Black Bullhead


The black bullhead is widespread in Missouri. It is the most common bullhead catfish in north and west portions of the state. It has dusky or black chin barbels, and the edge of its tail fin is notched, not straight.

Bullhead catfishes, as a group, are chubby catfish that rarely exceed 16 inches in length. The upper jaw projects beyond the lower jaw. The tail is not noticeably forked. The adipose fin (on the back, between the dorsal fin and tail) is a free lobe, widely separate from the tail fin.

The black bullhead can be distinguished from Missouri’s three other bullheads by the following: The rear margin of the tail fin is slightly notched (not straight, and not deeply forked). The chin barbels are dusky or black (never uniformly white). The barbel at the corner of the mouth does not reach farther back than the base of the pectoral fin. The back and sides are not strongly mottled with a darker color. It lacks sawlike teeth on the back edge of the pectoral spine (you can check this by grasping the spine between the thumb and forefinger and pulling outward). The anal fin rays usually number 17-21 (fewer than our other bullheads). The length of the anal fin base is less than the length of the head (measured from tip of snout to outer edge of the gill cover).

Despite the name, it’s usually only the young, spawning males that are truly black; the more common overall coloration is dark greenish or yellowish brown. The back and sides are a uniform yellowish brown, dark olive, or black (not strongly mottled), with a pale vertical bar often evident across the base of the tail fin (such a bar is never present in other bullheads). The belly is yellowish or white. The fins are dusky or black, the membranes much darker than the rays. The upper tip of the tail fin is never lighter in color than the rest of the tail fin.

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Similar species:

  • The yellow bullhead (A. natalis) also has a wide range in Missouri, but it is better represented in the Ozarks and Bootheel lowlands. Its tail fin is straight (not slightly notched); it has sawlike teeth on the rear margin of the pectoral spine; anal fin rays usually number 24-27 (not fewer than 24); and the chin barbels are uniformly white (often slightly dusky in large adults from Ozark Streams, but not grayish or blackish).
  • The brown bullhead (A. nebulosus) apparently has only one self-sustaining population in Missouri: at Duck Creek Wildlife Area and nearby Mingo National Wildlife Refuge in Bollinger, Stoddard, and Wayne counties. Another population occurs in a lake owned by the city of Arnold in Jefferson County. Its back and sides are usually strongly mottled rather than uniformly colored, and the barbel at the corner of the mouth is longer, reaching well behind the base of the pectoral fin in adults. Sawlike teeth are strongly developed on the rear margin of the pectoral spine. Anal fin rays usually number 22 or 23. Chin barbels are dusky or black. The rear margin of the tail fin is slightly notched, as in the black bullhead.
  • The white catfish (A. catus, sometimes Ictalurus catus), another bullhead, shares the relatively short anal fin and blunt (not wedge-shaped) head of our other bullheads, but it has a moderately (though not deeply) forked tail fin. It commonly reaches 10-18 inches long; maximum about 24 inches. It’s not native to Missouri but is commonly stocked in fee-fishing lakes and other private waters. Where it has been occasionally collected from natural waters in Missouri, those individuals probably represent escapees. It has been collected in the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and the Big Creek arm of Truman Reservoir. It probably does not breed here, except perhaps in artificial ponds.
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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>