Thursday, January 26th, 2023
Thursday, January 26th, 2023

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Cousin to the catfish, bullheads still have a legion of lovers

There was a time when bullheads were a fairly revered fish, especially in southern Minnesota. While their popularity has dwindled, there still are fans of ’heads. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Kraft)

By Brian Haines
Contributing Writer

The year was 1940, and people across the free world watched in horror as the Second World War began to unfold. The German war machine, under Nazi control, was on a rampage. The previous year had seen Germany expand its borders and sign a non-aggression pact with Soviet Russia.  

With the Russian Bear out of their way, the Nazis set their sights on the rest of Europe. By the end of June 1940, they had control of northern France and looked to gain a strong foothold in Great Britain. To make matters worse, Italy entered the war and invaded southern France.

Across the pond, in the United States, fears of another World War were just one of many things weighing on people’s minds. The nation was still reeling from the Great Depression, and many found themselves scrounging to make ends meet. On July 12, one man, a commercial fisherman experiencing such struggles, snapped.  

His name was Bryant Baumgardner, and he watched helplessly as his wholesale fishing operation fell under the yoke of new regulations that inhibited his business. 

On that Friday 82 years ago, Baumgardner’s hired men were cleaning their morning catch when three state game wardens entered Baumgardner’s southern Minnesota property in Waterville and demanded he show his license.  

Rather than produce a license, however, Baumgardner produced a 12-gauge shotgun and killed all three wardens, then himself.  

One can only speculate that the intensity of the times, as well as the threat to his business, pushed Baumgardner over the edge. The hired men fled the scene and alerted the authorities. Left behind were the cleaning tables with partially cleaned fish. The fish which were, of all species, bullheads.

The bullhead. It’s a fish with which Minnesota anglers certainly have a love-hate relationship. Most regard it as a lowly fish, a black-backed or yellow-bellied, bottom-dwelling little cousin to the catfish with barbed fins that sting, a slimy exterior, and whiskered face. It’s a fish that certainly gets a bad rap among anglers.  

In fact, if you’ve spent any time fishing at all, you’ve probably heard someone label the bullhead the “Iowa walleye” – a jab at our southern neighbors who will gladly catch, clean, and eat one. However, find someone who has eaten a batch of “’heads,” and you’ll find someone who has no qualms about catching one or several of them. 

The days of anglers flocking to Minnesota resorts in search of big bullheads are long past, yet there are still people who seek the fish.  

“We still get calls with people asking where to catch half-pound to three-quarter-pound bullheads – the type that fry up nice or that people caught when they were kids,” according to Ryan Doorenbos. As area fishery supervisor at the DNR’s Windom office, Doorenbos knows firsthand that bullhead anglers are still our there and doing their best to find their quarry. Through the years, however, he’s watched as their numbers have slowly declined.  

“We still have bullheads around,” he says, “but not as many as we used to.”

The bullhead – specifically the black bullhead – is native to Minnesota and favors shallow lakes that mostly freeze out during winter, or lakes that have less-than-ideal water quality. Part of their decline may have to do with an effort to improve water quality in lakes that have been negatively affected by lakeshore development and agricultural runoff.  

“We’ve seen black bullhead numbers decline in the more stable lakes,” said Brandon Eder, Waterville fisheries assistant area supervisor. “Black bullheads do better in shallow, winterkill-type lakes. By fixing sewers and not allowing phosphorus fertilizer on lawns near the lakes, we’ve been able to improve water quality. Interestingly, we’ve seen a rise in yellow bullheads on these lakes (because) they do better in clearer water.”

Another reason for a noticeable decline in black bullhead numbers might have to do with niche competition.  

“I began here in 1999”, Doorenbos said. “One observation is that we’ve been seeing more channel catfish in lakes with lower bullhead populations. When I started here, we didn’t typically see young catfish unless they were stocked. Now, we’re beginning to see more young-of-the-year catfish that are a result of natural reproduction.  

“Both species occupy the same niche, but catfish are more predacious, and it can be hard for bullheads to compete with them if you have a strong catfish population,” he said.

For years, it’s been a belief among anglers that an overabundance of bullheads was to blame for torn-up vegetation and poor water quality. But the blame may not be entirely warranted.  

“Bullheads do cause some poor conditions in lakes, but it’s important to remember that they thrive in lakes where those conditions are naturally present,” Eder said.  

Doorenbos adds: “Bullheads are a native species to Minnesota and are part of our ecology. Poor lake quality blamed on bullheads may have more to do with natural factors such as winterkill. Larger game fish that eat bullheads aren’t usually present in large numbers in these lakes, so it allows bullheads to flourish in waters they already thrive in.”  

There’s no doubt that the popularity of bullhead fishing has declined, yet there are still anglers who look to put a few ’heads in a pail for a good, home-cooked meal.  

The fish can be caught via basic methods: a good fishing rod and reel, a bobber, and a plain hook. As far as bait, bullheads aren’t known for being picky. Angle worms and nightcrawlers are standards, but bullheads typically will eat nearly anything they can fit in their mouths – leeches, dead minnows, crayfish, hot dogs, and even marshmallows have been known to catch the fish. 

Because they’re part of the catfish family, a good stink bait is never a bad choice.  

The technique is as simple as the gear and the bait. Find a slow-moving river or shallow vegetative in a lake, and fish close to the bottom. Early mornings and right after dusk are good times to catch them.

If you’re like me, you’ve likely grumbled when you pulled a bullhead from the water, thinking you’d hooked a game fish.  

But bullhead anglers are still out there, and you’ll seldom find one who says he or she catches and cleans them because they taste bad. Next time you hook one, don’t be afraid to throw it in the livewell and give it a fry.

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