The black bullhead or black bullhead catfish (Ameiurus melas) is a species of bullhead catfish. Like other bullhead catfish, it has the ability to thrive in waters that are low in oxygen, brackish, turbid and/or very warm. It also has barbels located near its mouth, a broad head, spiny fins and no scales. It can be identified from other bullheads as the barbels are black, and it has a tan crescent around the tail. Its caudal fin is truncated (squared off at the corners). Like virtually all catfish, it is nocturnal, preferring to feed at night, although young feed during the day. It generally does not get as large as the channel or blue catfish, with average adult weights are in the 1- to 2-lb range, and almost never as large as 4 lb. It has a typical length of 8-14 in, with the largest specimen being 24 in, making it the largest of the bullheads. It is typically black or dark brown on the dorsal side of its body and yellow or white on the ventral side.
Like most of the bullheads (and even flathead catfish), it has a squared tail fin, which is strikingly different from the forked tail of channel and blue catfish. It is a bottom-rover fish, meaning it is well-adapted for bottom living. It is typically dorsoventrally flattened, and has a slightly humped back. Its color depends on the area where it is taken, but it generally is darker than brown or yellow bullheads. It can be distinguished from a flathead in that the black bullhead's lower lip does not protrude past the upper lip. Distinguishing it from the brown bullhead is a bit more difficult, depending on the area where it is caught, but a distinguishing detail between the two includes a nearly smooth pectoral spine on the black bullhead with the brown being strongly barbed. The anal fin also has a gray base, and the tail also has a pale bar. Also, the brown bullhead generally has 21 to 24 soft rays through its anal fin as opposed to the black bullhead's 17 to 21. The brown bullhead is also typically mottled brown and green on top instead of the darker black. Both the black and brown bullheads can easily be distinguished from the yellow bullhead as the yellow bullhead has white barbels under its mouth.
Black bullheads are found throughout the central United States, often in stagnant or slow-moving waters with soft bottoms. They have been known to congregate in confined spaces, such as lake outlets or under dams. They are very tolerant fish, and are able to live in muddy water, with warmer temperatures and in water with lower levels of oxygen, which reduce competition from other fish. Black bullheads also occur as an invasive species in large parts of Europe.
They are omnivorous, so will eat almost anything, from grains and other plant matter to insects, dead or living fish, and crustaceans. They have short, pointed, conical teeth, formed in multiple rows called cardiform teeth. Black bullheads have no scales; instead, they have about 100,000 taste receptors placed all over their bodies. Many of these are located on the barbels near their mouths. The receptors help the fish to identify food in their dark habitats. During the winter, black bullheads decrease food intake, and may stop eating altogether. Instead, they bury themselves around the shore line of the lake in debris, with only their gills exposed. This "hibernation" allows them to survive conditions of low oxygen and low temperature.
Black bullheads start to spawn in April and continue through June. The females scoop out a small hole or depression in the lake floor and lay 2000 to 6000 eggs. The males fertilize the eggs, then care for them. When the eggs hatch a week later, both parents watch over the fry for a short while.
Considered rough fish, black bullheads are not as popular for sport fishing as their larger cousins, channel catfish, blue catfish and flat head catfish. However, they have pale flesh and make excellent table fare when water quality is good despite their small size. As with channel catfish the flesh around the bellies and gills of larger individuals can be strong tasting due to yellow fat, but these flavors can be avoided by removing the fatty portions of a large specimen when cleaning. They are the largest of the bullheads and are one of several catfish informally referred to as mud catfish.
They have been introduced in many areas of the US because of their ability to survive (and even thrive) in less than ideal conditions, but they are seldom used in active stocking programs due to their relatively low desirability. Fisheries experts tend to not recommend them because they compete with bluegill and channel catfish for food and do not grow as fast or get as big as channel catfish. For that reason it's hard to find them commercially for pond stocking. That said, in clean water meat quality is very good, and unlike channel catfish black bullheads will reproduce and indefinitely maintain healthy populations without restocking in ponds populated with bass and crappie. In fact as with bluegill a pond with black bullhead in it needs a predator species such as bass to keep the bullhead population under control. Due to their ability to reproduce in a pond with bass bullheads are the best catfish for mix species ponds that won't be fished out and restocked regularly.
Black bullheads can be caught using similar techniques as for channel or blue catfish, although their small size may require smaller bait and hooks. They respond very well to earthworms and will tend to feed higher up in the water column than channel catfish. Like most catfish, they are most active at night, and tend to be less active during the day, bedding under piers or in shady shore areas.
At the base of their pectoral and dorsal fins are spines, which they can use as spurs to cut predators.
- Bullhead catfish (general)
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- Leppakoski, Erkki. Invasive aquatic species of Europe: distribution, impacts, and management. Kluwer Academic Publishers. 1998. The Netherlands. 156-162.
- "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2010-08-25. Retrieved 2011-05-18.
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