Fishing the heartland: The cross-generational appeal of big bullheads

Stacy Barbour and I used to love to take our lightweight spinning gear to the shallow lakes near our homes and fish for carp.

We would thread a half-dozen pieces of sweet corn from the can onto a No. 1 Tru-Turn hook and, after anchoring up the boat, cast that bait into a spot we had chummed earlier. Carp from 1 to 25 pounds would put up tremendous fights on that light tackle. I’ll miss those times now that Barbour has passed away.

On some of the lakes we targeted, the bullheads would move in and take our bait before the carp could get to it. Some of these bullheads were the big, fat, yellow variety – a fine-eating fish.

I grew up in Iowa before moving to Minnesota in 1981. The bullhead in Iowa is like walleyes, bass or trout in some states – revered. It was in Iowa where I learned how to nail a bullhead to a board and skin it with special skinning pliers. My father would have big bullhead fish fries and invite all the neighbors. Attendees consumed a lot of beer and rhubarb wine at these events.

I’ve caught hundreds of pike, walleyes, and bass, but when I land a bullhead, I can’t help but toss it in the livewell for eating. If I had hair, this is when my Iowa roots would show.

I don’t nail the bullheads to a board and skin them anymore – you can fillet a bullhead just like you would fillet any other fish. Just flip them on their side and run the knife down the back and around the rib cage. I use a filleting board that has a clamp on it to secure the fish. They have some hefty spikes on their fins and can poke you hard. This does sting and it takes a bit of practice to know how to handle a bullhead without “getting stung.” For a filleting how-to, click here.

Coat and fry bullheads to prepare them properly. My favorite recipe is to take a bag of onion garlic croutons and pummel them in a food processor until they are crumbs. Dump the bullhead fillets in a bowl of beaten eggs and then roll the egg-coated fillets in the crouton crumbs.

This is the important part: Use peanut oil and make sure it is hot before dropping the fillets in to be fried. I use an electric skillet and heat the oil to 400 degrees before adding the fish. Don’t overcrowd the fillets in the oil. Cook each side until golden brown to cook the fish perfectly. For other bullhead recipes, click here.

Just picture a heaping plate of bullhead fillets, cooked to perfection, surrounded by bowls of potato salad and coleslaw, hushpuppies and tartar sauce. This is the stuff of Iowan’s dreams, and – while I’ve lived in Minnesota 10 years longer than I lived in Iowa – sometimes those traditions never fade away.

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