Updated: Oct 28, 2022
By David Graham: March 10, 2022
On Monday, March 7th I returned from a trip that put me on a high I wont soon come down from. A dream spawned by the image of a young angler holding an enormous fish some 10-12 years ago. Having reached that point in my life as an angler where it's time to stop the talk, and walk the walk - I finally made the long overdue trip to Texas to link up with my buddy Austin Anderson in the pursuit of trophy sized Smallmouth Buffalo.
I caught my first buffalo over 20 years ago on the tailwaters of lake Wright Patman. I saw a group of anglers sitting along the stony banks of an overfished spillway using a home-made dough bait concoction of flour, cornmeal, and cherry coke. The anglers were catching these broad shouldered carp-like fish one after another. Being the naturally investigative and curious type - particularly in the world of fish - I NEEDED to learn more about these fish.
As a young angler I learned the buffalo is actually a native species of sucker - completely unrelated to its more recognized doppelganger, the common carp. While the two look very similar to the untrained eye, they are the product of convergent evolution between two species that evolved on opposite ends of the globe to fill a similar niche in their respective environments... mulling around the bottom of the water column utilizing finite senses and a subterminal mouth to feed on various forms of organic matter. Algae, small invertebrates, zooplankton, mollusks and insect larvae are all on the menu.
But a move to the southern part of South Carolina in my high school years pulled me away from stronghold populations of buffalo, and that pursuit was put on hold. Through high school and college I became increasingly passionate about multi-species fishing... particularly the pursuit of those that have the propensity to grow BIG. By the time I was graduating from The Citadel and entering the real world I had enough basic resources as an 'adult' to branch out on further reaching endeavors - particularly the Alligator Gar.
My early adventures to Texas between 2010-2013 put me back in proximity with buffalo, smallmouth buffalo in particular... primarily as a source of gar bait, but also as a formidable fish by rod and reel as a stand alone target species. I started to dabble in the world of buffalo and carp more heavily around 2010-2012 where my research into buffalo fishing seemed to invariably run into one particular angler. Every where I turned from simple search engines to online forums and specialty groups I would see the same young kid holding these gigantic smallmouth buffalo... 40, 50, 60 pound fish so large you hardly saw more than the guys head peaking over the top of the fish's massive scaly shoulders.
The angler depicted was Austin Anderson... a young kid in his early teens hauling fish I could've never dreamt of catching at that age. I always love to see especially young anglers who have already established a level of expertise, these are the people who become pioneers in our 'sport'... the young ones who carry the pastime to its next level.
Quickly recognizing the clear expertise and knowledge Austin possessed, I struck up a friendship online with him.... seeking basic tips, techniques, and just casual conversation around our passion for big fish. As I began to get more heavily involved in writing, and sharing what I am passionate about through blogging and articles - I wanted to promote the unknown and misunderstood species the most. Austin was always my go-to source when writing about buffalo and carp, and we collaborated on articles early on.
Life has happened for the last decade... and here I am at 35 years old with a lot more experience and a greater sense of urgency to get out into the world and chase those dream fish. Fellow big fish angler Josh Dolin and I drew out a plan early this year to go in-depth with the filming of our big game fishing exploits - to draw attention to some of North America's largest fish species by rod in reel in our 'Have Rods Will Travel' film project. Some of our native buffalo species have the propensity to reach over 100 pounds. To reach the true giants though, requires a very unique level of skill and species specific knowledge. I knew we needed to reach out to Austin.
Today Austin operates CarpPro Texas Guide Service throughout most of East Texas. He fishes for carp and buffalo professionally, and competitively - and has held IGFA world records for the species. At the young age of 26 the sky is the limit, and in my opinion, he is the most talented carp and buffalo angler in the US.
Josh and I flew into Dallas mid day and made the hour and 45 minute drive out to Lake Fork, where Austin had already set up a massive operations center on the bank. Austin had shuttled his own especially outfitted trailer behind his truck - loaded with all of the essentials and then some. A pop-up tent shelter, 3 bivy tents would be our home for the next several days. Beneath the canopy shelter were tables outfitted as rigging stations, a place to cook meals, and just relax. The whole setup was like something you'd see at a Super-bowl Tailgating event.
Our setup was along a windblown 'beach' where out infront of us was a sharp drop off to roughly 20 feet, and to our immediate right was a large stumpy flat. Lake Fork is renown for its bass fishing... arguably the nations number 1 bass lake. This couldn't have been more apparent as there was a virtual armada of bass boats flying around the lake and trolling by our location every few minutes.... sparkly bass boats as far as the eye could see. But that is part of what makes Fork especially interesting to me, that a place so loaded with big bass is also loaded with enormous buffalo and carp. What a great case-in-point argument against any idea that buffalo could pose a threat to a healthy bass fishery, but I digress.
