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Catfish Week: Bullhead are Worthy Targets

Bullheads are certainly worthy opponents for those looking for fun and good eats!

Catfish Week: Bullhead are Worthy Targets
The yellow bullhead is a sporty species to be targeted.

When asked to write about catfish for In-Fisherman's "Catfish Week," I took a quick mental inventory of my fishing memories and came up with exactly two fairly unremarkable catfish experiences.

My first—and most exciting—catfish experience came many years ago when I was working a weebed with a Mepps Syclops looking for northern pike. I'd stop reeling midway through the retrieve, making the spoon flutter back toward any trailing half-interested fish that may have been following it. I caught a few pike that midsummer day, but I also boated a 15-pound channel cat, much to my surprise.

That, I'm afraid, is not enough for a how-to-use-spoons-for-catfish story. Do it try sometime. Your results may vary.

My second catfish experience involved night fishing with classic, stinky bait on a riverbank. Not a single fish was hooked that night.

But then it occurred to me: I've actually been fishing for "catfish" since I was a kid. Not channels or flatheads or even Mekong giant catfish, but something smaller, less flashy, and far more ubiquitous: brown bullhead.

About 'Pout

Here in northern New England, we call brown bullhead "bullpout," and bullpout fishing begins in earnest as winter dies and spring slowly takes over. This story will use the words "bullpout" and "bullhead" interchangeably.

On my home water, Lake Champlain, bullpout fishing streaks toward its zenith in March. The ice on the big lake is far too punky and sketchy to support hardwater anglers at this time of year and the trout streams are still cold, icy, and fairly unfishable. But bullpout seem to always deliver at this transitory time of year. And, for that matter, throughout the season.

Bullhead fishing generally takes place at the mouths of swamps and wetlands – areas where warmer, open water appears first. Although not exclusively a nocturnal activity, most bullpout fishing takes place under the cover of darkness.

We'll talk about tackle and techniques next but do know to properly bullpout fish you'll need a 5-gallon pail (the one you use for ice fishing will suffice) and a folding camp chair.

You'll also likely see pictures of bullhead being held by anglers with gloves. That's just simple hand protection. They have sharp dorsal and pectoral fins and it's easy to get "stung" by these fins when handling them.

Bullhead Primer

There are seven species of catfish native to North America. Three of them are bullhead species—brown, black and yellow. While there are some populations of brown bullheads in the Pacific Northwest, brown bullhead are native to eastern North America from Saskatchewan east to New Brunswick and south to Louisiana.

yellow bullput in hand
Bullheads are easy to find, easy to catch and ambitious fighters for their size. Plus, they make fine table fare.

In the Northeast, bullpout (you'll also hear them called "hornedpout") will spawn in the early summer. Here during "Catfish Week" we're probably at the tail end of the spawn, depending largely on water temperatures. They prefer rocky and sandy bottoms, in water less than 15 feet deep. River mouths and deltas are good places to find spawning bullhead.

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In just about all bullhead waters (do check your regulations), there are few—if any—harvest restrictions on the species. Voracious eaters, they will eat the young of other fish—including bass and walleye.

Bullheads have hypersensitive external “taste buds” on their skin, meaning their whole body doubles as a food-seeking olfactory system.

Techniques

Regardless of the time of year, bullpout fishing doesn't require a significant investment in terminal tackle or fancy baits. And what works in the spring, generally works throughout the summer. As a bonus, bullhead don't require specially formulated catfish baits, spoiled chicken livers , or punchbats. No, for bullheads a simple gob of nightcrawlers will work.

Like other catfish species, bullhead are bottom feeders, so getting the bait on or near the bottom is key. A drop-shot setup works well. Whether you’re in a boat or on a bank, you don't need to be moving around a lot. Once you find a bullpout or two, stay put. There are others around.

Do know that in the early season, you're likely to be near other bullpout anglers since you're all fishing in a small patch of open water. As the season progresses and more water becomes accessible, you'll still want to concentrate on depths less than 15 feet or so. As water temps warm, bullpout will only increase their nocturnal activities.

Hook sizes No. 2 to 1/0 are perfect. Long-shanked hooks will help since bullpout are notorious hook swallowers. Have a hook disgorger or pair of needle nose pliers in your tackle box to remove those deeply swallowed hooks. Smaller circle hooks are increasingly popular—they hook the fish in the corner of the mouth and simplify the hook process procedure.

Bullhead Taste

Like their cousins in the catfish family, bullpout are pretty tasty. Most of the time. As the water temps rise and summer comes into full bloom, they'll often take on a muddy flavor, so the bullpout caught in early spring are the most coveted for table fare.

Like catfish, bullheads can be filleted, and as a general rule, if the filets have dark yellow or red streaks, cut those out of the meat.

You might never find "Fried Bullpout Sandwich" on a restaurant's menu but don't knock it until you try it. Just like bullhead fishing.




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