June 03, 2014
By Quinton Phelps, Matt Ward and Dave Willis
Should we consider bullheads as members of the panfish party? Most panfish anglers chasing bluegills, crappies, and perch would at first without question say no, but think of the admirable characteristics of panfish. They offer consistent action, provide great table fare, and offer much excitement, especially for beginning anglers. If these are the aspects that make panfish desirable, then bullheads definitely fall into this category.
Bullheads belong to the scientific genus Ameiurus within the catfish family Ictaluridae. Although this genus contains seven species, most anglers focus on the big three — black, brown, and yellow bullheads. Also in this genus is the white catfish — a fish enjoyed in Atlantic coast states. Rounding out the clan are the snail, flat, and spotted bullheads, which have localized distributions.
Bullheads can be found in most of America's backyard. The black bullhead is distributed from the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachians and from Canada to Texas, and has been introduced into most states west of the Rockies. Yellows range from the Midwest to the Atlantic Coast. The brown bullhead has a similar distribution, but primarily east of the Central Plains states.
Catches of bullheads with average weight in the 3/4- to 11„2-pound range make for a great outing. On some waters, 2-pounders or better are possible. Finding the right water, either for numbers or size, might seem like a difficult task, but knowing what to look for increases your chances for tangling with quality bullheads.
More and Bigger Bullheads
Our research at South Dakota State University showed that certain lake and fish-community characteristics typically produce more and bigger bullheads. This research focused on black bullheads in South Dakota and Nebraska, but the findings might also directly apply to other species of bullheads and other areas of the country.
Bullhead abundance was higher in lakes that were shallow, small, and had low water-transparency. So if you're looking for fast action (a great way to get kids fishing), find lakes with these characteristics. On the other hand, if you're willing to sacrifice quantity for quality, we found that the best chances for big bullheads come in larger lakes that have higher water clarity and many larger predators such as walleye, largemouth bass, or northern pike.
Our study suggests that predators reduce overall abundance of black bullheads, thereby increasing bullhead growth and resulting in maximum sizes. Smaller bullheads are vulnerable to predation, so in lakes that have abundant predators, the average size of bullheads is typically quite high. Average size was lower as abundance increased, because the fish's growth rates depend on the level of competition for available food. Lakes with overabundant bullheads, therefore, contain smaller-sized bullheads. On the other hand, in lakes that have very few, the average size is larger.
Our research showed no negative impacts by this fish on other panfish species. If bullheads were overabundant and small, so were most other panfish. If they were big, so were most other panfish. Chances are, if a lake contains big panfish, it also houses big bullies. If you know of a good perch, crappie, or bluegill lake, you might bolster your catch with some big bullheads.
In spring, bullheads are drawn to warmer water and more abundant food in backwaters and sloughs of lakes and rivers. After spawning, they often move back to mainlake coves and bays around vegetation breaks, or they might remain in backwaters all summer if water quality doesn't become too stagnant.
Although bullheads are a fish for all seasons, the postspawn bite can be one of the best of the year. Like bluegills and crappies, the male builds a nest and then guards newly hatched fry until they reach about 2 inches in length. Following spawning and parental responsibilities, bullheads are active, hungry, and aggressive.
In the Midwest, the month of July should be prime time if you're looking for some non-stop action, with inshore activity most intense from sundown until about midnight. In the Upper Midwest, July is typically the Postspawn Period, and bullheads are likely feeding heavily to replace energy reserves that were used during spawning. They spawn at water temperatures in the upper 60°F to lower 70°F range, which means tracking the spawn from around March in the South to July and August in the North.
Bullheads primarily eat larger invertebrates, although big specimens also eat fish. The barbels (whiskers) around a bullhead's mouth and receptors along its entire body are used for chemo-reception, giving bullheads and other catfishes an excellent sense of smell and taste.
Fishing for bullheads doesn't require expensive tackle or fancy rigs. A simple split-shot rig with a worm-baited hook might be all that's necessary. Chunks of nightcrawler are probably the most common presentation for bullheads — however, don't be afraid to experiment with live minnows if you're looking for bigger fish.
Another good option is to fish with a leadhead jig filled with worms, stationary on the bottom. Stand-up jigs with wedge heads work best to keep the bait slightly off bottom for easy pickings. Bullheads won't swallow a jig as readily as a small hook, and the jighead makes for a nice handle when unhooking the fish.
Bullhead populations are often overlooked, providing a mostly unexploited angling opportunity throughout the country. They're abundant, tasty, and willing to take your bait. Depending on what you're looking for — quality or quantity — consider the lake type, predator abundance, and focus your efforts during the summer months.
Managing Bullheads in Ponds
The size of bullheads in small ponds might be a good indicator of largemouth bass abundance. In some ponds, bullheads become overabundant and have a small average size, most likely from lack of predation by largemouth bass, caused by low bass density or poor water clarity, which limits feeding. On the other hand, small ponds with bigger bullheads (1- to 2-pounders) usually contain an abundant largemouth bass population. Smaller bullheads are vulnerable to largemouth bass predation, which decreases bullhead abundance and increases their average size. If a pond owner is a bullhead aficionado, largemouth bass abundance can be managed to produce trophy bullheads.
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