Harpooning buffalofish forgotten sport

The sultry heat we've lived through in late August and early September brought to mind one of my favorite hot weather pastimes back in the days of my early youth.

I'm referring to the long ago forgotten art of harpooning buffalofish, something that many of us did back then for lack of anything better to do in extremely hot times.

The numerous lakes within the Tallahatchie and Yazoo river floodplains were superb fishing lakes back then and most of them were full of buffalo, which come in several species, including the razorback and the gourdhead. The razorback was preferred - partially because of its size and partially because it seemed to be the best-eating buffalo that we caught. Another good one is the blue-rooter.

In such sultry weather, buffalo rise to a few inches under the surface and just hang there, occasionally rising all the way to the surface and gasping in some pure air (I admit that this is just a personal theory of why they surface).

If you paddle a boat ever so carefully on days when there is no wind at all, you can see these big fish lying there in plain view.

A harpooner sits or stands in the bow of the boat and lets fly his harpoon with a length of heavy trotline. If his aim is good he will hit the fish broadside, the harpoon will go completely through the fish and you have him on a line to be fought and brought in.

Lucky kids who had a single-barrel shotgun properly rigged for harpooning had great advantage over those who had to depend on handheld gigs such as those used in frog-gigging. A rigged shotgun consisted of a hickory shaft sized to fit inside the hull of a 12-gauge shotgun shell with a pointed tip. Under the breech of the gun you laid a piece of split cane tied securely to line laid in folds. This sounds complicated, but it really is not. Anyone can figure out a way to hold the line that is secured to the harpoon.

When the shooter sees fish under the surface, he simply takes aim and lets fly, discharging the shotgun shell. that has had the shot and top wadding removed. When you properly hit a big razorback that might weigh 30 pounds, you have yourself a real handful. Sometimes you hit one so big and strong that he simply drags the boat along. You may fight him several minutes before you manage to bring him aboard.

My primary harpooning buddy was the late Purnell Oliver, who grew up in Tippo, Miss., and later became well-known in Delta educational fields. We harpooned nearby Otter Lake for the most part, and at times caught large numbers of buffalo. They went for a good cause back in those Depression days, since we gave most of our catch to local tenant farmers and sharecroppers. A lot of hungry folks were helped by our gifts.

Buffalo ribs, by the way, are probably as fine-eating fish as most anything you catch. This is particularly true if they are caught out of cold, running water like the Mississippi River in late winter or spring.

The ribs should come from big fish and look something like a "long-handled" white pork chop. This does away with the dangerous little hooked bones that make eating buffalo hazardous or even dangerous. Get one of the bones in your throat and you are in real trouble.

Buffalo ribs are still offered for sale all over the Deep South. Recently I admired a tray of fine buffalo ribs at the local Kroger store. If memory serves me right, they were marked at $2.95 a pound.

Back in my early days, very few people garnered the ribs only. The whole fish supplied lots more food and the fish-eaters learned to dodge the bones and make the best of it. This is easily understood when you consider that a big buffalo could be bought for as little as 10 cents a pound and a nice fish would feed a lot of hungry mouths.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.