Bullheads don’t get very large but these panfish are favorites of many anglers. Photo by Keith Sutton
7 Tips for Cool-Season Bullhead Anglers
by Keith “Catfish” Sutton
Want to catch some good-eating, cool-weather cats? Try bullheads.
When the coolness of autumn sets in, I always get bullheads on my mind. These widespread catfish—black, brown and yellow—don’t get nearly as big as their blue, flathead and channel catfish cousins. But like bluegills and perch, they’re great fun to catch on light tackle and delicious on the dinner table.
You can catch bullheads year-round in most waters where they’re abundant, but late fall and early winter are my favorite seasons. One reason is because bullheads taste better when caught in cold water. In warmer months, their flesh tends to get mushy and distasteful unless the fish are iced down immediately after they’re landed. But winter fish fresh-caught from a pond are delicious.
I also prefer cool-season fishing because this time of year, bullheads tend to concentrate in deeper holes, and it’s not unusual to catch dozens from a single locale. Creel limits are generous, or non-existent, in many states, so that translates into a lot of good eating. The fillets or whole pan-dressed fish can be frozen for later consumption, but the best-tasting bullies are those just caught and cooked while fresh.
If you’d like to join me in some bullhead fishing fun this season, try some of the following tips I’ve learned during the more than 50 years I’ve been targeting these bantam brawlers. They’re sure to help you increase your catch.
1. Fish ponds.
Bullheads inhabit all sorts of rivers and lakes, big and small. But they tend to get particularly abundant in ponds. That’s good because there’s less water to search when you’re looking for a good fishing spot, and if the water is cold, active feeding sites are usually restricted to the deepest holes, where bullheads may gather in the hundreds.
I try to locate the deepest water in the pond—usually a hole near the dam if there is one—and either cast to that spot from the bank or fish a bait vertically beneath me if I’m in a boat. There may be certain features in the hole like a log or shelf that attract the most fish. So, I move my bait from spot to spot within the deep water, or along breaklines, until I get a bite. When I catch the first fish, I go back to that same spot and keep fishing until the bite stops. Then I move a few feet to another location and start the search process again. I’ll usually catch a dozen or more bullheads in each locale this season before having to move.
2. Use light or ultralight tackle.
Record-class bullheads weigh only a few pounds, with fish in most prime waters averaging a pound or less. That being the case, you shouldn’t fish with the same medium or heavy tackle you use for channel cats, flatheads and blues. You’ll catch more bullies if you stick to light or ultralight gear. My favorite is a 5- to 6-foot ultralight spinning combo (Zebco’s 33 Approach Micro Spincast Combo with Bite Alert is a good one) spooled with 4- to 6-pound mono.
3. Thin-wire hooks penetrate better.
I also like to use long-shanked Carlisle cricket hooks, which would seem to be better suited for bream than bullies. Bullheads have tough mouths, however, and the fine-wire cricket hooks penetrate the fishes’ thick skin quicker and better. If you leave the hook point exposed, and not buried in bait, you should get hooked up as soon as you snap your rod.
Carry plenty of extras because bullheads are notorious for swallowing hooks. You can remove hooks with a disgorger or long-nosed pliers, but it’s quicker to cut the line and retrieve the hooks when you clean the fish.
4. Two baits that really work.
Bullheads will eat almost anything that fits in their broad mouths, everything from minnows and doughbait balls to grasshoppers and chubs. I have my best luck, however, with fresh (not frozen) chicken liver, which draws bullies quicker than an ice cream truck draws kids. A piece the size of your thumbnail is usually ample, but rebait regularly as the blood soaks out.
Worms or night crawlers work great, too, especially when you use a hypodermic syringe or “worm blower” to inflate them. Adding a shot of air in the body floats the worms above the bottom, making them more visible to the fish and attracting more bites.
5. Wait before you set the hook
Bullheads often hold the bait, let the angler start reeling them in, then spit the bait out at the last second. This is annoying, for sure. But if you’ll count to three or four when your line starts moving, then set the hook with a quick, upward snap of the wrist, you’ll usually hook those that bite. When bobber fishing, wait until the float disappears or starts slowly moving away. That’s usually when the fish has the bait in its mouth and the right time to strike.
6. Avoid those spines.
When you’re landing bullheads, use caution to avoid their sharp pectoral and dorsal fin spines. These sharp, serrated bones can make nasty punctures that might get infected if not properly treated. If you get finned, ammonia daubed on the wound helps neutralize the stinging sensation.
7. For the best flavor, ice them down and trim them up.
Bullheads from muddy or polluted waters may have an objectionable taste, but if you catch bullheads in clean water and promptly put them on ice, they’re delicious. Always skin the fish and remove all dark red meat along the lateral line. This rids the dressed fish of the most unsavory flesh.
Bullheads can be substituted in any recipe calling for catfish. But most anglers agree, they’re best prepared by dredging in seasoned cornmeal and deep-frying until golden-brown and the meat flakes easily with a fork. Yum, yum!