The Free Press, Mankato, MN

May 25, 2013

Cross Column: Bullheads may be rough fish, but they're good eats

By John Cross

---- — Yesterday, Minnesota's second-biggest fishing season _ for bass _ opened.

A half-century ago, bass fishing was a more subdued affair as anglers in simple fishing boats cast tried-and-true baits like Jitterbugs or Hula-Poppers as they drifted along a shoreline.

A good share of the fish caught would wind up on a stringer, destined for the frying pan.

Fast forward to Opening Day, 2013.

Likely as not, bass anglers yesterday cruised to their fishing spots at highway speeds in glittery bass boats bristling with electronic fish-finding gadgets and powered by a high-performance 200 horsepower outboards

And to actually keep and and eat a bass? Perish the thought!

So today, let's pay homage instead to a fish that people actually intend to eat after catching them.

No, not a walleye, bluegill or crappie, but the lowly bullhead.

Officially, the smooth-skinned, be-whiskered fellow is classified in Minnesota as "rough" fish. A DNR fish biologist once described bullheads as rocks with fins.

Anglers weary of getting picked clean of their expensive live baits typically describe the fish even less charitably and in terms that can't be printed here.

No one would argue that a bullhead is a very sporting fish to catch.

There are no fancy aerial bass antics, no walleye head shakes, no sizzling pike runs. Except for an occasionally tail flop, a bullhead just sort of spins at the end of the line as dead weight.

Indeed, the only reason anglers target the fish is that when taken from cold water, they can make for fitting table fare.

In our neighborhood in southwest Minnesota, we always viewed bullheads in a positive light. They were plentiful and easy to catch.

Thus, on most Memorial Day weekends, several families on our street would load up the sedans and travel to one of the wind-swept, shallow prairie lakes that dotted the countryside.

While there was always the remote possibility of tangling with fancier fish like walleye and northerns on such lakes, pursuing them required a higher level of sophistication and equipment than we had access to.

By contrast, catching bullheads was and remains refreshingly simple. String a nightcrawler, ideally picked from the yard or garden the night before, onto a long-shanked hook and toss it into the lake.

A fishing pole is optional.

My long-departed grandmother’s favorite fishing gear was a coil of yellow chalkline to which was fastened a large hook and a doorknob. After baiting up, she’d get the doorknob spinning and at a precise moment, release the line sending it far out across lake, landing with a splash.

And that adage that inspires serious anglers to pore over lake topographical maps, of how 10 percent of any lake _ read that fish structure _ holds 90 percent of the fish?

On a lake known to have significant bullhead populations, pick a spot, any spot to toss your bait. If there are bullheads out there, they will find it.

And there really is no need to finesse a bullhead to bite. That tap-tap felt through the line is signal to set the hook.

When the bullheads are on a bite, catching a pail full _ the daily limit is a paltry 100 _ is no tough task.

But cleaning them can be. A requisite tool in addition to a knife is a good set of pliers.

A bullhead is never filleted. Rather, mindful of the spines that can inflict a painful wound, cleaning a bullhead involves first scoring the skin behind the head, then peeling the skin off the body in one movement and severing the head.

No need to remove the tail. They fry up crisp and tasty, offering a pleasant textural contrast after nibbling the sweet, tender white flesh from the backbone.

A coating of seasoned flour, a swim through hot oil and onto the dinner plate, that's when the beauty of the homely fish finally becomes apparent.


Seriously. Would I lie to you?

John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at 344-6376 or by e-mail at