When I set the hook, I knew right away that this was no bluegill, and not a crappie either. The rest of the family was bobber fishing, and I was pitching a small tube jig to the edge of some green milfoil, a proven approach on this favorite panfish lake. A session here usually ends with at least a dozen nice sized panfish swimming in the livewell, and we usually find a pike to join them—just right for a fish fry. And a pike is just what I figured this was, at least at first, and I hoped I could get him in the boat before he claimed my jig as his own. Savannah looked away from her bobber to say, “Is it a northern, Daddy?” I was about to affirm, but something wasn’t quite right. A pike, even a small one, moves fast. This thing was fighting deep and slow. I took it easy, as I at least wanted a look at whatever it was. I said “I don’t think it’s a northern—it’s fighting like a…walleye? Or maybe it’s a…” and then it showed itself, and I chuckled as a big bullhead came to the surface.
Despite all the panfishing we do, I couldn’t remember us landing one of these before. I showed the girls how to hold one to avoid the fins, and they both wanted to touch the whiskers. I assured them that they are good to eat, and while it wasn’t the pike I was hoping for, it would be a welcome addition to the 15 sunfish and a perch in the livewell.
That was a couple of days ago, and we ate the fish tonight. As I was prepping the fish for the deep fryer the sight of the bullhead fillets brought back some memories from when I was much younger. If you’ve never seen bullhead fillets, they have a very different look than most other fish. I have eaten them often enough over the years, and really enjoy them for a change from sunfish and crappies. But when someone first sees a bullhead [not the prettiest fish] and then sees the reddish bullhead fillets, well it ends up being a tough sell.
I remember one person who liked them. One summer when I was about 13, I would occasionally go golfing at a local course in Burnsville. My friend had a membership, but I had to beg green fees from my parents. At some point we learned that the golf course manager, Ralph, had a thing for bullheads. We struck a deal—I bring bullhead fillets, and I get to golf for free. There were a couple of fine bullhead fisheries in my neighborhood, and any keeper sized bullheads became known as “Ralphers”.
One memorable and funny bullhead moment came when we were on a morning bullhead hunt [bullheads were the only fish in these ponds at the time, what else was I supposed to do? Play sports? Homework? Girls? Nah…lets fish for bullheads] at the pond at Wind Cave Court. We were fishing off of some steps that led right from someone’s house to the pond. I hooked into what was a really big “Ralpher”, and even though it was a bullhead I was still pretty excited. So excited that when I saw it I ripped a really loud fart. Really. Loud. It must have been the combination of my 1970s short shorts, my butt on a flat wooden step, and the still suburban morning that allows me to still hear the echoes of one of the most memorable rips of my life. We laughed so hard we couldn’t breathe.
The pond at Wind Cave Court, Google Earth Street View Image
While we were feasting on the fish tonight, I kept referring to the bullhead as “boo-head”, with heavy emphasis on “BOO”. “Why do keep calling it that Daddy?” said the girls. I gave an abbreviated explanation… “I knew this guy who used to call them that…” The guy in question was a large black man that often fished the same area on the Minnesota River that my friend and I fished. Our parents would drop us off at the spillway near 35W and pick us up later. And while we were there we made friends with a van drivin’, bottle in a brown bag drinkin’, boo-head catchin’ black guy. Ahh simpler times.
Some of the biggest bullheads I ever caught were out of a pond in the back country of Eagan. While traipsing around behind my cousin’s house we found a good sized pond, and the next time I was over there I brought fishing tackle. What kind of fish could be in the pond? It looked fishy, and while I don’t remember all the details, I know we left there with a bucket of full sized bullheads that would only bite on worms, which was in contrast to our home pond, where minnows were the preferred bait. Yes, I remember what bait the bullheads bit on best on a day in 1978. At the time there was nothing but woods and open fields around the pond, it is now surrounded by big houses and a park and is called Schwanz Lake. There’s still bullheads in there.
Probably the smallest bullhead I ever caught also inflicted the most damage. Not as bad as the tiny catfish in the Amazon that swim up your pee-hole, but it was still bad. I used to seine my own minnows out of the beloved Wind Cave Pond, and once a little inch long bullhead got stuck in the mesh of my net. When I tried to pick it out, a spiny fin buried in my finger. Buried as in when I pulled my finger away, the little bullhead was still stuck to it. I managed to pull it off, said words that were probably not appropriate for a ten year old, and went about my business. In the next couple of days the puncture got infected, and of course I kept it hidden. Didn’t want to get in trouble by getting hurt. Luckily my grandpa spotted my green finger and operated on it with his pocket knife. I still have all my fingers so it must have worked.
A few years later, it seems like maybe the summer after graduation a group of us were at one friend’s cabin. Most of my friends weren’t really into fishing, but of course I had gear with. We mostly hung out, drinking and whatever [don’t panic, there was at least one adult there]. We’re sitting on the dock in the dark, and this other kid and I get the idea of putting out a trot line [a trot line is a long set line with many baited hooks, and yes it is illegal to use one, set one, own one, or probably think about one in Minnesota. In fact it’s probably illegal to even read about one, so move along]. We came up with an old spool of line, and I can’t remember exactly how we rigged it, but there were about 15 hooks on it, and we weighted the end with a can filled with sand. We baited the hooks with minnows, got it tangled and untangled many times in the drunken darkness, but eventually got in a canoe and managed to get to get it set, one end tied to the dock, the weighted end out past the weeds.
The next morning we eagerly paddled out to retrieve the trot line. Would we catch a fish? Hell yeah we would. Every single hook had a bullhead on it. Now what? I was pretty proud of our haul, but the rest of the crew was unimpressed to say the least. “What are you going to do with them?” they asked. “Gonna cook ‘em for breakfast!” I grinned. Now they were really losing interest. But hey, I was a cook at Denny’s after all, and I knew how to make a mean breakfast. It took an hour to clean the fish, and another hour before I had completed a breakfast feast of fried bullheads with scrambled eggs and toast. I heard snide remarks being made, like “does he expect us to eat those…things?” But since I worked so hard on the meal they humored me, gave the fried bullheads a try, and when breakfast was done the fish platter was empty. All agreed that bullheads do make for some fine eating.
And yes, it is safe to say that this has not been the best fishing season for me, as I am writing about goddamn bullheads.