20 Great Tips for Catching More Bullheads

20 Great Tips for Catching More Bullheads

catI love fishing for bullheads. These little catfish will pounce on any offering of edibles with wild abandon. They strike hard with no pretense of caution. They fight tenaciously.

Rolled in cornmeal and fried golden-brown, they are delicious. It is not surprising, therefore, that thousands of people like me are bullhead fans. Bullheads don't get very big, but they have many qualities that make them fun to catch and great to eat.

If you're among the many who enjoy fishing for these bantam brawlers, or a convert just learning the bullhead-fishing craft, here are some tips to help you get the most out of your next "polliwog" junket.

1. Which Cat is That?

Want to know what kind of bullheads you're catching? It's easy to separate the three common species by looking at the chin barbels (whiskers) and fins. Yellow bullheads have whitish or yellowish chin barbels.

Brown bullheads have dark chin barbels like black bullheads, but on browns, the pectoral fin spines (on each side just behind the head) have well-developed "teeth" along the rear edge. Teeth are absent or weakly developed on the black bullhead's pectoral fin spines.

Each type of bullhead has habitat preferences that differ somewhat from its cousins. The black bullhead can be found in all sorts of waters, from ponds and lakes to small streams and even swamps. Muddy water or clear, weedy water or not: it doesn't much care.

Brown, black, and yellow bullheads are present in many lakes, rivers, and reservoirs throughout North America. Action packed and hard fighting make the bullhead an overlooked species.

The brown bullhead prefers moderately clear, heavily vegetated streams and lakes.

The yellow bullhead tends to inhabit smaller, weedier bodies of water than its kin. It is most common in areas of dense vegetation in shallow, clear bays of lakes, ponds and slow-moving streams. Regardless of where you find them, however, you can catch all species of bullheads using the tactics that follow.

2. Keep it Simple

In most cases, using simpler fishing methods works fine and allows you to enjoy bullhead fishing to the max. There's no need to buy expensive fishing tackle or learn how to tie complicated rigs. Your strategy can be as unencumbered as using a cane pole and small hook to dunk a worm or piece of chicken liver.

Fish on or near the bottom, using a small sinker to carry your bait down. Or use a bobber to float the bait slightly above the bottom. You do not need to fish deep or far from shore.

3. The Light Touch

Using light tackle allows you to better savor your rock-'em-sock-'em battles with these little warriors. Most bullhead aficionados prefer using ultralight spinning or spincast combos. Four- to 8-pound line is appropriate in all but the most snag-infested waters.

The hooks you use should range in size from No. 4 to 1/0. Big sinkers aren't needed, either. In the calm waters where bullheads are almost invariably found, you can use split shot or small egg sinkers instead. Light tackle is less likely to spook wary fish, and all cats you catch will fight.

4. Use Sharp Hooks With Points Exposed

Many novice bullhead fishermen have trouble hooking cats that bite. Remember these two simple methods that will help alleviate that aggravation. First, be sure your hooks are needle-sharp. Run each point over a fingernail. Sharp hooks dig in.

Those that skate across the nail without catching should be honed or replaced. Second, instead of burying your hook in bait, leave the barb exposed. Catfish won't notice. More hookups will result.

5. Wait Before the Hookset

Bullheads also have an annoying propensity for holding the bait, letting the angler reel them in, then spitting the bait out at the last second. When tightlining (fishing directly on the bottom without a float), you should let the fish start moving away from you before you strike.

Count to three, then set the hook with a quick, upward snap of the wrist. When bobber fishing, wait until the float disappears or starts slowly moving away. That's usually when the fish has the bait in its mouth and it's the right time to strike.

6. Carry Plenty of Hooks

Bullheads are notorious hook swallowers, so you should always carry plenty of hooks on your fishing trips. You can remove hooks from a fish's throat using a disgorger or long-nosed pliers, but it's quicker to cut the line and retrieve hooks when you're cleaning your catch.

Better yet, use small circle hooks, which almost always hook the fish in the corner of the mouth and are easily removed. With circle hooks, there is no need of a sharp hookset, either: Under gentle pressure, the hook will catch on the edge of the bullhead's mouth.

Small circle hooks like these are perfect for bullheads. You'll want to use a circle hook for easy penetration and hook removal. Cats usually hook themselves with this type of hook, so the aggressive hook set is not necessary. Perfect for children.

7. Fish Right at Night

You can catch bullheads during daylight hours, especially in waters that are muddy or stained.

You'll catch more, however, if you fish at night when bullheads are more actively feeding. Zero in on deep holes in creeks; backwater areas on rivers; weed bed edges in ponds and swamps; and boat docks, long points and underwater humps in lakes.

8. Get Chummy

Where legal, you can use chum to attract more bullheads to your fishing holes. Place a gallon of wheat in a plastic bucket and cover with water. Place in a sunny location outdoors, uncovered.

Allow to sit several days until the mixture sours. Scatter handfuls of the fermented mix in several areas prior to fishing. Lower your regular bait to the bottom with the grain, and prepare for action.

9. Blow Up a Worm

Bullheads will eat almost any creature they can fit in their mouths, but a wiggly night crawler may be the bait they find most irresistible, especially when you use a hypodermic syringe or "worm blower" to inflate the bait.

Adding a shot of air in the body lifts the worms up, making them more visible to the fish. Your sinker sits on bottom; your crawlers ride high. More strikes result.

10. Really Red Worms

Here's an old-timey trick that might garner you a few extra bites. Before you go fishing, soak your fishing worms in pickled beet juice for several hours.

