Ictalurus nebulosus
Brown Bullhead

Brown Bullhead

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The natural history of the northwoods



  • Ictalurus, from the Greek, "fish cat"
  • nebulosus, from the Latin, "clouded"
  • Common name from the resemblance of the nostril whiskers to the horns of a bull.
  • Other common names include: Brown Catfish, Bullhead, Catfish, Common Bullhead, Common Catfish, Horned Pout, Marbled Bullhead, Minister, Mudcat, Northern Brown Bullhead, Red Cat, Speckled Bullhead, barbotte brune (Qué), törpe harcsa (Hun), barbotte brune (Q), bruine amerikaanse dwergmeerval (Dut), dværgmalle (Dan), dvärgmal (Swe), dvergmalle (Nor), Kanalnyi somik (Rus), Katzenwels (Ger), Piikkimonni (Fin), Sumik karlowaty (Pol), Zwergwels (Ger), Sumecek americký (Cz)


  • 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
  • Also known as Ameiurus nebulosus


  • A medium size member of the catfish family
  • Length generally 8" - 14"
  • Weight
    • to about 2 lbs under ideal conditions
    • most average less than 1 lb
  • Color
    • olive to brown with dark mottlings on sides
    • fading to white or cream underneath
  • Body
    • thick and rounded, heaviest toward the front
    • lacks scales but the skin has many taste glands.
    • sharp, sawtoothed, spines at the base of the dorsal and pectoral fins which can be locked in an erect position, thought to help protect the bullhead against predators by making it much harder to swallow.
    • anal fin of 22/23 rays
    • numerous strong barbs form a serrated back side of the pectoral fin spines
    • tail fin square and slightly notched
    • adipose fin (small fin on the back in front of the tail)
  • Head
    • broad, large, somewhat flattened
    • teeth in pads on both jaws; used largely for tearing and pulling off pieces of food.
    • four pair of fleshy barbels. Those on top of the mouth are particularly long, sweeping back past the small fin in the middle of its chest.
    • Unlike most catfish, the upper jaw juts out slightly farther than the lower lip.
  • Lifespan
    • usually matures at age 3
    • lives for 6 to 8 years


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


  • Fresh waters of eastern and central North America, from the Maritimes to Florida, and west to southern Saskatchewan, Missouri, and Texas.
  • Introduced to western North America and Europe.


  • Shallow, weedy, muddy areas of lakes or large slow-moving streams; also impoundments, lakes, and ponds.
  • Can tolerate higher water temperatures and carbon dioxide levels, and lower oxygen concentrations than many other fish species.
  • Resistant to domestic and industrial pollution. In areas of heavy pollution can be the only fish species present.


  • Like many other catfish, feeds near the bottom of ponds and lakes rich in submerged plants and moss. Highly omnivorous, uses four pair of whisker-like barbels around its mouth to "taste" the water in search of food.
  • Nocturnal consumer of molluscs, insects, leeches, crayfish and plankton, worms, algae, plant material, and fishes.
  • Has been reported to feed on eggs of Cisco (Coregonus artedi), Lake Whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis), and Lake Trout (Salvelinus namaycush).
  • Juveniles feed mostly on chironomid larvae, cladocerans, ostracods, amphipods, bugs, and mayflies.


  • Minnesota Record: 7lbs 1oz, from Shallow Lake (Itasca County)


  • Known for its delicious taste, its reputation among food lovers prompted the export of live bullheads from the US to Europe, though it never grew as large or as tasty there.
  • Reared commercially in the southern US.


  • Spawns rather early in spring, usually in late April or May.
  • Males fan out a saucer-shaped nest in the mud or nest in natural cavities where the female deposits eggs, ranging from 2,000 to 10,000, or more. The eggs are guarded by both parents during the 5 to 8 day incubation period. The parents care for the eggs by fanning them with their fins and physically stirring them up.
  • Upon hatching, the young are jet black and resemble tadpoles. The fry are herded about in schools for several weeks until they are about 2" long.
  • At the end of their first year they reach a length of about 2½" to 4" and mature in three years.



Boreal border

Last updated on 13 November 1999