Tackle Selection   Bait Selection   Angling Techniques
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Fishing for Bullheads
By Lannie R. Miller, Fisheries Biologist, Iowa DNR

Many Iowans have a nostalgic feeling toward bullheads because it is very likely that for many it was their first fish. This experience may result in a life-time addiction to bullhead fishing or serve as a catalyst to spark an interest into all types of fishing. Regardless, bullhead fishing is popular with all age groups, and it is as close as the nearest lake or pond. Their abundance and the relative ease with which they are caught endears this fish, as no other, to Iowa anglers.

Tackle Selection

Although the tackle and techniques for catching bullheads are relatively simple, anglers can greatly increase their catch with some minor adjustments in their fishing methods and the purchase of inexpensive yet more efficient fishing tackle. Everything from cane poles to deep sea fishing rods has been used to catch bullheads, but one of the best outfits is a medium action spinning or spin-cast rod and reel. With these combinations, the angler can cast great distances, "feel" the bite, and easily set the hook. The reel should be filled with a good quality 6 to 10 pound-test line. Heavy-test line is not needed and only serves to make casting less effective and bites more difficult to detect. Clear monofilament line is greatly preferred over braided nylon line due to its smaller diameter, low visibility to the fish, and its flexibility.

The key to terminal tackle is weight and size. Far too many bullhead fishermen use sinkers that are too heavy and hooks that are too large. No weight, except a small split shot, should be directly attached to the line. Weight attached or tied to the line will lower the chances of catching bullheads. When a bullhead feels the weight, it abandons the bait. A small one-quarter to one-half ounce sliding sinker is ideal for bullhead fishing. The light sinker will not bury into the bottom muck commonly found on lake bottoms where bullheads are plentiful. The most important feature is that the fish do not feel the drag of a slip sinker. To use this type of sinker, simply thread the line through the hole in the middle of the sinker and pinch a small split shot 6 to 12 inches above the hook. The split shot keeps the sliding weight from the hook and bait. When a bullhead picks up the bait, the only resistance felt is the split shot since the line moves freely through the weight.

For years the standard terminal tackle used to catch bullheads was a "bullhead rig." It consists of a weight at the end of the line and one or two drop lines 6 to 10 inches long attached above weight. The bait can be picked up without immediately feeling the weight on the line. Although they are not as popular today, the bullhead rig is still an effective way to catch these fish.

Hook size is another part of the terminal tackle that causes anglers to miss bites. Sizes No. 2 to 1/0 are ideal for catching bullheads. Long-shanked hooks should be used because most bullheads swallow the hook, and short-shanked models are harder to remove. A hook disgorger or a pair of long-nose pliers are a must for excising swallowed hooks. For the angler who wants to keep his catch alive, simply cut the line and retrieve the hook when the fish is cleaned.

The newest addition to the bullhead fisherman's bag of tricks is the blank leadhead. A blank leadhead has no hair, feathers, or further dressing on it, simply the lead molded onto the hook. A gob nightcrawler is placed on the hook. This new technique incorporates the hook, weight, and bait into one unit. The best feature of this rig is that it is much more difficult for the bullhead to swallow the hook. Leadheads should be one-eight to one-quarter ounce in weight. Some anglers even paint the lead a bright color to further entice the fish; however, color of the leadhead seems to have little effect on catch success. The drawback with this method is obvious since the weight is tied directly to the line.

Bullheads are predominantly bottom feeders, making the use of a bobber or float unnecessary. It may actually keep the bait away from the bullhead by keeping it off the bottom or by moving the bait away from fish on a windy day. Even the most inexperienced angler can discern a bite without a bobber as bullheads rarely bite so lightly that they don't move the line or rod tip.

Leaders, either steel or nylon, are not necessary to fill a stringer with bullheads. In the days of black-braided line, leaders were used to keep the bullhead from seeing the line. With the invention and improvement of monofilament line, the hook can be tied directly to the line, and the fish is none the wiser.

Bait Selection

Bullheads are omnivorous and will eat nearly anything they can swallow. However, a discussion of baits preferred by bullheads could very well be limited to worms and nightcrawlers. These two baits catch, by far, the majority of bullheads and are used almost exclusively by dedicated bullhead anglers. Some other baits used for bullheads include leeches, live and dead minnows, liver, beef steak, shrimp, dough balls, stink bait, and freshwater clams. Crayfish are probably the most under-utilized bait for bullheads. In June and July, when crayfish numbers are at their peak, bullheads feed heavily on these crustaceans. Anglers can either use small, one-inch whole crawdads or peel the white meat from the tail of a larger crayfish. Small crayfish should be crushed slightly to produce more scent.

