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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 notice. 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 perfect. The light sinker will not bury into the bottom sediment usually 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, since 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, making it easier to remove the hook and reducing the number of hooks you need.
Bullheads are omnivorous and will eat almost anything they can swallow. Worms and nightcrawlers, used almost exclusively by dedicated bullhead anglers, catch the majority of bullheads. Other baits used for bullheads include leeches, live and dead minnows, liver, shrimp, dough balls, and stink bait. Crayfish are the most under-used bait for bullheads. Use small, whole crayfish or peel the white meat from the tail of a larger crayfish. Crush small crayfish slightly to create more scent.
Still fishing is the standard way to catch 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
when fishing for bullheads. 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 happen, the fish often 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.
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Iowans have a nostalgic feeling toward bullheads. Bullheads are abundant, fairly easy to catch with simple tackle, popular with all ages and close as the nearest pond or lake.
Warming water temperatures and inflow from spring rains and melting snow trigger bullheads to move toward shore and start feeding. The best time to catch bullheads is when the water temperature is between 55 and 70 degrees. They can be caught in colder water, but the bite is less aggressive.
Start in shallow water which warm faster. On a sunny day, there can be a 10 to 20 degree difference between the shallows and the main lake basin. The windward side warms faster than the lee side of lakes on sunny, windy days, attracting bullheads.
Areas of in-flowing water are key 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 encouraging anglers to fish after dark as the bullheads come back in the evenings to eat.
Bullheads move toward shore to start spawning in May and early June. Fish look for nest sites in shallow water, near rocks and stumps. Spawning lasts about 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 (a thermal water temperature barrier that forms in deeper lakes) in July and August. Little or no dissolved oxygen or fish are 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 about 12 to 15 feet deep. Bullheads rest and eat in this cooler, well-oxygenated water. Night fishing is a must when fishing the warm waters of summer in lakes and ponds. Bullheads eat almost nonstop in warm water and are as easily caught in August as in May.
Fall bullhead fishing can provide a lot of action that will last until the water temperature drops below 60 degrees. Bullheads go on a fall feeding frenzy to prepare for the long cold winter. As water temperatures cool, they once again move toward shore and become vulnerable in the shallows. After the fall turnover, the thermocline dissolves and the deep water will once again have dissolved oxygen and fish. In autumn, find bullheads on shallow water points near deep water.
Bullhead fishing opportunities in Iowa are greatly reduced when water temperatures fall below 60 degrees. Their metabolism slows and their need for food decreases.