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North Dakota Outdoors: Working to reduce ND’s pesky bullhead population

Submitted Photo Because fisheries managers have so few tools to manage troublesome bullhead populations in North Dakota waters, it’s hoped the findings from the two-year study will reveal a solution. Photo from NDGF.

As a kid growing up in the 1980s, fishing was about opportunity. Thankfully, North Dakota forefathers set up most communities near a waterway for transportation and goods. For me it was less about necessity and more about my ability to ride a bike to the river where I was certain to catch a pike or perch, but most often it was a bullhead on the end of my hook.

I wasn’t a very good angler and not much has changed. I actually tried to fool myself and set myself goals on catching a whopper bullhead (2 pounds if you’re wondering), but I wasn’t even able to score a whopper patch for the less desirable fish.

For most anglers then and now, the bullhead is the equivalent of a dandelion as both are rather common and not appreciated. And like a lover of dandelion-free lawns, the Game and Fish Department continues to work toward reducing these pesky fish.

The Department introduced a predator into a Morton County lake in 2023 in hopes of controlling a bloated bullhead population that provides little value to anglers.

The introduction of thousands of channel catfish into the 278-acre Sweet Briar Lake last spring was the start of a two-year collaborative study with the University of North Dakota.

“Every lake only has a certain amount of energy within that system, and there’s only a certain amount of space for the fish in there,” said Tyler Bennett, UND master’s student conducting the field sampling in the study. “When you have these overabundant black bullhead populations, that takes away space and productivity that can go into your more desirable game fish populations like walleye, northern pike, yellow perch or bluegills.”

Paul Bailey, Department district fisheries supervisor in Bismarck, added that while the goal is to significantly trim the bullhead population, an added benefit is the thousands of catfish released into the lake over time will also provide some value to anglers.

The roughly 4,000 catfish, weighing about 2 pounds on average, stocked in Sweet Briar for the study were trapped in Lake Oahe in April 2023.

In spring, Bennett and crew conducted a mark-recapture estimate on bullheads in the lake. Of those bullheads captured in nets, they clipped the adipose fins on fish longer than 6 inches.

“So far, we’ve seen that these catfish have certainly fed fairly well on black bullheads, especially when we initially stocked them this spring,” Bailey said. “Then these catfish tended to shift their diet a little bit during summer, eating more crayfish, and because we had a good hatch of grasshoppers, they were eating grasshoppers that ended up in the lake.”

In spring, when the catfish were introduced to Sweet Briar, Bennett said bullheads made up about 40% of total mass within a catfish’s diet. The hope was, as the grasshopper population thinned, along with other summertime foraging items, that the catfish would return to concentrating on bullheads.

Because fisheries managers have so few tools to manage troublesome bullhead populations in North Dakota waters, it’s hoped the findings from the two-year study will reveal a solution.

“What we wish to gain is some better guidance on how to use this technique of using channel catfish to control bullheads,” Bailey said. “If so, we’ll be able to apply it to other lakes that are having issues with bullhead overabundance, with the idea of improving angling opportunities in those waters as well.”

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