Skip to Content

What Is The Difference Between Buffalo Fish And Carp?

What Is The Difference Between Buffalo Fish And Carp?

Many anglers confuse buffalo fish and carp and think they are the same species. I did too, as they really look quite similar. But in reality, they are actually two completely different types of fish. So, I decided to do some research in order to find out all the major differences between these two species.

Buffalo fish belong to the sucker family and are a native North American species. Carp are non-native to the US and belong to the minnow family. Buffalo fish are often greyish or tea-colored, while common carp are bronze or brown-colored. Buffalo fish also have smaller mouths than carp.

If you want to find out more interesting facts and differences between these two fish species, continue reading this article.

Buffalo Fish vs Carp: Major Differences

Biologically, these fish are two completely different species! The buffalo fish (Ictiobus cyprinellus) is the largest member of the North American sucker family, while the common carp (Cyprinus carpio) belongs to the minnow family.

And so, the term buffalo carp is actually incorrect, as the buffalo is by no means a carp, even though the two species are fished for in fairly similar ways. If you want to learn how to fish for buffalo and carp, check out this well-written guide on Amazon here.

And although the two can look very much alike, there are a few very distinct differences that this article will help you become aware of, in order to always be able to tell them apart on the bank!

Buffalo Fish Common Carp
ColorationAnything from white,
blueish, grey to black
Dark blueish to black
Tail FinBronze, golden or brownOrange, red to light brown
MouthSmall, turned-down,
no whiskers
Larger, round,
whiskers on both sides
Fighting
Skills
Strong, fast,
often swims off in
one direction
Strong, fast, and aggressive,
all over the place

Apart from roughly having the same body shape, which is long and lean, and sometimes torpedo-like, buffalo fish and carp do not have very much in common.

One distinct difference is their body coloration. Buffalo fish are often greyish or tea-colored. They can look rather ghostly and washed out, even if they can occasionally be blueish or blackish (black buffalo). Common carp, on the other hand, often have a strong and healthy bronze, golden or brown body coloration.

an angler on a lake holding a big and beautiful common carp
Common Carp

They also have differently colored caudal (tail) fins. Common carp have tail fins that visually resemble the rest of their body coloration pretty closely. Often, their tale fin is simply a little more light than the rest of the body, and either orange, red or light brown in color.

The buffalo’s tail fin is instead rather dark or blueish, and sometimes even black. It often clearly distinguishes itself from the rest of the fish’s body, unless the entire buffalo is of a rather dark tone.

The mouth feature and shape are perhaps the most obvious difference between these two species. Buffalo fish have very small mouth openings (especially smallmouth buffalo), which can be no bigger than the diameter of an adult’s thumb.

Its mouth and lips are rather hard and leathery, making the buffalo pretty safe to fight if the angler uses the right hook size to fit the fish’s small mouth opening.

Additionally, the buffalo’s mouth is turned down, which is a common feature in suckerfish. It also lacks whiskers or barbels.

RELATED READING: Check out this detailed in-depth article on all the different types of carp

The mouth of the common carp is much larger. Its mouth and lips are hard and tough as well, but if too much pressure is applied by the angler, the carp can shake off a hook and hence get loose. Carp also have two very distinctive whiskers (barbels) that can grow pretty large.

PRO TIP: Buffalo feed with their belly flat on the bottom, while carp will feed at an angle, with its head lowered down to the bottom.

Lastly, buffalo and carp have somewhat different fighting skills and behaviors. A buffalo will often charge off into a single direction and keep its path, steaming away like a locomotive. It also rarely breaks the surface during a fight. They simply use all their immense power to get away from you, as far as they can.

Common carp, while trying to accomplish the same thing, are often far less controlled and directed after being hooked. They will swim in every possible direction, roll on the surface, dive into deeper water, aggressively shake their heads and sometimes even swim directly towards the angler.

Both species are however unbelievably strong in the fight and will not give up easily. They can weigh well over 60lb and the buffalo (smallmouth), which is outweighing the common carp somewhat, can reach a weight of over 100lb. Try to control that locomotive!

