For years, "Bullhead Capital of the World" was the proud proclamation that welcomed visitors to Waterville on state Highway 13. Roam around town and you'll still see Bullheads Bar & Grill and bullhead caricatures on the store sign at Main Street Lounge. You might hear or read about the tragic 1940 murder of three game wardens by a commercial bullhead netter. June 6, 2014, marks the 50th annual June celebration of Waterville Bullhead Days.
Good Old Days
When John O'Leary returned to Waterville after World War II, he joined his father in business. They delivered fuel to farms and businesses and operated a full-service gas station and campground. Bullhead fishing was in vogue.
"We ran our campground and sold bait, lots of night crawlers. We rented motors and boats, but many people just fished from shore," says O'Leary. "Most of our tourists were from southern Minnesota and Iowa." Now 94, he still runs the gas station just north of the Cannon River bridge. The campground, like many local resorts, has since been sold for private lots.
Retired commercial netter and Waterville resident Glen Guyer also remembers the good days of bullhead fishing. "We hoop-netted lots of bullheads on Gorman, Sabre, Tetonka, Lower Sakatah," he says. "We'd catch them right in Sakatah Bay." Guyer says they would trap bullheads, crib the fish, and run a sales ad on the radio. Then people would drive out to the lake and pay to pick up bullheads in winter.
"When I was young, my mother and I would clean bullheads for a penny apiece," Guyer says. "We used to time ourselves. We could skin 250 bullheads an hour. If we dressed the bullheads to pan-ready, we charged five or 10 cents."
Local communities often featured bullhead fish fries in winter and Lenten season.
At some point, fishing and tourism slowed. "Iowa people kind of stopped coming when the bullheads were gone," Guyer says. "We couldn't sell [bullheads] like we used to. … People just stopped wanting them. The next generation wanted sunfish, bass, walleyes, or northern."
In the July–August 1965 Conservation Volunteer, Roger Preuss—wildlife artist, conservationist, and native son of Waterville—wrote: "Waterville's justly earned title of 'Bullhead Capital of the World' will, I am confident, remain indelibly etched on the sands of time." His proclamation likely seemed a sure bet at the time. Few could have seen changes coming in habitat stability and angler attitudes that would not favor bullheads.
Black bullhead (Ameiurus melas), the most abundant bullhead species in the Waterville area, has been on a decreasing trend for the past 40 years. And it's not just Waterville. Statewide data show black bullheads decreasing. So what gives? The cause for bullhead declines is not simple. Various factors—including angler preferences, fisheries management, stability of lake conditions, reductions in pollution, and changing climate—all come into play.
Three bullhead species—yellow, brown, and black—are found in Minnesota. Brown and yellow bullheads do better in clearer waters in the northern half of the state, and they coexist with gamefish. Black bullheads, on the other hand, can tolerate high turbidity, low dissolved oxygen, and a wide temperature range, including warm water—conditions that are stressful or lethal to other fish species.
Black bullheads perpetuate poor water-quality conditions as they feed in the detritus and stir up sediments, blocking sunlight, releasing phosphorus from the bottom, and uprooting aquatic plants. Their tolerant characteristics make black bullheads the cockroaches of native Minnesota fishes: When conditions are inhospitable to nearly any other fish, black bullheads can survive and flourish. While a cockroach comparison might not endear the black bullhead to those unacquainted with the species, many anglers enjoy the fast action and excellent table fare these fish provide.
Is it time for a "bring back the bullhead" campaign? Likely not, because doing so would mean returning to severely impaired waters and poor water quality. While bullhead numbers have declined in the past 40 years, other members of the fish community have prospered. Today, the lakes in the upper Cannon River chain are home to healthy populations of yellow perch, walleye, northern pike, channel catfish, bluegill, black crappie, white crappie, pumpkinseed, bigmouth buffalo, white bass, bowfin, and freshwater drum.
Bullheads were once so popular in the Waterville area that the Department of Natural Resources fisheries staff trapped bullheads in lakes where they were prolific and then stocked them at harvestable sizes in ponds where the public wanted to fish for them. The Minnesota Fish Commission (predecessor of DNR Fisheries) removed and stocked bullheads from as early as 1916 until the late 1960s.
