Bullheads are a brisk business

Posted: Wednesday, June 06, 2001

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. (AP) -- Some people might consider it a nightmare to be waist-deep in slippery, splashing bullheads. Dave Reed considers it a boatload of paradise.

OK, paradise might be stretching it, but bullheads are Reed's business. He's hunted them for 28 years, and when he's on the lake pulling in nets full of those wriggling brown, black and yellow prairie catfish, business is good.

Reed, a solid man in his mid-50s whose open face belies a sly wit, is one of a dying breed. He's a commercial fisherman in Browns Valley, Minn., and his territory includes lakes in Becker County, Minn., and Lake Vermillion, S.D.

Even fishing enthusiasts might be surprised to learn there are commercial fishermen plying Minnesota lakes.

''They do keep a low profile, and that's good,'' said Dave Friedl, area fisheries supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources in Detroit Lakes. For instance, commercial fishermen stay away from Minnesota lakes during the fishing opener.

Anglers might misunderstand their work and become angry as they pull in net loads of fish, Friedl said.

''People might not realize they're pulling in bullheads,'' he said.

Reed works virtually year-round. In the winter he loads bullheads into a pickup truck on frozen lakes, and he has nets set in several lakes during that brief stretch when the bullheads are running after the ice comes out and before the fishing opener.

He doesn't fish in July, when the heat makes bullheads sluggish, and he doesn't work weekends in Minnesota during the summer.

On a day out recently, Reed and his helper, Dick Piechowski, pulled in about 6,000 pounds of wriggling, slippery bullheads from nets set a week earlier in Lake Sallie, a few miles southwest of Detroit Lakes.

The few game fish entrapped with the bullheads were plucked out and released unharmed.

But almost all the fish were bullheads, mostly brown with a few of the black variety thrown in. Nearly all were alive and splashing when they came out of the lake and that's how they'll stay in Reed's care: He gathers bullheads for the live market.

This particular batch is destined to feed on the bottom of city park ponds and private ponds in Nebraska. Others go in tanker trucks to New York or Chicago, where customers like to see their bullheads swimming in a tank before dining on them.

''They're good eating fish, and that way they know they're fresh,'' Reed said.

''I'd just as soon eat a bullhead as anything,'' added Piechowski, a middle-aged Browns Valley man who has worked for Reed for three years, despite not knowing how to swim.

''If I fall in, he just told me to hold on to the side of the boat,'' said Piechowski. Neither man wears a life jacket, though Piechowski said there were two in the boat.

It takes ''a strong back and a weak mind'' to succeed as a commercial fisherman, Reed jokes. But in reality you have to be smart and strong.

The three 40-foot-long sets of hoop nets, with four 10-foot-deep pockets in a set, that Reed pulled out of Lake Sallie brought such a rich haul because the fishermen knew where to place them.

''In the spring of the year as the water warms, the bullheads will come into the shallow waters,'' Friedl said. ''If the nets are placed at the right time -- after the walleye and other game fish are done spawning -- and in the right place, they're going to catch mostly bullheads,'' he said.

Reed empties his catch into a boat-like wooden ''crib'' with screened sides that is tied to his fishing boat.

Once on dry land, bullheads are poured out into a 100-pound plastic bin through a small metal door in the back of the crib. Then Reed and Piechowski dump the bin into Reed's tanker truck, which can hold up to 8,000 pounds of live fish.

From there they go into tanks, at his Browns Valley business, that are capable of holding 25,000 pounds of fish. Bullheads sell for 20 to 35 cents a pound, he said.

Commercial fishermen are regulated by the DNR and pay an annual fee per net. ''I license from 100 to 150 nets,'' Reed said. ''I also have to buy an angler's license, just like you.''

But commercial fishermen follow the book -- Minnesota's commercial fishing regulations are more than 36 pages long -- and rarely pose a problem for DNR conservation officers, Freidl said.

''It's to their advantage to fish clean. That's the fish they're after,'' he added.

Strong winds are the commercial fisherman's greatest enemy, Reed said. His boat has nearly been swamped by four-foot waves on Leech Lake and Lake Vermillion, and at times he has had to dump the catch in his crib to get his boat back to shore.

That may explain why there are fewer and fewer people in Minnesota who fish for a living.

''It's not like it used to be,'' said Reed, whose father and grandfather both spent time as commercial fishermen. ''In Minnesota there are 23 left,'' he said. ''Back in the 1940s there were 400 just in Browns Valley.''

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