Bullheads make the best of summer evenings all across America. Take a lawn chair and some simple spinning gear to a nearby farm pond or small lake. A can of worms will do for bait, and you might also want a portable radio to catch the Tigers or Cubs game as you wait for a bite. It’s a good bet, though, that you won’t be waiting very long.
These small catfish are usually easy to catch and also make for superb eating, which accounts for their huge popularity, especially in the Midwest. If you grew up in Iowa, chances are that a wiggly bullhead was your first fish. That’s partly why the good folks in Crystal Lake have a huge bullhead statue trailing its whiskers at the lakeshore end of Main Street. Not to be outdone, Waterville, in southern Minnesota, holds a four-day Bullhead Festival every summer, complete with a parade and sidewalk vendors selling freshly fried fish. Don’t wait for a festival, though-you can catch your own almost any time you like.
Watch the Spines
There are three bullhead species-yellow, brown, and black. It’s hard for nonscientists to tell them apart, though brown bullheads tend to be larger, averaging 12 to 15 inches long and reaching 6 or 7 pounds.
All the species have three sharp, mildly venomous spines, one at the front of the dorsal fin and one on each of the two pectoral fins. To avoid injury, grab a bullhead by its jaw as you would a bass or around the body behind the dorsal spine. If you do get pricked, rub ammonia on the wound for relief.
Bullheads also have extraordinary senses of smell and taste, and those can help you catch them. As a kid, I kept a few small bullheads in an aquarium. I sometimes played with them by removing them briefly from the water in order to drag a worm across the bottom of the tank. I’d put the bullheads back in and watch, fascinated, as they unerringly followed the worm’s scent trail.
X Marks the Spot
As it turns out, there’s an old bullheading trick based on that very ability. When you make your first cast into a bullhead pond, toss your line out at about a 60-degree angle to shore, then reel your weighted worm back slowly along the bottom. Next, walk about 30 feet along the shoreline and make another angled cast that will intersect your first, creating an imaginary X out in the water. Drag your worm slowly back once again. Finally, cast your bait to the X-spot intersection, sit down, and watch your line. The scent trails that you’ve created should lead bullheads to your worm more quickly. I’ve caught plenty of them by doing this, whenever bottom snags or weeds don’t interfere.
Rigging for bullheads is simple. Cover a size 4 to 1/0 hook tied to 6- to 8-pound-test monofilament with a gob of small worms or a single nightcrawler. Add enough split shot about 18 inches above the hook to give adequate casting weight. Because bullheads are most active after dark, the action should increase after the sun goes down. Prop the rod in a forked stick and pay attention to your tackle so it doesn’t get dragged in by a night-biting fish. Then turn on your radio to see if just once-maybe tonight-the Tigers will win a ball game.