Bullheads in Your Backyard

Bullheads in Your Backyard

Knowing what to look for ups the odds for catching big bullheads.

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

Managing-Bullheads-In-FishermanThe 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.

Adventure Products EGO Ti22 Pliers

adventureproducts.com - Snipping braids is a snap with the replaceable stainless steel cutters on these lightweight, rustproof titanium pliers, which feature an ergonomic handle and plastic-coated steel lanyard.

Berkley Hat Light

berkley-fishing.com - Brighten up low-light projects with this water-resistant headlight'™s white and UV lights. The oversized on/off button is easy to find in the dark, and two CR2032 batteries power 20 hours of runtime.

Buck Knives Splizzors

buckknives.com - Slice superlines with 10 times the pressure of ordinary cutters. Forged from 420HC steel, this scissors-pliers hybrid sports micro-serrated, replaceable blades. Also unhooks fish, crimps shot, and opens bottles.

Clam Outdoors Light Stick

clamoutdoors.com - Eight bright LED bulbs with 560-lumen output — along with the ability to harness power from a variety of batteries, including 12-volt sources — make this light pole shine for off-grid workspaces.

Hartwell Osprey Fish Nippers

hartwellfishing.com - True multi-taskers, these sturdy little nippers snip line, clean hookeyes, sharpen hooks, and open bottles. Crafted from 316 stainless steel and anodized aluminum.

Knipex Twinforce Pliers

knipex.com - Knipex Tools offers compact 7-inch TwinForce Pliers (weighing 8 ounces). They'™re dual-hinged with the leverage to cut heavy-gauge hooks.

Rapala Magnetic Tool Holders

rapala.com - Rapala recently released a trio of magnetic holders to tame tools while keeping them handy. Available in single, double, and triple configurations, all of which mount on any flat surface.

Rippin Lips Big Fish Gripper

rippinlips.net - Built for cats but ideal for behemoth '™eyes, it clamps catches with stainless-steel jaws. Also features an internal scale that weighs fish up to 50 pound.

Williamson Double Leverage Pliers

williamsonlures.com - Dual pivot points boost power by 60 percent, making short work of cutting and unhooking chores. Features nickel-plated carbon steel and enlarged grips. Cutters also available.

T-Reign Plier ProSheath Combo

t-reignoutdoor.com - A 36-inch retractable Kevlar tether housed inside the 600-denier nylon sheath keeps these 7½-inch, aircraft-grade, spring-loaded aluminum pliers close at hand. Features include a split-ring opener, crimps, and replaceable tungsten-carbide cutters.

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

Recommended for You

Blackened fish ready to serve with a side of okra and cucumber-red onion salad. This recipe is a treat! Fish Recipes

Blackened Fish Recipe

Tommy Thompson

Blackened fish ready to serve with a side of okra and cucumber-red onion salad. This recipe is...

Catch those weary crappie with this technique! Panfish

Dock Shooting Crappies

Matt Straw - July 03, 2018

Catch those weary crappie with this technique!

Crankin' is almost a necessity for finding bass on the Great Lakes from summer through fall. Bass

Using Crankbaits For Smallmouth Bass

Matt Straw - January 31, 2016

Crankin' is almost a necessity for finding bass on the Great Lakes from summer through fall.

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Select Lure Options for Giant Pike

Select Lure Options for Giant Pike

And handful of lure options produce big pike early in the season.

Largemouth Bass: Tricks of Our Trade

Largemouth Bass: Tricks of Our Trade

The In-Fisherman staff reveals insider swimming jig tips and tricks for big bass.

New Optimum and Optimum TS Downriggers from Canon

New Optimum and Optimum TS Downriggers from Canon

From rugged reliability to smooth integration of cutting edge technology across several different platforms, OSG's Lynn Burkhead learns that there's much to like about the new Optimum and Optimum TS downriggers from Canon.

See more Popular Videos

Trending Stories

Catfish are simple creatures that can be caught using the best catfish rigs. Catching them is simply a matter of putting a good bait in the right in front of them. Catfish

The Best Catfish Rigs

In-Fisherman - January 11, 2018

Catfish are simple creatures that can be caught using the best catfish rigs. Catching them is...

Catfish are among the most popular groups of fish with over 7 million catfish anglers nationwide. Catfish

All About Catfish

Rob Neumann

Catfish are among the most popular groups of fish with over 7 million catfish anglers...

'Walleyes spawn in spring and understanding spring walleye migrations, whether you live north or south, will help you pinpoint their predictable locations year after year. 

Walleyes spawn in spring, but spring may arrive in February in Mississippi, March in Walleye

Understanding Spring Walleye Migrations

Gord Pyzer - June 02, 2018

'Walleyes spawn in spring and understanding spring walleye migrations, whether you live north...

See More Stories

More Catfish

10 Tips for Long-Distance Casting

Look to a rod that suits your style of fishing. For most long-distance casting Catfish

10 Tips for Long-Distance Casting

Mark Edwards - August 30, 2018

10 Tips for Long-Distance Casting Look to a rod that suits your style of fishing. For most...

South Dakota fishery biologists voided the state's oldest record fish, a channel catfish caught by Roy Groves in 1949. Catfish

South Dakota's State-Record Channel Catfish Reconsidered

In-Fisherman - October 17, 2019

South Dakota fishery biologists voided the state's oldest record fish, a channel catfish...

In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange wrote about early-season catfishing in a previous issue of Catfish

Early-Season Catfishing Tactics

Dan Anderson - April 23, 2018

In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange wrote about early-season catfishing in a previous...

See More Catfish

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

×