Where the Buffalo Roam

By Dale Cornelius | October 2, 2004
From Missouri Conservationist: Oct 2004

The lamps aboard our boat on Pomme de Terre Reservoir chased the darkness away. "There's one!" my fishing partner called. I moved my gig head from one side of the boat to the other as a large, football-shaped fish cruised slowly toward us. The gig sliced through the water and found its mark. Seconds later, I lifted a huge buffalo fish into the boat.

Fish gigging during the fall and winter is an Ozarks tradition. In fact, evidence suggests that aboriginal Americans used bows and flint-tipped arrows and spears to harvest fish in the cold, clear water of Ozark streams. Early Americans took fish with gigs or longbows while wading small streams during the day or on moonlit nights.

European settlers also used spears or "gigs." By about 1860, they were using kerosene lanterns to light the water at night. White-gas lanterns eventually replaced kerosene lanterns. Now, halogen bulbs powered by portable electric generators are becoming standard equipment for night gigging and longbow fishing enthusiasts.

These powerful lights mounted on the front of a boat make it possible for giggers and bow fishers to expand their sport to larger waters. Missouri's large reservoirs, such as Pomme de Terre, are ideal places to legally gig a variety of non-game fish.

Our reservoirs are famous for their bass, crappie, walleye and catfish, but they also contain huge populations of nongame species, such as buffalo, suckers, carp and gar, that are generally overlooked by anglers.

Taking these fish actually helps the fishery. Overpopulations of non-game fish compete with game fish for space and food, and can reduce their numbers and growth rates. Carp and buffalo often root out aquatic vegetation while feeding, which destroys important habitat for small fish. When anglers, giggers and archers harvest non-game species, they help our management efforts on these reservoirs.

Buffalo, suckers and carp are excellent table fare when prepared properly. If you are not interested in eating the fish, your friends and neighbors will probably be happy to accept a mess of tasty, fresh fish.

Identifying legal, non-game species is critical when using a gig or longbow. Because both gigging and longbow fishing mortally wound the fish, you can't practice catch-and-release.

Clear water greatly helps your ability to identify fish. A good test of water clarity is if you can see small stones on the bottom at a depth of 3 feet during daylight hours. Generally, the water in reservoirs is clearest during November, December and January. Of course, heavy rainfall and strong winds might stir up bottom sediments and cloud the water, but the water usually clears within a few days.


Cold water and weather--especially at night--demand that you dress warmly. Make sure you wear a personal flotation device and bring someone with you.

Many giggers prefer a 14- to 18-foot johnboat with a front deck that's enclosed by a rail. The rail should be about 36 inches high. Both outboards and electric trolling motors work well for gigging. Boats must be properly equipped with lighting and safety equipment to meet Missouri boating law requirements.

You'll need a light fastened to the front of the boat. The light can be powered by a portable generator or batteries, or fueled by propane or white gas. It should be capable of illuminating the water to a depth of 6 feet in a 20-foot diameter area.

Washtubs or large buckets are handy to keep each gigger's catch separate.

Giggers usually use a heavy steel gig attached to a 10- to 12-foot pole. A wide array of equipment is available for bowfishing. Usually you can use the same bow, with a spool or reel added, that you use for deer hunting or target practice.


Missouri's Wildlife Code allows you to gig non-game fish in impounded waters between sunrise and midnight from September 15 through January 31. Bowfishing for non-game fish is permitted during all hours throughout the year, except from February 1 through March 31, when it is permitted only between sunrise and midnight.

Game fish may not be taken using a gig or longbow. The daily limit is 20 fish of non-game species. Fish must be kept separate and identifiable by the taker. A Missouri fishing permit is required.


Non-game fish are often overlooked as table fare because of their numerous bones. Proper preparation and cooking can solve this problem and make for some fine eating.

When cleaning large, non-game fish, it helps to equip yourself with a metal table spoon; a filleting knife; a flat cutting board longer than the fish you are cleaning; and a clean, water filled, bucket or large bowl.

  1. Scrape the scales from a dead fish using a dinner spoon or dull knife, leaving the skin on the fish.
  2. Large buffalo or carp have two layers of skin. Using a sharp knife, you can remove the outer skin (without removing scales first) and leave the thin inner skin on the side of the fillet.
  3. Slice the fish diagonally just behind the gill cover until the knife blade touches the backbone.
  4. Cut fillets from the sides of the fish by turning the knife blade and slicing along the backbone toward the tail. When cleaning large fish, You may have to saw through the heavier rib bones, or you can cut around them.
  5. Lay the fillets skin side down and cut the ribs away from the rest of the fillet.
  6. While rinsing the fillets in clean water, feel for scales that you may have missed.
  7.  With the skin side down, score the flesh by slicing down to, but not through, the skin. Make the slices about 1/4-inch apart. Scoring the flesh breaks up the bones so they'll soften in hot cooking oil. That's why one of the best methods of preparing carp, buffalo and suckers is deep frying.


Your fish cooker should have a frying basket and be capable of heating at least one gallon of cooking oil to 375 degrees. Other handy items include a few large bowls or pans and a roll of paper towels.

Mix yellow cornmeal (about a pound for each three pounds of fish), salt and pepper together in a large bowl. Don't add flour. It might prevent the fish from cooking properly. Use yellow cornmeal for a golden crust.

Apply the cornmeal to the fillets just before putting them into the cooker. When coating the fillets, work the cornmeal into the scored slots with your fingers. This helps the hot oil reach the bones so it can soften them.

Heat the cooking oil to 375 degrees. Make sure the oil is several inches from the top. You don't want the oil to boil over when you immerse the fish in it. If using peanut oil--my favorite--raise the cooking temperature to 400 degrees.

Place a few fillets in the wire basket and lower them into the hot oil very slowly. Don't try to cook too many pieces of fish at one time. They will cool the oil, and your fillets won't come out crispy.

Cook the fillets until they float in the oil and turn golden brown. This usually takes less than 10 minutes. Place cooked fillets in a pan lined with paper towels.

If you've cleaned and cooked the fish properly, the fillets will seem bone-free or, at worst, you might notice just a few large bones.


Canning also softens the many small bones of carp and buffalo. For canning, you'll need a pressure cooker, pint jars with lids and rings, salt and vinegar.

Fillet the fish, removing all rib bones and skin. Pack fillets tightly into clean pint jars to within 1 inch of the top. Add a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of vinegar to each jar. Fill jars to within 1/2-inch of the top with clean water. It may not take much if you have packed the fish tightly. Clean the jar rims with a clean wash cloth. Place lids on the jars and screw the rings over the lids hand tight.

Place jars in a pressure cooker and pour enough water in the cooker so that the jars are mostly submerged, but the tops remain uncovered by the water. Place the lid on the cooker and heat slowly, keeping a close watch on the cooker, until the pressure gauge reaches 10 to 12 pounds. Adjust heat so that the pressure remains constant within this range.

After cooking for 90 minutes at this pressure, turn off the heat and let the cooker cool before opening it. Properly sealed jar lids will be slightly concave after cooling. Occasionally jar lids will not seal. You should refrigerate these jars and eat fish from them within a few days. Store the sealed jars in a cool place and use the canned fish to make fish patties or fish casseroles.

Additional tips and recipes for preparing non-game fish can be found in "Cy Littlebee's Guide to Cooking Fish & Game." This book is available for $3.50, plus tax and shipping, from the Nature Shop, Missouri Department of Conservation, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102-0180, email <Estore@mdc. mo.gov> or you can call, toll-free, (877) 521-8632.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Director - Ara Clark
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler