Fishing for Suckers

sucker

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.

Where do you think Hollywood plastic surgeons get their inspiration?

 

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.

Pictured above: Chicken wire

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.

* * *

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.

 

  • suz conner

    That was mighty thoughtful of Gary Wayne to let you take them all. I’ll have to tease him next time I am at First Baptist! Fun to read Jim!

    • JimMcClellan

      Please do! Thanks for reading, Suzanne.

  • Ashley Berard

    There is a river here in Maine that I fly fish frequently, and in the spring, about two weeks into open water season, hoards of sucker fish hang out on some of the rocks near the area that I wade into. I’ve never actually caught any on purpose though. Might be a good activity for kids though! :) Fun post!

    http://www.extraordinaryoutdoors.com

    • JimMcClellan

      Ha! I highly recommend it. Just know that the fish will never be as good as the stories they’ll be able to tell later. Thanks for reading!

  • Kent Koptiuch

    Clear proof Jim, that the old adage, attributed to but never verified as actually having been said by, P. T. Barnum that “…there’s a sucker born every minute.” is really true! Whether he said it or not, W. C. Fields made it famous in film, so it lives on forever.

    Back when you were so focused on hunting that your school grades reflected your skill as a predator, you must have missed that part about the early Indians teaching the Pilgrims what to do with those day-olds; put them in the corn seed hills for fertilizer! I must have been too sick that day to go hunting because I clearly remember the teacher’s lecture…

    Your cooking method, by the way, works equally well on the just-as-bony northern pike we grew up catching through the ice on Lake Champlain – as a kid I always wondered why the Quebecois (French Canadians) would leave them scattered all over the ice around their shantys. We’d just build a fire right out there on the ice and cook them up on the spot.

    • JimMcClellan

      Fertilizer was a great use for them, at least after half a day or so. I’ve heard those pike are pretty tasty, but I’ve never tried one. The Quebecois must have pickier palates than the people I hang with!

  • James Reynolds

    Jim, we used to call them red horse suckers. Don’t know why but I got it from my daddy.

    • JimMcClellan

      I think that’s one of their “official” names. Since that was the only kind we ever saw, we just called them suckers. But I heard people up in Marianna call them red horse suckers. Thanks for reading!!

  • dixie carp catchers

    They are amazing to eat if you know how to clean a fish and if you ever hook one on the right gear you will find out where the name redhorse comes from

    • JimMcClellan

      Well, please share your cleaning methods and recipe and I’ll do a new post.

      • dixie carp catchers

        90% of it is mental that your eating a “bottom feeder” suckers are acualy every picky eaters and have very white meat but as soon as they leave the water like any fish besides bream and bass get them on ice ASAP then after cleaning soak over night in salt water befor frying

        • JimMcClellan

          I don’t think there are many people reading this blog who care that it’s a bottom feeder. Most of us were raised on mullet and catfish. But, thanks for the tip about soaking overnight in salt water.

          • dixie carp catchers

            Yea I do all fish but bass and bream that way it’s gets any thing bad out of it

          • JimMcClellan

            Thanks for reading and for commenting!

  • Natalie

    They are pretty tasty!! Some days you’re the fisherman, some days you’re the sucker…

    • JimMcClellan

      Many, many days, I’ve been the sucker. Thanks for reading, Natalie!

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