"Bayou Bill" Scifres
Dedicated to the conservation and enjoyment of Indiana's natural resources
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Catching, Cooking, and Eating Suckers
Copyright © 2003 by Bill Scifres

It was cold, standing nearly knee-deep in a snowdrift, but a warm late-January sun made life bearable as I held two eight-foot dead ash poles steady, their lines running straight down (tightline fashion) to light sinkers and small hooks baited with gobs of garden worms.

Having had no indication in more than an hour that there was a fish in the stream, thoughts about my mentality flitted through my mind and the vision of a warm, crackling fire hinted that my efforts were futile.

Then it happened. At first a faint message--a steady pressure--came up the line and through the pole in my right hand. Then, with the strong suspicion that there was a fish down there, I watched the line move slowly upstream an inch or two at the point where it entered the water.

Greater pressure of the taut line and further movement of the line against the current told me it was time to find out what was going on and I lifted the pole in my right hand sharply.

The line shot out into the current and the pole throbbed with the weight of a fish. Steady pressure on the pole brought my quarry to the surface and even greater pressure sent a flouncing 15-inch white sucker over my head and into the snow bank above.

With my left-hand pole suspended in the branches of a willow tree, I scurried up to the high bank to claim my prize. After unhooking and admiring my catch, I fashioned a "stringer" with the fork of a green limb from the willow, stashed my catch in the snow bank, and slid back down to the edge of the water to try for more.

Another hour of fishing produced two more bites and another sucker of about the same size for my stringer.

There are many ways to fish for suckers during the late-winter months. Most of the dedicated sucker fishermen I have known prefer to tightline garden worms straight up and down, but rod and reel anglers who drift gobs of worms, bee moth larva and other natural baits take fish. One thing all types of sucker fishermen have in common is the practice of keeping their baits on--or close--to the bottom. The suckerís mouth tells the world he is a bottom feeder, so that is the place to put your bait.

Some anglers merely fish deep holes with a channel where current creates stretches of gravel or sand bottom. My favorite places are spots at the edge of swift water that is four or five feet deep.

My bottom rig for suckers involves just enough clamp-on sinker (four inches above the hook) to take my bait to the bottom and keep it there. The hook is a short-shank (half an inch long, or slightly longer with a gap (distance between point and shank) of roughly a quarter of an inch. Such a hook can be entirely hidden by a gobbed worm (hooked several times). This tends to keep the sucker, an extremely wary fish, from detecting the hook

To be even more stealthy, it is not a bad idea to use two or three feet of four-pound test monofilament line between hook and a stronger braided line (preferably dark) to improve visibility at the point where it enters the water.

I have known some sucker fishermen who considered stealth so important that they would not fish with the sun casting their shadow on the water, nor would they build a warming fire, or do anything else, that would tend to tip fish of their presence.

Hugh Boyd, a Franklin sucker angler, takes his suckers with miniature trot lines from deep holes with good current and gravel bars in deep water. 

Another good spot for this kind of fishing will be found at the lower end of gravel and sand-bottom riffles above deep holes. Free-spawning suckers come to such places to spawn, especially at night.

Suckers also are taken in late winter and early spring by gigging (spearing) at night or by snaring with loops of light copper, some guitar strings, and other metallic materials.

Those who spear suckers should consult Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) regulations. Gigging at night is legal on only eight stretches of Indiana rivers. Suckers may be gigged on all streams of the state during daylight hours.

Catching this tastiest of Indiana fish is one thing. Eating it is yet another; mainly because the flesh is filled with needle-like bones in addition to the skeletal structure. 

Still, if the fish is prepared well, the bones become a very minor problem.

I scale suckers and leave the skin intact. Then I shave the side and tail filets off the skeletal structure.

After washing off remaining scales with another scaling under cold, running water, I drain them. Placing the filets skin-side down on a cutting board, I score the filets crosswise (one-eighth to a quarter of an inch between cuts) all the way to, but not through, the skin.

Meat sides of the filets are sprinkled liberally with cornmeal, salt and pepper, then frozen on cookie sheets before storing in plastic bags. 

Filets are deep-fried until they float and are well browned. The hot cooking oil will render the needle-like bones brittle or they will simply cook away. Still it is a good idea to supervise children who eat suckers prepared in this manner.

Still another great way to prepare wintertime suckers for the table is to can them with pressure cooker. Scale this fish, leave skin on, and cut them into chunks the size of golf balls.

Stuff pint jars with well-drained chunks of sucker and add a tablespoon of salt (no water) before cooking them in a pressure cooker at 10 pounds pressure for 90 minutes. However, steam is powerful, and extreme caution should be used any time pressure cooking methods are used.

Canned suckers make excellent fish loaves or patties, not to mention great snacks when served with crackers.

All columns are copyrighted by Bill Scifres and may not be reproduced in any form without prior permission from his family.  For reproduction permission and media usage fees, contact: Scifres Family, 6420 East 116th Street, Fishers, IN 46038, E-mail: billscifres@aol.com

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