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Ed Robinson
June 10, 2024

When I looked across the river and saw my friend’s fly rod bent nearly double, I called out to him, “Wow, that looks like a good fish!”

With a dejected look on his face, my pal replied, “Naw, it’s just a sucker.”

You may be tougher than I am, but after suffering way too many days on a river or pond with little action I am happy when any fish gives my line a hard tug. Yes, I am thrilled by the sights and sounds of nature around me plus the flow of water around my legs, but fishing is tough after a few hours if there are no willing fish about. In this case, we were standing in the upper reaches of Maine’s beautiful Magalloway River in the middle of May.  We always try to be there near the peak of the sucker spawning run because it draws so many brook trout and landlocked salmon into the river. It was our good fortune to be there at exactly the right time, and in the late afternoon we were shocked to have the river all to ourselves for a wonderful afternoon of fishing.

small, long pale fish underwater

White Sucker (Flickr photo by Brian Gratwicke)

The word “sucker” is widely used in English, and some of those uses are not complimentary. As in referring to someone as a “weasel,” to label another person as a “sucker” is to imply they are foolish, gullible, or easily deceived. Gardeners use the term to describe how a plant puts out new growth. In this case I am referring to just one fish out of a family (Catostomidae) that includes as many as 100 different species, most of them found only in North America. They are distinguished by the structure of their mouths which usually have thick, soft lips used for sucking up food from the bottom of lakes and slow streams. They vary considerably in size from a few ounces to nearly 100 pounds.

The fish in the Magalloway is more properly called a white sucker (Catostomus commersonii), but it carries several vernacular names like bay fish, common or eastern sucker. It has an extensive range from the eastern Canadian provinces, our northeastern states to the Midwest, and as far south as New Mexico and Georgia. A freshwater fish, it can be found in a wide variety of smaller streams, rivers, and lakes including those of lower water quality, but they do not prosper in acidic waters. Fossil evidence indicates the fish is relatively unchanged in the last two million years.

White suckers have an elongated, thin body shape with dark flanks and light bellies with only about 75 large scales. Fully grown, they may approach two feet in length and seven pounds. Their round mouth is located on the underside of the head and is used to ingest a wide range of food off the bottom including plankton, algae, worms, mollusks, eggs, and small fish. Scientists have determined that the fish is equipped with chemosensory abilities to avoid some predators both day and night, but the slow-moving sucker is a popular prey species for larger trout, bass, northern pike, and catfish.

While a few anglers seek out the white sucker for sport and for the dinner plate, most fishermen look down on the species. This attitude probably originated in England where “proper” fishermen used fly fishing gear in pursuit of trout and salmon, and disdained most other species lumped together as “coarse fish,” generally caught using bait. The attitude remains prevalent in the US where suckers, carp, longnose gar, chubs, and bowfin are commonly known as “rough” fish despite their abundance while offering good sport and healthy dining if prepared properly. I find the attitudes ironic because some of these species are highly valued in England these days for competitive fishing.

As often happens when we favor one species over another simply because of physical beauty, it is easy to miss the fact that white suckers are an important commercial species across the country. Large numbers of them are harvested as live bait for large game fish like the prized muskellunge and walleyes, and commercial fisherman also seek the fish to be sold for human consumption as “mullet.” The flesh is firm with a pleasant taste but there are numerous small bones to be removed. It may be served smoked or fresh, or processed into fish sticks, soups, and chowder.

It is during April and May that white suckers are most visible and their ecological value may be more obvious to snobbish fisherman. As water temperatures reach 50oF, the fish congregate along shorelines or move from lakes and ponds into tributaries to spawn. If you are in the right spot, you may see hundreds if not thousands of suckers finning about in shallow water. Several male fish will fertilize the tens of thousands of eggs laid by one female. At times the strings of eggs are visible in the water and sometimes hitch a ride on your fishing line.

As with the smelt spawning runs that occur in Maine rivers soon after ice out, the sucker eggs are a valuable source of nutrition for a myriad of creatures. The spawning activity draws large numbers of trout and salmon from lakes and ponds into the rivers to feed upon the eggs and smaller fish congregating around the eggs. Other predators are attuned to the opportunities for food, including eagles and ospreys that will snatch fish in shallow water. While fly fishing I have had loons streak by me underwater in their quest for fish. No doubt river otters, mink, and other mammals also take part in the harvest over a few short days.

The small percentage of eggs that make it through the feeding frenzy will settle upon the gravel along the riverbeds. Their incubation period runs between eight to fourteen days before hatching. The tiny juveniles must find cover to survive until they are large enough to repeat the cycle of life after reaching maturity several years later.

The Vermont Fish & Wildlife website noted that the Abenaki word for the white sucker is “kikomkwa,” meaning “the garden fish.” The natives learned to harvest suckers during the spawning runs and developed the practice of burying the fish in their gardens as a form of fertilizer. Perhaps we can learn from those indigenous people that the white sucker and similar “trash” fish are not “unwanted competition” for game species but an integral part of a healthy, diverse riverine ecosystem. If one of those heavy white suckers decides to make a strong run at the end of my fly line, I will enjoy the moment and release her to continue her ancient ritual.

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