Early Season Action: The Sucker Run

Catch early season freshwater action with these hard-fighting, overlooked fish.

The Northeast is home to several species of sucker, all of which fall into a reviled category referred to as “rough” or “coarse” fish. Some anglers turn their noses up at this loosely classified group that also includes carp, bullheads, and chubs. But, many are aware of the hard-fighting reputation of just about every species in the bunch, and dedicate their time to catching them year after year.

Anglers will encounter redhorse and hognose suckers, but are more likely to encounter white suckers. The white sucker can grow up to 20 inches long and weigh 5 pounds, making it a formidable adversary on light or ultralight tackle.

spring sucker on the fly
Fun to catch on light tackle, suckers make fine table fare. -photo by Seth Neumann

Suckers get their names from their sucker-like mouths and fleshy lips located on the undersides of their heads for vacuuming food off the bottom. Most white suckers are a copper/brown color, and spawning males in the early spring have thick, dark stripes running down their sides.

The white sucker’s early season emergence and active feeding is not by chance. Suckers are cued by the slightest hint of snow-melt and begin preparing for the spawn. Like many other species, they require a few extra calories beforehand, which makes their spawning season the perfect time to catch them.

spawning suckers
In the spring, suckers will congregate to spawn just below dams and overflows. -photo by Adam Eldridge

Sucker Hangouts

Finding suckers isn’t too complicated. Like many other fish inhabiting moving water systems, suckers take advantage of current breaks. Eddies, deep pools and the slack water behind logjams and downed trees all have the potential to hold fish. A set of polarized glasses and a keen eye should allow an angler to spot the tails moving in the current. If the stream or river has feeders that empty into it, the aforementioned current breaks close to these inlets are even juicier.

Such spots will hold fish year-round, but in the early spring pay attention to riffles and deeper holes below overflows and falls. Suckers will congregate in these areas starting in late fall and remain there through the winter. During the early spring, as fish attempt to move upstream for spawning, suckers can congregate just below these dams and overflows in huge numbers.

spring sucker
A simple 5 1/2- to 7-foot ultralight or light spinning setup is all you need to fish for suckers. -photo by Andy Nabreski

Tackling Suckers

As previously mentioned, you don’t have to overcomplicate your tackle. A simple 5 1/2- to 7-foot ultralight or light spinning setup is all you need. Spool the reel with no more than 6-pound test. A slip sinker rig with a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce egg sinker is the preferable set-up, but adding one or two split shots a foot or so above the hook will also work. Use a size 6 baitholder.

The bait of choice is almost always small pieces of garden worms or night crawlers. Fished off the bottom, suckers can easily find and devour these tender morsels. Smaller pieces will be easier for suckers to swallow and will improve hook-up ratios, but don’t shy away from putting whole worms on to score bigger fish. I’ve caught huge suckers that took down dead shiners, so be creative.

For an added punch to your sucker rig, take a lesson from carp anglers and add some “pack bait” to your rig. This type of bait consists of different combinations of bread, flour, oats or other grains. The recipes vary by angler, but each is mixed into a moldable dough and packed around a sinker. The loosely packed bait will dissolve in the water, creating a pile of chum.

This methodology can be put to use if you want to increase your sucker catch. A basic pack bait can be as easy as taking several slices of white bread, crust and all, blending them unto crumbs, and adding a tiny bit of whole kernel corn. Find the right combination until you get a consistency that can easily mold around your sinker, but don’t pack it too tight or it won’t dissolve in the water. This added attractant will get the attention of more fish.

sucker on light tackle
A large sucker like this one will put up a fierce battle on light tackle. -photo by Andy Nabreski

On The Fly

Suckers on the fly? You bet. A 6- or 7-weight will ensure you can handle some of the bigger specimens, and you’ll need enough spool capacity for a sucker’s long runs. Leaders should be around 10-pound test and 7 feet long.

