Jim McGuire: Lowly, lovely bullheads


I’ve been an avid bullhead fan all my life—though certainly not because of their looks, fight, size, or any angling expertise required in getting them to bite.

The humble bullhead is pretty much a piscatorial pushover. Bait is not a problem. They’ll eat most anything—from worms to dead minnows to a gob of bloody chicken liver or a lump of stinky cheese threaded onto a hook. Bullheads aren’t finicky eaters.

Sizewise, the average bullhead ranges from three-quarters to a pound-and-a-half. Two-pounders are rare dandies!

As to their tussling capabilities, let’s just say bullheads, being modest-size panfish, are adequate. They’re not going to destroy your tackle or thrill you with acrobatics. But they’re pugnacious scrappers, and after a cabin-bound winter, lots of fun.

Lookswise? No bullhead is ever going to win the fish version of a beauty contest. They might even be the ugliest freshwater fish that swims!

Bullheads are stubby, ill- proportioned. Their hide is colored muddy-yellow to blackish-brown.

A bullhead’s snout is rounded, its forehead a bit too flat, like someone might have given them a frontal-lobe whack with a shovel. Eyes are beady, and the chin sports a typical scruffy crop of catfish whiskers—barbels, as they’re correctly called. Lips are large and fleshy, with an expression bordering on a sneer.

Moreover, like all catfish, they’re menacingly armed. Needle-sharp pectoral and dorsal spinepoints are ready to “sting” you in a heartbeat. Dreaded puncture wounds that can leave your finger or palm throbbing and swollen for hours.

Yet to their legions of fans, “beauty is as beauty does.” A bullhead’s worth is measured by two factors—the first being availability.

Bullheads begin biting as soon as the ice breaks in lakes and ponds. And often before the last patches of snow have melted from along the riverbanks.

If you can get your bait into the water—regardless of air temperature—you can probably catch at least a few bullheads. Sometimes quite a few.

For many of us, bullheads as thus the quintessential “first fish of the year.” Even if the season is still winter rather than spring.

Bottom line, you don’t have to go far to find ‘em—and it’s almost impossible to start fishing too early.

The second undeniable factor solidifying the bullhead’s worth as an angling target is taste. Bullheads are delicious! What this lowly fish lacks in looks, size and streamside pizzazz, it more than makes up for in the kitchen.

When taken from cold, clean waters their flesh is firm and succulent. Toothsomely delectable!

To clean my catch, I usually just gut and behead, snip off the fins and tail, and fry “in the round.” Really big specimens I might also skin and halve lengthways. Preparing a couple dozen fish thus takes only a few minutes.

Roll your readied bullheads in a seasoned flour/cornmeal mix, deep fry in a cast iron skillet until golden, and serve with a spritz of lemon juice and fresh tangy coleslaw A piled-high platter will disappear in minutes. Don’t invite guests unless you have about three times more than you think everyone could possibly eat.

Some of my earliest angling memories revolve around countless bullheading junkets my father and I made each and every spring. Lakes such as Cowan, Indian, Loramie, and St. Marys, or stretches on the Stillwater, Great Miami, and Twin Creek.

Whenever Dad and I headed off to fish for bullheads, we’d make a “worm stop” or two along our journey. A routine I still follow, keeping a mental list of the best worm-digging locations convenient to whichever lake or stream I intend fishing.

On a recent morning, when the sun graciously decided to grace the sky, I gave up trying to resist the urge to go fishing. Not that I resisted for more than 10 seconds once the notion hit.

The Stillwater was still high and a bit too muddy, but I figured a couple of large public ponds a mile from my streamside cottage ought to be in good shape.

After a prerequisite driftpile bait stop, where I easily secured an ample supply of wiggly redworms, I arrived at the intended waters and set up shop. And 15 minutes later, I had the morning’s first bullhead yanking on my line!

When someone asks why I like to fish, I often fumble. The answer can be elusive, impossible to express.

How do you explain the inexplicable?

I just wish I could convey the feeling of the season’s first fish. After a dreary, fishless winter, amid the moment as I held a lowly, lovely bullhead in my hand, I became instantly reconnected with the fundamental magic which so inexplicably moves my heart and soul.

Yup. I’m definitely bullish about bullheads!


By Jim McGuire

Contributing Columnist

Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at [email protected].

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