For many anglers, bullheads are the gateway fish to larger catfish species. My obsession with the world’s largest catfish species started at an early age while fishing bullheads in Central Wisconsin. My appreciation for them has never waned.
About eight years old at the time, I recall racing through afternoon chores in hopes of getting dropped off at the local mill pond for the last hour of the day and maybe a few hours into the night. The shallow, weed-choked pond offered marginal fishing opportunities, but it was the best we had. A decent bluegill or small bass or pike was caught on occasion. The fish we could count on routinely catching, however, were bullheads.
When the sun went down and we switched from gamefish to bullheads, the recipe for success was simple. Our rig consisted of a free-sliding bell sinker, a snap swivel, and a pre-snelled #8 Eagle Claw baitholder hook. We baited with a worm, grasshopper, cricket, piece of hot dog, or anything else that we could substitute for livebait when unavailable. Bullheads are omnivores, meaning they eat most anything including plants, insect larvae, fish, crayfish, and snails. They also have an appetite for many items found in refrigerators, such as lunchmeat, cheese, shrimp, and chicken liver.
The rig was cast as far as possible, serving more as a casting competition than a fishing strategy. The line was drawn tight after the sinker hit bottom and the rod held by a forked stick. By the faint illumination of a nearby streetlight, we swatted mosquitoes and waited for the telltale rod tapping of a bullhead biting.
We learned to appreciate these scrappy little fighters for their eagerness to bite whatever we had to offer. The quality of our catches was relative. Some nights, a modest 10-inch brown bullhead took top honors. No matter the size, they all tasted good in the frying pan. Soon we learned to remove their pectoral and dorsal spines and use the smallest bullheads as bait for bass and pike. Years later, when we finally had the opportunity to target flatheads elsewhere, we again called upon the eager bullhead as a premier bait option.
Occupying a niche within the vast Ictaluridae family of catfish, the bullhead’s ability to tolerate low oxygen levels and poor water quality has allowed them to expand their range to where they now exist in every state within the continental U.S. Seven species occur within the bullhead genus, Amerius, throughout North America, although anglers are most familiar with three varieties—yellow, brown, and black. East Coast anglers are also familiar with the white catfish, which also resides in that genus.
Yellow bullheads have a native range that includes the Atlantic and Gulf coast watersheds, along with the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence and Mississippi river watersheds. They have 24 to 27 anal fin rays and whitish chin barbels, which distinguish them from brown and black bullheads. The IGFA all-tackle record stands at 6 pounds 6 ounces, but they rarely grow to half that size. They generally have solid yellowish to olive coloration along their sides and lighter colored bellies. As with all bullheads, however, their coloration can vary among various bodies of water and during the reproductive season. This makes coloration alone a poor identification feature.
Brown bullheads have a large native range, encompassing the entire range of yellow bullheads and extending farther north into eastern Canada. Their most distinguishing physical characteristics include the mottled coloration on their sides and 21 to 24 anal fin rays. Their chin barbels are generally grayish in color, with some whitish coloration possible at the base. This is distinctive from black bullheads, with all-black chin barbels, and yellow bullheads, which have whitish ones. Top-end size is generally less than 3 pounds, with the IGFA record being 7 pounds 6 ounces.
Black bullheads have a native geographic range as broad as brown bullheads, pushing their natural western expanse to Montana. Their coloration is generally solid-black, dark brown, or olive across their sides, with a lighter belly. Males can be nearly pure black during the spring mating season. They have 15 to 21 rays on their anal fins. The current IGFA record is 8 pounds 2 ounces, but most large specimens weigh less than 4 pounds.
Tactics & Care
The fond relationship that anglers have with bullheads plays out across the country and throughout generations. Luke Hentges of Jordan, Minnesota, has a love for all things catfish related. He shares that passion with over 20,000 subscribers to his Northwoods Angling channel. While he recognizes the food value of bullheads, he views them primarily as a bait for flatheads, walleyes, and other gamefish.
When targeting bullheads for bait, he looks to any local city ponds, lakes, drainage ditches, and even interstate runoffs. “Depending on the time of year, I either target them off the bottom with a bobber and a jig tipped with a worm, or a jig and worm on the bottom,” he says. “Keep the line tight to detect bites. Because bullheads are aggressive and inhale baits quickly, using a jig instead of a plain hook eliminates most deep-hooking. Typically, they’re deeper during the day and come up closer to the bank at night, when fishing for them is excellent. Don’t hesitate to fish any body of water. If it looks too small and too shallow, it most likely has bullheads.”
Another helpful technique to avoid deep-hooking is to use larger baits suspended under a float on a wide-gap Kahle hook. Kahle hooks accommodate a 1.5-inch strip of cutbait and still have enough exposed shank to allow for easy hook removal. Strongly scented baits like shad, sucker minnows, and chubs get bullheads rising off the bottom, and the hook can be set once they first take the bait. Cutbait stays on the hook better than most baits.
Hentges has several suggestions for the care of live bullheads as bait. “A mistake that people make is immediately putting bullheads into their bait tank,” he says. “Bullheads excrete a large amount of fecal matter, so it’s important to let them purge overnight in a bait bucket before they go into a livewell tank. This eliminates issues with dirty water. You can feed them corn, worms, minnows, dog food, or fish pellets if you plan on keeping them for some time.
“My favorite bullhead size for flatheads is 6 to 9 inches. I use them with a standard slipsinker rig and a ‘J’ hook. I fish with the baitclicker on and set the hook when the flathead is swimming away with the bait. Also common is using live bullheads with a circle hook and tight line. I do this during prespawn when I’m fishing tiny cuts full of wood and I don’t want the fish to run.”
Bullheads are tolerant of low dissolved oxygen, so caring for them is relatively easy. Hentges has a 150-gallon tank with a filtration system that circulates the water 20 times per day. For most people, a portable 19-quart Engel Bait Aeration Cooler keeps a weekend’s supply of bullheads healthy in a cool, oxygenated, and secure container. In hot weather, add a frozen water bottle to the container to cool the water slightly, which helps retain more oxygen in the water. Be sure to check your state’s regulations on the use and transportation of bullheads as bait, as well as size and possession limits.
Whether catching bullheads for table fare, bait, or fun, they’re plentiful and deserving of our appreciation. They flourish in areas with marginal water quality and eagerly provide a satisfying tug at the end of the line.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan is a multispecies angler and contributes to all In-Fisherman publications.