March 05, 2014
By Doug Stange
Spring ritual, indeed. It's not just because I'm a contrary sort that I enjoy an occasional afternoon of fishing for suckers just about the end of March, throughout April, and into May. Even if a lot of prime trout streams were available within easy driving distance, even when walleyes are running big time in the nearby Mississippi, even when crappies and gills are popping in a local bay, I'd still take time for suckers.
Redhorse, in their many varieties, are everything an "alternative" fish should be. Bullet shaped and muscular, a feisty redhorse pushing three pounds quickly peels off 15 feet of drag if you're running six-pound line—enough to make you wonder if you're rigging's going to hold— then burrow and shake, run another time or two, and perhaps jump somewhere in there. Redhorse are beauties to behold, too—perfectly scaled packages of sunset gold and vibrant red, with eyes dark and deep, and again, that really unique sausage-like body.
For me, too, it's compelling that these fish from clean, clear, cold, water are wonderful table fare. Score through the small bones that run throughout sucker fillets, so portions can be easily eaten after they're deep-fried. Lots of people smoke suckers, too. And pickling and canning are options. Suckers, however, make the sweetest, most wonderful fish patties I've ever tasted, patties alone worth the price of a relaxing afternoon on a sunny riverbank.
Details, details. Suckers run upriver during spring, congregating in slack-water areas along the way. One of my favorite spots is the backside of a sandbar just downstream from a feeder creek entering a large river. When the water's up, though, the fish push from the main river into the feeder stream.
Most rivers and streams progress in a continuous series of riffle-hole-run structure, the riffle being a shallow area where the water runs quickly over rock-rubble, then slides into a deeper hole, usually with a sand bottom. At the tailout of the hole, sand settles and the hole shallows up into a river flat, which runs for a ways before becoming another riffle area—followed by another hole and run. Suckers usually hold along the edge of holes, in eddies, which are areas where an obstruction causes current to reverse itself. If the water's running slowly through the core of a hole, suckers gather there, as opposed to along the edges.
Rigging for suckers can be as simple as a #6 or #8 hook to hold a portion of crawler, and a lead shot pinched eight inches up the line to keep the bait near bottom. Suckers, however, even with their underslung mouth, don't always feed on the bottom. During insect hatches, redhorse often roll the surface, slurping insects. I've also scored suckers by suspending a portion of crawler below a float and drifting it slowly through slack-water areas, the bait running from six inches to several feet above bottom. The skinny part of the crawler, by the way—the whitest part minus the thicker head end—makes the best bait.
Suckers can be savvy, though. My favorite savvy sucker fishing rig is constructed via surgeon's knot into a dropper rig that works just as well for the most discriminating steelhead. Cut off a two-foot section of mainline. Slide this portion of line alongside the end of the remaining mainline. Do a three-wrap surgeon's knot so the short tag ends are about six inches long. Trim off one of the short tag ends. Pinch on a lead shot near the end of the remaining short tag end, which now serves as the dropper.
If the lead shot snags, it often pulls off without breaking the entire rig. This rig isn't overkill for suckers simply because it's so easy to tie.
Doesn't take a lot of tackle to do a sweet sucker spring outing up right. I use a 7-foot light-power medium-action rod with a small spinning reel filled with 6-pound line. Carry a bucket to sit on, or at least a cushion. A few hooks and a bag of lead shot and I'm ready. Doesn't hurt to invite a few kids along. Or maybe that elderly gent from down the street.
All around North America, it's just about time to celebrate another spring, the beginning of another season. Suckers aren't really the point, of course, although they're an overlooked option for many of you—well worth your attention. But if not suckers, just make it some other favorite fish. Once you taste those sucker patties, though, once you tussle with the mighty redhorse, I think you'll join me in this first rite of spring, this sweet sucker thing.