Bullheads

By on April 16, 2018
Mike Hendrick demonstrating here how to hold a catfish (pictured) or bullhead safely without getting stuck by their dorsal or pectoral spines which contain a mild venom that can cause swelling and pain. Provided photo

Mike Hendrick demonstrating here how to hold a catfish (pictured) or bullhead safely without getting stuck by their dorsal or pectoral spines which contain a mild venom that can cause swelling and pain. Provided photo

The light from the Coleman lantern lit up the tips of my two fishing poles nicely. The rods were propped on an old dead log and pointing out over Braddock Bay. Both were baited with a juicy nightcrawler just waiting for a taker. The spring peepers were singing their centuries old song announcing the coming of spring all across the bay. Suddenly the tip of the pole on the left did a quick twitch, signaling that something was messing with the worm. I bent down and got ready to grab the rod, afraid that if I dared pick it up too early it would spook the nibbling fish. Seconds later the tip did another dance and in one motion I grabbed the pole and jerked back. My fishing rod bowed and I felt the satisfying head shake of a hooked fish as I quickly wound to pick-up any slack in the line. I heard the fish come to the surface and swirl out into the darkness, a dead giveaway that I had hooked a bullhead … the fish I had come for on this warm April evening. I could tell by the fight that this bullhead was a keeper. He did his best to get back to the cattails where he first found what he thought was an easy meal, but I soon won the battle. As I lifted the whiskered fish into the light of the lantern I could see that he was what the old timers called a nice yellow belly. These were bullheads that came in from Lake Ontario to spawn in Braddock Bay. Their meat is much firmer than the brown bullhead that spends most of its time in the muddy bay. This fish was a good fourteen inches long and probably weighed at least a pound. Perfect eating size. As ugly as these fish are to the casual observer, to bullhead fishermen they are one of the most beautiful fish that swim, especially when they are swimming in hot oil within a frying pan.

I cautiously grabbed the bullhead so as not to get stuck by the sharp bones that protrude from their dorsal fin on the top of the fish behind the head, or the two pectoral fins on the sides just behind the head. The fins are as sharp as a needle and if you get pricked by them they carry a mild poison that will make the area sting and swell. I tossed him in the 5-gallon pail along with a half dozen of his buddies. I now had the perfect amount for a tasty fish fry.

That fishing trip was a good twenty-five years ago now. Back then you would see twenty to thirty lanterns surrounding Braddock Bay on a Friday or Saturday night in April. Now if you see four or five it’s a lot. Bullhead numbers have gone down drastically over the last three decades and nobody seems to know why. Some people believe that the stocking of trout and salmon have hurt their population but I can’t see why since those game fish do not eat bullheads. Maybe it has something to do with Lake Ontario being so much cleaner now. Back when the bullhead numbers were at their peak in the 60’s, the lake was so polluted that not much else could live there.

Bullhead can be caught during the day, but for the most part it is better fishing at night because they are night feeders by nature due to their excellent sense of smell. The great thing about bullhead fishing is that you don’t need a boat or fancy equipment. A Coleman lantern, a couple of cheap fishing poles, two dozen nightcrawlers and, of course, a six-pack of cold beer and you are ready to go bullhead fishing.

I remember one April night some twenty, or was it thirty, years ago. After this long, a dozen years one way or the other makes little difference. Anyway, a good buddy who will remain nameless and I were bullhead fishing on the south side of the Lake Ontario Parkway bridge over Braddock Bay. We had each brought a six-pack of beer. The fishing was slow, so my buddy drank his six-pack and then three of mine in the first two hours of fishing. Well, needless to say, he was hammered with a capital H. He was soon talking so loudly that everybody on the bay could hear him, you know how sound travels over water. At one point he stood up to do what anybody who drinks nine beers in two hours needs to do. While he was standing there swaying in the breeze, both his hands occupied, he fell backwards, crashing down onto his open tackle box, smashing it and sticking himself in the back with a dozen lures. He started swearing so loudly that the people in the Braddock Bay Hotel could hear him. Suddenly a spotlight beamed down on us from up on the Parkway Bridge. A voice yelled from the light, “You guys shut up down there or you will get a ticket for public lewdness!” Turned out that a Greece Police car had pulled over up on the bridge and had been watching us probably because Pete…oh, I mean my nameless buddy, was making so much racket even prior to his dive into his tacklebox. After spending the next half hour pulling fishing hooks out of his skin, his coat and pants, we called it a night … afraid that the cops would come back and write us up.  Plus, we were out of beer.

I haven’t fished for bullhead for many years now but there are still a few hardcore bullhead fishermen around that are catching fish. To find out what’s changed I contacted dedicated night fisherman, Ron (Bullhead) White. Ron has caught and eaten so many bullheads that he has started to look like a bullhead, and for him that is an improvement. Here is what Ron had to say:

“The number of bullhead being caught in the tributaries off Lake Ontario these day has gone way down. Now on a good night I will catch a dozen bullheads where back in the 70’s I had several nights where I caught over hundred fish. Nobody can give me a good answer why.

“The techniques to catch bullhead haven’t changed at all. Tie a ½ oz sinker on the bottom and two #4 snelled hooks up from the sinker. I like my bottom hook an inch or two above the sinker and the second hook six inches above that. I just use half of a big fat nightcrawler on each hook. Other baits like leeches and chicken liver work, but for my money you can’t beat a big nightcrawler. Any cattail bay off Lake Ontario is a good place to fish, that’s about all I can tell you. Nothing else has changed other than you need more patience because there are fewer fish. The good news is the beer is just as refreshing.”

I want to thank Ron for bringing us up to date on the state of the bullhead in Western New York.

Now is prime time to catch these tasty fish. So, dust off the old Coleman lantern and get out there. For those who love to eat them but don’t want to go to the trouble to catch and clean them, no easy task, there are a couple local restaurants that offer bullhead meals this time or year. Just Google bullhead dinners Rochester, NY

One last thought on bullhead. Am I crazy or isn’t that a great name for a band? Just Bullhead, no “The” before or “s” on the end. Don’t anybody steal that. I plan on busting out my 8th grade band “The Royal Executioners” from the old folks’ home; we are going to get back together again. So look for “Bullhead” playing the assisted living circuit soon.

Sorry, too much Flomax again.

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