When choosing a pattern, use a fly that sinks quickly and resembles the suckers’ natural food. Patterns that match scuds, nymphs and worms are good bets. Hooks should be small enough to fit into a sucker’s mouth, but strong enough to hold up to these surprisingly powerful fish. When water conditions are clear, use small flies; when it’s muddy, scale up for a bigger presentation.

Fly-fishing for suckers is a sight-fishing game and requires patience. Once you locate a school of fish, be aware of your movements and your shadow so you don’t spook it. Make sure you cast well upstream of the school so that the fly reaches the bottom before it gets to the fish. If your fly is not on the bottom, chances are the fish are not going to eat it. Be persistent, as it can take several passes before a sucker may come out and grabs it.

Let’s Eat

Yet another surprising fact about suckers is that they’re quite tasty. Believe it or not, deep-fried sucker is a delicacy for those in the know. You’ll want to start by scaling and fileting the fish, but do not remove the skin. Place it skin-side down, make crosswise cuts, add a little seasoning and some panko breadcrumbs, and it’s ready for the fryer. Allow the filets to brown after they float so that the hot oil has more time to render the tiny bones—you won’t even notice they’re there.
Now you’ve found a way to not only bend the rod with a solid-fighting fish to beat cabin fever, but you’ve got dinner as well.

13 on “Early Season Action: The Sucker Run

  1. Garland James

    I am going to try sucker fishing this spring! I have a bad case of cabin fever!!!

  2. R.C.E.

    The snow is gone and we just had a warm rain last night so I’ll be rigging a couple rods for sucker fishing tomorrow. Still a little early but soon the suckers will start to run in my neighborhood. It’s a yearly ritual for our two boys and I to kick off the open water season with a couple of sucker fishing trips. Yea we are legal to catch Walleyes in the sippi river but they aren’t half as scrappy as a big white sucker. Just saying!

  3. Casey Reid

    I live in Maine and my bf and myself want to go. But we arent sure when they are running. We seem to miss out on them every year.

  4. AM

    Just yesterday witnessed what seemed like 5,000 of them. I threw everything I had at them… and they had no interest. Worms, flies, lures, etc. Fun to watch though.

  5. Laurel Leslie

    I just observed a good sized school this morning in a local brook. I had never seen a school heading upstream. It was so interesting.

  6. Heidi

    We just watched hundreds of them over the course of April 10 through April 17 working their way up the brook on our property in Wolfeboro, NH. Lived here 5 years and this is the first time we’ve seen them, but also the earliest the snow melted and we actually could see the water in the brook. It was exciting to see them, they sure worked hard leaping over the rocks.

  7. John

    I don’t know why but sometimes they will swim right up to my chunk of nightcrawler and sit there and never even bite it, other days I can’t keep them off the hook!

  8. Tea M.

    Me and a friend fish for suckers in a creek just under an overpass and there are some large ones down there. We need help with hooking the fish they bite a lot but getting the hook in is the hard part. ant tips?

    1. John Carter

      Use a small hook, like a salmon egg hook for trout. Should do the trick!

  9. Steven D’Addieco

    I attempted to go for White Suckers in the Nissitissit River today, but they were hard to find after all this rain which made the water so high and I got nothing.
    All I know is they start spawning runs in April to early May depending on the weather.

  10. Carl Anderson

    Regarding “Let’s eat” – don’t forget smoking Sucker’s they are terrific!

  11. TWL

    I live in MN. We have had a very very late spring so…not sure when they spawned but on the Cannon River yesterday we threw everything in front of them. Worms / crawlers and they ignored them. They were more prominent in some areas than others / I wonder if the lower water temps at the outlet of feeder streams have any drawing effect. but last fall we caught a ton of them in this river. i froze the fillets then ran them through a meat grinder and made fish patties. SUPER TASTY!!! highly recommend this. MN has not had regulations on these fish but those are coming. For now, we can catch as many as we want.

  12. Bob White

    St George River in Warren, ME at Payson Park is crawling with them today (thousands and thousands).

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