Everyone loves an underdog. Whether we’re watching some low-ranked boxer or tennis player taking it to the world champion or some scrappy college team fighting their way to the top of the Pac 12, we can’t help but root for the dark horse and cheer for the unexpected. This inherent desire is deeply ingrained in us from the time we’re young, reading the stories of David and Goliath and The Little Engine that Could and watching those generic yet adorable movies about rag-tag groups of misfits playing sports. The ones where despite the fact that their star player is a nerd, a werewolf, or a golden retriever, they still manage to win the championship. This love for the longshot gives us confidence, inspires us, and touches nearly every aspect of our lives—except our fishing.
When it comes to fishing, we don’t want the scrappy little engine that could, we want the big one. That giant fish that puts our tackle to the test and leaves us with a great picture or mount for the wall and an epic fish tale to tell our friends. This is especially true in the world of catfish where the main species pursued like the flathead, blue, and channel grow to enormous sizes and are found in some of the toughest most challenging aquatic environments available. However, this tends to make many catfish anglers overlook one of the most tenacious and delicious members of the catfish family. A widespread and willing underdog whose presence in the water, willingness to eat, and excellent flesh inspired many a young angler to become obsessed with the catfish species—I’m talking about the bullhead.
Bullhead catfish are one of the smallest and most common catfish in North America. Also known as fiddleheads, yellowbellies, chuckleheads, mud cats, and hornpouts, there are over 7 different recognized species of bullhead catfish in the country, though only three are large enough and widely distributed enough to be pursued by anglers, the black bullhead, brown bullhead, and the yellow bullhead.
All three of these bullhead species can be found across the eastern half of North America, as far west as Montana and Wyoming, as far south as northern Mexico, and as far north and east as New England and New Brunswick. Though they are all incredibly similar in size and appearance, all three main species have distinct features and habitats that make them identifiable to the anglers that pursue them.
Brown bullheads are small, rarely growing larger than 20 inches, and prefer relatively clear rivers, streams, lakes, and ponds with a lot of vegetation. Black bullhead are the most common and largest of the bullhead species, sometimes growing to 6lbs or more, and can be found in almost any type of water, from muddy rivers to small clear streams to weed-choked swamps and ponds. I’ve even caught black bullhead in clear, middle-of-nowhere-back country ponds that supposedly didn’t have any fish in them! Yellow bullhead are the smallest and easiest to identify of the three main bullhead species, as their chin barbells or “whiskers” are often yellow or even white in color. Yellows are also more particular in their habits, preferring dense vegetation and clearer water than the browns or blacks.
Regardless of the bullhead that you’re trying to catch or where you’re trying to catch them, fishing for bullhead is a simple process. There’s no need to go out and buy special equipment or fancy lures to chase them. In fact, the simplicity of the fish is really what makes them so wonderful. Being widely available and easy to catch makes them a great first fish for kids or any other inexperienced anglers interested in catching and eating catfish. Their small size means that bullhead can also be caught on light tackle and their varied diet means that a variety of baits will work for them.
Your basic bullhead setup consists of a light- to medium-action spinning or baitcasting rod, strung with 6- to 10-pound monofilament or braided line. Attach a small ⅛- to ¼-ounce egg sinker or casting sinker to the line and then tie on a barrel swivel. Tie 2 to 3 feet of line to the other end of the swivel and then tie on a size 4 bait hook. This rig will allow the bullhead to pick up the bait from the line and run with it for a few seconds without feeling any resistance. This is vital to success as bullheads are notorious “half biters” that simply mouth the bait and drop it, causing many bullhead fisherman to set too early and then throw their rods into the water from pure frustration.
Baits for bullhead can greatly vary depending on what you prefer to use. Like other catfish, bullhead rely heavily on their sense of smell when feeding so the same stinky cutbaits and dough baits you would use for other catfish species will work incredibly well. Grocery store baits like chicken livers, corn, marshmallows, and even white bread will also work. If you prefer a more natural approach then things like live and dead minnows, leeches, crickets, and even small panfish will catch you quite a few bullheads, but for my money, it’s hard to beat a hand-dug American worm.
Whatever bait you choose to use, it’s important to remember to rig it onto the hook with the point of the hook well exposed. Bullheads have hard mouths and tend to hold baits clamped tightly in the boniest portion along the outside of their jaw, making it incredibly difficult to get a hook to stick. So, when you get a bullhead running with your bait, be sure to set hard.
You’ll find bullhead in the same spots you’ll find most other catfish species. They tend to gather and feed in the deepest holes in small creeks, along backwaters and in the slow eddies of rivers, and right along the edges of weed beds in creeks and ponds. To really make sure you’re targeting them, it’s best to fish at night. Bullheads are mostly nocturnal or crepuscular fish. Although they can be caught during the day, they do most of their feeding at night. Catching a whole bunch of them often means finding a likely spot at dusk and then casting baits just as the sun goes down. Then it’s all a matter of sitting down, turning on your headlamp, and waiting for your line to come tight.
Many anglers think that bullhead make for terrible eating. They call them mudcats, catch them on accident, and leave them to rot on the bank. This is a bad move as not only are these fisherman wasting meat, they’re also missing out on some excellent tablefare. Like other catfish species, bullhead are some of the best eating fish out there when they’re cleaned and prepared properly. Their meat is lighter and slightly sweeter than other catfish making them perfect for any of your favorite catfish recipes.
Cleaning bullhead can be challenging as the small fish’s skins can be quite slippery and tough. They also have small, barbed spines along their pectoral fins that can prick the hell out of your fingers should you simply grab them and start slicing away haphazardly. Your best bet is to remove all the fins first before starting in on the rest of the fish. Then it’s simply a matter of cutting a small circle around the fish’s head with your knife, grabbing a pair of pliers and peeling the skin back down to the tail, and then cutting off and trimming the meat. If you want a complete tutorial on how to properly clean a catfish, you can watch Clay Newcomb undertake the task here.
Though there are many fantastic ways to cook a bullhead, my favorite has always been the simplest one. Simply toss the meat in flour and a bit of corn meal until it's well coated and then deep fry it to a golden brown. It’s an easy recipe and a great way to introduce the joys of bullhead meat to your kids or anyone who thinks the fish taste like mud. You’ll prove them wrong.
As anglers, we’re always going to want to pursue the biggest and most challenging fish species. That’s part of how you get better. But every now and then it’s nice to get back to the basics by throwing a line and baited hook into the water and waiting on the bank for a bite from a small but hardy fish. It’s the reason we fell in love with fishing in the first place. No matter how big other catfish species can get, sometimes it’s good to take a step back and just get a bend your rod from a few small mudcats and remember why an underdog always has a chance to take the win.