The Bullhead Affair
by Pat McKeown
Just the other night I had the same old dream. The April dream. The early May dream. The sweet spring-sleep vision that comes annually like clockwork and wakes me smiling and hungry.
In my reverie I can see them lined up in the big pan, brown and crisp on the outside, soft and sweet on the inside. Hundreds of them. Heads off. Tails still on for easy holding. Spines rigid for easy serving.
Tasty, perfect delicate morsels from ice cold North Country waters.
The scent of these delicacies is so overpowering that my mind wakes me up fast and famished. Nothing like it anywhere. At once fragrant and scintillating, pungent and fishy, the illusory aroma of hot grease and crusty morsels make early-morning drool tracks around sleeping smile lines.
I get up, wash my face, seeing the imaginary crumbs drift into the sink along with the dream. I sigh. At the breakfast table oatmeal just won’t cut it no matter how many raisins I add. I search through the newspaper, not reading the news this time, ignoring the latest Washington gaffes and police reports, bypassing the obituaries and irate letters to the editor. At last I find it -- the Community Calendar.
I’d drive 100 miles for bullhead and have, belching all the way home. It’s the only gluttony I admit to and figure that once or twice a year can’t hurt or make me answer to any Final Judge about how vigorously I commit the third deadly sin each spring.
Actually, I start thinking about those sweet fish in early March, dream all the way through April, and don’t stop until I’m stuffed. Usually right after Mother’s Day. Where some people dream about phantom lovers or winning lotteries, I dream about fish and the crunchy bodies lying in the roasting pans, hot off the fire, ready for my fingers. I see smiling men who serve them up, usually with flour-spattered aprons and fire department T-shirts.
“More?” they ask, knowing that fresh is best and leftovers aren’t the same.
The Latin name for the common brown bullhead is Ameiurus Nebulosus, meaning “Common North American Catfish, brown in color, with no distinct details and no scales.” He’s a medium sized fish, found in nearly all waters of New York State and Canada. He’s highly adaptable and can live under the most adverse conditions, feeding on bottom leftovers from others.
When oxygen levels are low in the North Country ponds and lakes where he lives, he breathes through his skin, even using his air bladder as an emergency lung by gulping from the surface, as any angler with a bucketful can tell you.
He averages between 8 and 14 inches and has the typical appearance of any catfish, with his broad flat head and eight dark barbells or whiskers around his face with which he can sniff out something to eat. The common brown bullhead is generally dark brown above and lighter – white to pale yellow - on his belly. He’s not a pretty fish like the brook trout or flashy like the muskellunge, but he has one thing the rest don’t have: his unique defense system. Take a look next time you snag one, but be careful. There are three sharp spines or spikes on his body, one at the front of the dorsal fin on his back and one on each of his two pectoral fins, just behind his head. He can lock these spikes into place to thwart any bigger fish from swallowing him whole or any fingers from trying to do him in. Anyone who has ever tried to get Ameiurus Nebulosus off a hook without bleeding knows the danger of these porcupine-like weapons.
The other day, just at dusk, I saw a father and son standing in the rain, fishing for something in an unlikely creek pool. Ponchos on, white plastic buckets along side, lantern glowing in the twilight. There was no question what they were after. When my sons were small, we fished for brown bullhead through April and into June, the ideal time for spawning and therefore great angling activity. Almost any pond or creek or estuary provides a nice place for these fellows to prowl for food. With a series of hooks spaced four or five inches apart, and bobbers above to keep the line out of the silt, it’s easy to snag several bullheads for the evening’s dinner. Anyone who has ever participated in this most wonderful of bonding experiences knows first hand the screeches of young children who try to get past the spikes to get the landed fish into the bucket. Some never get the hang of it; some don’t want to and weenie out at the first jab, making everyone watch later as they proudly land a sunny instead – no spikes, no problem.
Then there’s the cleaning. Personally, I’ve never mastered it. I know that in order to skin the thing you make a series of small slices near the head and tail, as my neighbor tells me every summer. “Nothing to it, Pat. Small cuts, wiggle the skin loose, then grab his tail and just slip the skin over his head like you’re taking off a turtleneck.”
Easy for him to say. Takes me the better part of an hour to clean a mess of bullhead, using pliers, the sharpest tools I can find and plenty of cusswords. Every year I swear to get a really sharp knife before next season, but I never remember until too late. In the end I am bloody, smelly, exhausted but, like all proud cavemen, really puffed up, knowing that once again I have brought in the meal.
I don’t think about what these fish ate before I eat them, nor do I worry about mercury or carcinogens or other contaminant horrors warned about by the health people. The season is short for these most delicious fish, the sweetest meat, and so I figure the broccoli and spinach I consume later will take care of any problems. If not, well…once or twice a year. How can it hurt?
Preparing the catch for the table is easy, after the cleaning: Great bullhead chefs simply fill a cast iron skillet with an inch or so of oil, heat it to just below the smoking point, and drop in the fish, lightly seasoned with salt and pepper and coated with a flour and corn meal mixture. Quick. Perfect.
Personally, I prefer to have others do the work. The earliest of all North Country Bullhead Feeds, as they’re called, has always been the one in Brier Hill, just outside Morristown. But last Friday, Good Friday, the Potsdam Elks cooked their fish so perfectly that one or two on a plate of sides just didn’t cut it. I had four, and half of the fifth; my friends each a comfortable two.
For seven, eight, nine or 10 dollars, depending, these community groups offer all the bullhead one can eat, usually cole slaw, some kind of potato or beans, fresh homemade rolls and sometimes a dessert, if you can squeeze it in. I don’t do the slaw, don’t do the fries, don’t eat a roll, never beans or a dessert.
“I just want the fish,” I tell the men; “Fill up the plate, leave no space.” I always go back for seconds. One year I ate 11 in Massena, 14 in Winthrop. Stopped for soft ice cream on the way home, where I remained in agony for the next 12 hours.