BULLHEAD by Joshua Wetjen

My grandfather stocked an old pond
surrounded by trees
in the middle of a cow pasture in Iowa.
He filled it with bullheads—
a form of catfish—
ugly green fish with silver bellies.

After lifting a thrashing
one from the murk
as it jerked
with the misery of the hook,
you had to grip its slick
body from behind
so the writhing whiskers
would not sting.

Otherwise, there wasn’t much sport in catching them.
The pond was small.
The fish didn’t seem to fight much
until caught.

When I was old enough
my two younger cousins and I
would head to the pond on our own
to catch pounds and pounds of bullheads.
My grandfather skinned them,
pulling the thin membrane off with pliers,
plopping the gutted body into
a five-gallon bucket of water
behind his newer house.
His old farmhouse was a couple miles away
down gravel roads
and beyond it was the farm
and the pasture where the pond teemed.

My grandmother fried the fish
and served them with sliced bread.
The thin bones could stick in your throat.
The bread helped to pad your throat
and pull a lodged bone
into your gullet,
leaving you safe,
unlike the hook that the fish had sometimes
swallowed whole—
its invitation to death.
It only seems fair that the fish in death

should have a chance at maiming your esophagus.
In life, we barbed the fishes’ lips,
and throat.
At times, the barbs even caught gills
or the muscles of the fish’s
No part of the bullhead’s body
was protected from us.

After one bout of fish catching,
as my grandfather complained about cleaning the bullheads,
he said he was happy we’d be heading to Minnesota
for a vacation with his brother
where we could try a big lake
with bigger, sportier fish
and indeed, I did catch
a Northern Pike up there.
Then, it seemed huge.
When I see the photo now,
it’s clear it was modest.

When I grew up,
I married a Minnesotan woman.
I live in Minnesota.
For a while, I fished a few lakes.
Eventually, the fish got smaller
and I tired of seeing them suffer.

One of the final summers I fished avidly,
I caught a bullhead catfish off the dock
near a friend’s cabin.
I hadn’t seen that fish in years.
It wasn’t the exact fish from those farm days,
but it was very close.

Within minutes of catching that fish,
I got a text message from my father
that my grandfather had died.
He had suffered for years from Parkinson’s.
His mind was clear,
but his body would not cooperate.

The fish flapping angrily on my hook,
had more control of his muscles
than my grandfather had in his final days.

I don’t want to imagine how my grandfather suffered.
The truth of it is terrible.
But it was so hard then to grip that familiar fish,
see that horizon on the lake,
hear the dripping, primal water—
to be aware of all those things,
and to not think of my grandfather
who toward the end,
had trouble swallowing.

Photo by Derek Gavey, used and adapted under CC.