What’s the Difference Between Buffalo Fish and Carp?

Anyone who enjoys fishing will be familiar with these different fish, but you might want to learn a bit more about them, what they’re like, and whether they’re a good meal, especially if you enjoy eating your catches.

We’ll look at a few facts about bigmouth buffalo and carp and explore the differences and similarities between the fish.

Many people have, over the years, neglected to pay attention to buffalo, despite their impressive size and looks. Now, however, some anglers are starting to turn their attention to this previously dismissed fish.

Bigmouth Buffalo Vs. Carp

Bigmouth Buffalo
Bigmouth Buffalo

Many people mistake buffalo and carp for being the same species – but they aren’t. Buffalo fish are a native North American species, and belong to the sucker family, while carp are not native to the United States.

These two fish aren’t related to each other at all, and there a few fundamental differences between the two. Bigmouth buffalo do have quite a similar body structure to carp, and are often confused with carp. Many anglers lump them into the same category in spite of the differences between them.

Although there are some visual similarities, if you look closely, you will see that there are quite a few differences as well. If you put the two fish side by side, it’s fairly plain that they are fundamentally different.

Bigmouth buffalo do not have whiskers (or barbels) on their faces, while carp do. Next, bigmouth buffalo tend to be blue-gray in color, rather than the gold or amber which carp usually are. This is one of the biggest visual clues about the different fish.

In terms of their fins, there are further differences. Buffalo fish generally have different colored tails and their tails tend to be darker than the rest of their bodies (unless their bodies are also dark). By contrast, carp are almost uniformly one color, and their tail color blends with their bodies well.

Carp mouths do not tend to be downturned in the same way that buffalo fish mouths are – just in case you need further visual indications about which species is which. 

In fact, the biggest similarity that these two kinds of fish share is simply their body shape, which is similar enough to wrongly indicate that they are related.

In terms of the challenge they present to anglers, however, buffalo fish vs carp are on a similar level of difficulty. Because they are so physically large and both are quite fast, they can be difficult to catch and reel in, though carp have more of a tendency to thrash and change direction wildly.

Smallmouth Buffalo Vs. Carp

Smallmouth Buffalo
Smallmouth Buffalo

Obviously, some of those differences between bigmouth buffalo fish vs carp translate to smallmouth buffalo fish as well – smallmouth buffalo fish being the most abundant of the buffalo species, and the one you are most likely to encounter. 

It won’t surprise you at all to learn that one of the most distinctive features of the smallmouth buffalo fish – especially when compared to a carp – is that it has a very small mouth. This is actually true of the bigmouth variety too, although to a lesser extent.

If you’re handling a smallmouth buffalo, you’re likely to find that its mouth is only around the same diameter as your thumb. Because the mouths are leathery, they make a good hook for anglers and you can afford a bit of a struggle to land this fish without causing major damage to its mouth.

Smallmouth buffalo have significantly larger eyes than bigmouth buffalo fish, and their mouths are more downturned, but they are otherwise similar.

How Common Are Bigmouth Buffalo?

Bigmouth buffalo fish are not very common anymore, although their status needs reassessing to reflect current numbers. Fishing this species should be done responsibly, with respect for local laws and guidelines, to ensure overfishing does not occur.

Bigmouth buffalo are only found in Canada and the United States. They mature late in life, which is one of the reasons that they are under threat of being overfished. 

However, responsible anglers who do thorough research will be able to approach fishing in a sustainable way, especially if they are choosing to return their catches to the water or use them for food, rather than wasting them.

Bigmouth buffalo can live to be over 100, and because they don’t breed until they are several years old, if anglers take too many of the young fish before they have a chance to reproduce, this species will suffer. Many anglers choose to return them to the water to give them a chance to breed.

How Common Are Smallmouth Buffalo?

Again, the amount of smallmouth buffalo fish is in need of reassessment to ensure responsible and sustainable fishing takes place; like the bigmouth buffalo, these fish are long-lived and large, which often makes them susceptible to being over-fished.

They don’t mature until 5-6 years old, so the catching of young smallmouth buffalo could dramatically reduce their population, removing the amount of breeding pairs necessary to keep their numbers up.

Despite that, you can find both species in waters throughout the United States. Bear their situation in mind as you fish, and make decisions about how to handle them accordingly.

How Common Are Carp?

How Common Are Carp
Common Carp

Carp are a widespread fish that thrives in Europe and Asia. It has proved easy to domesticate and is also quite an invasive species, existing everywhere in the world except the North and South Poles.

Carp have been bred and kept by humans since the Romans (or possibly earlier) and can outcompete most native species easily. Wild carp tend to be slimmer than domesticated carp, and these are considered vulnerable, despite the success of their domestic cousins. 

