forked stick

The passive approach to catching bullheads,otherwise known as hornpout, makes it a classic New England experience.

NEW ENGLAND is home to some very specific linguistics and an overall vernacular that can be found nowhere else on Earth. I have lived in New Hampshire for all of my adult life and have picked up some of these traits while leaving others alone. I don’t call my wife mother and I still don’t know what a dooryard is, but I can communicate without sounding like a tourist.

As an angler, I am fascinated with every creature that swims, big or small. As a writer, I’m fascinated with creative ways to describe them. There is one fish that satisfies both of these criteria and has a name that can be used as both a noun and a verb. It is possible, you see for a fisherman to go hornpouting and catch a hornpout. Classic New England mystique.

More accurately known as the brown bullhead, this scavenger is locally known as a hornpout and more simply a catfish. Regardless of the label one chooses for this unique fish, the angling approach is much different from any other freshwater fish.

One of the first tasks in catching a fish is recognizing its preferred food source. Bullheads make this easy because they will eat anything and often dine outside of their normal comfort zone.

Typical behavior includes cruising dark water in pursuit of something stinky. They will literally feel their way through near dark conditions to find food. Nothing is off the menu and they will eat any organic matter in varying states of life, death or decay.

As mentioned, their diet is so vast that they occasionally defy typical angling logic and rise for a dry fly or hit an ice fishing jig. One never knows when a hornpout might show up — unexpected, uninvited, but certainly welcome.

For many years, hornpouting was a social event for me and included partners who did not usually fish. With minimal fishing gear required, a bonfire and cold beer were the real attractants. Several friends would sit around the water at night and watch the fishing rods illuminated in the fire glow. Once one of them started to bounce, an excited angler stepped over or around the fire to reel in their catch.

Old-timers believe that bullheads are attracted to the light of a fire or lantern but scientific confirmation is not available at this time.

A passive approach for sure, hornpouting was more about tradition than sport. Long hooks were pierced through worms or beef liver and attached to a heavy weight. Once cast into the darkness, the rod was placed in a forked stick that held it in a state of lazy preparedness and left the participants hands-free, which facilitated the exaggerated hand gestures associated with fireside story telling.

A cautionary note must be explained about the proper handling of these fish, for hidden in their otherwise soft fins, are some very sharp spines. If limited by darkness or inexperience, a hornpout can administer a painful poke to an angler’s hand. They have very soft, sandpaper-like teeth but the strength of their bite can also surprise an unprepared handler.

The brown bullhead is a fish that is more unique than most in New Hampshire waters. For those hornpouters who pursue them, they serve as a fitting reminder of an individuality and charm that make our state so wonderful.


Adventures Afield appears in the New Hampshire Sunday News.

Contact Andy Schafermeyer at