For the past three years, health problems and bad timing have prevented me from taking my usual mini-vacations to northwestern Iowa, where there is a little old house that my family uses as a home base for reunions and fishing trips. The surrounding area, including Palo Alto, Clay and Emmet counties, is close to Minnesota and, like Minnesota, contains many lovely glacial lakes (there must be at least a half dozen within a half hour's drive from the house). One of my favorite activities is to go fishing, and just about any time you'd want to go fishing the bullheads are biting in one or more of those lakes, even if nothing else is.
I've come to appreciate those bullheads - especially the smaller ones which, when cleaned, are only a little bigger than a man's thumb. At certain times during the summer, the bullheads can acquire a mossy flavor, which we learned to deal with by soaking the dressed fish in cold water, squeezing them firmly and changing the water repeatedly until it remained clear. Several years ago I got a life-time fishing license, which I always carry with me in case a tasty fish should beckon to me from some cool lake. Or in case I feel the need of a reason for sitting on a shady shore with nothing to do but watch a bobber drift by. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to enjoy one of those lazy intervals for over three years, and I've missed it. And, I've missed those delicious bullheads, coated in seasoned flour and fried slowly until crisp in shortening with a generous amount of bacon drippings added. (An infrequent treat; we try to ignore the cholesterol.)
The fact that I haven't been there since 2006 doesn't mean the house sits empty and unappreciated, however. Several family members occupy the house at different times during the year and, earlier this summer, one of my nieces and her husband spent a long weekend there. The bullheads cooperated admirably and they took home over 50 fish, cleaned and frozen in heavy plastic bags. Since they live in Minnesota and have many opportunities to fish there, they saved the bullheads for a special occasion.
When the nephew came to visit from Washington state, they all came to Solon for a family reunion of sorts, complete with all those frozen bullheads whose number had been supplemented by a few Minnesota bullheads. They also brought fresh sweetcorn and vine-ripened tomatoes. Add some homemade bread, super potato salad and a luscious home-baked coconut cake and it was a royal feast.
I've known many people who don't think bullheads are edible - possibly because they don't know how to cook them. While most fish should be cooked quickly at a fairly high temperature, bullheads, like other \wet\ fish, require slower temperatures in order to get rid of the water they contain. My first lesson in bullhead frying included the instruction to \turn them often and they are done when you tap them with a fork and hear a hollow clunk.\
Those lowly denizens of our lakes and rivers bring back lots of memories. I remember fishing with my dad in the Des Moines River in Marion County. That was long before the Redrock Reservoir was built and that river flooded often during my childhood. Coincidentally, the west branch of the Des Moines River runs through Palo Alto County where our little vacation house is. While I've never fished the river there, my husband often did.
Our very first camping trip as a family took place at Ingham Lake (also known as Mud Lake at that time) and involved catching bullheads off the shore of what became known to our family as Milli's Point. The area, a small peninsula of state land sandwiched between private property and the lake, was a popular picnicking and fishing spot for local residents. Camping, at that time in the late '50s, was practically unheard of and our camp site was somewhat of a novelty. People actually drove out to the lake just to see for themselves those people who pitched a tent and lived in it for several rainy days that May. Fortunately, the rain was an intermittent drizzle which allowed us to cook over an open fire outside our tent. Those bullheads I fried in a heavy iron skillet with bacon grease left over from cooking breakfast were the best I ever tasted.
When our sons were learning to fish, I saved all the littlest bullheads in the freezer until there were enough for our Christmas Eve wild game supper. That party consisted of samples of the different things my hunters and fishermen brought home during the year. Those little fish became known as Christmas Bullheads.
Like most of the fish we catch, my niece's bullheads came in several different sizes, and had traveled via ice chest and a considerable detour through Minnesota, but we all appreciated the trouble she went to in order to bring us a nostalgic taste of those special Christmas Bullheads.