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Anna B. Comstock


Bullhead at bottom of a pond.

The Bullhead

Teacher's Story

"The bull-head does usually dwell and hide himself in holes or amongst stones in clear water; and in very hot days will lie a long time very still and sun himself and will be easy to be seen on any flat stone or gravel; at which time he will suffer an angler to put a hook baited with a small worm very near into his mouth; and he never refuses to bite, nor indeed, to be caught with the worst of anglers."

—Isaak Walton.

dropcap image HEN one looks a bullhead in the face one is glad that it is not a real bull for its barbels give it an appearance quite fit for the making of a nightmare; and yet from the standpoint of the bullhead, how truly beautiful those fleshy feelers are! For without them how could it feel its way about searching for food in the mud where it lives? Two of these barbels stand straight up; the two largest ones stand out on each side of the mouth, and two pairs of short ones adorn the lower lip, the smallest pair at the middle.

As the fish moves about, it is easy to see that the large barbels at the side of the mouth are of the greatest use; it keeps them in a constantly advancing movement, feeling of everything it meets. The upper ones stand straight up, keeping watch for whatever news there may be from above; the two lower ones spread apart and follow rather than precede the fish, seeming to test what lies below. The upper and lower pairs seem to test things as they are, while the large side pair deal with what is going to be. The broad mouth seems to be formed for taking in all things eatable, for the bullhead lives on almost anything alive or dead that it discovers as it noses about in the mud. Nevertheless, it has its notions about its food for I have repeatedly seen one draw material into its mouth through its breathing motion and then spew it out with a vehemence one would hardly expect from such a phlegmatic fish.

Although it has feelers which are very efficient, it also has perfectly good eyes which it uses to excellent purpose; note how promptly it moves to the other side of the aquarium when we are trying to study it. The eyes are not large; the pupils are black and oval and are rimmed with a narrow band of shiny pale yellow. The eyes are prominent so that when moved backward and forward they gain a view of the enemy in the rear or at the front while the head is motionless. It seems strange to see such a pair of pale yellow, almost white eyes in such a dark body.

The general shape of the front part of the body is flat, in fact, it is decidedly polywogy; this shape is especially fitted for groping about muddy bottoms. The flat effect of the body is emphasized by the gill covers opening below rather than at the sides, every pulsation widening the broad neck. The pectoral fins also open out on the same plane as the body although they can be turned at an angle if necessary; they are thick and fleshy and the sharp tips of their spines offer punishment to whosoever touches them. The dorsal fin is far forward and not large; it is usually raised at a threatening angle.

There is a little fleshy dorsal fin near the tail which stands in line with the body and one wonders what is its special use. The ventral fins are small. The anal fin is far back and rather strong, and this with the long, strong tail gives the fish good motor power and it can swim very rapidly if occasion requires.

The bullhead is mud-colored and has no scales; and since it lives in the mud, it does not need scales to protect it; but because of its scaleless condition it is a constant victim of the lampreys, and it would do well, indeed, if it could develop an armor of scales against this parasite. The skin is very thick and leathery so that it is always removed before the fish is cooked. The bullhead is the earliest fish of the spring. This is probably because it burrows deep into the mud in the fall and remains there all winter; when the spring freshets come, it emerges and is hungry for fresh meat.

The family life of the bullheads and other catfishes seems to be quite ideal. Dr. Theodore Gill tells us that bullheads make their nests by removing stones and gravel from a more or less irregularly circular area in shallow water, and on sandy or gravelly ground. The nest is somewhat excavated, both parents removing the pebbles by sucking them into the mouth and carrying them off for some distance. After the eggs are laid, the male watches over and guards the nest and seems to have great family responsibilities. He is the more active of the two in stirring and mixing the young fry after they are hatched. Smith and Harron describe the process thus: "With their chins on the bottom, the old fish brush the corners where the fry were banked, and with the barbels all directed forward, and flexed where they touch the bottom, thoroughly agitate the mass of fry, bringing the deepest individuals to the surface. This act is usually repeated several times in quick succession."


Bullhead guarding his nest.

After Gill.

