Flyfishing for Suckers

Suckers are commonly found all over the United States, and, contrary to popular belief, they WILL take a fly.  This emerging sport is starting to take hold, as more and more fly-fishers find out that they can battle big, hard-fighting, beautiful fish in streams, close to home, without fighting the crowds typical of coldwater streams.


The white sucker, Catostomus commersoni, is one of the most common, yet underutilized fishes in North America. Unlike most trout you'll encounter, they are true-blue native American fish. Many dyed-in-the-wool trouters have hooked into their "fish of a lifetime" only to find, once they land it after an exciting and epic battle, that they have caught an average-sized sucker instead of that huge trout they were dreaming about. The look on their face is often a study of disappointment. But why should you be disappointed after catching a sucker? After all, you just caught a big, hard-fighting fish. In this day and age, many anglers release most of the fish they catch anyway, so the food value isn't a reason for disdain (but even if it is, they just lack a good recipe). In days gone by, suckers were blamed for declining trout and bass populations, but recent studies show that suckers actually enhance predator populations by providing a source of meaty forage in the form of young suckers. Plus, trout and other fish gorge on high-protein sucker eggs during the critical early-spring spawning period. Suckers are beautiful, tasty, hard-fighting native fish that are a key component of our American stream ecosystems. So why not try your hand at catching a few of these abundant fish? And why not be proud of it, too?


It has been said that the best way to find a place to fish for suckers is to look for a blue squiggly line on a map, then drive there and start fishing. It's not always that simple, of course, but this hardy fish is found throughout north America, even in places where few other fish live. From large, windswept lakes, to tiny drainage ditches in the middle of suburbia, white suckers always find a home. In fact, there is probably some great sucker water very near where you live.


It has also been said that the best way to catch a sucker on a fly is to not flyfish for suckers. Catching one by accident is easy. Catching lots of them - on purpose - takes brains and skill.


White suckers eat mostly insect larvae, just like trout do, so a wide variety of trout flies will work very well for suckers. It doesn't really matter which fly you use as long as it looks like some kind of bug. But while the trout will almost always key in on insects either on or in the surface film, or drifting freely in the current, suckers concentrate on insects that are on, or very close to, the bottom. Tiny clams, crustaceans, and worms are also prime sucker fare. Invariably, these morsels are snatched from on or near the bottom. Weighted versions of the Gold-Ribbed Hare's Ear, the Pheasant Tail, Scud patterns, San Juan Worms, and caddis Pupae are all good choices for pursuing suckers. Nymphs sized from 16 to 12 are perfect for suckers, but sometimes slightly bigger or smaller flies may take more fish.


Suckers utilize many different portions of a stream. They may feed heavily in productive riffles, but it's difficult to catch them there. Riffles are the most productive areas of the stream. That's why a lot of the most spectacular fly hatches occur in or near riffles. Trout like to snatch drifting nymphs in riffles, but suckers do not. Why? Well, my theory is that the sucker, unlike the trout, doesn't have to wait for food to drift in its direction. Suckers have the ability to feed in and among the rocks and snags on the bottom of the riffle, scraping stationary food right off the surface of the rocks. A sucker feeding in fast water is using its sensitive lips to feel and taste its food. It's not looking around in the water column for something to chase after. Trout can't feed on these firmly attached clinging nymphs until they decide to hatch. Suckers will even wedge their heads under or between rocks to get at critters hiding in the crevices. For a sucker, a drifting nymph in fast water is not worth the effort it takes to chase it down.


Suckers in slow water are much more vulnerable to flies. Here, insect life is scarce, and food critters drifting just above the bottom are easy for suckers to catch. All they must do is turn their heads and inhale the free food. Fortunately, it's fairly common to find a pod of large suckers finning and flashing in a slow-flowing pool or deep run. Your streamcraft will put you in the right place. So let's say you've found yourself a fine pod of large suckers in a nice, slow section of water, or a good pool that looks like it should hold some. What's next?


In my opinion, any rig that gets the fly down to the fish and moves it along drag-free will work. For many people, this is a shot-and-indicator rig. Others forego the indicator and fish by feel. Both methods will work, as long as the fly is traveling right along the bottom at the same speed as the current. My favorite tactic is to fish an indicator rig directly upstream or slightly across, allowing the offering to drift down through the school of suckers.


The take of a white sucker is very subtle. If using an indicator, watch it closely. The indicator will either pause or dip for a fraction of a second before the fish spits out the fly. Suckers have an amazing sense of taste and will reject a fake insect almost instantly. While a brown trout will reject the fly after about two seconds, a white sucker will spit it out in a half-second. They are much harder to hook. If not using an indicator, you'll need to develop a sixth sense to detect strikes. Wait for a slight hesitation in drift, a slight increase or decrease in tension, or a small tap on the line. In either case, you must strike quickly, but softly, to avoid breaking your tippet. The average sucker weighs several pounds, so be ready for battle! The fight of a sucker is usually a series of strong, determined runs, but occasionally they will surprise you by jumping and even tailwalking when hooked. Have a net handy to help get the fish under control. The rubbery lips of the sucker hold hooks well, so be sure to bring a forceps.


Oftentimes, you'll find active suckers fanned out in the top end of a pool centered on the tongue that extends into the pool. You might not be able to see them, but trust me, they're there. They'll hit anything in the transition from fast to slow water, but only if it enters the slow water right smack on the bottom. Drag pulls the fly up, so learn how to mend. And don't be afraid to clamp on more lead.


Suckers spawn in shallow riffles, and a lot of neophyte flyfishers spend an inordinate amount of time "sight-fishing" for these easily visible fish. They pound the spawning gravel repeatedly until they inevitably hook up on something. They usually end up snagging or "foul-hooking" a lot of fish, maybe most of them. My own underwater videos of spawning suckers show that suckers do occasionally feed even in the middle of spawning, so it's not an enitrely fruitless endeavor. But I personally don't mess around with visibly spawning suckers. I have a hard time believing that stabbing a hook in the face of some fish who's just trying to make sweet love is sporting. If you're going to do that, you might as well just spear them. Besides, there are always actively feeding suckers just upstream from the spawners, and those fish are hungry! So target the actively feeding fish and leave the lovebirds alone to make more baby suckers for everyone to enjoy.


Of course, the white sucker is only one of the many species of sucker. Over 50 species of suckers are native to north America, ranging from the tiny, half-pound hog sucker to 90 pound buffalos and sporty, 15 pound clam-eating river redhorse that make steelhead look wimpy. Each species requires different tactics, flies, and locations. Some are almost completely unknown in the flyfishing world. Flyrod records for many of these fish don't even exist.


Now where did I put that box of clam flies?



Species Covered: