I 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.
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.
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
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.
Blue Catfish World Record
All-Tackle Record: 64.86 kilograms (143 pounds, 0 ounces), Kerr Lake, Va., USA
As the largest catfish species found in North America, the blue cat has long been a favorite target of freshwater anglers looking for a bullish fight to test their skill and tackle.
Blue catfish are native to the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio River basin systems - extending north into South Dakota and south into Mexico and northern Guatemala. The species has also been introduced into the eastern United States, where it has clearly flourished and grown to record size. Blue catfish frequent deep areas of large rivers and lakes, but are also found in areas with swift current, where they forage for passing food items — both alive and dead.
Preferred baits when targeting the blue catfish include live and dead herring, bluegill, bream, crawfish, blood worms, chicken livers and stink bait. Although most blue catfish are caught with bait, they can also be tricked with bucktail jigs, plastic worms and flies.
Anglers targeting blue catfish will usually present their bait on the bottom, as this is where the fish spend most of their time hunting for their next meal. Their large size, strong fights and quality meat all make the blue catfish a top freshwater game fish.
Highly valued for both its food and sporting value, the channel catfish is one of the most popular catfish species in North America. The widely distributed channel cat is found in throughout most freshwater lakes, rivers, streams and ponds of the United States, southern Canada and northern Mexico.
The channel catfish can be distinguished from other catfish species in North America by its spotted body and deep forked tail — making it unique from the blue and white catfish that are not spotted.
Small fishes, crustaceans (crayfish), and insects — alive or dead — are some of the channel cat's favorite prey items, so consequently these are also some of the preferred baits of anglers targeting channel cats.
A variety of artificial and 'stink ' baits, fished in the lower water column or on the bottom, are also effective when targeting these fish. When hooked, the channel cat makes strong, determined runs.
Channel Catfish World Record
All-Tackle Record: 26.3 kilograms (58 pounds), Santee-Cooper Reservoir, S.C., USA
As the second largest catfish species in North America, the flathead is an extremely popular freshwater game fish and is naturally distributed throughout the United States and northern Mexico, with introductions occurring throughout the world.
Flathead catfish prefer to inhabit debris laden pools, within small to large rivers, where it can ambush, or scavenge for, their next meal. While its general coloration of mottled yellows and browns does not differ greatly from other catfish, the flathead is very distinctive in appearance and is not easily confused with any other species. Its flat head is accentuated by oval shaped eyes and a protruding lower jaw, making it easily recognizable.
The flathead's diet consists mainly of smaller fishes and insects, with the preference seemingly on fish. Its large size and great tasting flesh make the flathead very popular with anglers. When targeting flatheads, anglers will look for slow-moving pools within a river, where logs and other debris have gathered.
Dropping a small fish to the bottom of these pools is one of the most effective methods for targeting flathead. Once hooked, these powerful fish test not only the angler's skill, but also their tackle, as they oftentimes use submerged debris to break the angler's line.
While using natural bait is the most popular method of fishing for this species, anglers targeting crappie and bass with artificial baits are often surprised by a large flathead taking their plug, jig or soft plastic lure.
Flathead Catfish World Record
All-Tackle Record: 55.79 kilograms (123 pounds), Elk City Reservoir, Independence, Kan., USA
The goonch is a mysterious catfish species that inhabits the rocky, swift moving rivers of central Asia's Ganges, Mekong and Chao Phraya river basins — with some of the largest specimens taken in India, where they commonly exceed 45 kilograms (100 pounds).
Its large size, enormous mouth, and beady eyes give the goonch an intimidating appearance which has added to its allure among anglers. Its normal diet includes fish, shrimp, frogs and insects; but like most catfish species, the goonch is an opportunistic feeder with a very liberal palate.
Constantly battling strong river currents of its natural habitat makes the goonch extremely powerful, and attractive to anglers in search of a rod-bending challenge. Live or dead bait, fished with enough weight to hold the bottom of swift moving rivers, is one of the more popular methods for targeting goonch.
Medium to heavy tackle is recommended — if not required — given the size of the fish and the swift-moving, rock-lined, rivers where it's found. This species is relatively new to the sport fishing world, so the methods of angling for these fish are still being perfected as we learn more about this catfish.
Goonch World Record
All-Tackle Record: 75 kilograms (165 pounds, 5 ounces), Ramganga River, India
The lau-lau, or piraiba, is the largest catfish species on the IGFA record books, but there have been even larger specimens reported in the 200-kilogram (440-pound) range.
The species has earned a reputation as a man-eater throughout its wide distribution in South America — extending north from the Amazon and Orinoco River basins to as far south as Argentina. Adult lau-lau prefer freshwater rivers and pools, while the juveniles are often found in brackish waters around river mouths.
These aggressive predators feed primarily on fish, but the stomach contents of harvested lau-lau have been said to include parts of monkeys and other mammals. A live or dead fish, fished on the bottom of a river or pool, is the preferred method of angling for the lau-lau — although they have become increasingly difficult to find due to the increased commercial pressure they've received because of their high quality flesh.
The mysteries surrounding these enormous fish make them highly sought after by anglers in search of a sport fishing adventure to one of the wildest places in the world.
Lau-Lau World Record
All-Tackle Record: 155 kilograms (341 pounds, 11 ounces), Rio Solimoes, Brazil
Giant Mekong Catfish
While the giant Mekong catfish is critically endangered due to over-exploitation, this massive catfish is one of the largest freshwater fish in the world.
Once prevalent throughout the rivers in Asia's Mekong basin, the giant Mekong catfish has since been introduced in China, Bangladesh and other private locations throughout Asia. This species has a strictly vegetarian diet in the wild, feeding mainly on detritus and algae off the bottom, but in captivity it will take a variety of food.