"The nests are usually made beneath logs or other protecting objects and in shallow water. The paternal care is continued for many days after the birth of the young. At first these may be crowded together in a dense mass, but as time passes they disperse more and more and spread around the father. Frequently, especially when the old one is feeding, some—one or more—of the young are taken into the mouth, but they are instinctively separated from the food and spit out. At last the young swarm venture farther from their birthplace, or perhaps they are led away by their parents."


The Bullhead, or Horned Pout

Leading thought—The bullhead lives in mud bottoms of streams and ponds and is particularly adapted for life in such locations.

Method—A small bullhead may be placed in a small aquarium jar. At first let the water be clear and add a little pond weed so as to observe the natural tendency of the fish to hide. Later add mud and gravel to the aquarium and note the behavior of the fish.


1. What at the first glance distinguishes the bullhead from other fish? Describe these strange "whiskers" growing about the mouth; how many are there and where are they situated? Which are the longest pair? Can the fish move them in any direction at will?

2. Where do we find bullheads? On what do they feed? Would their eyes help them to find their food in the mud? How do they find it?

3. Explain, if you can, why the bullhead has barbels, or feelers, while the trout and bass have none.

4. What is the shape of the bullhead's mouth?

5. What is the general shape of the body? What is its color? Has it any scales?

6. Why should the bullhead be so flat horizontally while the sunfish is so flat in the opposite direction?

7. Describe the bullhead's eyes. Are they large? What is their color? Where are they placed?

8. Describe the dorsal fin, giving its comparative size and position. Do you see another dorsal fin? Where is this peculiar fin and how does it differ from the others?

9. Describe the tail fin. Does it seem long and strong? Is the bullhead a good swimmer?

10. Is the anal fin large or small as compared with that of the goldfish?

11. How do the pectoral fins move as compared with those of the sunfish? Why is the position of the pectoral and dorsal fins of benefit to this fish?

12. How does the bullhead inflict wounds when it is handled? Tell how these spines protect it from its natural enemies.

13. When is the best season for fishing for bullheads? Does the place where they are found affect the flavor of their flesh? Why?

14. What is the spawning season? Do you know about the nests the bullheads build and the care they give their young?

15. Write an essay on the nest-making habits of the bullheads and the care given the young by the parents.

"And what fish will the natural boy naturally take? In America, there is but one fish which enters fully into the spirit of the occasion. It is a fish of many species according to the part of the country, and of as many sizes as there are sizes of boys. This fish is the horned pout, and all the rest of the species of Ameiurus. Horned pout is its Boston name. Bullhead is good enough for New York; and for the rest of the country, big and little, all the fishes of this tribe are called catfish. A catfish is a jolly blundering sort of a fish, a regular Falstaff of the ponds. It has a fat jowl, and a fat belly, which it is always trying to fill. Smooth and sleek, its skin is almost human in its delicacy. It wears a long mustache, with scattering whiskers of other sort. Meanwhile it always goes armed with a sword, three swords, and these it has always on hand, always ready for a struggle on land as well as in the water. The small boy often gets badly stuck on these poisoned daggers, but, as the fish knows how to set them by a muscular twist, the small boy learns how, by a like untwist, he may unset and leave them harmless.

The catfish lives in sluggish waters. It loves the millpond best of all, and it has no foolish dread of hooks when it goes forth to bite. Its mouth is wide. It swallows the hook, and very soon it is in the air, its white throat gasping in the untried element. Soon it joins its fellows on the forked stick, and even then, uncomfortable as it may find its new relations, it never loses sight of the humor of the occasion. Its large head and expansive forehead betoken a large mind. It is the only fish whose brain contains a Sylvian fissure, a piling up of tissue consequent on the abundance of gray matter. So it understands and makes no complaint. After it has dried in the sun for an hour, pour a little water over its gills, and it will wag its tail, and squeak with gratitude. And the best of all is, there are horned pouts enough to go around."

"The female horned pout lays thousands of eggs, and when these hatch, she goes about near the shore with her school of little fishes, like a hen with myriad chicks. She should be respected and let alone, for on her success in rearing this breed of 'bullying little rangers' depends the sport of the small boy of the future."

—David Starr Jordan, in Fish Stories.