Thoughts of an expert bullhead fisherman

Farm Forum

As we drove past Cabela’s in Mitchell recently, I considered stopping to genuflect.

Cabela’s is a South Dakota mecca, part of the world’s largest hunting and fishing conglomerate. Nimrod pilgrims come to pay homage and big bucks for hooks, lines, sinkers and other gadgets to catch, shoot or trap various of nature’s wild creatures, or enjoy in other ways our outdoor wonders.

A few miles beyond Mitchell we drove by numerous reminders of my youth and the bullhead fishing adventures in the Wessington Springs-Plankinton area where shallow lakes and stock dams beckoned our family on warm Sunday afternoons.

The customers who stop at Cabela’s don’t fish for bullheads, but I cut my fishing teeth on them. I qualify as a mud-bottomed, yellow-bellied bullhead expert.

Today, next to carp, they are probably the bottom feeders on fishermen’s preference list, except in Nebraska, where Cornhuskers consider bullheads a top game fish.

Cabela’s, when it opened its massive doors, had expectations of about 1.5 million customers annually. I think that number has been far exceeded. The two-acre store has over 250,000 different items on its shelves, which sure doesn’t bode well for bullheads. In the past, even if the yellow-bellied fish was a sandwich shy of a shoreline lunch, it could compete with lug-nut sinker fishermen like me.

Back then my tackle box was a one-pound Folgers coffee can rattling with rusty hooks, lug nuts for sinkers and bottle corks for bobbers.

We didn’t need fishing poles. We just cranked up our throw lines, weighted with a pound or two of rusty iron.

A fist-full of hook-loaded worms or grasshoppers on the end of that twirling, whirling throw-line plunked noisily into the water and set a herd of bullheads to licking their thin lips like mongrel dogs at a Methodist picnic.

We used a smelly, old gunnysack as our creel. Our catch was cleaned the old fashioned way by nailing the critters through the head onto a board, incising the blue skin behind its sharp horns with a sharp knife, using pliers to grip the skin and then pulling it head to tail before bothering with innards.

The more ostentatious bullhead fishermen back then, whose sons and grandsons would morph into today’s loyal Cabela’s customers, used a telescoping steel casting rod. They probably brought along a special long-necked pair of pliers for digging out deep-set fishhooks, and a fancy Swiss knife for those embedded even deeper.

To us bullhead purists, the use of specialized equipment like that seemed a tad unsportsmanlike, especially to catch a fish that has the brain of a barrel of hair.

I don’t imagine you can find a throw line, a gunnysack creel, or a set of lug nut sinkers at Mitchell’s Cabela store. Today’s fishermen need the latest in equipment wily entrepreneurs have dreamed up to catch what we caught in the old days with castaway iron.

Young, jog-with-a-dog, sweatbands, bottled water and iPod fishermen of today day say it isn’t the catch, but the challenge of the catch that counts.

If truth were known, today’s nimrods are in it for the numbers just as we were in the 1930s.

Why else would they invest faith and money in gimmicks like big boats, LED0-eyed robotic minnows that have bowel movements on demand, trained fish that herd others from isolated spots on the lake to where your line is cast, and motorized reels that plug into their SUV’s cigarette lighter?

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