After you have assembled the correct equipment and bait, it's time to head for the nearest lake or pond.

Angling Techniques

The standard angling technique for bullheads is still fishing. The bait is cast into the water, the rod propped on some type of holder -- historically a forked stick -- and the waiting begins. Unlike bass or musky fishing, there is no constant motion present in bullhead angling. Bullheads usually bite in two ways. In colder water, the line will twitch and move in spurts, but as the water temperature warms and the fish become more active, bites are signalled by a few light taps and a line-tightening run. Only practice will tell a fisherman when to set the hook in cold water; however, an angler does not have to worry about hooking the fish when most runs occur, since the fish invariably hooks itself by swallowing the hook.

Spring Fishing

Spring is the best time of the year to catch bullheads. Warming water temperatures, inflowing water from snow runoff, and seasonal rains trigger bullheads to move toward shore and begin feeding. Generally speaking, the best bullhead fishing occurs when the water temperature is between 55 and 70 degrees F. Bullheads can be caught in the spring in colder water, but their feeding activity is much less aggressive and catches are smaller.

Shallow water areas warm up more rapidly in the spring and are good places to begin fishing. On a sunny spring day, there can be a 10 to 20 degrees F difference between the shallows and the main lake basin. The windward side of lakes will be much warmer than the lee side on sunny, windy days, attracting bullheads to this area. Inflowing water and inlet areas are also prime early spring bullhead spots. The inflowing water is a hotspot because the water is warmer and contains large amounts of food. In early spring, daytime is the best time to fill a stringer with bullheads; however, in late spring many serious bullhead fishermen begin fishing after dark. Typical of the catfish family, bullheads move in shore during the evening hours to feed. Lake shores resemble small towns as lanterns and bonfires are lit.

Also at this time, mainly May and June, bullheads move toward shore to begin spawning. Fish will begin looking for nest sites, near rocks or stumps, in very shallow water. The spawning activity will last approximately two weeks depending on water temperature and weather. During spawning bullheads are very easily caught.

Summer Fishing

Summer signals a change of tactics for the bullhead angler. No longer are bullhead found in the shallows, preferring instead the cooler, deeper water of the main lake. Boat fishermen almost always out-fish shore anglers during summer. A word of caution should be inserted when fishing lakes during summer months. In July and August, most of the deep man-made lakes, reservoirs, and West Lake Okoboji stratify and develop a thermocline. There will be little or no dissolved oxygen below the thermocline, and hence no fish. Many bullhead anglers still do not understand the thermocline phenomenon and how it affects summer fishing. In late spring and early summer, casting far out into the lake results in excellent catches of bullheads. Once the thermocline develops, that same location produces nothing. In Iowa lakes, a good rule of thumb is to avoid fishing below 15 feet during June, July and August. The smart bullhead angler will search out areas where the water is approximately 12 to 15 feet in depth. Bullheads will rest and feed in this cooler, well-oxygenated water. Night fishing is almost a must when fishing the warm waters of summer in lakes and ponds. Bullheads feed almost constantly in warm water and are as easily caught in August as they are in May, providing you know the habits and location
of bullheads during this time of the year.

Fall Fishing

Fall bullhead fishing, although often overlooked, can provide a lot of action, which will continue until the water temperature dips below 60 degrees F. Bullheads, like most other freshwater fish, go on a fall feeding binge in preparation for the long cold winter months ahead. As water temperature cools, bullheads once again move toward shore and become vulnerable in the shallow water. Following the fall turnover, the thermocline dissipates and even the deep water will contain dissolved oxygen and fish. In autumn, bullheads are often found on shallow water points near the deep water. Both shore and boat anglers can reap a good fall harvest.

Once water temperatures fall below 60 degrees F, bullhead fishing is all but over in Iowa. Their metabolism slows and the need for food decreases. An occasional bullhead will be caught by ice fishermen, but the catch rate is so low that bullhead fishing is considered non-existent during winter months and the bullhead fishermen must patiently wait for another spring.

*Mayhew, J. (editor). 1987. Iowa Fish and Fishing. Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Des Moines, Iowa. 323 pp.