Department of Natural Resources
Sucker fishing in Michigan has a long history, with many anglers eagerly targeting them each spring as they’re among the first fish to head up river on their spawning runs.
These fish can be found in nearly all of Michigan’s rivers, including most trout streams, and the state is home to several varieties. You’ve likely missed your chance to target them in 2019…but we hope this article will help you consider a trip for 2020.
“Every warmwater river around the Saginaw/Bay City area that’s a tributary to Saginaw Bay has a good sucker run,” explains Jim Baker, a recently retired DNR fisheries biologist out of Bay City. “White suckers usually come as early as March 15…then you’ll see the red horse variety start spawning…followed by the longnose who often come in May. But keep in mind, the further north you go, the more those timeframes will be pushed back.”
Suckers can be speared, dip netted or hand netting. Several anglers choose to target them with hook-and-line. These fish don’t require fancy tackle (Baker’s words), with any kind of rod and reel, typically a perch rig, a number six hook and a heavy sinker usually working.
“Something that doesn’t seem to be too well known with suckers is that they follow what I call ‘pathways’ in the river,” Baker said. “They will tend to come right up the river in the middle or the edges of the current – you won’t find them in the slack water.”
Baker is partial to the Chippewa River, but many anglers tout the Rifle River as the place to target suckers. Just ask Randy Terrian, an avid sucker angler who lives in Shields (west of Saginaw) but has a fishing camp in Oscoda.
“For me, sucker fishing is right there alongside perch fishing as something you cut your teeth on as a youngster and then you just keep evolving with it,” he said.
Terrian thinks sucker fishing is a great tool for learning how to engage in various other types of river fishing, including for steelhead and coho.
“When your drift fishing a river system, you can learn what the drift and the take feels like and then apply it to other species,” he explains. “For young anglers, this can be a great fishery to expose them to as there’s lots of excitement and it’s easy to make it a tradition.”
The Rifle River is so popular its even home to an annual festival and sucker fishing tournament, held by the city of Omer.
“There’s a long-standing tradition of sucker fishing in Omer,” Baker explained. “Before the big walleye boom and way before Great Lakes salmon, you would find people out there dipping for suckers.”
The hiccup for many when it comes to sucker fishing is what to do with the fish you catch – but both Baker and Terrian have great options for you.
“When I was trying to perfect a method to smoke fish, I used suckers because they were more plentiful,” Terrian shared. “I still smoke a batch every year, but my favorite way to have them is canned.”
Suckers have a lot of bones, so traditional preparation methods would make it tedious to remove them. Pressure cooking and/or canning suckers causes the bones to dissolve. With canned suckers you can use the meat in similar ways you would use canned salmon or tuna, such as in a patty.
Baker shares some people like to pickle suckers as well, which is his favorite way to prepare them.
“You end up with something like a pickled herring.”
You can also fry suckers – but a key step is to make sure you score the filets. Baker explains that you scale the fish, peel off the fillets, and leave the skin on. Many anglers have a “sucker board” – which is typically a hardwood plank which has been rip sawed so that you basically remove half the surface. You lay the filet skin-side down, cut across the filet in the opposite way every quarter of an inch. You’re thus cutting through the numerous bones! You can dredge the filets in your preferred battle and then deep fry them. Between the hot oil and all the cuts to the bones, they’ll virtually disappear.
Hungry yet? Why not consider heading to Omer next year to partake in the family atmosphere that is sucker fishing.
“You don’t want to miss it every year,” exclaimed Terrian. “Sucker fishing is a festive atmosphere with folks lined up on the river and everyone enjoying their time outdoors.”