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Having a Ball with Summer Bulls

Having a Ball with Summer Bulls

By now, many Iowa anglers have moved on to bluegills, crappies or walleyes, but if you know how -- and where -- bullheads can be caught throughout the warm months of the year. (July 2006)

Chances are good that if you grew up in Iowa, the first fish you ever caught was a bullhead. It's a flip of the coin as to whether my first bite was a bluegill or a bullhead, since my memory only goes back so far. But when I was a youngster, catching bullheads filled a lot of my angling hours.

Like my younger self, thousands of other anglers in the Hawkeye State also enjoy an evening of bullhead fishing now and then -- and for some, it's closer to an obsession. Only recently has the bluegill displaced the bullhead as the state's most sought-after fish.

By late June, bullheads have finished their spawning activities and started moving into their summer haunts. Anglers who were catching them regularly are now starting to have their doubts and, more often than not, begin thinking it's time to move on to other species.

There isn't any reason to put up your cane pole or casting rod just because the action slows down. Just follow the bullheads out into deeper water.

"Historically, anglers used to follow bullheads out into deeper water as the summer progressed," said Ed Thelen, fisheries biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. "Guys would fish for bullheads from boats, similar to the way they fish for yellow perch today. It seems today's anglers would rather target other species."

In the spring, a split shot or two to keep the bait on the bottom in shallow water is about all you need to bring up a bucketful of bullheads. A bobber that allows the bait to sit on the lake or river bottom will begin to walk across the water when a bullhead starts moving off with its newfound prize. If you're fishing without a bobber, a tight line with more weight on the line will do the trick.


As the water warms and bullheads begin moving into deeper water, they can be taken on the same baits. They become more nocturnal, although you can still take them during the day. Look for shallow bays and river eddies or backwash areas behind bridge abutments or other structures. Bullheads tend to school up and bottom-feed, so where you find one, keep looking for more.

According to Thelen, bullheads will move into shallower areas at night, and this is probably your best bet for finding them.

"Look for them in shallow water at night where there is incoming water from tiles, creeks and sloughs," said Thelen. "These current areas can be very good even in the daytime, especially after a heavy rain. Another thing to remember when bullhead fishing is to look for them on the windy side of the lake. Since bullheads are bottom feeders, the increased wave action here stirs up the bottom and helps bulls to locate food."

They can also be found in shallow embayments, river eddies or backwash areas behind bridge abutments or other structures. Bullheads tend to school up and bottom-feed, so where you find one, keep looking for more.

Bullheads will frequently take a bait and mouth it before committing to eat it. When the line starts to move, wait a few seconds before setting the hook, or you may yank the bait right out of its small mouth.

Bullheads will eat just about anything digestible. In the wild they naturally feed on snails, fish, insects, smaller fish, worms, crayfish, leeches, dead animals and various plants -- a trait that endears them to anglers who are free to use a variety of baits.

Anglers can duplicate these natural baits or use their imagination and improvise, with the same results. Use earthworms, chicken liver or tainted fish, but keep them small, since most bullheads are going to weigh less than a pound in size. A big bullhead can reach 3 or 4 pounds, but these are fairly rare.

You can even share your lunch or clean out your refrigerator, with excellent results. Marshmallows, corn or hot dogs will do in a pinch.

As most bullhead anglers know, there is a downside to waiting for the fish to begin swallowing the bait. Bullheads are notorious hook-eaters, and waiting before setting the hook is a sure way to bury it somewhere deep in a bullhead's gullet. I've hooked plenty of bullheads with nothing but the line showing from down in their throats, and it's no small feat to get the hook back out. A hook disgorger or a pair of long-nosed pliers is your only hope, unless you opt for the quicker solution of cutting the line and retrieving your hook later while cleaning the fish.

The bullhead's defense system consists of sharp pectoral and dorsal fin spines. As a boy, I seriously doubted a bullhead's ability to hurt me, so I experimented on one -- a mistake I'll never make again. Work gloves can help, but caution is called for whether you're gloved or going at it barehanded. Practice makes perfect, and after a while you can unhook a lightly hooked bullhead without getting poked.

Bullheads are found throughout Iowa in waters of all kinds. They can tolerate poorer, muddier conditions than many other species. Shallow creeks and rivers, weedy lakes and even somewhat polluted, urban-area waters are all tolerable for bullheads. In some aging, sediment-filled lakes and ponds, the bullhead may be the only fish capable of staying alive.

"We don't manage for bullheads," said Steve Waters, fisheries biologist supervisor in southeast Iowa.

The reason? No one has to, said Waters.

Bullheads are found throughout the region's natural, shallow lakes. And according to Waters, anglers don't need much in the line of equipment.

"We used sticks and kite string with bacon and baloney tied on," said Waters.

"We didn't even use a hook! Some of the fish dropped off and some didn't. We eventually progressed to using hooks on the kite string."

Many of the lakes Waters manages have remnant populations of bullheads. Belva Deer Lake in Keokuk County, Lake Keomah in Mahaska County and Lake Macbride in Johnson County all have bigger bullheads, but smaller populations. Lake Wapallo has some of the region's biggest bulls, fish that will run between 12 and 15 inches and weigh up to 3 pounds.

Dray Walters, a fisheries technician in the Mt. Ayer office in southwestern Iowa, said that in his area, a night crawler will do the trick. He recommends Badger Creek Lake in Madison County for some 15-inchers, and Green Valley lake near Creston in Union County for fish up to 13 inches. The 19-acre Q-Pond in Clark County pumps out big numbers of smaller bullheads for its small size


Fisheries biologist Ed Thelen in northwestern Iowa touts Spirit Lake of the Iowa Great Lakes as his area's top bullhead fishery.

"In Spirit Lake, you have quality over quantity," said Thelen. "Spirit Lake is our bread-and-butter lake. The bullheads in Spirit Lake move out into the main lake in the summer, and you'll catch them in a little deeper water. Bar none, Spirit Lake is the best bullhead fishing spot in the state and a trip you'll want to make."

Bullheads are similar to other fish, said Thelen, in that their population fluctuates up and down depending on the water levels and lake conditions. In 2005, a four-year low-water period finally gave way, and Thelen hopes the numbers of bullheads in Spirit Lake will soon improve.

He pointed out that in 2000, over 5,700 anglers caught a total of 21,782 bullheads in Spirit Lake alone. Numbers were down in 2004, when over 2,800 anglers took home just over 8,000 fish. Thelen hopes the trend is reversing back to higher numbers --of both bullhead anglers and a lot more harvested fish.

In northwestern Iowa, other good bullhead waters are Silver and Center lakes in Dickinson County, Ingham Lake in Emmet County and Clear Lake in Cerro Gordo County.

In northeastern Iowa, Martens Lake in Bremer County and Bergfeld Pond in Dubuque County top the list, said Bryan Hayes, a fisheries biologist in the region.

"Martens Lake is a shallow 130-acre lake located in the Sweet Marsh Fish and Wildlife Area," said Hayes. "Bullheads survive the winter because of the water flow from Plum Creek. Fishery surveys indicated good numbers of bullheads in the 10- to 11-inch range. Some of the old-timers remember when anglers would come to the lake specifically for bullheads.

"Bergfeld Pond covers 10 acres and is located in the City of Dubuque's industrial park. Bullheads are stocked the first weekend in June for a kid's fishing event. The kids catch a lot of them, and the remaining fish are a boost to the fishing all summer long. During the summer, I wouldn't fish any deeper than 6 feet to avoid the thermocline."

Though the fish are in deeper water this month, all in all, there's still some pretty good summer bullhead fishing to be had in the Hawkeye State.

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