The color of the brown bullhead is olive to brown with dark mottlings on sides, fading to white or cream underneath. Fleshy barbels dusky to black. It can be readily distinguished from the black bullhead by the lack of a light-colored bar at the base of the caudal (tail) fin and black coloration in the membrane between the rays (soft spines) of these fins. There are from 20 to 24, usually 22-23, rays in anal fin. The caudal fin is slightly notched
The brown bullhead is the least abundant and widespread of the three bullhead species found in Iowa. Although widely distributed in the northern part of the state, it is nowhere common. The brown bullhead is often collected as a single specimen from interior waters but is more abundant in the Mississippi River where it inhabits backwaters and sloughs.
The brown bullhead lives largely upon insect larvae, crustaceans, snails, small crayfish, worms, and small fish.
Try to catch this fish with a nightcrawler fished on the bottom.
The habitat requirements for the brown bullhead are similar to that of the yellow bullhead but it is more restricted to lake and pond habitats and less tolerant of turbid waters. It occurs in swamps, ponds, inland pools. lakes, reservoirs, impoundments, and the backwaters adn tributaries of larger rivers. The brown bullhead prefers clear, cool, well-vegetated waters with bottoms of sand, gravel or dark muck. In protected areas of the Mississippi River floodplain largest populations occur in quiet, clear waters with moderate to dense amounts of submerged aquatic vegetation. Similar to Iowa, the brown bullhead in Illinois and Wisconsin is sporadically distributed and its numbers are low.
Brown bullhead spawn rather early in the spring, usually in late April or May. Male fish fan out a saucer-shaped nest in the mud or nests in natural cavities where the female deposits eggs. The number of eggs will range from 2,000 to 10,000, or more. The eggs are guarded by both parents during the incubation period, which is usually 5 to 8 days. After the eggs hatch, they are herded about in schools for several weeks. At the end of their first year of life they reach a length of about 2 1/2 to 4 inches and mature in three years. They grow to about 2 pounds under ideal conditions, although most specimens will average from about 8 to 10 inches and weigh less than a pound.
Like all bullheads, it is tenacious in life and will feed eagerly on nearly anything available, either living or dead. The fish travel in schools and feed on or near the bottom. A large part of their diet consists of midgefly larvae, called bloodworms because of their red color, which they pick up from the soft bottom ooze. Considerable plant material is commonly found in stomachs, but it is believed that this material is taken incidentally while feeding on insect larvae living in the plants. The teeth are in pads on both jaws and are used largely for tearing and pulling off pieces of their food. Brown bullheads have ravenous appetites and seem to be hungry at all times of the day and night.
Recent stream sampling information is available from Iowa DNR's biological monitoring and assessment program.
Harlan, J.R., E.B. Speaker, and J. Mayhew. 1987. Iowa fish and fishing. Iowa Conservation Commission, Des Moines, Iowa. 323pp.
Loan-Wilsey, A. K., C. L. Pierce, K. L. Kane, P. D. Brown and R. L. McNeely. 2005. The Iowa Aquatic Gap Analysis Project Final Report. Iowa Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Iowa State University, Ames.
Photo credit: Photo courtesy of Konrad P. Schmidt, copyright Konrad P. Schmidt.