Commercial seining of bullheads was closed on the Cannon River chain of lakes from the late 1960s through the 1980s for fear of depleting the fish that was so vital for local tourism.
The two most recent creel surveys in the Waterville area showed a significant change in the popularity of bullheads with anglers. The 1984 creel survey of the upper Cannon River estimated anglers collectively put in 279 hours per day between April 1 and Sept. 30. Anglers harvested an estimated 82,000 pounds of bullheads out of 90,000 total pounds of fish.
Of anglers interviewed, 54 percent said they were targeting bullheads. The next most popular response, at 22 percent, was "anything that would bite." And 12.5 percent of anglers said they were seeking crappies. Nearly one-third of anglers interviewed were out-of-state tourists.
In contrast, the 2012 creel survey of anglers on Tetonka, Cannon, and Upper and Lower Sakatah lakes showed how far bullheads had fallen in popularity with anglers. Anglers put in 417 hours per day between May 12 and Oct. 21. They harvested about 774 pounds of bullheads out of 16,600 total pounds of fish. Just 0.1 percent of all anglers interviewed were targeting bullheads. The most popular species included bluegill, crappie, largemouth bass, walleye, and northern pike. Just over 10 percent of anglers interviewed were nonresidents.
Anglers, who once might have requested bullheads, are now more likely to ask for stocking and management of walleye, northern pike, bass, and panfish.
Environmental changes have transformed how fisheries are managed. A 1949 Minnesota Department of Health investigation on Upper Sakatah Lake in Waterville documented commercial waste from a chicken processing plant and a mink farm as well as raw sewage contamination. Point-source pollution reduction, addressed in the 1972 Clean Water Act, ultimately increased water clarity and decreased nutrient inputs. When lakes on the Cannon River chain were more polluted, common carp and bullheads dominated fish communities. Water-quality improvement meant a more diverse fish community, complete with bluegills, crappies, largemouth bass, and other gamefish less tolerant of poor water quality.
Stocking of predatory fish such as northern pike and walleye might have thinned down bullheads where bullheads were abundant. While northern pike and walleye don't prefer bullheads, they can repress bullhead populations if they are the most abundant prey available.
Other environmental changes have also impacted bullheads. A strong link exists between bullheads and winterkill. When a strong winter covers a lake with snow and ice, blocking out sunlight, photosynthesis is nearly nonexistent and the continual biological oxygen demand drops dissolved oxygen concentrations to near zero. This hypoxic water has too little oxygen for most fish to survive, and in the spring when the ice recedes, a flotsam of dead fish washes ashore. Often, what's left behind is the resilient black bullhead—in enough quantity to repopulate the lake in a single spawn with a huge year class of young fish.
As climate change has brought milder winters, the historic winterkill events that promoted bullheads have become less frequent, even rare. Some lakes have been aerated. And agricultural subsurface drainage and variable frost lines often channel midwinter meltwaters straight to lakes, refreshing dissolved oxygen supplies.
Curlyleaf pondweed, a nonnative species introduced to the United States in the mid-1800s, has proliferated over the past 40 years in south-central Minnesota. Unlike native plants, this aquatic plant grows all winter and provides dissolved oxygen through photosynthesis. With winterkill less frequent and not as severe, aquatic habitats have stabilized, giving bullheads less of an advantage.
Bullish on the Future?
The heydays of bullhead fishing in Waterville might be gone, but the fish will never disappear from the area. Shallow lakes that experience winterkills and are highly turbid still have abundant black bullheads, although sometimes finding them in preferred sizes can be challenging.
Bullheads have gained popularity as bait for flathead catfish and trophy walleye on the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers. Some anglers want to catch bullheads to eat. A small cult following still seeks the fish for the frying pan in spring and early summer. To join the fun, when the water has warmed to 50 degrees or above, try shore fishing one of southern Minnesota's turbid and shallow lakes. Use a night crawler on a size-2 hook with a few split-shot sinkers to keep the bait on the bottom.
Bullheads may not enjoy the popularity and competitive advantage they once held, but they will always be an important component of the fish community and an icon connecting past and present for the local human community.