Bullhead Catfish, Catfish
Average 8-12 inches. Can grow larger in quality populations.
11.04 lbs; Justin E. Andrews; Unnamed lake, Snohomish County; June 3, 2000
The Brown Bullhead is by far the most common of the three bullhead species found in Washington. It can be identified by the presence of strong barbs or serrations on the back edge of its pectoral spines, and pigmentation in the chin barbels. Like other members of the catfish family, brown bullheads are often abundant in water a little muddier and warmer than most other fish prefer. They can tolerate high water temperatures and low dissolved oxygen levels that would be lethal to most other game fish. Having a highly-developed sense of smell and touch, bullheads are well equipped to negotiate murky waters and find food.
Brown bullheads were first planted in Silver Lake, Cowlitz County, in the early 1880s. In Coming of the Pond Fishes, Ben Hur Lampman theorizes that this planting provided the nursery that fueled a catfish population explosion in the lower Columbia and Willamette Rivers. (Silver Lake drains to the Toutle River, which drains to the Cowlitz, which drains to the Columbia.) In April 1890, the Oregonian newspaper reported “The ponds and lakes of Sauvies Island are literally alive with catfish which have been carried in by the late flood waters. By every appearance our waters will soon be swarming with these fish, as they increase at an appalling rate.”
During the 1890s and up until Oregon declared the catfish a game species, about 1913, there was a thriving commercial fishery for them, mostly in the shallow lakes of Sauvie Island (as it’s more commonly known now). Sauvie Island is about 10 miles downstream from Portland, surrounded by the Columbia and Willamette Rivers and Multnomah Channel. This fishery produced over 100,000 pounds of dressed catfish annually at its peak.
Today, brown bullheads are abundant in many of Washington’s lowland lakes, ponds and reservoirs, on both sides of the Cascades. Among other places, popular fisheries exist in Moses Lake, Lake Terrell, Liberty Lake, Lake Washington, and Cowlitz County’s Silver Lake. The lower Columbia River still has its share, especially in slough areas, and so may other slow- moving streams.
Like other catfish, bullheads are omnivorous, eating almost anything that is available. Almost all food is taken on or near the bottom. Their excellent olfactory sense makes baits with a strong odor particularly effective. Popular baits include worms, chicken, beef, or any kind of liver. Serious catfish anglers often have their own secret bait concoctions, the smellier the better. A rod or cane pole, line, bobber and bait are usually all the tackle required. Bullheads also make excellent table fare; many anglers consider catfish taken from cool, clean water to be the ultimate in piscatorial cuisine. The fish are normally skinned, at which a little practice is required to become proficient. Any brown bullhead over 12 inches is a good-sized one, so expect to work for a family meal.