalo (Ictiobus niger) 63 pounds, 6 ounces; Mississippi River, Iowa; Jim Winters
Freshwater drum are great trip-savers. They eat almost anything, aren’t especially wary and are common in many large rivers and lakes. “Cooperative” is a good word to describe them. And because they often exceed 20 pounds, they’re great targets when you need to scratch your big-fish itch.
Drum root through bottom mud and debris for invertebrates and small fish, so bottomfishing works best. River hotspots include deep pools around river sandbars, dam tailwaters, creek channel/river channel junctions and washouts near outside bends. Good lake areas include channel drop-offs, underwater humps and depressions, tributary mouths and long rocky points.
Many baits and lures entice drum, including live shad and crayfish, small jigs and spoons, crayfish- and baitfish-imitating crankbaits, and small spinners.
The most reliable and readily available bait, however, is the venerable nightcrawler. Fish ‘crawlers on the same egg-sinker rig as described for buffalo, impaling as many as you can on the hook.
· Freshwater Drum (Aplodinotus grunniens) 54 pounds, 8 ounces; Nickajack Lake, Tennessee; Benny Hull
Grass carp, also known as white amurs, are native to Asian rivers, but introductions have expanded their range to 40 states. The experimental imports did what they were brought to do—eat excessive aquatic vegetation—and by the early 1970s, grass carp were being used to control weeds in many public waters. One carp can eat two to three times its weight in vegetation daily and may gain 5 to 10 pounds annually.
Catching a grass carp on rod-and-reel is stupendous fun, but because these fish are vegetarians, you must use plant parts for bait. Cherry tomatoes are excellent choices. Impale one on a No. 1 baitholder hook without a sinker, cast it and place your reel in free-spool. You’re ready.
French fries are superb baits, too, and because they float, you can enjoy the excitement of a topwater carp hit. Hook a fry, cast it out and watch closely. Soon, you’ll see some big lips sticking out of the water nearby, and those lips will keep moving closer until they engulf the fry.
When they do, set the hook, but beware, if you set on a short line, you could have a carp in your lap (or worse) almost instantaneously. The carp will jump as soon as it feels the hook’s sting, and it will jump several times before you land it--if you land it at all. Boating a 50 pounder—and 50 pounders are common—is like landing a sailfish.
· Grass Carp (Ctenopharyngodon idella) 78 pounds, 12 ounces; Flint River, Georgia; Tracey Tedrick
Many anglers curse gar as scourges of young sportfish. Others dislike the gar’s uncanny knack for stealing bait and mangling lures. No one can deny, however, that gar are noteworthy opponents on rod-and-reel. These powerful fish jump like tarpon and landing a heavyweight is a thrilling challenge.
You can target several subspecies—among them the spotted, shortnose, Florida and the increasingly rare, but sometimes huge, alligator gar.
The most common and widespread variety is the longnose gar found throughout most of the eastern U.S. Fish in the 10- to 20-pound class are abundant in many large streams and reservoirs, with trophy fish exceeding 40 pounds.
To catch big longnose gar, use heavy tackle—50- to 80-pound-test line, a heavy-action rod and a baitcasting reel with an excellent drag. Most serious gar anglers also use a steel leader as insurance against the fish’s sharp teeth and violent thrashing.
The preferred presentation is a 6-inch length of frayed 3/8-inch nylon rope attached to a wire leader. Cast it near surface-feeding gar, and they climb all over it. When a fish strikes, the nylon threads tangle in the gar’s many sharp teeth, holding it securely while the angler plays it in—if he’s lucky. No hooks are required, and it really works.
· Longnose Gar (Lepisosteus osseus) 50 pounds, 5 ounces; Trinity River, Texas; Townsend Miller
Change Your Perspective
The attitude most anglers have toward rough fish is perhaps summarized best by a conversation I once had with an angler drifting past my drum fishing hole.
“How’s the fishing?” he asked.
“Pretty good,” I replied.
“Really? Why?” he asked.
Right about then, my pole bobbed and I set the hook in a dandy drum. The fish splashed both of us, then popped my line and was gone. The fisherman stared at the swirling water.
“That looked like a nice one,” he said before sheepishly asking, “Mind if I give it a try?”