The action started very slowly - and for a 'sit and wait' style approach, that can be tough for any restless angler who has not conditioned his or herself to be patient. Waiting on a bite for minutes, hours, or even days allows the whole gamut of emotion to run its course in the mind of an anxious fisherman... and often it is self doubt and pessimism that weighs the heaviest on our conscience in those times. A mentally taxing and exhausting style of fishing that contrasts the physically tough and demanding style of pursuing a weary predator with 10,000 casts of an artificial plug.
We may have reached the edge of conversation around leaving and trying a new location before the first definitive tones of Austin's bite alarms echoed over the choppy waters of Lake Fork. A beefy common carp came to shore as our first fish... not the desired species but a welcomed bycatch.
Austin quickly re-baited the rod... The rods he deploys are 12’ and 13’ long and use surf reels. A Daiwa ss3000 and Shimano Ultegra 14000 in this case. It was my first time experiencing the 'European style' of carp fishing. The rods are each placed onto a rod 'pod' outfitted with electronic bite alarms that give a high pitched audible tone when line is pulled through sensors on the guides. In the event that a fish brings the bait inward creating slack, the pod is rigged with small colorful clip on weights which clamp the lead line above the alarm. This means if there is slack in the line, the weight will pull the loose line through the alarm in the direction of the slack line... that way, whether you pull your line in either direction on the alarm, you get a tone.
Most of Austin's gear was imported in from the UK. Austin used a hair rig, which allows the bait to sit below the hook. Because the hook is not embedded into the bait, this allows an investigative carp or buffalo to mouth the bait with their sensitive lips without feeling the hook... once they are confident, they slurp up the entire bait and the hook follows. He used what’s called a blowback rig which utilizes a small sliding ring on the hook shank to which the hair is attached. Essentially, this serves as an extension of the hooklink running up the back of the hook.
Out in the 'swim' Austin had placed a long 17-20 foot long pole, which was essentially comprised of several smaller sections just screwed together and anchored to the bottom as a visual aid or marker of where the majority of the pre-bait was thrown. Fixed to the top of that pole was a small light that could be controlled from the shore with a remote control. Austin used that marker as a gauge for where to cast our baits, and could turn on the light at night so we could see our target in the darkness. Every single element of his game was finely tuned and scientific.
Austin had numerous buckets of pre-mixed feed, or pre-bait used as an attractant. These mixes were essentially a concoction of deer corn (soaked 12 hours and boiled 1 hour), tiger nuts, maple peas, black beans, peanuts, and garbanzo beans. All of them prepared the same as the corn. Austin explained that If you don’t prepare properly it can actually harm the fish internally. He deployed a kayak out to the marker he had set where he could throw this pre-bait into the water. This kept the buffalo and carp conditioned to feed in our area. His kayak was outfitted with sonar technology so he could see the contour of the bottom, the depth, and mark fish that were below.
Austin also baited up the area with range cubes (150lbs) and calf manna (50lbs). He added red cell and molasses to the corn and range cubes. On top of this he added a ton of salt and sugar to the corn and other bait and put it through a fermenting process which apparently drives the buffalo nuts.
Fixed above our blowback rigs were specially designed carp weights that he would pack a small ball of bait around (packbaits as he calls them) The packbait is just 3lbs of oats, 2 cans of cream style corn, and 3 cups of calf manna. One would adjust amounts until it packs and add water if its too dry. Austin add cinnamon, salt, and chili powder as flavorings and also used CarpPro and Rod Hutchinson flavors as well. The packbait serves two purposes... one, it breaks down quickly in the water creating a small feed pile and attractant adjacent to your actual hook bait. Packed tightly into a ball, it can also be casted extremely far - giving Austin a longer range.
From shore Austin monitored water temperature with a hand held device he could point and record the data from. He has maintained logs for the last 10 years or so on optimum conditions, and always seemed to be analytical in everything that was happening around us... like some sort of carpy, buffalo computer wizard.
After about the first 24 hours - Austin's efforts to bring in the fish really started to pay off. Our action snowballed and the bites started coming progressively faster. It was Josh who tied into the first buffalo of the trip a beefy 33lb buffalo and what was, for a very short period of time, the largest smallmouth i've seen in person - and a hell of a great first for Josh.
We tried to keep a rotation up between the three of us taking fish as they bit, and recognized an even pattern of one common carp for every buffalo. The succession between takes was interesting in that you could really observe and define the difference in how carp pick up a bait compared to buffalo. Carp seeming to commit to a meal quickly and running hard. Buffalo, on the other hand, will painstakingly nibble, mouth, and test a bait for minutes giving only the most subtle indication that they are there. The slightest twitch of the rod tip could be made by a 60 pound monster.
