Seldom do you hear an angler singing the praises of suckers or redhorse. In-Fisherman editors and other in-the-know anglers, however, have long appreciated the wild fight and palette-pleasing flavors of a sucker done up right in the kitchen. More rare still are anglers chasing suckers outside the spring spawning runs when these voracious fighters commonly make their presence known most. Undoubtedly, the majority of sucker fishing occurs prespawn, from early April to early May in most northern states, but angling opportunities are not limited to prespawn runs.
WHO YOU CALLIN’ A SUCKER?
The white sucker is the most common sucker species in North America. Its range extends from the Arctic Circle to New Mexico and east to Georgia. White suckers spawn when water temperatures reach about 45°F. They feed until spawning and then again immediately after, leaving little break in the action.
Pound for pound, the redhorse (the most common variety being the shorthead redhorse) is a much tougher adversary. Its deeper body offers more resistance against water. Couple its physical profile with drag-ripping runs in high current and you quickly discover why “horse” is fitting in its name. Redhorse typically spawn later than suckers, starting when water temperatures reach about 54°F. They end up in similar river areas and use the same types of cover as suckers do when the spawn is done.
HEAD FOR COVER
Finding suckers becomes a bit more predictable after their spring spawning migration, and cover is a critical element. Even big suckers can be prey for large toothy fish, so look to cover to hold fish, as well as deeper holes. These areas also house invertebrate food sources such as small crustaceans and larvae of aquatic insects.
Scour holes are depressions caused by water flowing over an obstruction in the river, like a dam or shallow riffle area, rerouting the stream’s energy downward. Fast water continually conveys edible bits of food and insects that settle into these areas. At times, suckers and other fish prefer these low current areas for feeding, with less energy expenditure than in stronger current. Pike, walleyes, and muskies feed in scour holes as well. When they do, suckers may be scarce, instead seeking shelter in cover.
Look for tree branches, brush, and thick clumps of weeds that hang over the banks and spill into the river. Observant anglers remark how tightly suckers and redhorse can hold to the bank of a stream. Other top spots are undercut banks, which typically form on outside bends that receive a continual pummeling from current. Sometimes a cutout is so deeply forged that you can be standing on the bank with fish directly under your feet.
GEAR UP & GO
While most anglers fish for suckers with a bottom rig like a slipsinker rig, I prefer the versatility of a slipfloat rig. When fish congregate in the spring, bait-and-wait tactics work well, but how a sucker eats defines the advantage of floating baits. With a slipsinker or split-shot rendering your bait immobile, a crawler quickly is picked apart by the most professional bait-stealers. By keeping the bait moving, a fish has to suck it all in with one quick slurp, which I find aggressive fish prefer. In the end, mobility—bouncing from hole to hole, giving each spot no more than 10 minutes—is key to this method.
I prefer a slipfloat like a Thill Center Slider, or an oval tube style from Eagle Claw or Lindy. Other good options are Rod–N- Bobb’s EZ-flo Slip Bobber and Summer Ice, a foam float that works as a slipfloat or fixed float that’s trimmable to maximize balance and sensitivity.
Below my float, I use a ballhead jig baited with a nightcrawler. While an 1/8-ounce jig is my preferred size, match jig size to current speed to keep your line as vertical as possible—this keeps a tighter line for more solid hook-sets.
Medium-light spinning rods in the 6.5- to 8-foot range help for drifting rigs, maneuvering fish out of dense cover, and delivering solid hook-sets in fast current. Even though I generally prefer stronger line for river fishing, floating baits result in fewer snags and break-offs than traditional bottom fishing. I use up to 8-pound-test mono, but I prefer 6-pound in most cases. The lighter line is easier to break if you get snagged. Another option is to tie in a swivel, then attach the jig a foot or so below that on lighter line, so that if you break off, your slipfloat won’t be lost.
Easily test a spot’s depth by adjusting the float until it starts to lay flat (when the bait has hit bottom) then pulling it up about 6 inches, just enough to keep it off bottom and moving along. To work a cover spot, position yourself just upstream from the cover, gently lower your bait a bit downstream of the obstruction, and drift it near the bank for 15 to 20 feet beyond the cover, keeping in mind that you can’t always see the extent of the cover underneath the surface. If you don’t catch anything after several passes, move on to another spot. Suckers holding in undercut banks tend not to be as aggressive. Be persistent and make continual drifts as close to cutouts as you can.
Floating rivers for suckers has become a popular angling option for me. What’s great about this method is that I don’t do it at the expense of other species. You also catch smallmouths, bluegills, and even walleyes. If you live in an area where catfish are prevalent, this is a great method for channel cats, too.
No matter what your position on sucker fishing, connect with your first few fish and you soon appreciate the challenge of hard-fighting nature of suckers.
How about eats? Try Chef Lucia Watson’s Favorite Fish Cakes:
Mix one part mashed russet potatoes with three parts ground sucker. For a hungry group of four, use about three pounds of sucker and a pound of spuds. Add a tablespoon of lemon juice, a pinch of salt and pepper, a tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce, and 3 tablespoons of minced scallion.
If the mixture seems too thick, add a little milk. Shape mixture into round cakes about 1/2 inch thick. Lightly dust with flour and sauté in butter over medium heat approximately 3 minutes per side. Enjoy.
Jeremy Dewey is freelance writer from Deer River, Minnesota.