By Paul Pekin

The first fish I ever caught came out of McGinnis Slough. They were only bullheads, but I was already 16. Mine was a childhood of streets and sidewalks, of bricks and concrete, and of a father who played the piano. Never mind Huck and Tom and that Norman Rockwell kid who seemed to live on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. They could go off with their bent pins and sapling rods anytime they pleased. The only fishing I got came from books. It took all night to pull six bullheads out of the slough, but they were worth every minute.

Today McGinnis Slough, which is in the Palos preserves, has evolved into a wildlife refuge where fishing is no longer permitted. I drove by a few years ago and was surprised to see it still existed. Small lakes and ponds have been known to disappear completely in this part of the world. I still dream of a rock quarry on Kedzie where more than one swimmer drowned. There were sunfish in its deep, clear water–bright and burnished and unbearably beautiful–but I will never see them again. That quarry has been filled and leveled and developed and turned into suburbia, and nothing marks the spot.

At least McGinnis Slough has been spared this fate. I like to think the descendants of those first bullheads of mine are swimming there now, free and unmolested.

Some people mistake a bullhead for its close relative the catfish, but the difference is striking to those who look closely at fish. Seldom over a foot in length, the bullhead is a blunt, scaleless creature, usually black or a slick dirty yellow with drooping whiskerlike barbels on a mouth as wide as its head and tiny expressionless eyes, which hardly seem necessary in a creature that lives in mud. Some people have even described bullheads as ugly.

The bullhead is a creature to be reckoned with. Like all members of the catfish family, it comes with three vicious spines. Some people believe it’s the mouth barbels that do the damage–they’re the people most quickly injured. It’s the dorsal fin, and especially the two pectoral fins, that you must watch out for. And the smaller the bullhead, the more surely it will get you; even newly hatched bullhead fry, swimming in enormous schools so dense and dark they almost seem a single living thing, are as dangerous as a swarm of bees.

A string of bullheads isn’t easily acquired, at least not in the sense that it can be done at will. Patience is necessary, and companions and conditions must be exactly right. Bullheads are creatures of the night; catching them by day isn’t something you can count on. They tend to travel in schools, and where the school is not, they are not. And often where they are not is where you are. They disapprove of certain times of the year and certain phases of the moon. They don’t like it when the wind shifts directions, and they’ve been known to go numb when the water turns cold or to quietly seek a level more to their liking. When they get into one of their moods no one, not even the man at the bait shop, has any idea of where they’ve gone or when they’ll return. Fishing for bullheads isn’t a recommended activity for those who insist you can accomplish anything if you only try hard enough.

Bullheads exist where other fish cannot. The Sag Channel in Blue Island contained objects and substances we admired as kids but wouldn’t discuss in proper company–there were days when the chocolate brown water seemed to seethe and bubble. Yet on one memorable occasion some friends and I took from it one bright yellow bullhead after another. Wisely, we made no attempt to eat them. It was enough simply to prove that they were there.

Normally the bullhead is a respectable eating fish, though it’s not in the same class as the channel catfish, whose flesh is white and flaky and delicately flavored. The channel cat is slim and generally silver gray in color, and it has a forked tail that’s very unlike the bullhead’s blunt appendage. Even skinned and dressed, the two can be easily distinguished. If you see “catfish” at the local supermarket and the meat is dark and the tail blunt, someone’s putting something over on you.

I can think of only one way to cook a bullhead, and that’s to fry it. This alone endears the bullhead to midwesterners, most of whom know no other way to cook fish. People in Wisconsin and Michigan have even been known to fry salmon; I’ve done it myself, so please don’t write me with your recipe. We all know how to fry fish.

You needn’t mount a major expedition to fish for bullheads. Chain o’ Lakes is good. The Fox River from McHenry down. The Des Plaines River. The Illinois, the Du Page, the Kankakee. Look for any dark and weedy pond, any lake without too many personal watercraft. Just be sure the law permits you to fish there after dark. This is a problem Tom and Huck never concerned themselves with, but we in the Chicago area must remember our fine forest-preserve lakes are closed to the public after dark, the Forest Preserve District being firmly of the mind that people do not behave themselves once the sun goes down. There must be some dandy bullheads in these lakes, since even by day people get them. Think what catches could be made if we were allowed to stay out late and get serious.

Oddly, the best bullhead catches of my entire life have come from clear northern waters. I remember nights on Hamlin Lake, just outside Ludington, Michigan, and on Wisconsin’s Tomahawk River–nights spent with a good woman, many cans of beer, and a battery of fishing poles. The woman wouldn’t fish, but this was no problem–indeed it was an advantage. Wisconsin and Michigan, which think of themselves as high-class fishing states, prohibit the use of more than two poles per fisher, and with the woman I was able to use four–an absolute minimum for effective bullhead fishing. Whenever she caught an exceptionally fine bullhead, I would carry it up to the cabin and let her admire her accomplishment. “More,” she would say. “Get back down there and get more.”

Since bullheads are bottom feeders, you must fish for them in a certain way. The bait must rest on the bottom, and the line must be tight. Since it’s dark, you’re well advised to attach a small bell to the end of your pole, which you leave propped up in a forked stick unattended, though it’s a good idea to tie it to something solid. Where there are bullheads, there very often are carp–and a 15-pound carp is capable of taking your pole to places poles were never meant to visit.

So you see, this is a pleasant activity. You sit in a lawn chair, you drink beer, you listen for the bells, and when they sound you reel in your bullhead and remove it from the hook. Bullheads of course invariably swallow the hooks. The good news is that once they do they almost never escape. The bad news is that you must somehow remove the hook with a pair of pliers. And no matter how carefully you do this, the bullhead has more than a sporting chance of spearing you with one of its fins.

Bullheads, along with carp and other so-called rough fish, are considered undesirable by outdoorsmen of a certain stripe and are altogether ignored by writers and academics intent on finding metaphors in cold mountain streams. Mention fishing to these people and they will see the graceful arc of a fly-casting rod, and they will talk of speckled trout in western mountain streams, and they will think of Hemingway. I’ve been on the water with a few of their kind. Invariably they’re impressed by my canoe, but once they find out what I’m after, their enthusiasm tends to fade. The only university person I ever interested in rough fishing was a woman who was so pleased to land a three-pound carp she actually kissed the creature on the lips. But her field was psychology, not literature.

I do own a fly rod, and I do know how to use it. And I have caught trout and broiled them over a campfire. I have pulled in smallmouth bass–a quality creature if there ever was one–northern pike, and even salmon. There’s no fish I fully reject, not even the dogfish. In my dreams I’m sometimes accompanied by schools of pond-size goldfish, and they swim quite well without a drop of water.

I study the record books. I’m certain I hold the Michigan state record for the black bullhead–one night in Ludington I pulled in a specimen that topped three pounds. “I have a record,” I said, carrying the bloated creature into the bait shop. But the gang was busy examining a string of salmon, and I decided it wasn’t a good time to flaunt my success. Later I found a six-ounce rock bass lodged in my record-breaking bullhead’s throat. The question that bothered me was, did that six ounces count as part of the bullhead’s weight, or did I have to subtract it before claiming the record? I had the damn thing for lunch.

The time of year is coming when the bullheads begin to run. When water temperatures rise–I think to 55 degrees Fahrenheit–the spawn begins. From April through June bullheads bite. My mouth waters. My heartbeat quickens. This year please, I pray, please let me reach the river before they change their minds.