Black Bullheads (Ameiurus melas) are in the catfish family and can be distinguished from Channel Catfish by their squared tail fins. Channel Catfish have distinctly forked tails. Black Bullheads have a very broad head with pigmented barbells. Of the six barbells, the two outermost are quite long and the four under the mouth are about the same size and in a line. Two nostril whiskers point upward and look rather like horns.
The color ranges from dark brown to black on top to yellow and white on the belly. The color is never mottled in appearance as brown bullheads are. The dorsal fin is fairly long, but not very deep. There is a small adipose fin. The caudal (tail) fin has rounded corners but comes straight down to give it the squared appearance and has 15 to 18 rays. The anal fin has 19 to 25 rays so is pretty decent size.
The gill rakers have from 16 to 18 rays. The pectoral fins have spines which actually carry a small amount of venom which can cause a stinging pain for up to a week. The barbells do not cause the sting but past confusion probably gave rise to such a belief. The average weight is one to two pounds and they almost never get as large as five pounds.
Bullheads are natively distributed from east of the continental divide in central Montana, south to Texas and in the streams of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coast north into Canada. They live in a variety of habitats including brackish and/or low oxygenated ponds rivers and lakes. They tend to avoid freely flowing waters. They are bottom feeders and eat almost anything including dead fish, insects, other fish, grain, and crayfish. They most often feed at night.
Spawning occurs between May and July. The female fans out a depression in a soft substrate and removes larger bits with her snout. The male is usually nearby as the female constructs the nest. They are usually in two to four feet of water. The female nudges the male’s abdomen with her snout. After breeding the pair lay side by side with the male curling his caudal tail around the female’s mouth.
After several pairings, perhaps five in the course of an hour, the spawning can be noticed by a quivering in the female. Females produce between 2,000 and 3,800 eggs. The female guards the nest for the first day. The male then watches over the nest for up to about ten additional days. The eggs hatch within four to ten days. The fry then stay close to the male for up to two weeks. An average lifespan is five years, but can range up to ten years.
The Accidental Catch
As Black Bullheads are not sought for food or sport they are usually caught by accident while the angler is trying to catch other species.