White Sucker, Catostomus commersoni
Longnose Sucker, Catostomus catostomus

White sucker
White Sucker

Longnose sucker
Longnose Sucker

Identifying characteristics: (Native Fish) Single soft-rayed dorsal fin, sucking mouth with no barbels, long cylindrical body. The White Sucker has coarser scales that become smaller near the head. The Longnose Sucker has fine scales all over its body. The mouth of the Longnose Sucker is set back from the tip of the underside of its snout, hence its name "longnose". Longnose Suckers often develop a rosy red color along their sides when spawning, similar to the coloration of rainbow trout. White Suckers may occasionally develop a dark stripe along their sides during the spawning run.

The Catostomidae, or sucker family, is closely allied with the minnow family. Suckers are soft-rayed fishes that possess a toothless, protractile mouth with distinctive lips. The Longnose and White Suckers are two of the most common representatives of this family in Michigan's Great Lakes.

Both the White and Longnose Suckers are bottom feeding fish. White Suckers spend most of their time in shallow warm waters and are common in the bays of the Great Lakes. They are also found statewide in warm-water rivers and inland lakes. Longnose Suckers prefer cold, deeper waters of the Great Lakes and have been found as deep as 600 feet in Lake Superior.

White and Longnose Suckers ascend rivers to spawn over gravelly bottoms or in the absence of rivers they will spawn on gravelly shoals in lakes. White Sucker runs may begin in mid-March in southern Michigan, or as late as early May in the north. Longnose Sucker runs are usually later, possibly because it takes the deeper waters of the Great Lakes longer to warm up. Longnose Suckers ascend rivers from mid-April to early May, depending on latitude. Sexual maturity arrives at five to nine years of age for the Longnose while the White Sucker matures at three to eight years. In addition, females grow faster, get larger, and live longer than males in both species. Maximum life expectancy for White Suckers appears to be 17 years; it can be as long as 22-24 years for the Longnose. Whites usually grow to be 12-20 inches long, while the Longnoses grow to 15-25 inches.

As juveniles under 12 inches in length, suckers are eaten by Northern Pike, Muskellunge, Bass, Walleyes and Burbot. Sucker fry are preyed on by Atlantic Salmon and fish-eating birds. Sea Lampreys damage sucker populations in areas where Lake Trout are scarce. As bottom feeders, both species dine exclusively on aquatic plants, algae and small invertebrate animals-especially worms, insect larvae and crustaceans. White Suckers have been accused of consuming large quantities of eggs from more desirable fish species, but there is no conclusive evidence to support this contention. The Longnose Sucker is not a serious predator of fish eggs.

Economically, suckers are at present a potentially valuable but underused sport fish. Their bony flesh has a fine sweet flavor especially when the fish are taken from cold water during the early spring. Suckers can be smoked, pickled or canned for use in soups, chowders or fish patties. The fillets can also be scored through the flesh to the skin, lightly battered, and deep fried. This causes the fine, tiny bones to dissolve and produces an excellent fillet for fish and chips or fish sandwiches. Commercially, suckers are often marketed under the name "freshwater mullet". Commercial "deboning" machines have been developed, so minced mullet products may one day be available in your local store. Also, suckers have great value as bait (usually for Northern Pike or Muskellunge) and sucker fry are often fed to sport fish in hatcheries. These versatile fish are commanding increasing respect from commercial and sport fishermen alike.

The White Sucker goes by a number of other names, including common sucker, coarse-scaled sucker, brook sucker, gray sucker, mud sucker, sucker, mullet, black mullet, slender sucker, June sucker, and white horse. The Longnose Sucker is sometimes called the sturgeon sucker because of its pronounced snout.

For more information on how and where to catch suckers see our Michigan Fish and How to Catch Them and Better Fishing Waters.

Graphics courtesy of Joseph R. Tomelleri and copyrighted.