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It is about this time of year when the heat and humidity forces most folks to stay indoors and close to a fan or air-conditioner. Other than beachniks, that fortunate bunch that seems to revel in temperatures the rest of us find unbearable, no one wants to be outdoors at the end of July. Cooler days are coming, no doubt (I dropped my wood stove doors off for new gaskets this week), but right now the most enthusiastic words the weather forecasters can offer are stifling, oppressive and scorching.
Well, truth be told the days are rather hot, and other than finding a cool spot under a shade tree where there may be some whisper of a breeze I can’t seem to fortify myself for a stroll in the woods. Hot, sweaty, sticky and further complicated by mosquitoes, deer flies and ticks, I can still convince myself that there must be something better to do out there.
I can easily recall the halcyon days of my youth, a time when responsibility, debt and other real-world sorrows had not yet entered my mind. Hot days slowed me down even then, but to me the solution was simple enough. Fishing was the name of the game in summer buy by late July even the trout, bass and other glamour species were showing little interest in a well-presented bait or lure. It’s no fun to fish on a hot day when nothing is biting, but what about going at night? For fish that never stop biting? With no size or bag limits to worry about, and no competition, either, in most cases?
I’m not the only one who enjoys a feed of bullheads (also known as horned pout). Many a gravel lake-side pull-off will have its band of night anglers, easily identified by their forked stick rod holders and Coleman lights suspended from poles glowing brightly above the water.
Night fishing for these Northern relatives of the ubiquitous catish is nothing new – my grandfather’s grandfather left a few photos behind of him and his pals with a tabletop covered with night-caught bullheads. Fishermen today are fishing those same waters using the same tactics and catching just as many bullheads as great-granddad brought home. Still a popular food fish among those who seek to fill the freezer with succulent fillets, bullheads don’t get the glowing ink that’s reserved for the “name” game fish, but I’m willing to bet that every angler has caught at least one bullhead in his life. Not so a lunker bass, trout or lake trout.
Bullheads may be caught at any time of day but dusk is prime time. Fish from shore or from a canoe or boat anchored over a shallow, muddy bottom and you can expect to catch all the bullheads you want, one after another all night long. It must be an amazing sight to see the bottom of a shallow pond after dark – the numbers of bullheads, eels and other night feeders must be astronomical. I have yet to fish for bullheads at night without running out of bait and filling my bucket with them, and when I head for home the other anglers are still whooping and hollering, still catching them in outlandish numbers – and this goes on every night all summer on any pond that contains these tasty little fish.
One of the few fish that “talks” to you when you reel him in, a hooked bullhead utters a low-pitched croaking sound that suggests that he is not pleased with being yanked out of the water while he’s trying to eat. Like any catfish, bullheads have sharp, thorny spines on their dorsal and pectoral fins that render a painful sting to an errant palm or finger. To avoid being stung, simply tickle the fish’s belly as you run your fingers up to his head. Grip the fish from the belly side with one spine between your thumb and forefinger and the other between your first and second fingers. Keep your fingertips away from the dorsal spine while you unhook your catch, and then toss him into the bucket (if he’s big enough to eat) or back into the water with no stress or injury to either party.
Most brown bullheads are less than 10 inches long and few are over 12 inches, so handling them this way is easy and safe. Should you catch a real monster, use a net to contain the fish and try not to touch those spiny fins!
It’s a sure bet that most fishermen use worms for bullhead bait, but these fish will take anything that’s remotely edible including liver and chicken and turkey parts, rancid meat and even hot dogs. Some fishermen find it amusing to use a variety of “stink baits” for their bullheading but other than the fun of creating newer, smellier concoctions there’s no need for it. Drop a hook baited with a wiggling worm into the midst of a bullhead feeding frenzy and it won’t be ignored.
Much has been made of cleaning bullheads for the table and some methods will have anglers wondering why they even bothered. The old “nail them to a board and skin them” technique is best left to antiquity – it’s a miserable, slow and messy job and completely unnecessary.
Bullhead experts can clean a bucket full of fish in about 10 minutes – without a knife! Simply grasp the fish in two hands, snap the head backwards against the spine and pull. Done correctly, the head, skin and innards end up in one hand and a nice, clean piece of catfish ends up in the other. I’ve seen this done many times and have mastered it myself, so I know it works. Once you get the timing and rhythm down you can cut your cleaning time by 90 percent, which isn’t bad when faced with two or three buckets full of fat bullheads destined for the freezer.
Bullheads may be cooked just like any other fish – fried, broiled or grilled; breaded or plain. Don’t let the fish become overcooked or it will taste as bad as any mishandled meat. Crispy on the outside, moist and flaky on the inside, that’s all there is to it.
Give bullheading a try some night. Who knows, you just might like it!
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