By Polly Dean
Bullheads are low on the list of favorite species for many catfishermen. It may be due to the fact that they don’t grow to the size that other cats do, or maybe because of the muddy waters that they can inhabit, or just because they are plain ugly. They also seemed to have gained the reputation for not being good table fare.
On the other hand, bullheads are among the easiest fish to catch. These dependable cats bring back fond memories to many anglers as being their “first fish.” The bullheads cooperative nature has sparked an interest in fishing and accounted for lifelong addictions in many a Southern angler. Also those that know better have found the “undesirable” bullhead catfish can be quite tasty.
Bullhead catfish are common in our lakes and streams. Most anglers are familiar with the brown and yellow bullhead species and maybe even the less common black bullhead.
Bullheads are most distinguishable from other catfish by their rounded tail. Channel catfish have a deeply forked tail. Small flathead catfish are often confused with bullheads because they have somewhat of a rounded tail that is slightly notched, but flatheads are easy to recognize by their flattened or “shovel” heads. Also, the lower lip of a flathead extends beyond the upper lip, but on the bullhead it doesn’t.
Bullheads tend to have a thicker or rounder shape, with the head taking up a greater proportion of the total body than other catfish species. Bullheads don’t get as large as other catfish species. They rarely exceed 3 pounds and most are less than a pound. The largest current world record for any of the species is a black bullhead that weighed 8 pounds. It is likely that larger bullheads may have been caught, but were confused with other catfish species.
Distinguishing between the three largest bullhead species of black, brown and yellow can be a little trickier.
The brown and yellow bullheads can have a similar mottled coloring of brown to yellowish. Brown bullheads have dark-colored chin barbels, whereas yellow bullheads have light-colored or white barbels. Yellow bullheads lack spots on their body and have more anal rays. Both the brown and yellow bullheads have serrated teeth on the rear edge of their pectoral spines.
The black bullhead is darker in color — usually black or dark green — but also can be a yellowish green. The barbels are dark and the rear edge of the pectoral spine is smooth. Also the black bullhead has a chubbier, deeper body than its cousins at the “shoulders.”
Bullheads can be found in a variety of lake and stream conditions, from slow to fast moving water, down deep or in the shallows, and in clear to the muddiest of waters. Black bullheads seem to prefer silty conditions and are tolerant of very warm temperatures and industrial and domestic pollutants.
Brown bullheads prefer deeper weedy areas of lakes and slow-moving streams. Though not normally favoring muddy water they are known to be found in soft muck and turbid conditions, but usually over sand and gravel beds. Yellow bulls are most commonly found in shallow areas over soft bottoms.
Bullhead catfish are not the most selective feeders. They are omnivorous, eating most anything they find on the bottom.
As far as baits are concerned the most popular and, arguably the most successful, are redworms and nightcrawlers on a No. 2 to 1/0 long-shanked hook. Other baits to try are leeches, minnows, liver, doughballs, stinkbait or crayfish, used whole or just the meat of the tail.
Since bullheads do feed on the bottom, bobbers aren’t necessary when targeting them. Also bullheads don’t bite so lightly that you won’t feel them when they take your bait.
The key element in fishing tackle when targeting bullheads is to not use weights directly attached to the line. Bullheads abandon a bait if they feel weight attached to it. The best tactic is to use a sliding sinker. This allows the line to slip through as the fish takes your offering.
Bullheads can make a good meal as well. They are excellent fried and make great catfish fingers. The key is to eat only those that come from clean, unpolluted water and, as with all fish or game, put them on ice as soon as possible.