Where to Find Them
Equipment
Baits & Lures
Angling Tips

Fishing for Bullheads

Iowans have a nostalgic feeling toward bullheads. Bullheads are abundant, relatively easy to catch with simple tackle, popular with all ages and close as the nearest pond or lake.

Where to Find Them
Warming water temperatures and inflow from spring rains and melting snow trigger bullheads to move toward shore and begin feeding. The best time to catch bullheads is when the water temperature is between 55 and 70° F. They can be caught in colder water, but their feeding is less aggressive.

Start in shallow water areas which warm more rapidly. On a sunny day, there can be a 10 to 20° F difference between the shallows and the main lake basin. The windward side warms quicker than the lee side of lakes on sunny, windy days, attracting bullheads.

Areas of inflowing water are prime early spring bullhead spots with warmer water and large amounts of food. Daytime is best to catch bullheads in early spring.They start to move off shore during the day in late spring prompting anglers to fish after dark as the bullheads return in the evenings to feed.

Bullheads move toward shore to begin spawning in May and early June. Fish look for nest sites in shallow water, near rocks and stumps. Spawning lasts approximately two weeks depending on water temperature and weather. Bullheads are easy to catch during spawning.

Most deep man-made lakes and reservoirs stratify and develop a thermocline in July and August. There is little or no dissolved oxygen or fish below the thermocline. Cast out as far as you can in late spring and early summer for excellent catches of bullheads. Avoid fishing below 15 feet in June, July and August. Search out areas where the water is approximately 12 to 15 feet deep. Bullheads will rest and feed in this cooler, well-oxygenated water. Night fishing is 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 in May.

Fall bullhead fishing can provide a lot of action which will continue until the water temperature drops below 60° F. Bullheads go on a fall feeding frenzy in preparation for the long cold winter months. As water temperatures cool, they once again move toward shore and become vulnerable in the shallows. Following the fall turnover, the thermocline dissipates and the deep water will once again contain dissolved oxygen and fish. In autumn, bullheads are often found on shallow water points near deep water.

When water temperatures fall below 60° F, bullhead fishing opportunities in Iowa are greatly reduced. Their metabolism slows and their need for food decreases.

Equipment
A medium action rod with a spinning or spin-cast reel works well. Fill the reel with quality 6 to 10 pound-test monofilament line. Heavier line makes casting less effective and bites more difficult to detect. You can cast great distances, “feel” the bite and easily set the hook with this equipment.

Weight and size are key to terminal tackle. Many bullhead anglers 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 lowers your chances of catching bullheads because a bullhead will abandon the bait when it feels resistance. A small one-quarter to one-half ounce sliding sinker is ideal. The light sinker will not bury into the bottom sediment commonly found on lake bottoms where bullheads are plentiful. Fish do not feel the weight of the slip sinker. Thread the line through the hole in the middle of the sinker, tie on a hook and pinch a small split shot 6 to 12 inches above the hook. The split shot keeps the sinker from sliding into the baited hook. When a bullhead picks up the bait, the only resistance it feels is from the small split shot since the line moves freely through the sinker.

Hook sizes No. 2 to 1/0 are perfect for catching bullheads. Use long-shanked hooks, because most bullheads swallow the hook. Make sure you have a hook disgorger or pair of needle nose pliers in your tackle box to remove swallowed hooks. If you want to keep your catch, cut the line and retrieve the hook when the fish is cleaned. Small circle hooks are popular because they hook the fish in the corner of the mouth, allowing for easier hook removal and reducing the number of hooks needed.

Baits & Lures

Bullheads are omnivorous and will eat nearly anything they can swallow. Worms and night crawlers catch the majority of bullheads and are used almost exclusively by dedicated bullhead anglers. Other baits used for bullheads include leeches, live and dead minnows, liver, shrimp, dough balls, and stink bait. Crayfish are the most under-utilized bait for bullheads. Use small, whole crayfish or peel the white meat from the tail of a larger crayfish. Small crayfish should be crushed slightly to produce more scent.

Angling Tips
Still fishing is the standard technique for bullheads. Cast the bait into the water and prop the rod against some type of holder—historically a forked stick. Unlike bass or crappie fishing, constant motion is not needed in bullhead angling. Bullheads usually bite in two ways: in colder water, the line will twitch and move in spurts, but as water temperatures warm and fish become more active, bites are signaled by a few light taps and a line-tightening run. Only practice will tell you when to set the hook in cold water; don’t worry about hooking the fish when most runs occur, the fish invariably hooks itself by swallowing the hook.

Use caution with handling bullheads. They have very sharp pectoral and dorsal fin spines. Grip the fish around the pectoral spines and position your hand to avoid the dorsal spine. Keep a towel or rag handy to use as a barrier between the fish and your hand.