My wife and I can attest to the multitude of Black Bullheads in Dollar Lake. They are about the only fish we can catch and the reason why we’ve given up trying as of late. So, it is no wonder that great bunches of their offspring should start appearing in early summer. They congregate in the warm shallows beneath the water lilies and roll about between the cat-tail stems. Roll is an appropriate word when applied to young bullheads because they stay together in a ball-like cluster for some time. The fishlets stay so close that they move as one organism as they feed. There were two such bullhead balls off the dock the other day.
The process of making a bullhead cluster began earlier in the spring when a pair of bullheads linked up and decided to have some little bullies. The female laid a gelatinous glob of eggs (containing ten thousand or so bullhead seeds) which the male dutifully fertilized. She attended to her brood for a day before turning the whole affair over to the male (in other words she went to the mall and never returned).
The male Bull ventilated the glob with a beating motion of his fins until they hatched out. Normally this would be the point where the little ones scatter and get eaten by all the other big bad fish in the lake. But, in this case the male continued to guard his clutch like a whiskered mother hen. He watched over them until his charges put on some size and bravely abandoned them at the point where they started to look edible.
Given this type of head start, you’d think the baby bullheads would get the idea that it was time to venture forth on their own. Instead, they continue to stick together and pretend that dad is still hovering about. Feeding on micro crustaceans they mill about in a continually morphing ball of hungry little mouths and gobble up all in their path. The fish hovering beneath the surface at dockside were at this post parental stage.
It became my mission to get a detailed look at one of the them. It was like looking inside a bag of potato chips to make out the outline of an individual chip, however. So, crouched into heron position, I waited for them to get within reach. The moment came and went several times before I launched a grasping hand with middle-aged swiftness and missed. Or so I thought. One of the fry became stranded on top of a lily pad in the confusion and I celebrated the catching of yet another bullhead from Dollar Lake.
Perfect in every detail, the baby bullhead looked a shrinky-dink version of an adult. It was barely an inch long and dully equipped with stubby sensory whiskers. The dorsal and pectoral fin spines – things to be avoided on large bullhead – were large by proportion on this small frame. Such structures, along with a pair of spines on the gill covers, make even micro bullheads hard to swallow and it is obvious that nature wastes no time in getting these defensive weapons ready for service. The fish was fat and the silvery distension of the belly provided proof that it was thriving on a diet of micro invertebrates.
Because I could not keep any water in my palm, I quickly threw the gasping fish back into the drink to join his ball’o bullhead brothers and sisters. Soon it will separate from his siblings and grow into an independent creature. When next I see the thing it will be up to his whiskers on my hook and I will not be nearly as pleased as the first time we locked eyes.