"Bayou Bill" Scifres
Dedicated to the conservation and enjoyment of Indiana's natural resources
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Copyright © 2004 by Bill Scifres
January (written January 2004)

Most of the seasons on hunting will end some time this month, but some species of fish--notably the "S" species --offer interesting days in the open, not to mention great table fare. 

The "S" species are, of course, are suckers and sauger, both of which like moving water, although they also will be found in larger lakes--especially those that are fed by streams of consequence.

If you spend your late-winter angling hours on such big rivers as the Ohio, Wabash or lower reaches of White River's main stem, you may be familiar with the sauger, which looks very much like a walleye, but isn't.

On smaller rivers--even streams--of the state the sucker may be the more familiar species, even though it also will be found on the aforementioned larger rivers.

Generally, however, Hoosier anglers are more familiar with the sucker although neither species gets it fair share of interest.

Still, those who quest for either suckers or sauger smile a lot when they put their feet under the dinner table. The word  "quest" here is more apropos than "fish" because those who go for suckers try their luck in many ways other than the conventional hook, line and sinker. This, of course, gives the sucker a decided edge in popularity over the sauger in the minds of most Hoosier outdoors folks.

Credit basic behavior for the fact that both suckers and sauger offer good action at this time of year. When the sun starts its northward journey after the winter solstice (about Dec. 21) most species of fish start thinking of nesting. But with sauger and suckers this built-in urge comes much earlier (ordinarily when water temperatures are below 50 degrees). This accounts for the earlier feeding activity, which is what fishing is all about.

The sauger is a big-water species. And while this species tends to thrive in moving water, it still will be found in larger lakes--especially the Great Lakes.

Generally, however, the best sauger fishing available to Hoosiers will be found below one of the four navigational dams on the Indiana stretch of the Ohio River.

I hear more sauger success stories from anglers who fish below the Markland Dam upstream from Madison. It probably is not as crowded as the others. But sauger are taken from the river below McAlpine Dam at Louisville, Cannelton Dam at the Hoosier town of the same name (upstream from Tell City), and Newburg Dam (upstream from Evansville).

Sauger are taken by bank fishermen, but the best fishing requires a boat. The best fishing, naturally, is the water immediately below the dams and this can be dangerous for many reasons. As a result, the Army Corps of Engineers often imposes strict regulations.

Best bait for sauger is the night crawler, but this species may be taken on small live minnows, and artificial lures (jigging-type spoons are a good bet). Those who fish artificials often are handicapped by murky water.

Except for the fact that the flesh of sauger is not quite as firm as that of the walleye, qualities as food, and procedures for preparing them for the table, are much the same.

I have saved the suckers for last in this discussion because methods of taking the sucker species are so varied for the two species--white sucker (Catostomus commersoni), and redhorse (Moxostoma macrolepidotum).

Old-time Hoosier anglers speak of white and black suckers, but the scientific community maintains that the species called black suckers is our white sucker, and that the redhorse is the other member of that family. 

The pattern of scales is the best physical feature to use in differentiating between the two. The white sucker will have smaller scales toward the tail, larger scales toward the head. Scales on the redhorse will be the same size over the length of the fish. Fins and tail of the redhorse may range from gray, to yellowish or even red.

Indiana regulations provide that the suckers can be taken in several ways--everything from conventional hook and line with live bait (garden worms are best) to spear, pitchfork, or bow with fish arrow. Crossbows are not legal.

When I was a kid in Southern Indiana, the magic words for late-winter outdoor activity were "suckers are on the riffle." This meant the spawning season. 

Suckers are free-spawners. They do not fan out nests in the bottom like bass and members of the panfish family. Instead, females spew out their eggs over gravel and sand bars in swift, shallow water. The eggs, fertilized by males, adhere to rocks and pebbles to hatch.

Suckers, like other species of fish, feed heavily before spawning to insure a hefty sack of eggs, and when they feed they are vulnerable to hook-and-line anglers--even those who use set lines.

Old Puckermouth, as suckers are known to many followers, does not have a big mouth and it tends to point downward to make rooting around the bottom for food easier.

With this pattern in mind, it is well to put your offering on or very close to the bottom. Sand or gravel bottom is a good place to find suckers feeding, especially if the water is fairly deep and there is some current.

Suckers are extremely wary--I have known several sucker anglers who thought it an absolute necessity to keep their shadows off the water. These anglers also lived by the creed that a stealthy approach to the water (and little movement on the bank while fishing) could spell success or failure.

Although suckers are taken on conventional bait and spincast tackle, the dedicated anglers I knew as a youth used eight to 10-foot poles without reel, and a line about the same length as the pole. Hooks were small--most used a short-shanked hook with gap only slightly more than ¼ (one-fourth inch). The short shank was deemed necessary because it best to hide the hook entirely in gobs of bait. Garden worms hooked many times hide the hook better than larger worms like night crawlers, and they tend to get the hook point into the mouth of the fish.

Suckers are very light biters, and this makes tight-line (straight up-and-down) fishing the preferred method. Once the water depth is determined, the line should be wrapped around the end of the pole until there is enough line beyond the pole tip to reach bottom, plus some extra to keep the tip of the pole out of the water. Poles should be hand-held to detect the light action when a sucker takes the bait.

I like a dark braided line with a foot or two of monofilament line between the hook and the braid. Thin strips or lead (.22 caliber lead rifle bullets will work when flattened with a hammer on a hard surface and trimmed with scissors). 

Wrap-on strips make it possible to use just enough weight to take the bait to the bottom and keep it there. A heavier weight could spook suckers.

Although suckers may be mouthing the bait without the angler's knowledge, feeling, a steady pressure on the pole tip will indicate there is action in the offing. Movement of the line upstream at the point where it enters the water is another good indicator.

It is best to set the hook with a sharp-but-short upward movement of the pole tip. When a fish is hooked it should be banked as quickly as possible to avoid spooking other fish.

Another exciting method of taking suckers when they are "on the riffle" is with a gig (spear head) on a long pole.

This activity is heavily regulated by the Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), but gigging suckers is within the law day or night on some stretches of rivers with a flow of 1,500 cubic feet of water per second. There are eight of these listed in the DFW's annual "Indiana Fishing Guide (available free at most bait and hunting gear shops), or by writing the fish/wildlife agency (402 West Washington Street, Indianapolis, IN 46204.

On other streams and rivers, those with flows of less than 1,500 cubic feet per second, suckers may be taken with pitchfork or bow and arrow from sunrise to sunset throughout the year. 

Regulations on tributaries of Lake Michigan are much more stringent.

Suckers, as many say, are very bony fish, but the bones can be eliminated with cleaning and cooking techniques, all of which has been covered on other pages of this website. To learn more of these procedures do searches on "Cleaning Suckers," and "Catching Suckers." The bones of suckers can also be eliminated by pressure canning (search "Canning Bluegills").

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All columns, stories, and photos are copyrighted by Bill Scifres and may not be reproduced in any form without prior permission from the author's 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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