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Smiley Reagan has been cooking for the Raquette Valley Fish and Game Club bullhead feed for 40 years. Photo: Sarah Harris
Smiley Reagan has been cooking for the Raquette Valley Fish and Game Club bullhead feed for 40 years. Photo: Sarah Harris

Bullhead feeds: a North Country rite of spring

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It's springtime, which means you might just be getting a hankering for a traditional North Country delicacy: bullhead, maybe with a side of cole slaw and some pie. Communities across the region are getting together to fry up the bottom-feeding fish. At a bullhead "feed," you can expect a delicious spread of food and a good time. Sarah Harris headed over to a bullhead feed in the St. Lawrence County hamlet of South Colton.

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Sarah Harris
Reporter and Producer

If bullhead isn't your thing, there's plenty of pie. Photo: Sarah Harris
If bullhead isn't your thing, there's plenty of pie. Photo: Sarah Harris
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I get to the bullhead feed 40 minutes early, but you wouldn't know it. The fish and game club is packed with people, lining up for fried fish.

Fred Rycroft forks over $20 for two tickets, and gets in line for food. "We're just old, North Country folk that like bullhead every spring!" he says with a grin.

The bullhead tradition goes way back. People have fished the bottom feeders out of North Country rivers forever. This time of year, they're in their prime.

Mary Griffith and her sister Alice Greenwood are chowing down. Mary's plate is filled with fish and side dishes. "I'm eating bullhead, all kinds of salads—macaroni salad, potato salad, coleslaw—bullhead is delicious!" she says.

For Alice, it's all about the bullhead. She says she can get that other food any time of year. "But how many times can you get bullhead. They are a once-a-year thing. I'm not going to fish, my husband's not going to fish, so I love them and I come here every year. It's just my rite of spring and it's the first Saturday of May, every, always."

Ralph Frary and Winnie Frary enjoy their bullhead dinner. Photo: Sarah Harris
Ralph Frary and Winnie Frary enjoy their bullhead dinner. Photo: Sarah Harris
Most people are eating with gusto. But not George Cayey. He's at the bar, with a beer, and says he doesn't actually like bullhead. "To me it tastes like, excuse me, it tastes like mud, okay," he confesses. "My wife loves them, tons of people love them." But he'd much rather eat other fish: "I'll take a trout, perch, northern walleye, you name it, over that."

I take a bite. You can tell that it is a bottom-feeder. But it's cleverly masked with a crunchy, fried, peppered exterior. It's good.

It's not easy to eat though. George's wife Penny uses a special technique to avoid the bones. She's been eating bullhead as long as she can remember. "So my father would cook them, he'd go fishing early early, and he'd come home. And he wouldn't put as much breading on as this, just butter. And with toast and we'd eat them for breakfast."

People have come from all over the St. Lawrence Valley, from Nicholville and Massena and Lisbon, to eat fish. That's in part because there aren't as many bullhead feeds as there used to be.

Nicholas Green's hands move like lightening as he batters the bullhead. Photo: Sarah Harris
Nicholas Green's hands move like lightening as he batters the bullhead. Photo: Sarah Harris
Looking around, most everybody's older. People say the younger generation isn't really here to carry on the tradition. But that isn't true in the kitchen. Three generations of the Reagan family are hard at work.

Nicholas Green is 27. He's battering the bullhead, and his hands are flying everywhere. "Roll it in flour, little bit of salt, little bit of pepper, got to sort them out large from small," he says, placing the battered fish into a foil pan.

Smiley Reagan, Nicholas' grandfather, has been cooking bullhead here for 40 years. He says it's not too hard. "Keep track of your time, is all," he says. I ask if he's ever burnt some fish. "Well, come close to it," he replies wryly.

Shannon Reagan, Nicholas' uncle, insists I give it a try. Pretty soon, my hands are covered in flour and fish. And it dawns on me that bullhead feeds aren't just about the fish. They're about the community coming together to celebrate spring.

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