Ictalurus melas
Black Bullhead

Black Bullhead

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The natural history of the northwoods



  • Ictalurus, from the Greek, "fish cat"
  • melas, from the Greek, "black"
  • Common Name from the resemblance of the nostril whiskers to the horns of a bull.
  • Other common names include: Black Catfish, Brown Catfish, Bullhead, Catfish, Common Bullhead, Horned Pout, River Snapper, Small Bullhead, Stinger, Yellow Belly Bullhead, bagre (Mex), barbotte noire (Qu), pesce gatto (It), poisson-chat (Fr), Schwarzer Katzenwels, Schwarzer Zwergwels (Ger), zwarte amerikaanse dwergmeerval (Dut)


  • Kingdom Animalia
    • Phylum Chordata, animals with a spinal chord
    • Subphylum Vertebrata, animals with a backbone
      • Superclass Osteichthyes, bony fishes
      • Class Actinopterygii, ray-finned and spiny rayed fishes
      • Subclass Neopterygii
      • Infraclass Teleostei
        • Superorder Ostariophysi
        • Order Siluriformes, the catfishes
          • Family Ictaluridae, North American freshwater catfishes; bullhead catfishes
            • Genus Ictalurus, the bullheads


  • A small, robust catfish of eastern North American.
  • Length to16"
    • much smaller where food is scarce and population density high, seldom exceeding 7"-9"
    • usually the smallest-sized bullhead
  • Weight not more than 2+ pounds
  • Color
    • highly varied, ranging from light brownish yellow to nearly black, usually dark olive to black on back; rarely mottled in color
    • belly white to bright yellow
    • jet black membranes on fins
  • Body
    • lacks scales
    • anal fin of 17 to 20 rays; outer two-thirds of the fleshy membrane of the fin is uniformly black or dark-pigmented
    • backside of pectoral spine weakly barbed
    • tail fin notched, with a light band at its base
    • all fins are rounded, the pectorals and dorsal containing a sharp and dangerous spine
  • Head
    • broad-headed
    • long whiskers
    • nostril whiskers resemble horns
  • Lifespan to 10 years or more, but few live more than 5 years.


  • Distinguished as a bullhead by its broad, flat, barbel strewn head.
  • Distinguished from the other bullheads by the light colored band at the base of the tail fin and color of its barbels:
    • Black Bullhead has black or grey barbels
    • Yellow Bullhead (Ictalurus natalis) has white barbels
    • Brown Bullhead (Ictalurus nebulosus) has barbels light colored at the base, darkening to grey or black at the tips
  • Body color varies, and not a reliable indicator of species.


  • Great Lakes, Hudson Bay, and Mississippi River basins from New York to southern Saskatchewan and Montana, south to northern Mexico.
  • Introduced elsewhere. In Europe it forms dense, stunted populations which makes it rather unpopular.
  • Le poisson-chat a été introduit en France en 1871.


  • Pools, backwaters, and sluggish current over soft substrates in creeks and small to large rivers; impoundments, oxbows, and ponds.
  • Prefers neutral pH (~7.0).
  • Usually rare in flowing waters.


  • Omnivorous, nocturnal feeder eating nearly anything it can swallow.
  • Young feed mainly on small crustaceans and aquatic insects. Large juveniles will eat other fish.
  • Midge and mayfly larvae make up a considerable part of the diet, but it also feeds extensively on other insects and their larvae, small crayfish, worms, small mollusks, crustaceans, and a host of other animals and plants. Bullheads have been known to eat the eggs of other fishes, as well as feeding quite extensively on minnows.


  • World Record: 5 lbs 8 oz, Veal Pond, Georgia, 1975
  • Minnesota Record: 3 lb 13 oz, from Reno Lake (Pope County)


  • Popular as gamefish, both for their fight and their flavor.


  • Matures at 1-3 years of age, depending on the environmental conditions.
  • Spawns in May or early June, usually in weedy or muddy shallows.
  • Saucer-shaped nests are excavated by female fish or by both parents in mud or sand in about 2' to 4' of water. These nests range from about 6"-14" in diameter and up to l0" deep. Nests also found beneath submerged logs or cavities.
  • Eggs are usually concealed under some protective cover, adhering more to one another than to the substrate. The number deposited depends on the age and size of the female, but the averages about 2,000 to 6,000, or more. One parent guards and fans the eggs.
  • Incubation is complete in a week or less under normal conditions. The young fry stay in tight black, ball-like schools, near shore or near the surface in deeper water, until they reach nearly 2" in length, at which time they leave their parents to fend for themselves.


  • Easy to keep and adapt well to captivity. With space and plenty of food, will thrive for many years in an aquarium. They grow quickly. Water conditions are relatively unimportant though bullheads prefer neutral water with a temperature between 60º and 82º F.
  • Avoid handling with bare hands as their fin-spines can inflict a painful sting.


Boreal border

Last updated on 13 November 1999