The yellow bullhead is widespread in Missouri. It is the most common bullhead catfish in the Ozarks and Bootheel lowlands. It has white chin barbels, and the edge of its tail fin is straight, not notched.
Bullhead catfishes, as a group, are chubby catfish that rarely exceed 16 inches in length. The upper jaw projects beyond the lower jaw. The tail is not noticeably forked. The adipose fin (on the back, between the dorsal fin and tail) is a free lobe, widely separate from the tail fin.
The yellow bullhead can be distinguished from Missouri’s three other bullheads by the following: The chin barbels are uniformly whitish (often slightly dusky in large adults from Ozark streams, but not grayish or blackish as in the black and brown bullheads); the anal fin rays usually number 24–27 (not fewer than 24); and the rear edge of the tail fin is nearly straight (not slightly notched). Sawlike teeth are present on the back edge of the pectoral spine (teeth can be detected by grasping the spine between the thumb and forefinger and pulling outward).
The back and sides are usually uniformly yellowish brown, often faintly mottled with darker brown in adults from clear, weedy water. The belly is yellowish or white. The fins are dusky, the membranes similar in color to the rays.
- The black bullhead (A. melas) also has a wide range in Missouri, but it is better represented in north and west portions of the state. Its tail fin is slightly notched; it lacks sawlike teeth on the rear margin of the pectoral spine; anal fin rays usually number 17–21; the chin barbels are dusky or black.
- The brown bullhead (A. nebulosus) apparently has only one self-sustaining population in Missouri: at Duck Creek Wildlife Area and nearby Mingo National Wildlife Refuge in Bollinger, Stoddard, and Wayne counties. Another population occurs in a lake owned by the city of Arnold in Jefferson County. Its back and sides are usually strongly mottled rather than uniformly colored, and the barbel at the corner of the mouth is longer, reaching well behind the base of the pectoral fin in adults. Sawlike teeth are strongly developed on the rear margin of the pectoral spine. Anal fin rays usually number 22 or 23. Chin barbels are dusky or black. The rear margin of the tail fin is slightly notched, as in the black bullhead.
- The white catfish (A. catus, sometimes Ictalurus catus), another bullhead, shares the relatively short anal fin and blunt (not wedge-shaped) head of our other bullheads, but it has a moderately (though not deeply) forked tail fin. It commonly reaches 10–18 inches long; maximum about 24 inches. It’s not native to Missouri but is commonly stocked in fee-fishing lakes and other private waters. Where it has been occasionally collected from natural waters in Missouri, those individuals probably represent escapees. It has been collected in the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and the Big Creek arm of Truman Reservoir. It probably does not breed here, except perhaps in artificial ponds.
Habitat and Conservation
The yellow bullhead is nearly as widespread in Missouri as the black bullhead. It is the commonest bullhead in the Ozarks and Bootheel lowlands, and it is nearly as common as the black bullhead in the clearer streams in the prairie region of central and northeastern Missouri.
Yellow bullheads prefer clearer water than black bullheads and are usually found in or near streams with permanent flow. Like the other bullheads, it avoids strong currents. In the Ozarks, the yellow bullhead typically is found in quiet, heavily vegetated backwaters and overflow pools. In the Bootheel lowlands, it is common in clear, heavily vegetated ditches having little noticeable current. In the prairie region of northern Missouri, it is usually found in streams with higher gradients, clearer waters, and less siltation than other prairie region streams.
The yellow bullhead seldom occurs in the high population densities sometimes achieved by the black bullhead.
Taxonomically, there are more than 35 catfish families in the world. All of Missouri’s catfish belong to only one of these families, the Ictaluridae. This family has been called the “bullhead catfishes” as well as the “common catfishes.” So just as it’s technically correct to call any plant in the sunflower family “a type of sunflower,” you could also call channel, blue, and flathead catfishes, plus all the madtoms, “types of bullhead catfishes.” However, it is more precise to restrict the term “bullhead” to members of the genus Ameiurus. Members of genus Ameiurus have blunt heads and squared tail fins with only a slight notch if any (as opposed to truly forked tails as in channel cats).
In Iowa, the yellow bullhead spawns in May and early June. Parental care is well developed in catfishes. Reproductive behavior is similar to that of the black bullhead. The female excavates a saucer-shaped nest by fanning material out with her lower fins and pushing pebbles to the periphery with her snout. Nests often are located beneath logs or other large objects elevated above the stream bottom. One of the parent bullheads remains with the nest, fanning and aerating the eggs with the fins and warding off predators. Minnows and sunfish often hover near the nest, rushing in to eat eggs whenever an opportunity arises.
Few individuals live more than about 5 years in the wild.
In Missouri, the yellow bullhead is less important as a hook-and-line fish than the black bullhead because it is seldom abundant. However, this disadvantage is partly offset by the fact that, on average, yellow bullheads taken by fishers are larger than black bullheads.
Although purists may turn up their noses at the idea of angling for bullheads, these fishes provide many hours of fishing pleasure in waters where few fishing opportunities would otherwise exist. Still-fishing with a cane pole or rod and reel is the most popular method for catching them. Worms are one of the best baits. When fishing for bullheads, remember to fish on or close to the bottom.
In addition to its importance as a way for finding food, the sense of smell is also important in social behavior. Experiments have shown that yellow bullheads are able to distinguish one individual of their species from another based on smell alone.
Once they attain a fairly large size, yellow bullheads have fewer predators, but bullhead eggs and fry are easy pickings for a wide variety of aquatic predators, including sunfish and even minnows, which hover about the nest, waiting for them to be unguarded for a moment. This explains the parent bullheads’ diligent nest-guarding behavior.
In general, predators of bullheads include any fish large enough to consume them, plus watersnakes, snapping turtles, herons, and raccoons.
As a defense against predation, bullheads (like many other catfish), when attacked, typically stretch out and lock their dorsal and pectoral spines, which makes them much harder to swallow.
Worldwide there are more than 35 families of catfishes in the catfish order (Siluriformes). Most of us could easily identify most of them as “catfishes” by their whisker-like barbels, smooth bodies lacking scales, general nocturnal disposition, and typical bottom-feeding habits. But aquarists know that several tropical cats have bony plates (which still aren’t technically scales) — think “cory cats” (Corydoras spp.) and “plecos” (Hypostomus plecostomus). Aquarists may also be familiar with catfish that are not bottom feeders — think of the “glass catfish” (Kryptopterus) that swim in the middle level of an aquarium. Some other tropical freshwater catfish popular in the aquarium trade aren’t called catfish: one example is the “iridescent green shark” (Pangasius spp.), which you may also find frozen in groceries labeled as “swai,” “panga,” “basa,” or “bocourti.”