On my way home from Champaign, I stopped at the Clinton Lake spillway to see if anything was biting. I had fished it once before, and I remember catching quite a few black crappie. I arrived a few hours before sunset to find several people already there. They weren't catching crappie, but they were getting walleye on live minnows. I tried a few swimbaits and jigs that looked similar to their minnows, but I didn't get any bites.
Right as the sun was setting I accidentally snagged a number of gizzard shad with the small jig I was using. They weren't snagged randomly though; they were all hooked very close to the mouth. For those of you who don't know, gizzard shad has been my nemesis for over half a decade. I've tried for them in Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee, but they always refuse to cooperate.
The last one I caught / snagged looked like the hook might have been inside the mouth, but before I could see for sure it flopped off the hook onto the ground. There's no way I'm going to count it on my lifelist. I need to be 100% sure it's a fair hooked fish.
Gizzard Shad (Dorosoma cepedianum)
The next weekend I returned to Clinton to make another attempt at the shad. I thought maybe they would bite at sunrise, so I left Peoria early so I could be at the spillway as the sun came up. I tried a super tiny jig, a #20 hook with a bit of neon green plastic, and a #20 hook with small piece of bread. The shad did not make an appearance.
As I was packing up to leave, a teenager hooked into a big fish. He was using light tackle, so it took him a while to land it. When he got it to shore, we saw that it was a large bigmouth buffalo. Everyone congratulated him, which put a big smile on his face. He dragged the fish up onto the bank, and then took a large rock and hit it on the head. Not good...
I walked over and congratulated him again on catching the buffalo. He said thanks, grinning ear to ear. I asked him how he planned to cook it. He replied, "Those f*$&ers are nasty as sh#$, I don't eat them." I kind of figured he'd say something like that, but I didn't want to make a scene, so I said, "Yeah they're awesome aren't they! Isn't it great that we can catch these big native fish here?" He wasn't sure what to say, so I followed up with, "They taste great too, once you deal with the bones." He told me I could take it, so I did.
Bigmouth Buffalo (Ictiobus cyprinellus)
Giving up on the gizzard shad, I returned home. The buffalo weighed 23 pounds. I would love to catch one this big someday!
I filleted it, leaving the ribs on the fish. In hindsight, I should have filleted it so the ribs stayed with the meat, because I planned to smoke it. Bones are easy to deal with in smoked fish. I did remember to leave the skin on the fillets, because you can let the skin burn without worrying about ruining the meat.
Next I cut the fillets into pieces and boiled a pot of brine on the stove. The brine consisted of filtered water, brown sugar, sea salt, fresh garlic, and several different spices. I cooled the brine in the fridge and then poured it over the pieces of buffalo.
The fillet pieces soaked overnight, and the next day I fired up the grill and smoked them for five hours. I kept the temperature low, around 130 to 140 degrees for the first four and a half hours. For the last half hour I raised the temperature up to 160 to make sure the fish was cooked all the way through.
Buffalo is a great fish for smoking. The meat is firm and flaky, and the small bones can be easily picked out while you're eating it.
It's really such a shame that rough fish have such a bad reputation in the midwest. I'm not saying everyone has to enjoy cooking and eating them, but at the least they should be respected. If you don't plan to eat a fish, you should release it, simple as that.
I vacuum sealed the majority of the smoked fish and ate the remaining pieces over the following week. My friends even came over for fish tacos featuring Clinton Lake spillway buffalo.
Native fish are not trash, regardless of what species they are. Let's treat them with respect. If you catch one, be it buffalo, gar, pike, walleye, or crappie, please either eat it or let it go. Set a good example for the younger generation. These fish are our heritage, and we want them to be here so our children and grandchildren can enjoy them.
Oh and gizzard shad, I will catch you one day!!!