*Why do we consider some fish iconic and others aquatic refuse? In this series, we focus on American fishes not officially designated as “game fish.” These species, though native, get lumped into a category of “trash fish,” a distinction that’s more than just semantic. Game fish are managed differently by state and federal agencies. They get protection, research, money, and love. Trash fish don’t. We think that’s wrong.
Trash Fish Tuesday investigates and celebrates fish that are just as American as bass and walleye but suffer from a long-standing PR problem.*
Most anglers look forward to the coming of spring more than any other season. Despite how much we enjoy ice fishing during the winter, it’s undeniable that the idea of finally getting out on open water makes any angler giddy with anticipation. Unfortunately, the expectation vs. the reality of the spring fishing game can leave you more disappointed than the final season of Game of Thrones.
Between rivers swollen with snowmelt, freezing water temperatures, and closed fishing seasons, going out and catching gamefish like trout, bass, or walleye in the spring can be extremely difficult until the water begins to warm. Often this means having to wait even longer to catch a fish, leaving you feeling all the more frustrated.
However, instead of stomping back into the house and locking yourself in your bedroom like a kid being told they have to wait to open their presents on Christmas morning, you might instead turn your attention to other, less-pursued species. There’s a genus of fishes that can be caught on both spin and fly gear, have a willingness to eat when nothing else will, and boast one of the highest and most widespread population densities in the country. Yep, I’m talking about suckers.
Sucker Facts and Fiction Suckers often get lumped in the “trash” or “rough fish” category alongside carp, freshwater drum, and gar, by those anglers unfamiliar with the Catostomids’ charm. Even among those species, they have perhaps the worst reputation. The sucker’s goofy, fleshy-lipped mouth on the underside of its head that gives its name has led many fishermen to think of them as a dirty bottom feeder. They look at suckers as a fish that goes along vacuum-cleaning the rocks and mud of everything undesirable.
Many anglers believe that suckers only live in muddy, polluted, and otherwise unpleasant water where they feed on things like the dead and rotting carcasses of other fish species and just the general effluence of the aquatic world. I’ve even heard a few fishermen say that suckers drink blood like a leech or lamprey. All these beliefs about the sucker, though, are simply not true.
The sucker family, Catostomidae, includes 77 species native to North America. That ranges from the ubiquitous white sucker to the inch-long torrent sucker to the massive bigmouth buffalo, which have been documented to live up to 112 years and weigh up to 80 pounds. The family also includes the redhorse species, which are slowly gaining popularity among anglers. You can watch B-Side Fishing Host Joe Cermele have a damn good time chasing redhorse with biologist Tyler Winter here.
The reality is that the sucker family includes a number of species that inhabit a variety of different water bodies but are most commonly found and caught by anglers in small, clean, fast-flowing rivers and streams. Suckers need to have access to these streams in order to both spawn and simply survive. Suckers aren’t blood-sucking garbage eaters either but are actually omnivores that feed on a whole variety of matter. Their diet can include different types of algae and plankton as well as larger more significant items like fish eggs, crayfish, worms, and even the nymphs of aquatic insects just like trout. In fact, suckers are like trout on many different levels. They use similar habitats and, like trout, suckers are an indicator species and their presence in a river or stream is a sign of a healthy ecosystem.
Now, I’m not saying that the sucker is somehow better than a trout, nor am I saying that they’re some sort of darkhorse gamefish. What I am saying is that suckers are an underutilized and underappreciated fish that can give anglers an opportunity to put a bend in their rod when other species are less available. Though they’re not the prettiest of fish, they will put up a similar fight to your average-sized trout when hooked, and if you’re willing to pick around the bones, make for better eating.
Sucker meat is surprisingly light and sweet, similar to a walleye, and the liberal limits in most states mean that you can bring plenty of them home for the freezer or a family-sized fish fry. Additionally, if you’re not up for eating them, suckers make great live or dead bait for larger fish like pike or muskie and fantastic cutbait for everything from catfish tostripers. Watch Jay Siemens turn suckers into leech bait and catch some walleyes on the Canadian Angle.
Best Equipment and Methods for Catching Suckers While it is possible to catch suckers in lakes and ponds during the summer, what really makes springtime suckertime is that it’s when the fish go on their spawning runs. This situation means that the normally reclusive and difficult fish can be easily targeted by anglers. While it varies from species to species, generally once the early spring water temperature of small creeks and rivers reaches about 43 degrees, large schools of white suckers, redhorses, and more will begin to swim up them to spawn, feeding as they go. As they migrate, they’ll stack up behind breaks in the current, such as in the slow water behind large rocks or in the eddies along the shore. Here the fish will rest and actively feed, making these spots the perfect places for sucker anglers to hook up.
The equipment you’ll need to catch suckers isn’t too fancy or overly complicated. Sucker fishing is all about bouncing your bait along the bottom where it can be spotted and inhaled by a waiting fish. So, you’ll want to use a rod heavy enough to cast a weighted offering comfortably but still sensitive enough to detect what are often subtle strikes. Spin anglers can use the same medium-action rods they would use to catch smaller bass or crappie and fly fishermen the same 5- or 6-weight rods they’d use for trout. Rig either rod with a 6- to 10-pound line or leader bring along a container of split shot and you’re in business.
The weight is every bit as important as the bait. How much lead or tungsten you add to your line or leader varies with the depth and speed of the water you’re fishing. As a rule, you’ll want to add just enough that the weights bounce along the bottom at the same speed as the current. If you add too much the weight to the bait, lure, or fly, it will drag along the bottom and constantly get snagged. It may take a bit of trial and error to get the rig just right. However, sometimes you do want the rig to stall in a fishy spot for a sucker to come pick up. Clip the weights 18 to 24 inches up your line and take a few trial casts to make sure its drifting right before adding your bait.
Suckers have a varied diet, which means they won’t be too picky about what bait or fly you’re using so long as it’s presented correctly. For spin anglers, it's hard to beat a live worm, either threaded onto the hook or simply stuck through the center of its body. As the fish are spawning, they will also be keyed in on anything that looks like an egg so artificial enticements like the Berkely Power Bait Egg Cluster, a brightly colored bead, or even a simple Glo-Bug egg fly will work just fine. I even know dedicated sucker anglers who catch plenty of fish on brightly colored chunks of sponge or yarn. Fly anglers will also have success on worm flies like the San Juan Worm, nymphs like the Micro Stone, or on egg patterns like the Nuclear Egg.
To fish for spring suckers, simply cast the rig upstream of a likely-looking spot in the river and reel in the extra slack so that you’re in direct contact with the bottom. Let the bait bounce gently along with the flow into your target spot, keeping the line tight enough so that you feel every tick of the weights striking the rocks. When the line stops in the current, set the hook. Some of the time you’ll only be pulling your bait free of the bottom but other times you’ll be hooking into a fish. Once you catch one sucker in a spot it’s a good idea to drift back through it a few more times. It’s very likely that fish will have friends close by.
Scratching the Fishy Itch No matter how cool I think it would be, I don’t think there’s ever going to be a sucker pro tour. Despite their positive qualities as both a sportfish and as table fare, suckers may always be listed as undesirable bycatch species. They might forever remain as fishes that are only targeted on days when other more desired gamefish are either unavailable or simply not biting. And that’s OK, because a lack of angling pressure means the opportunity to fish for spring suckers will always be there. Every spring, the fish will come upstream and sit waiting for those winter-weary anglers who just need to feel the sun on their face, the river flowing around their feet, and a fish on the end of their line.