Where Do Buffalo Fish Come From?

All of the buffalo fish types, being bigmouth, smallmouth, and black buffalo, originate from and are native to the U.S., as well as parts of Canada, Mexico, and Guatemala, which are also the only regions in the world they can be found and caught.

A French-born American scientist called Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmalz discovered and named the species back in 1819, at the Transylvania University in Kentucky. First discovering the smallmouth buffalo, he named it Ictiobus bubalus, which is Greek for “Bull Fish”.

Between 1920 and 1950, buffalo fish were an important source of food for many rural communities in North America. After the war and with an ever-increasing standard of living, Americans soon stopped regarding the buffalo as a food source.

Since then, it has become a game fish, which, however, is not all that popular or sought after within the U.S. angling community.

Where Did Common Carp Originate From?

a fisherman holding a fat common carp
Courtesy of Birger Holmqvist

Common carp originate from the great rivers of the Asian continent, where they were discovered thousands of years ago. They have since then been domesticated and used as a food source, as well as exported to many regions all over the world.

They were first introduced to European waters in the 12th century and brought to England in the 16th century. From there, they made their way across the Atlantic, together with the first settlers who arrived in North America. Since then, they have spread across the entire North American continent.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the American government stocked many rivers and lakes with carp as a means of providing cheap and easily accessible food to the rural populations of the country.

RELATED READING: If you want to find out more about carp, I wrote a similar article about all the differences between common and mirror carp that you should definitely check out as well!

Today, the common carp has lost its status as a food fish and is instead considered a game fish by many sport fishermen in the U.S., Canada, and all over Europe. In England especially, the carp enjoys an almost mythical status among anglers.

Where Can You Find Buffalo Fish?

a US angler holding a giant buffalo fish that he has caught on two grains of corn on the bottom
Courtesy of James King

In The U.S., they can be found in a majority of states; from North Dakota, Minnesota, and Montana in the north, to Eastern Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma in the south.

They are represented in large numbers in the Hudson Bay area and the Mississippi River drainage systems.

In Canada, they can be found in the big river systems of the Milk River and Qu’Appelle River, which eventually mouths into Lake Winnipeg.

RELATED ARTICLE: Check out this expert guide on how to catch buffalo fish!

Where Can You Find Common Carp?

Unlike the buffalo, common carp can virtually be found all over the globe. They inhabit the lakes and waters of around 60 countries and have spread to almost all the continents.

While considered a classic game fish in Europe, its status is somewhat lower in the United States and Canada, where it often is referred to as an invasive species or even a pest. However, more and more North American anglers find interest in this awesome and powerful fish.

In the U.S., the common carp can be found and caught in all the states, but are rarer in the western regions of the country. There are also rather large populations of common carp in the Great Lakes.

In Canada, they inhabit the southern regions of British Columbia, Kootenay, Kettle, and the Okanagan system.

Essential Tackle Tips

If you’re looking for some solid and reliable carp fishing equipment, these tips might be useful for you.

The following tackle is of top quality and sells at a very decent price on Amazon.

I have been using this setup myself for many years and have caught plenty of big carp with it.

Rod: Daiwa Black Widow

A very strong and beautifully made 12ft 3lb carp rod with a ton of backbone and a great bend. Casts anything up to 5 oz extremely well and lets you navigate and control your fish smoothly and effectively. Fits both open and snaggy waters.

Reel: Daiwa Black Widow BR LT 5000-c

A reliable standard-sized baitrunner reel that works great for short to medium-distance carp fishing. Loads around 200 yards of 15-18lb monofilament mainline. Handles any wild run very smoothly! Fits the Black Widow rod perfectly.

Mainline: Berkley Big Game 15lb

One of the strongest and most durable monofilament lines out there! Sells at a very good price and will last you for many fishing trips. Has just the right amount of stretch to perfectly hook and fight every fish.

Related Articles

Featured image courtesy of James King

How to Tie a Pop-Up Rig (Simple Step-By-Step Guide)
← Previous
Largemouth Bass in Clear Water: Best Lures and Colors
Next →