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Brown Bullhead

Brown Bullhead, photo courtesy of Konrad Schmidt, copyright Konrad Schmidt


Olive to brown with dark mottlings on its sides, fading to white or cream underneath. Fleshy barbels are dusky to black. It can easily be 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 20 to 24, usually 22-23, rays in the anal fin. The caudal fin is slightly notched. The teeth are in pads on both jaws and are used largely for tearing and pulling off pieces of their food.


Brown bullhead Distribution

Least abundant and widespread of the three bullhead species found in Iowa. Although widely distributed in northern Iowa, it is not common anywhere. The Brown Bullhead is often collected as a single fish from interior waters, but is more abundant in the Mississippi River where it lives in backwaters and sloughs.


Insect larvae, crustaceans, snails, small crayfish, worms, and small fish.

State Record

1 lb 4 oz.; 12.5 in. - Mississippi River, Pool 9, Allamakee County, 8/24/2015 - Dick Newcomer, Harpers Ferry, Iowa

Expert Tip

Try a nightcrawler fished on the bottom.


The habitat requirements for Brown Bullhead are similar to those of Yellow Bullhead, but it is more restricted to lakes and ponds and less tolerant of turbid waters. It lives in swamps, ponds, inland pools, lakes, reservoirs, impoundments, and the backwaters and tributaries of larger rivers. Brown Bullhead prefer clear, cool, well-vegetated waters with bottoms of sand, gravel or dark muck. In protected areas of the Mississippi River floodplain, largest populations live in quiet, clear waters with moderate to dense amounts of submerged aquatic vegetation.  

Brown Bullhead spawn early 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 ranges from 2,000 to 10,000, or more. Both parents guard the eggs during incubation, 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 about 2 1/2- to 4-inches long and mature in three years. They grow to about 2 pounds under ideal conditions, although most fish will average about 8- to 10-inches and weigh less than a pound.

Like all bullheads, it will feed eagerly on nearly anything available, either living or dead. The fish travel in schools and eat on or near the bottom. A large part of their diet is midge fly larvae, called bloodworms because of their red color, which they pick up from the soft bottom ooze. Considerable plant material is commonly found in Brown Bullhead stomachs, but it is believed that this material is taken incidentally while feeding on insect larvae living in the plants.  Brown Bullheads are 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.


Present in these Iowa water bodies:

Lake/Stream County Location Acres/Length
Pool 9, Mississippi River Allamakee River Mile 647.9 at Lynxville, WI upstream to River Mile 679.2 at Genoa WI. 35169.00
Pool 11, Mississippi River Dubuque River Mile 583 at Dubuque, IA upstream to River Mile 615 at Guttenberg, IA. 19875.00
West Okoboji Lake Dickinson northwest edge of Arnolds Park 3847.00
East Okoboji Lake Dickinson east edge of Okoboji 1835.00
Lower Gar Lake Dickinson ½ mile south of Arnolds Park 251.00
Minnewashta Lake Dickinson 1/2 mile south of Arnolds Park 118.00
Upper Gar Lake Dickinson east of Arnolds Park 36.00