Ameiurus nebulosus

Species overview: The brown bullhead is the most widely distributed bullhead, found across North Carolina in suitable habitat. It is native to Atlantic and Gulf Coast watersheds, from eastern Canada to Alabama. It was also originally found in the Great Lakes system, Hudson Bay and the Mississippi River watershed. It has also been widely introduced. Its species name “nebulosus” means “clouded,” referring to the fish’s mottled sides.

Identification: An 18-inch and three-pound brown bullhead is a trophy, and is near the size maximum of the species. Brown bullheads average 12 to 15 inches. The upper part of the head, back and sides are dark to light yellow-brown or olive-brown, shading to grayish white or yellowish white on the belly. The sides have brown or black mottling. The brown bullhead’s chin barbels are dark, grayish black, but may have whitish color at the base. These help to distinguish the brown bullhead from the black bullhead, which is known from a few northwestern Pennsylvania counties. The black bullhead’s chin barbels are all black. The brown bullhead’s caudal fin is square-tipped, or slightly rounded. Its strong pectoral fin spines have five to eight sawlike teeth on their rear edges. The anal fin has 18 to 24 rays, usually 22 or 23.

Habits: Brown bullheads live in several habitat types, but they are found mostly in ponds and the bays of larger lakes, and in slow-moving sections and pools of warmwater streams. They are bottom-dwellers, usually living over soft mud or muck, where there is plenty of underwater vegetation. Brown bullheads can sometimes be found as deep as 40 feet. They are tolerant of very warm water temperatures, high carbon dioxide and low oxygen levels, and levels of pollution that other fish cannot tolerate.

Life history: Brown bullheads spawn in late spring, May to June, when water temperatures reach 70 degrees. Both males and females participate in nest construction, which can be a shallow saucer on the bottom mud or sand, or among roots of aquatic plants, near the protection of stumps, rocks or downed trees. Nests can also be excavated holes or natural burrows. Spawning can also occur under sunken boards and logs, and in hollow stumps. The water depth for spawning ranges from six inches to several feet. The nests are usually around the shoreline or in coves, or in the mouth of a creek.
Brown bullheads usually spawn in the daytime. Their courtship includes the male and female caressing each other with their barbels. They spawn beside each other, but facing in the opposite direction. The females produce from 2,000 to 13,000 cream-colored, mucous-covered eggs. Sometimes one or both parents eat some of the eggs. Both male and female brown bullheads cooperate in protecting the nest, eggs and young. The parents fan and stir the eggs with their fins, aerating them. The parents have also been seen to take the eggs into their mouths, presumably cleaning them, and to blow the eggs back into the nest again. Hatched brown bullheads are pitch-black and may be mistaken for tadpoles. One or both parents shepherd the loose ball of fry for several weeks, until the young are about one inch long.
Like other catfish, brown bullheads are active mostly at night, when their sensitive barbels help them find food in the darkness. They are omnivorous bottom-feeders and eat a wide variety of plant and animal material, including aquatic insects and larvae, worms, minnows and other small fish, crayfish, snails, freshwater clams and even algae. Brown bullheads are able to exist on atmospheric air for a time. They can remain alive for hours if kept moist when they are out of the water.