Black Bullhead
Ameiurus melas (Rafinesque, 1820)

member of the Catfish Family (Ictaluridae)

Bailey Slough WPA, Lac Qui Parle County, Minnesota 12 June 1985

photos by Konrad Schmidt












What's In a Name?
Black bullhead: refers to the overall color of the fish and the shape of its head

Ameiurus (ah-mee´-ur-us) means "tapering snout" in Latin
melas (mel´-ahs) means "black" in Latin

    Where Do They Live?
Black bullheads are common throughout Minnesota's many lakes, rivers, and streams, but they are most common in the southern half of the state. They prefer slow moving, quiet waters that have soft bottoms made up of mud and sand, sometimes with gravel mixed in. They have a high tolerance for turbid water (turbid means "cloudy") that many fish cannot withstand. They also tolerate water with only small amounts of oxygen dissolved in it. So, they can live in just about any habitat. They often are found living among white suckers, central stonerollers, common shiners, creek chubs, fathead minnows, and tadpole madtoms.


How Big Do They Get?
How Long Do They Live?
The black bullhead is Minnesota's smallest bullhead. It is common for them to reach about 254-318 mm (6-10 in) long, but they have been recorded as big as 457 mm (18 in). Black bullheads usually weigh less than 400 grams. Occasionally they approach 1 kg (2.2 lbs). The state record in Minnesota is 6 kg (3 lb, 13 oz). It was caught in Reno Lake in Pope County. Black bullheads can live for 4 to 5 years, although not many live beyond 3 years.

    What Do They Eat?
This bottom dweller is considered a scavenger (eats dead things) and an opportunist (eats whatever comes its way). Both young and adult black bullhead eat insects (all stages), clams, snails, waterfleas and other small-crustaceans, crayfish, leeches, and even plant material. Adults eat small fish, including other bullheads, but fish are really small part of their diet.

What Eats Them?
Black bullheads have large, sharp spines at the front of their dorsal (on their bodies) and pectoral (on the sides behind heir heads) fins. When bothered, they lock them in a straight-out position making them very hard to swallow. They also produce a mild poison that runs down the spines and into the wound. These spines and the species' preference for eating mostly at night make black bullheads an uncommon prey for other fish. The young and small adults have been known to be eaten by white bass and sometime turtles. Their most common predator is humans. Anglers easily catch them because they will bite on most bait. Many anglers find that this fish is a tasty treat when taken from clean water.


How Do They Reproduce?
In Minnesota, the spawning season for the black bullhead starts in late April and goes through to early June, when water temperatures are about 20- 21° C (68-70° F). The female uses her fins to dig a saucer-shaped nest, usually in water about 0.6-1.2 meters (2-4 ft) deep. She chooses a spot underneath some matted vegetation, pieces of wood, or a bank that hangs over the water. When the male swims near the nest, the female pokes his stomach with her head. Eventually, the two fish sit in the nest next to each other, facing opposite directions. The male touches the female's head with his tail fin repeatedly until she releases eggs. The male fertilizes them immediately. They repeat this spawning act several times over an hour or more and then again over the next few days until the female had laid all her eggs. Both parents fan and guard the eggs, until spawning is completed. Then the male takes over. He continues to protect the young from the time they hatch until they reach the size of about 25-mm (1 in). During this time, the young swim around in a tight little ball. The parent chases any strays back into the ball. After the parent leaves, the young will continue to swim in a group (called a school) for many days as they begin to feed. You can easily find these schools of fish in the shallows of most lakes in May and June.


Conservation and Management
Black bullheads are a game fish in Minnesota. Because they reproduce easily in large numbers, no special effort is made to stock them or increase their population size. They are easy to catch and children often get them when they are fishing with worms for pan fish. Because of their looks, many people choose not to eat them, but they are among the best tasting fish if taken from clean water.

"Cool Fact": Because the black bullhead keeps well in aquariums, it has been used in many kinds of scientific studies.




Permission is granted for the non-commercial educational or scientific use of the text and images on this Web document. Please credit the author or authors listed below.

Photographs by Konrad P. Schmidt
Text by Nicole Paulson & Jay T. Hatch in cooperation with
the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' MinnAqua Aquatic Program

This page developed with funds from the
MinnAqua Program (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Division of Fisheries)
and the
Sport Fish Restoration Program (Fish and Wildlife Service, US Department of the Interior)

Maintained by Jay T. Hatch
General College and James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History
University of Minnesota, Minneapolis/St. Paul

Last updated 23 October 2002