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Bullheads were as much a part of the summers in my youth as plaid lawn chairs and Brewers baseball. I spent hours with my father, Dave, and Grandpa Frank pulling bullheads from the murky depths of the Rock River near Juneau in Dodge County, even more time cleaning the fish. A plate full of golden-brown, batter-fried bullheads with buttered rye bread was sweet reward.
The memories built respect for these fish, but my sentiments certainly aren't shared by everyone. You may loathe the whiskered bottom-feeder; still, the bullhead deserves your admiration as one of the most adaptable and hardy fish species found in Wisconsin.
The three native species of bullheads include the Black (Ictalurus melas), the Brown (Ictalurus nebulosus) and the Yellow (Ictalurus natalis). All three are scaleless and average eight to 10 inches in length . Their rounded snouts and wide mouths contain broad bands of tiny, needle-sharp teeth and their tough skin is smooth and slippery. Like other members of the catfish family, their mouths are whiskered with six barbels – four on the bottom and one on each side. Bullheads use the barbels to taste food near the lakebed or river bottom.
It is a safe bet that bullheads roam the depths of most bodies of water in Wisconsin, particularly the river systems.The brown bullhead, the least common species, is found mostly in the Rock, Fox and Wolf river systems in the east, the Chippewa River system of the northwest, and the big lake systems – Lake Michigan, Lake Superior and Lake Winnebago.
Yellow bullheads can be found in Green Bay, the Wisconsin River, lakes Winnebago and Poygan and in larger northern lakes. In some areas, bullheads and their cousins, channel and flathead catfish, are found in the same waters. Where this overlapping occurs, the species compete for the same food sources which can slow the growth of each.
As their names suggest, color identifies the three different bullhead species. Brown bullheads are yellowish-brown to black with gray or light brown-mottled sides, light colored bellies and a straight tail fin. Dorsal and pectoral spines on the fins are very jagged. Their barbels are dark brown.
Yellow bullheads are more olive colored on the back. This coloration may vary in tone from black to almost yellow. In most waters, the giveaway characteristic of the yellow bullhead is its yellow belly. Yellows have light colored barbels, a rounded tail fin and jagged fin spines.
The black bullhead is very dark in color, ranging from dark olive to jet black with a pale underside. Its barbels are usually gray or black and its tail is somewhat straight with a notch in the middle. The fin spines are sharp, but smooth.
Bullheads are probably best known for the sting that can result from careless handling. That "sting" is actually a sharp cut from contacting the sharp edges of the dorsal and pectoral fins. Jim Congdon, DNR fisheries manager in Horicon, says the fins are a defense mechanism the bullheads use to prosper in lakes and waterways throughout the state. "Predators learn to avoid a sharp-finned meal," he notes.
If you, like me, have had the unfortunate experience of swooping your hand into a mass of bullhead fry roaming near a boat landing, you understand how painful those sharp little fins can be. A bullhead "sting," is more painful than that of a bee, and within minutes swelling can occur. The pain can last for a week or more. Congdon explained that bullhead fry have small glands near their side fins which produce a poison that can make getting "finned" by even half-inch fry very painful. These poison glands are common throughout the catfish family. Not to worry though – the poison is not life threatening and the pain can be dulled by dabbing the wound lightly with household ammonia. Don't dab gashes or larger open cuts.
Many anglers believe the stings come from the barbels located around a bullhead's mouth. Not so. Like taste buds on a rope, barbels help the bullhead locate food in murky water. In fact, it is estimated that each fish has over 100,000 taste receptors distributed all over its body, making it easier to sense food it can't see under low light or no light conditions. They can feed at night protected from larger sight feeders like northerns and bass.
Natural defenses are not the only tools in the bullhead's survival pack. Bullheads can tolerant low oxygen levels and high pollution concentrations that would soon have other fish turning belly-up. Mud, even outside of a body of water, can be home for a bullhead. In fact, lake bottom muds become a safe haven for bullheads in winter. As temperatures drop, bullheads become lethargic and bury themselves, exposing only their mouths and gills to the water. This form of "hibernation" protects the bullheads from winterkill.
