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Despite how it may seem to those outside the South, sucker fishing is only about 80 percent as ridiculous as it sounds. There is a real fish called a sucker and people do catch and eat them. But beyond that, yep, it’s pretty ridiculous.
First, some background: Suckers are non-game fish that swim along the bottom of rivers, using their snouts to hoover up everything they can find to eat. In the winter, they travel up small, gravel-bottom streams and lay their eggs among the rocks. Then they swim back into the river like deadbeat parents, leaving their young to fend for themselves. I assume they do this so they don’t accidentally eat their own eggs which, come to think of it, probably is worse than abandoning them.
I have no idea how sucker fishing got its start. I assume, way back when, some smart soul saw all those fish swimming upstream and said to himself, “Self, there’s only one way those fish can get back to the river.” And with that, I envision him standing there for days, waiting for them to swim back by so he could grab them with his bare hands. At some point, I’m sure a much smarter person came up with the idea of using a piece of chicken wire to stop them from getting into the river and another to keep them from going back upstream.
Traditionally, when the suckers were running, a group of men (because women were usually too smart for this sort of thing) would gather at the creek bank, build a fire and net or gig the fish. If necessary, young boys could be sent in the ice-cold water and fetch them up by hand. (Because boys were dumb and readily available .) The fish would be cooked and eaten on the spot, but only after cleaning and “gashing” them. In addition to being ugly, suckers are also bony. So much so that the best way to cook them is to leave the bones in and make diagonal cuts through them. Deep fried, the fish can then be eaten bones and all.
As a teenager, sucker fishing didn’t hold much fascination for me. That time of year, I was thoroughly focused on hunting and have the grades to prove it. On the other hand, it was something to do in Blountstown on a Saturday night in winter. So occasionally Gary Wayne Purvis, Brad Guilford and I would go after them the hard way — by wandering around Fox and Wildcat creeks with flashlights, trying to gig them. This of course always ended with us coming home late, soaking wet and fish-less. (Because why wouldn’t you push each other into freezing water in the middle of the woods at midnight?)
One night, however, GW and I set out to do it up right. We camped out on the Chipola River and set up a monofilament version of chicken wire across the creek. A novice might have mistaken this for a gill net, but I can assure you, based on a discussion with my lawyer, that it was chicken wire . . . with a lead line along the bottom and a cork line across the top. In fact, it remains the most effective chicken wire I’ve ever caught fish in to this day.
That night, we got a least a dozen big suckers, but there were only two of us and we didn’t bring anything to cook fish with. Plus, we had to go out that night because there was remote possibility of meeting girls.
The next day, we hunted for a while, packed our stuff and went home with a cooler full of uncleaned suckers. GW had generously decided I should take them, in part because he had done a big sucker cookout the weekend before, but mostly because I think he knew what was going to happen next.
When I got home, I brought the ice chest to the door to show my father. “What should I do with them?” I asked (with no small amount of pride in my voice.)
Daddy looked in the cooler at the day-old fish and said, “You can go dump ’em right back there in the woods.”
“What?!?!” I couldn’t believe it.
That’s when Daddy explained that suckers are only “okay” under the best circumstances — right out of the water and straight into the grease. They go from edible to “nasty” with every minute that passes after that. He said the real reason people ate suckers is because by midwinter, the good fish — bream, shellcrackers and such — aren’t usually biting and that was about the best option available. Although he didn’t mention it, I suspect that it also was a good excuse to hang out by a fire on a cold night, drink liquor and laugh at your offspring splashing around in freezing cold water while trying to catch fish with their bare hands.
As I look back on it, fishing for suckers is a pretty good description of the whole exercise. The trick is not to be the sucker.
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Believe it or not, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has a section of its website devoted to sucker fishing. Click here to find out more.