Domestic carp were introduced to the United States in 1831, though they are not frequently eaten there anymore. Carp eggs, however, are an increasingly popular food, and given the abundance of carp, we may turn to them as a food fish in the future.

How Hard Are These Fish To Catch?

In terms of how hard buffalo fish vs carp are to catch, they rank similarly. Both are big, powerful, strong fish which will respond violently to being hooked and will try hard to escape. They can take upwards of half an hour to reel in.

They aren’t an easy starter for an amateur angler, but may provide a nice challenge for someone with experience looking to tackle something bigger.

Bigmouth buffalo are not easy to hook with a line, however. They will often ignore bait, making bowfishing and other approaches more popular ways to catch them. Sometimes a worm on the end of a line will be enough to tempt them, but they usually feed on tiny organisms, and aren’t attracted to bait.

Because all three kinds of fish are so large, weighing well over 60lb., they present a real challenge for many anglers. They are also determined, and don’t give in readily, but will keep fighting for as long as they can.

If you’re looking for a fishing challenge, these three types of fish will definitely present one – even if you can get the buffalo to bite in the first place!

How Carp Respond To Being Hooked

Carp usually respond with fierce, violent, unpredictable motions. They will move back and forth, trying to shake the hook, and will both dive down and surface in seemingly chaotic motions.

Many carp roll on the surface or lash their tails around, and some even swim directly at the boat in their fight to get free. They often weigh less than buffalo fish, but they are still very strong and offer a great challenge for any angler.

Carp present an extra difficulty in that if the angler puts too much pressure on the hook and line, they can sometimes manage to shake the hook out of their mouths and escape.

How Buffalo Fish Respond To Being Hooked

Buffalo fish respond with equal aggression and determination, but behave rather differently. Although hard to actually hook, once they have been, Buffalo fish usually take off in a single direction and plough through the water will all their strength.

They rarely come to the surface, but head determinedly away from the boat, using their massive power to try and get themselves free from the line.

What Are These Fish Like To Eat?

Most anglers like to know at least a bit about how their fish will taste, even if they primarily fish for sport, rather than food. Neither buffalo fish nor carp are particularly common as food sources in the United States, but it’s still interesting to learn about, especially if you are someone who enjoys eating what they catch.

How Do Carp Taste?

How Do Carp Taste

Carp are eaten in many parts of the world, so don’t be put off just because they have a bit of a poor reputation in the United States. Carp is notorious for having a “muddy” flavor, but this isn’t because of the kind of fish it is; it’s more to do with its environment.

If the water you take your carp from is polluted or unpleasant, your carp is not likely to taste good either.

A carp can actually taste a bit like a salmon if it comes from the right water. The muddy flavor is thought to result from stress, which might sometimes be due to intensive farming. Cooking the right parts of the carp and chilling it the moment it leaves the water are also important elements of avoiding the earthy taste.

Carp have a good texture, and because they are oily and muscly, they are excellent fried. The flavor can be very subtle and pleasant, so do not dismiss the possibility of eating carp just because of its reputation.

Another possible reason for the lack of enthusiasm about eating carp in the United States may be because there is a preference for easy-to-cook filleted fish. The smaller bones of carp make it a species that needs to be cooked whole, which many Americans today don’t have the time or inclination to do.

However, if you are keen on fishing and you have both the skill and understanding to properly prepare these fish, they are worth the time and effort, and will reward you with a delicious and unusual meal.

Because this species is so abundant and so many of our go-to food fishes are struggling at the moment, eating carp could be a good way to rebalance our waterways and feed ourselves at the same time.

Do Buffalo Fish Taste Good?

Buffalo fish are also very good to eat, though due to their reduced numbers, they may not be such a good food source for the future. 

However, if you enjoy eating your catch, this is the best of both worlds, reducing waste and ensuring you reap the rewards for your time.

Buffalo fish tend to fetch much higher prices on markets and in food stalls, which means commercial fishing is common. They do have a lot of small bones, but the flavor is thought to be excellent and worth the extra effort of preparing the fish for consumption.

Buffalo fish don’t seem to absorb a taste from the waters they live in, but it’s still best to eat fish that have come from clean, unpolluted water so you aren’t accidentally consuming contaminants that the fish may have picked up.


There are some major differences between buffalo fish and carp, including their looks, their behavior, their taste and texture, and the challenge which they present to anglers. They also differ in terms of their numbers and their approach to bait.

Being able to spot the physical differences between the fish will help you quickly identify which kind you are dealing with, ensuring you can adopt the best approach (such as a gentle hand when reeling in a carp, or a different kind of bait to lure a buffalo) for a memorable catch!

Though the myth that these two fish belong to the same family is constantly perpetuated in the angling world, knowing and understanding the difference is important for both anglers and the world as a whole.

string(10) "freshwater"
Scroll to Top