March is such an in-between kind of month. The last ice of a strange winter is peeling away from the shorelines. Ironically, the ice fishing is best in March. It’s just a little challenging finding safe ice to sit on.
The Vermont tradition of bullpout fishing begins to tug on my heartstrings. (I like calling them “bullpout” or “hornpout” instead of their proper moniker “bullhead” because it’s a colloquialism taught me by my wife’s uncle, Marvin Thomas, of Shelburne, a seventh generation Vermonter).
As I am jigging for jumbo perch with my Swedish pimple and bibbit on the degrading ice of a pond that holds decent ice structure into mid March, I am already thinking about sitting on the muddy bank of the confluence of Otter Creek and Dead Creek. Locals call it “Donovans” after the campsite by that name on the other side of Panton Road in Vergennes. Once the ice is out of the river, the bullpout begin to swim upstream to spawn.
They are a member of the catfish family and come in brown, white and yellow colorations, with nasty spikes on their dorsal and pectoral fins that only an accomplished fisherman/woman learns to handle properly. Nonetheless, they are delectable as table fare. I like to fry them in a vegetable oil after rubbing the fillets with Cajun spices. They are identical in flavor to their larger cousins but are far tenderer.
Another name for this fish is “mudcat”, a portmanteau that acknowledges the fish’s appearance with its love of wriggling in the mud. Thus, the bait, usually a piece of large crawler or a chunk of chicken liver, is laying dormant in the mud, held down from the current by a two ounce sinker. The bullpout approaches the bait by using its sense of smell and typically ingests the bait and hook in a slovenly fashion, swallowing the entire contraption.
I am lost in my daydream and visualize being comfortably ensconced on my folding chair, hot coffee in my right hand, a maple donut in my left, while my medium weight rod leans on an old “Y” branch stuck in the mud at a 45º angle. The line hangs off of the tip of the rod in a gentle bow, just enough tension to recognize a tug from the bottom of the river.
‘Pout fishermen watch their lines with tremendous concentration, looking for the slightest tug that straightens out the monofilament. When the line moves, the butt of the rod is lifted, gently at first, then quickly and assertively to set the hook. The battle is not typically a hard fight, but a larger fish will create a good wake as it spins side over side into the shoreline.
This is where it gets a little dicey. Remember those nasty spikes? Well, the only way to pick up one of these cats is to aim the belly of the fish into your palm and rest your thumb under one of the pectoral fins and the forefinger under the other, supporting the weight of the fish by the spikes resting above the first knuckle of the finger and thumb. I often use my middle finger to squeeze the belly and my remaining two fingers fingers to brace the lower belly. Unless you are an expert, under no conditions should one attempt to pick up a bullpout by the back, because the dorsal fin spike can easily penetrate the fatty tissue between the thumb and forefinger. And it hurts! Trust me!
Once the fish is in hand, removing the hook is another lesson entirely. I have watched the old timers remove it by sticking a stick down the throat and twirling it around the line then yanking it out, hook and line together. It’s ugly but it works. (I have never seen a catch and release bullpout fisherman.)
When the run begins, it’s not too difficult to fill a half pail full of these delicious mudcats. Some people disdain them, calling them filthy and disgusting, but I think it’s because they haven’t eaten them when they are cooked properly.
As I am thinking about bullpout fishing, I suddenly feel a tug.
My ultralight ice rod is bending down toward the hole and throbbing with life. It’s a big perch. Probably a 12 incher. As I reel up the prize, I realize that this may be the last day on the ice.
My wife’s uncle Marvin should be calling any day.