Warm March means switching from yellowbellies to bullpout

March is such an in-between kind of month. The last ice of a strange winter is peeling away from the shorelines. Ironically, ice fishing is usually best in March. Except this year.

My last venture onto the ice was on Lake Carmi two weeks ago. My fishing partner, Trevor Coles of Manchester, N.H., is interning at the University of Vermont Medical Center until they assign him his first pediatric residency. We pulled up 28 nice yellowbellies (perch) all over 9 inches with some stretching out to 12 inches.

It’s painful for me to admit, because it is one of my favorite seasons, but nature has its own rhythm, so we just move on to the next great thing.

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 to me by my wife’s uncle, Marvin Thomas of Shelburne, a seventh-generation Vermonter.)

I am already thinking about sitting on the muddy banks of the confluence of Otter and Dead creeks. 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. Only an angler who has experienced the pain of dorsal spikes penetrating the mushy flesh of the thumb has learned to handle them properly. Nonetheless, they are delectable as table fare. I like to fry them in vegetable oil after rubbing the fillets with Cajun spices. They are identical in flavor to their larger cousins but are far more tender.

Another name for this fish is “mudcat,” a derogatory moniker that originates with the fish’s love of wriggling in the mud. Thus, the bait, usually a piece of large crawler or a chunk of chicken liver, is lying 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 frequently lost in a daydream, comfortably melted into my folding chair, hot coffee in my right hand, a maple donut in my left. My medium-weight rod leans on an old “Y” branch stuck in the mud. The line hangs off the tip of the rod in a gentle bow, with just enough tension to recognize a tug from the bottom of the river.

Courtesy photo. 
Marvin Thomas of Shelburne with a nice ’pout.
Courtesy photo. Marvin Thomas of Shelburne with a nice ’pout.

’Pout fishers 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 put 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 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 putting 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 angler.)

When the run begins, it’s not too difficult to fill a bucket half 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.

I am deep in revery of the world around me, cool north wind bracing my face, the smell of the swamp turning over the detritus of winter. The geese are flying overhead, the whistling wings of mallards and the wooo-eeek of wood ducks squealing as they fly in to find last year’s nesting box cause me to find such gratitude for the arriving spring. From deep in my state of mindfulness I find my version of nirvana. It is my happy place. Outdoors. And all that that implies. Rain. Cold. Snow flurries. Scorching sun. These are the things I will miss when it is my turn to graduate to the next level.

I am rudely awakened by my lovely wife whispering, “Wake up! Your line is jumping!”

“Holy Cow! That’s a nice one!” I say as I raise the rod quickly to set the hook.

Up and down the slough, all the fishermen turn to watch. My wife lovingly tells me, “Do you have to be so loud and attract everyone’s attention?”

I can’t help myself. I was born that way. I am the old man who has never grown old because I am thrilled by everything that the Great Spirit offers.

I reel in the old ’pout, and as it spins in the water as ’pout do when they’re caught, I can see the big yellow underside and the size of the fish. It is a good 14 inches. Suddenly, my wife’s admonition makes sense. Several fishers around me begin to inch closer to my spot.

One young man asks, “Do you mind if I fish beside you? I’m not having any luck.”

Geez! How can I say “no” to a polite kid who is looking longingly at the fish in our bucket.

“Heck, Kid. You can have my spot. I’ve gotta go home and till the garden. Tell you what. I really don’t want to clean all these fish. Would you mind taking a few off my hands?”

The smile on his face looks like it’s going to tear his chubby little cheeks off his jaws. “Let’s head home, Katie. We’ve caught enough to fill our bellies for weeks.”

On the way home, we’ll call “Uncle Marv” and tell him we’re making a delivery to his doorstep in about half an hour.

(Bradley Carleton is executive director of Sacred Hunter.org, a privately owned limited liability corporation that seeks to educate the public on the spiritual connection of man to nature through hunting, fishing and foraging.)