*Why are some iconic fish and other aquatic litter considered? In this series, we focus on American fish that are not officially referred to as “game fish.” These species, although native, are grouped into a category of “trash fish”, a distinction that is more than semantic. Game fish are managed differently by state and federal agencies. They get protection, research, money and love. Trash fish do not. We think this is wrong.
Trash Fish Tuesday studies and celebrates fish that are just as American as bass and walleye but suffer from a long-standing public relations problem.*
Most anglers look forward to the arrival of spring more than any other season. Despite our enjoyment of ice fishing in the winter, there’s no denying that the thought of finally getting out into the open water makes any angler giddy with anticipation. Unfortunately, the expectation versus reality of the spring fishing game may leave you more disappointed than the final season of Game of Thrones.
Between melting snow swollen rivers, freezing water temperatures and closed fishing seasons, it can be extremely difficult to get out and catch fish like trout, bass or walleye in the spring until until the water starts to warm up. Often this means having to wait even longer to catch a fish, which makes you all the more frustrated.
However, instead of coming home and locking yourself in your room like a child being told he has to wait to open his presents on Christmas morning, you could instead turn your attention to other less sought-after species. . There is a genus of fish that can be caught with both spinning and flying gear, that are ready to eat when nothing else will, and that have one of the highest population densities and most common in the country. Yes, I’m talking about suction cups.
Miller Facts and Fiction
Suckerfish are often lumped together as “trash” or “rough fish” alongside carp, freshwater drum and gar, by anglers unfamiliar with the Catostomidae charm. Even among these species, they have perhaps the worst reputation. The sucker’s clumsy, meaty mouth on the underside of its head that gives it its name has led many anglers to consider it a filthy bottom feeder. They look at suckers like a fish vacuuming rocks and mud from anything undesirable.
Many anglers believe that suckers only live in muddy, polluted and otherwise unpleasant waters 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 a lamprey. All of these suction cup beliefs, however, are simply not true.
The suction cup family, Catostomidae, includes 77 species native to North America. These range from the ubiquitous white sucker to the inch-long torrent sucker to the enormous bigmouth buffalo, which has been documented to live up to 112 years and weigh up to 80 pounds. The family also includes the species of knights, which are slowly gaining popularity among anglers. You can watch B-Side fishing host Joe Cermele have fun hunting the knight with biologist Tyler Winter here.
The reality is that the sucker family includes a number of species that inhabit a variety of different bodies of water, but are most commonly found and caught by anglers in small, clean, fast-flowing rivers and streams. Suckers need access to these streams to both spawn and simply survive. Suckers are also not blood-sucking garbage eaters, but are actually omnivores that feed on a variety of matter. Their diet can include different types of algae and plankton as well as larger items like fish eggs, crayfish, worms, and even aquatic insect nymphs, just like trout. In fact, suckers are like trout on many 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 the sucker is somehow better than a trout, nor am I saying they’re some kind of darkhorse gamefish. What I’m saying is suckers are an underused and underappreciated fish that can give anglers the opportunity to bend their rod when other species are less available. While not the prettiest of fish, they will fight 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 walleye, and liberal limits in most states mean you can take plenty home for the freezer or a family-sized fish fry. Plus, if you’re not ready to eat them, suckers make great live or dead bait for large fish like pike or muskellunge and fantastic bait for everything from catfish to stripers. Watch Jay Siemens turn suckers into leech bait and catch 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 the spring sucker is that is when the fish go to spawn. This situation means that normally reclusive and difficult fish can be easily targeted by anglers. Although this varies from species to species, usually once the early spring water temperature of small streams and rivers reaches around 43 degrees, large schools of white suckers, redhorses and other will begin to haul them up to spawn, feeding as they go. During their migration, they will pile up behind breaks in the current, such as in slow-moving water behind large rocks or in eddies along the shore. Here the fish are actively resting and feeding, making these spots the perfect spots for suction cup anglers.
The equipment you will need to catch the suckers is neither too fancy nor too complicated. Sucker fishing involves 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 that’s heavy enough to throw a weighted offering comfortably but still sensitive enough to detect what are often subtle strikes. Anglers can use the same medium action rods they would use to catch smaller bass or crappie and fly fisherman the same 5 or 6 weight rods they would use for trout. Rig either rod with a 6-10 pound line or leader, bring along a container of split lead and you’re in business.
The weight is just as important as the bait. The amount of lead or tungsten you add to your line or leader will vary depending on the depth and speed of the water you are fishing. As a general rule, you’ll want to add just enough so that the weights bounce along the bottom at the same speed as the current. If you add too much weight to the bait, lure or fly, it will drag along the bottom and snag constantly. It may take a bit of trial and error to get the perfect platform. However, sometimes you want the rig to stall in a fishy spot for a sucker to pick it up. Attach the 18-24 inch weights to your line and do a few test casts to make sure it drifts just before you add your bait.
Suckers have a varied diet, which means they won’t be too picky about what bait or fly you use as long as they are introduced correctly. For anglers, it’s hard to beat a live worm, whether it’s on the hook or just stuck in the center of its body. As the fish spawn they will also be grabbed on anything resembling an egg, so artificial baits like the Berkely Power Bait Egg Cluster, a brightly colored bead or even a simple Glo egg fly -Bug will work fine. I even know dedicated anglers who catch a lot of fish on brightly colored pieces of sponge or yarn. Fly anglers will also have success on worm flies like the San Juan worm, nymphs like the Micro Stone or egg models like the Nuclear Egg.
To fish for spring suckers, simply cast the rig upstream from a likely spot in the river and roll up the extra slack so that you are in direct contact with the bottom. Let the bait gently bounce with the flow into your target spot, keeping the line tight enough that you feel every tick of the weights hitting the rocks. When the line stops in the current, place the hook. Sometimes you’ll just pull your bait from the bottom, but other times you’ll hook a fish. Once you’ve grabbed a sucker in one spot, it’s a good idea to cross it multiple times. It is very likely that the fish will have friends nearby.
Scratch the fish itch
No matter how cool I think it would be, I don’t think there will ever be a pro tour. Despite their positive qualities as both a sport fish and a table dish, suckers can still be listed as undesirable by-catch species. They could forever remain as fish that are only targeted on days when other, more sought-after fish are unavailable or simply won’t bite. And that’s okay, because a lack of angling pressure means the opportunity to catch spring suckers will always be there. Every spring, the fish swim upstream and await winter-weary anglers who just need to feel the sun on their face, the river flowing around their feet, and a fish at the end of their line.