One of the most impressive characteristics of this giant catfish is its ability to grow at extraordinarily rapid rates — reaching an amazing 150-200 kilograms in only six years.
Because they are vegetarians, bread or a paste made from rice husk or corn, are two of the more popular baits for giant Mekong cats and are usually fished along the bottom. Once hooked, the sheer size of this species makes it a tough fighter that will test even the heaviest of tackle.
Giant Mekong Catfish World Record
All-Tackle Record: 117.93 kilograms (260 pounds), Gillhams Fishing Resorts, Krabi, Thailand
Redtail Catfish (Pirarara)
The redtail catfish, or pirarara, is highly sought after for its game fish characteristics and is considered to be one of the best fighting catfishes. Its brownish back, yellow sides and blood orange dorsal and caudal fins make the redtail catfish easily recognizable among other catfish species.
The native distribution of the redtail is in the Amazon and Orinoco basins of South America, with introductions in Southeast Asia and the USA. The large rivers, streams and lakes throughout northern South America are home to the redtail, and during periods of high water the large catfish will move into the flooded forests in search of food.
The redtail catfish is truly omnivorous in its feeding habits, with an eclectic diet including fish, fruits, and aquatic vertebrates and crustaceans. Their willingness to take a variety of natural and artificial baits, coupled with their strong fighting ability, make the redtail catfish a favorite among sport fishermen.
In deeper water, cut baitfish along the bottom seems to be the most popular choice for anglers using natural bait. However, a well-presented fly or bucktail jig will certainly entice a bite from these voracious feeders when targeted in shallow or clear water — making it very appealing to a wide range of anglers.
Redtail Catfish World Record
All-Tackle Record: 56 kilograms (123 pounds, 7 ounces), Rio Amazonas, Amazonas, Brazil
Probably the most widely distributed fish in Africa, the sharptooth catfish is found throughout the woodland-savanna zones of the Afro-tropical region from the Nile River, to as far south as the Umtamvuna River in South Africa.
The sharptooth's ability to tolerate extreme environmental conditions has allowed the species to thrive in areas where it has been introduced, such as Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
While it prefers large, slow-moving rivers and flood plains, the sharptooth catfish is built to survive in almost any aquatic habitat. Equipped with an accessory breathing organ, the sharptooth can actually breathe air — allowing it to burrow in the mud during low water levels, and even 'crawl ' overland during damp conditions.
Given the extreme nature of this species, it's no surprise that the sharptooth is a voracious predator that will often hunt in packs — herding and trapping smaller fish. While usually a bottom feeder, the aggressive sharptooth will occasionally feed on the surface.
As an omnivorous species, the sharptooth's diet includes just about anything it can catch or find, including: fish, birds, frogs, small mammals, reptiles, snails, crabs, shrimps, and insects. It is known to also eat plant matter such as seeds and fruit, and is even capable of straining fine plankton if necessary.
Live or dead bait, fished along the bottom, is the preferred method of angling for this rugged species; however it has been known to take artificial lures and even flies. Its strongly compressed body and long dorsal fin make the sharptooth a formidable adversary when hooked on rod and reel.
Sharptooth Catfish World Record
All-Tackle Record: 36 kilograms (79 pounds, 5 ounces), Orange River, Upington, South Africa
The spotted sorubim is a beautifully colored game fish, patterned with eloquently random black splotches and spots. Although oftentimes confused with the barred and tiger sorubim because of the variation in their spots, the large size of the spotted sorubium — which is reported to grow up to 100 kilograms — separates it from its smaller sorubim relatives.
South America's Amazon Basin, including the Sao Francisco and ParanÃ¡ River systems, is home to the spotted sorubim which are often found in river channels, floodplains and larger rainforest streams in both running and still water.
They tend to prefer lily pads and floating 'islands ' of water plants around river deltas, and are notorious for retreating under these vegetated areas after ambushing their prey — making medium to heavy tackle almost a requirement when targeting sorubim.
Unlike other species of catfish that tend to prefer natural baits on the bottom, sorubim are known to aggressively strike a variety of trolled and cast artificial baits intended for peacock bass, although night fishing with live or dead fish can also be very productive. Their reputation as being exceptional table fare completes the 'game fish resume ' of this beautifully colored and strong fighting catfish.
Spotted Sorubim World Record
All-Tackle Record: 53.5 kg (117 pounds, 15 ounces), Rio Parana, Corrientes, Argentina
Not only is the wels one of the largest catfish species in the world, it is also one of the largest freshwater fish in the world — with catches reported into the 600-pound range.
Native to river systems draining into the North, Baltic, Black, Caspian, and Aral sea basins, the wels were originally distributed within the bordering countries of northern and eastern Europe, as far north as Finland and Sweden, and western, southern, and central Asia.
Since their introduction into the RhÃ´ne River during the 19th century, they have become widely established throughout western and southern Europe as well — which is evident when looking at the IGFA record books.
Typical of most catfish species, the wels can be found foraging along the bottom of large lowland lakes and rivers, and has even been reported in brackish waters. The elongated, scale-less wels has a thick upper body and a laterally flatted tail, making it extremely powerful.
Its natural diet includes live and dead fish and aquatic vertebrates, but anglers have found that the wels is also quick to take artificial baits such as plugs, spinners, frog lures and even flies. Over the past decade, the wels has become extremely popular among native European anglers, as well as anglers traveling from around the world to target this prehistoric freshwater game fish.
Wels World Record
All-Tackle Record: 134.97 kilograms (297 pounds, 9 ounces), River Po, Italy