This gives the bait a red color that's more attractive to bullheads. It also toughens the worms, making it harder for bullheads to steal them off your hook.

11. Other Bait Options

When using gum while cat fishing, chew a piece first for a couple minutes to get the texture right for sticking, as well as releasing the flavors for more scent.

Worms are hard to beat for bullhead bait, but a trip to the grocery will turn up many other superb enticements.

Bacon works great (especially hickory-smoked). Chunks of hot dog and cheese are relished, too, and fresh bloody chicken livers are always top-notch cat catchers. Bread and even bubble gum will work in a pinch.

12. Liver Rig

A small treble hook attached to your line with a snap swivel works great when fishing fresh, soft chicken livers that have a tendency to fly off the hook when you cast.

Unsnap the swivel, remove the hook, push the eye of the hook through the liver so the liver is impaled on the three barbs, then reattach the hook to the swivel. The liver is now less likely go flying away when you cast.

13. Dough Bait Recipe

Catfish anglers have been concocting their own secret-formula catfish baits as long as anyone can remember. Here's a popular formula for doughbait to entice bullheads. Run a pint of chicken livers through a blender until liquefied.

Slowly add Wheaties cereal, and continue blending until the mixture turns into a ball. Roll into grape-size pieces and place in a zip-seal bag. Cool until firm before using. Bullheads can't resist.

14. Bullhead Turnoffs

It's very important for catfish anglers to remember that all catfish, including bullheads, have turbo-charged senses of taste and smell. They're covered from nose to tail with taste buds in the skin and whiskers, and have much better than average olfactory organs. This can work in the angler's favor because heightened senses allow catfish to more easily find and eat bait.

But bullheads also can detect, and will avoid, even minute quantities of sunscreen, gas, oil or insect repellent that come in contact with the bait. You should avoid getting any of these on your hands, if possible. If you can't, slip on some latex gloves before handling your bait.

15. No Shadows

Bullheads and other catfish also have very good eyesight despite the popular misconception that they don't see well. And while they do not rely on this sense as much in waters with limited visibility, it plays a key role in their behavior in waters that are clear.

Did you know that bullheads will dart away and hide when a shadow crosses the water? They probably perceive shadows as an indication a predatory bird is near and hide to avoid being eaten. This may be of no concern to a catfish angler fishing muddy water because fish in muddy water don't see shadows from above.

When fishing clear water, however, you'll rarely catch a cat while fishing beneath your boat or in water upon which you're casting a shadow. That's one reason many cat fishermen are more successful at night—no shadows. And it's a good reason always to keep the sun in your face or to your side, not at your back, to avoid casting a shadow on the water you're fishing.

16. Winter Fishing

Despite what many anglers think, bullhead fishing is not just a warm-season sport. In fact, you can fish year-round and expect to do well.

My favorite months for catching a mess of bullheads are January and February. Many ponds and small lakes in my area are stocked with bullheads, and when the water temperature is between 40 and 55 degrees, these fish move to the deepest water where they gather in huge schools. I drop a rig baited with chicken liver into the hole, let it reach the bottom, then crank the reel handle a little bit so the bait is a foot or so above the substrate.

The cats usually strike quickly, and in a couple hours, it's not unusual to catch 15 to 20. It's a great way to liven up a dreary winter day, and bullheads never taste better than when fresh-caught from icy-cold water.

17. How to Catch a Record

Roger Aziz Jr. of Methuen, Massachusetts, has probably caught more giant bullheads than any man alive. He has established International Game Fish Association line-class records for yellow bullheads four times and for brown bullheads twice.

The National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame has recognized 10 brown bullheads he's caught as line-class and all-tackle records, plus five yellow bullhead line-class records. His biggest was a 6-pound, 4-ounce yellow, a giant of its kind. Aziz catches these record-class fish using an unusual tactic he calls "soaping."

"Soaping is a ground-bait technique I conjured myself," he says. "I take a bar of Dial soap, any exotic scent, and drive a home-made eye screw thru the whole bar. The soap is part of my fishing rig and acts as both a weight and an attractor. The scent is limited to a radius of a couple of feet in lakes or ponds, but it's a real big bullhead attractant."

The hook, which is on a separate leader from the soap, is baited with pieces of bacon, small whole sunfish or minnows, or small pieces of cutbait prepared from the baitfish. The rig is cast out, allowed to sink and sits stationary on the bottom while Aziz waits for a bite.

"I've spent many years targeting bullheads," says Aziz, "and find that these fish, especially the big ones, are very fascinating. There's much more to catching the big ones than many people think."

18. Care & Cleaning

If you catch bullheads in clean water and ice them down immediately, they'll provide the entre for some delicious meals. Don't keep them hanging on a stringer in warm water, or the flesh will get soft and have a poor taste.

It's important that you also skin the fish and remove all dark red meat along the lateral line. This rids the dressed fish of unsavory flesh.

19. A Tasty Recipe

Here's a bullhead recipe that's hard to beat. Combine 3/4 cup yellow cornmeal, 1/4 cup flour, 2 teaspoons salt, 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper and 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder in a large bag. Add fish and shake to coat.

Fill a cooker half full of peanut oil and heat to 365 degrees. Add fish and fry until the fish flakes easily with a fork, about 5 minutes. Serve piping hot.

20. Kids' Fish

Because they're abundant and easy to catch, bullheads are great kids' fish. Next time you fish for them, take a youngster with you. That's among the best of all.

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

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