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With all the cold and rain we’ve suffered over the last month or so, many anglers are stuck indoors not only because of the incessant rain but the extremely high water levels in most streams and rivers. This makes for inconsistent fishing at best, which is one big reason trout and salmon fishermen have all but given up for the season.
As always, there is an outdoor alternative, and in this case you can catch all you want, rain or shine, night or day, and the odds are that you won’t see another angler out there no matter where or when you go.
I’m speaking, of course, of the ubiquitous bullhead (horned pout or mudfish, depending on who you talk to), the smallest member of the catfish family and one of the most abundant and common fish in Maine.
I’ve spent most of the last five decades catching these tasty little fish (a big one will go 3 pounds or so, but the majority of your catch will be under 12 inches long), and I have not had to change my tactics or approach in all that time. If you consider what’s gone on in the bass and trout arena since the 1960s, you can appreciate how little things have changed among those who angle for bullheads (and other catfish) on a languid summer evening.
Finding bullheads is easy. Look for a shallow lake or pond with a clean, muddy bottom. Mud and rocks are good, but heavy weeds are not.
You can catch all the bullheads you want 20 feet off shore, so there’s no need to bring your bass boat or yacht on this trip. A canoe or small boat will be fine. Anchor 50 feet off shore and you’re ready. Or, you can cut yourself a Y-shaped stick and fish from the bank using a bobber to keep your bait just off the bottom. It hardly matters to the bullheads; they’ll take whatever you give them with very little thought.
The perennial best bait for summer bullheading is a fat worm on a hook held just off the bottom. Bullheads cruising along just over the rocks and mud will find your offering and devour it at full speed – no nibbling or hesitant poking involved! Keep your line tight and let the fish take the bait count to three and then set the hook. Don’t wait too long or you will have a deeply-hooked fish on your hands. In that case, it’s best to cut the line and tie on another hook because once they start biting it’s a free-for-all and you don’t want to waste time fiddling with gut-hooked fish.
In most cases you can fill a 5-gallon bucket with fish in an hour or so, and most will be under a foot long. You may choose to be selective and keep only the biggest fish, but in that case you’d better have plenty of worms on hand. It’s no trick to catch 100 or more bullheads in an outing, which translates to a lot of bait!
Any standard spinning rod with 4- to 6-pound test lines may be used. Most bullheads are small but aggressive fish, but they don’t fight all that well unless you hook a really big one. If you feel a really strong bite and the fish puts on a strong fight, get your knife ready because it’s probably an eel! These slippery, slimy, nasty critters are common in our area and it’s likely you’ll catch more than one on a trip, but the easiest thing to do is bring them up close to the boat and cut the line nearest the hook. I’ve had more than one 4-foot eel in my boat over the years and the mess they make, sliming things up from stem to stern, is not worth the trouble! Eels are edible and are even considered a delicacy by some gourmands, but if they want an eel let them go and catch their own!
If I had to choose one place to do all my bullheading, it would be just off the culvert at Branns Mill Pond in Dover-Foxcroft. Swing around the pond and fish on the left side where the culvert crosses the road. You need only cast out there 20 feet or so, or anchor anywhere in that area and you’ll catch all the bullheads a person could ever want.
Bullheads are in the catfish family, which means they have three very sharp spines – one on the back and one on either side (the pectoral fins). You will quickly learn to avoid these spines – they render a painful wound that aches for hours and can easily become infected. To avoid this, hold your catch by the fishing line a few inches from its mouth. Let the fish dangle and spin (and enjoy the little croaking noises it makes) till it stops spinning. Take your free hand and slide it up the belly from the tail so that one of the pectoral spines rests on your thumb and the other is between your index and middle finger. The fish will calm down long enough for you to unhook and release it or toss it into a bucket of water. Just turn your hand palm down and let him slide off your fingers – no muss, no fuss, and no injuries!
By the way, don’t let the rain stop you from going. For some reason, bullheading is even more productive on rainy evenings. Get there at dusk, organize your gear before dark (a light will help you organize your gear as you fish and it also attracts fish) and be prepared to start taking on fish as soon as the sun goes down. I limit myself to a full bucket of fish, which comes down to about 5 pounds of filets, but they go fast when breaded and fried or grilled.
To quickly clean a bullhead, simply snap the fish’s head back, grasp the exposed backbone and then pull the two elements apart. Done correctly, the head, skin and viscera comes away in one hand and a nice, clean carcass comes away in the other. If you use the “nail-the-fish-to-a-board” technique you’ll be there all night!
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