I'm bullheaded about insisting that my diet include its fair share of fish, including catfish, especially bullheads.
I've written a couple of times about fish, particularly fried fish, but I don't think I've talked much about bullheads.
The lowly little bullhead is the smallest of all the North American freshwater catfishes, and it has a reputation of being the least desirable because of its bottom-feeding modus operandi. Heck, I'm kind of a bottom feeder myself; I'm not exceptionally intelligent, don't demand fancy things, and I'll eat just about anything that's shoved in front of me. God made bullheads for simple folk like me. And they taste pretty damn good.
Since the Lenten season is here, and those whiskered bullheads are just about the first nibblers of the fishing season, I thought I'd spread a little bullhead – meaning bullhead know-how, or a simple man's wisdom of catching and cooking the lowly bullhead catfish.
My grandfather introduced me to bullheads a long time ago, when I was small lad in Illinois. It was so long ago that I cannot remember catching my first fish, but I'm sure that if it was not a bluegill sunfish, it had to have been a bullhead catfish. During those early years, my grandpa and I caught a lot of bullheads, and my dear grandma would fry them crispy in lard or shortening, after coating them with a perfect mixture of flour, salt and pepper. Grandma was big on pepper.
I pretty much forgot about bullheads during my 20-year career in the U.S. Marine Corps, living in other states and other countries. But when I retired from the Corps and moved my family to the San Bernardino Mountains in Southern California, I rediscovered those tasty little catfish thanks to trout fishing.
Fly fishing and micro-spinning for wild trout in clear mountain streams became my passion, although I didn't mind catching a few smallmouth bass in Lake Arrowhead. One day I was micro-spinning with a barbless, 1/32-ounce, Panther Martin spinner – the only bait I use if not fly fishing – in beautiful Deep Creek on the desert-facing side of our mountain range. I wasn't getting any hits, so I tried fishing it deep under a rock-cliff overhang, jigging it along the bottom, seeing if I could tempt a wild brown trout. When I got a hit, and my rod doubled over, I thought I'd succeeded in hooking a feisty brownie. However, I was more than surprised when I reeled in a chunky, one-pound, black bullhead. My brain was questioning my eyes: What the catfish is going on here?
I threw that bullhead into my hikeable cooler of cold creek water, along with a wild and lively red-banded trout I'd caught, and hiked out of the backcountry to my 4x4 truck and drove home. Dinner that evening received excellent reviews, and the bullhead was the star of the dinner – better tasting than the trout! Suddenly, that black bullhead from that clear mountain stream brought back memories of brown bullheads and yellow bullheads from muddy Illinois creeks. I raised a hand and index finger toward the heavens and announced to my grandfather: "Bullheads are back, Grandpa!"
You can probably catch bullheads in most areas of America, certainly most places east of the Rockies. So, grab your fishin' pole and fryin' pan and get going. Tackle and strategy for bullheads is simple. Four- or six-pound test line will do. Hooks? Shoot, anything from a size 4 to a 2/0, but I prefer the smaller ones. Bait? Worms are fine – be they nightcrawlers or red wrigglers or whatever you dig up out of your garden.
How do you rig up? Again, simple. The most basic is a hook at the end of the line and a small split-shot weight – size seven to four – about six to 12 inches above the hook. Or you can buy a special rig – called a bullhead bottom rig – comprised of a 12-inch leader with a casting or bell-type sinker at the end and above it a six-inch dropper line with hook. But you can keep it simple and go with that first option. Bullheads are neither smart nor particularly choosy. You know, kind of like me.
Now you can catch 'em, skin 'em, clean 'em, cook 'em and eat 'em. You do know how cook them, right? Most fish recipes will work. Cook the smaller ones whole, while the bigger ones – they can weigh up to about a pound – can be filleted, with little or no worry about bones. Sometimes I fillet even the small ones to make what I call bullhead strips or bullhead fingers because they're about the size of a finger. I dust them, coat them or batter them and then fry them. I also fry up some hushpuppies to go with them and a vegetable side dish. Here are a few tips for bullhead strips and hushpuppies:
When cleaned, put the strips into a pot of cool water and salt, and let them soak for a couple of hours – in or out of the refrigerator, doesn't matter. Meanwhile prepare a medium paper bag with an appropriate amount of flour, plus salt, pepper, onion powder and garlic powder. The amount of flour depends how much fish you have – enough flour mixture to generously coat the strips. Add the seasonings to taste. Plop the bullhead strips into the bag and shake to coat them. Then pour some canola oil or your favorite frying oil into a big-enough frying pan or cast-iron skillet, stopping when the oil is no more than an inch deep. Heat the oil to about 375 degrees and fry the coated strips until golden, turning at least once. They take only a few minutes.
And here is a fine recipe for the hushpuppies, given to me by Syble Allen of North Carolina. She's the mother of my longtime buddy and bestest fishing friend, Bruce Allen.
1 cup cornmeal
2 Tbsp. flour
1/4 tsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/3 cup chopped onion
Milk to stiffen
Now, listen up. Combine the above ingredients, except for milk. Then add the milk slowly until the mixture stiffens. Form into mushy, sticky balls no bigger than golf balls and place them carefully into the hot bullhead oil after the fish are done and out of there. Cook the balls – or, uh, let's go ahead and say hushpuppies already – until golden brown. You might want to double the recipe, because these things are really good, especially with some creamy butter.
I'll post one more recipe for your bullhead-eating pleasure. This is my bullhead and shrimp Creole recipe, which I came up with after living in New Orleans. This should serve more than four folks, and here's the recipe, starting with ingredients:
1 lb. large shrimp, shelled
1 stick butter
1 tsp. olive oil
1 28-oz. can tomatoes cut up
1 10 1/2-oz. can tomato puree
1 medium onion, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, smashed
3-4 stalks celery, chopped
2 Tbsp. Tabasco sauce
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup burgundy wine
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp. paprika
Begin by cooking a big pot of rice. While that is cooking, fillet the bullheads and cut into one-inch pieces. Next, shell the shrimp if they're still in shells. Dust the bullhead pieces and shrimp with Creole seasoning. Put the butter and olive oil into a large pot over medium heat. When heated up, add the bullhead, shrimp and garlic, stirring a little bit for just a few minutes, until the shrimp start the get milky and pink, and then remove the bullhead and shrimp to a plate. Put the chopped onions and celery into the pot and cook until soft and glistening. Add all the other ingredients, stir around and around, cover, bring to a slow bubble and simmer for about 45 minutes. Then return the bullhead pieces and shrimp to the pot, stir and cook for another 15 minutes. Finally, on separate deep plates, spoon on generous portions of rice, and ladle on generous portions of bullhead and shrimp Creole. Chow down!
That's certainly gotten my appetite going. Time to get the fishing gear ready!