Spring Fishing for the Humble Sucker

When the creeks and rivers thaw at the end of winter and then rise with the onset of the spring rain, many anglers feel the irresistible urge to get out on the water. For trout anglers, this is the time of the spring spawning run, one of the most opportune times of year to fish.

Yet at this same time, there is an often overlooked fishery that also is at its prime. Suckers (Catostomidae) navigate up the same tributaries as trout on their own journey to reproduce. When caught as bycatch, suckers are viewed by many anglers as a “trash” fish.

Some anglers even mistakenly feel that suckers are similar to carp, invasive and destructive in their feeding habits. There isn’t any scientific evidence to support this; in fact, there is evidence to the contrary.

Suckers are native fish that have coexisted with other species in harmony for eons. They feed primarily on aquatic insects and snails, and form a part of the natural food chain. Anglers do well to understand and appreciate the significance of this humble fish.

The two common species of suckers found in Ontario waters are the White Sucker and the Redhorse Sucker. Both can be easily identified by their inferior mouths and fleshy, protruding lips. Locally they are often known as “whistle trout” or “bugle trout” due to their distinctive mouths. This mouth shape allows them to feed off the bottom of rivers and streams, unfairly giving them a reputation of being a dirty or undesirable fish. In truth, suckers are an indicator of the overall health of a waterbody as they are intolerant of poor water quality. If suckers are present in the river, that is a sign that the ecosystem is doing well.

Increasingly, there are more and more people discovering the fine angling provided by species of fish that traditionally have been dismissed by anglers as being unworthy of attention. Suckers are one of these species, along with carp and freshwater drum. Suckers are an easily accessible fish, providing even the newest and most unfledged angler the opportunity to experience a day of catching many fish averaging 14 inches to 18 inches in length, weighing 1 to 4 pounds.

(Photo courtesy of Rachel Moffat)

Willing biters, suckers will take a variety of common and simple presentations such as dew worms or pinched night crawlers, corn, dough baits, small plastic worms and even trout flies. Very simple gear is all that is needed for sucker fishing; a hook, line, split shot and a light action rod and reel will catch and land any sucker.

In some areas, such as most of Ontario, there is a spear fishing season for suckers in the spring. For almost all of Ontario, the season for spearing suckers is March 1 through May 31. Some anglers use this time to catch enough suckers to use for bait for other types of fishing, such as fishing for pike or catfish. Chunks of cut up sucker and sucker roe are favourite baits among some.

There are many varying opinions on the quality of sucker for table fare. Regional tastes seem to differ, with some areas favouring pickled or canned sucker and other areas viewing the fish as not suitable for consumption. In the southern U.S. states, people will deep fry the fish, scoring the flesh to ensure the many bones cook through and become soft. The meat also is ground up and used to make fish cakes and patties. There is a small commercial market for sucker, and the fish is sold as “mullet,” usually as fish sticks or processed fish.

As an underutilized fishery, suckers shine brightly in the spring. As soon as the ice is off the creeks, they are willing to help anglers get rid of the winter boredom and begin the open water season. Easily fished, they can provide a relaxing distraction from the more challenging trout or provide great learning opportunities for children or new anglers.

In the future, it is hoped that suckers can shake off their poor reputation and take their place amongst Ontario’s sought after game fish.

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