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The brown bullhead is a medium sized fish with a typical catfish appearance. It has a broad, flat head and dark barbels (whiskers) around the face. Its square tail and spotted side coloration distinguishes it from other members of the catfish family. The brown bullhead is generally dark brown on top and yellow to white near the belly, but the color may vary with the fish’s surroundings.
Brown bullheads are a good example of the hardiness of catfish in general, tolerating both high water temperatures and low oxygen levels. They are present in cool Adirondack lakes, in warm water ponds, and in large slow moving streams. Brown bullheads occur in areas with or without aquatic vegetation and can be found over both mud and gravel bottoms. In Oneida Lake, brown bullhead eat sunfish, yellow perch, zebra mussels, and amphipods and other invertebrates. During winter, bullheads are known to bury themselves in the mud with only their mouths showing.
Spawning takes place in May or June before the water temperature reaches 70ºF, and can take several weeks. Nests are located in shaded areas of shallow water, and are built near logs or inside objects such as a car tire. The male builds his nest by lying on the bottom and vibrating his body, and then the female joins him to lay 2,000-14,000 eggs. One or both parents stay at the nest, and the male generally guards the nest while the female incubates the eggs. Incubation consists of violent agitation of the eggs to promote oxygen movement during development. Incubation lasts 5-20 days, and the young stay in the nest for a while after hatching. When ready to leave the nest, the young swim in “pods” with the adults for protection.
Often, when New Yorkers see or eat catfish, it is a brown bullhead. Brown bullheads are delicious to eat and a favorite of many. During the spring, anglers catch them by the bucketful. Large bullhead feasts are popular, especially in New York’s Great Lakes counties.
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