Filming common carp in conjunction with buffalo was sort of critical to the overall premise of our video project. A clear and defined explanation of the difference between carp and buffalo is necessary from the jump - as there seems to be a major identification issue among American anglers with the two species. Austin was able to really break down the key differences between the two species before we released the carp back into the water.
When it was my turn on the rod I heard again the subtle tones of the alarm just barely beeping. I looked over to see the colored weight had dropped on the line indicating a fish had picked up the bait and brought it towards shore creating slack in the line - Austin assured us that this was the characteristic bite of a buffalo and to my luck I came tight. It is interesting the setup here - because while we don't use circle hooks, the carp style hooks and rigs Austin uses are still designed to automatically set. A very slow, upward sweeping motion is all that is needed to engage the fish... not your typical hook set.
The body mass of these fish can be so extreme. Massive shoulders, a giant powerful tail... but very small fleshy lips. It creates an interesting dynamic in playing such a large powerful fish lightly on 'small' terminal gear so as not to bend a hook, or have it pull free of their small fleshy mouth. Throw into the fray about 10,000 submerged stumps and snags and you play a real delicate chess match.
A massive buffalo rolled to the surface about 15 feet from shore where Austin had waded out with a long landing net specially designed for bagging and containing big carp. When he closed the net on the fish we knew we were witnessing something special. The measurements on the fish were incredible... just over 37 inches long, and nearly 35 inches in girth.. the fish was almost as fat as it was long. A swimming beach ball!
Austin utilizes an IGFA certified scale which he maintains certification on yearly... as he is in constant proximity to world record class fish - and has touched IGFA world records in the past. We put my fish on the scale at just over 51 pounds. At this point, just from a film project standpoint, I felt like we had our 'showcase' fish... the one monster you want to build a story and an episode around. I submitted, to a point, to contentment with the trip right then and there.
The next 48 hours or so was just a whirlwind of action - generally alternating between the blistering run of a carp, the characteristically shy bite of a buffalo and an occasional pesky catfish. Austin continued to work around the clock to keep the fish conditioned to our area by baiting the area and checking rigs.
Austin's time on the rod came came at one point while we were all feeling the effects of being outdoors under the natural elements for an extended period of time. After a period of relative inactivity Josh decided to take the truck and head into the nearest town to grab a few items - but no longer did he pull off the the lot did Austin take hold of a running fish. Immediately upon connection with the fish Austin identified it as a buffalo, but he looked like he had seen a ghost.
For someone who has caught hundreds of trophy buffalo, I couldn't understand why he seemed nervous about this fish - but Austin quickly proclaimed that this was a giant fish, and went so far as to boldly say it might be one of the biggest he's ever hooked... all without having ever actually SEEING the fish. A part of me thought maybe he was just playing to the camera, or trying to keep me entertained - but there was an authenticity in the way he spoke and moved that kept me engaged.
When Austin's fish broke surface and I saw what I saw... it was the realization of all those images I had seen over the last decade+... and almost a sense of denial, that my eyes had to deceive me. A colossal, fish made its way into Austin's net and brought to shore where the full scope of what had just transpired could fully be appreciated. Austin gazed upon the fish and then let me know it may be one of the biggest, if not THE biggest he had ever captured.
We got Austin's fish on the scale where it topped 60 pounds by 14 ounces! It was just over 40 inches long, and roughly 37 inches around. Officially the SECOND biggest of his entire lifetime - and potentially the largest every recorded on film from cast to catch. I can say it was an honor to watch a master of their craft do what they do best.
Josh pulled up to scene in enough time to get to bare witness to Austin's legendary catch and we got some amazing footage of the fish.
At the point that two colossal buffalo had been landed - and some smaller ones as well, we wanted to shift focus to filming. Josh brought a rig that would allow us to drop a submersible camera onto the feeding zone in hopes of seeing buffalo actively feeding on camera... to my knowledge, no such footage exists. Austin rebaited the area and set the camera out right in the heart of where we thought the fish may be.
We fished very windy, overcast conditions in waters around 17 feet... the murky color of the water and the lack of sun penetration meant we probably wouldn't see much on the cameras but we continued to fish regardless. We left the camera deployed for about 45 minutes. The entire time we were there we would see the occasional crash of a buffalo or carp on the surface... and interesting behavior explained to us by Austin. When carp and buffalo feed on the bottom they pull in all of the sediments from the bottom and blow out the unwanted debris from their gills. This process can leave debris in their gills that needs to be cleaned out - and the two fish do this by rising to the surface and busting on top in an effort to clear it.
After about 45 minutes deployed we retrieved the camera and reviewed footage... unbelievably we observed numerous buffalo feeding around the camera within 5 minutes of deployment. It was clear there was a massive number of fish below. That footage will be shown at a later time, but it was very very impressive.