As summer approaches and water temperatures reach the mid-70 degree range, bullheads begin to spawn. The three species seek different habitat to build their nests. Black bullheads prefer the muddy bottoms. Brown bullheads will build in rocky and sandy bottoms, and yellows seek weeded areas.
The females form shallow saucer-shaped depressions in the bottom by waving their lower fins. The nests are usually constructed next to structures such as a hollow log, rocks or brush The fish remove larger debris in the nest with their mouths. The number of eggs deposited by the three species varies greatly. The brown may deposit from 50 to 10,000 eggs; the yellow from 300 to 700; and the black around 4,000. Once laid, the eggs are fertilized by the male's milt.
Bullheads excel as parents. Both the male and female protect the nest and eggs. Hatching usually occurs in five to 10 days depending on the water temperature. Small clouds of bullhead fry roam the shorelines as the parents keep circling the school to keep them together. Parental care continues for about two weeks, then the young are on their own. The fish mature in three to four years.
"The success of the bullhead spawn depends largely on the conditions of the body of water they're in," Congdon says. "I've observed that bullhead reproduction is the strongest in [waters] where other fish species do not seem to do well. It seems the better the water quality, the poorer the bullhead's natural reproduction." He explained that bullheads tend to do the most damage in shallow, eutrophic lakes.
The bullhead fills a niche in a lake ecosystem by constantly scavenging on dead fish matter, algae and crustaceans such as crawfish.
Congdon has noticed that large bullhead populations can create turbid or "clouded" water that hampers sunlight from reaching vegetation, slowing or stopping its growth. This vegetation would be used by other fish species and waterfowl as a source of cover and food. Bullheads can survive after other fish species have found the conditions intolerable.
Given no closed seasons, no bag limit and no size limit, bullhead fishing is an attractive proposition for anglers of any skill level. As soon as the ice comes off a lake, river or slough, you can bet these hungry scavengers are ready to bite. Simple equipment is the key. There is no fish better suited for a long cane pole. Any contraption that holds line, a lead weight and a baited hook will work. Use long-shanked hooks and needle-nosed pliers to more easily retrieve bait, or just snip the line and retrieve your hook at cleaning time. Keep an old rag handy to prevent stings and wipe hands free of worm dirt and fish slime.
As far as bait is concerned, the sky is the limit: If it crawls, slides, slithers, swims or stinks, it will catch bullheads. It's hard to beat a night crawler or a piece of cut bait, but don't overlook human food items such as corn, marshmallows or even hot dogs. Some anglers claim bullheads talk to them, but I attribute that to too much time sitting on a bucket. It's true that when the fish is touched or lightly squeezed the bullhead will sometimes produce an audible "croaking" sound. The sound is produced as air escapes the bullhead's air bladder or digestive tract.
Finding bullheads is easy. Look for shallow lake bays or river eddies. The backwash areas behind bridge abutments are hard to beat. Select a spot, toss out your bait, keep a tight line, and soon your rod tip will be bouncing up and down. Bullheads roam in large schools and are bottom feeders so weight your bait adequately to stay on the bottom. There is no need for a finesse presentation on these guys!
If you've never eaten a mess of properly prepared fried bullheads, you are missing one of Wisconsin's aquatic culinary secrets. The meat is firm and delicious. Some restaurants can pack the house on a Friday night with a fried bullhead special. Grandpa Frank has passed on, but the memories of bullhead fishing with him and my father will last forever. For us, bullheads bridged the generations and those spunky fish were ready to bite anytime. Our family therapy could not be more simple: a few plaid lawn chairs, a handful of night crawlers, a little time and the conversation started to flow. Thanks, bullheads!
Mark A. Klossner writes from the banks of his Madison home.