The Humble White Sucker

 

 

My first meeting with the humble white sucker came under the railroad bridge spanning Queset Brook in the town of Easton. As a young boy my dad would take me there to watch the suckers spawn in the shallow riffles below the bridge.

When I first saw the suckers congregating in the narrow stream, I thought we had discovered a fisherman’s Eden. Here were fifty fish, big and broad shouldered, milling about at my feet. I began jumping up and down with excitement, pulling at dads sleeve, we must hurry back to the truck for our fishing poles I exclaimed. Dad chuckled as he knelt down next to me. He went on to explain that suckers would not bite because of their small sucker like mouths. They use these tiny mouths for feeding on algae and other tiny foods much like the tropical catfish we had in our aquarium. He explained that the reason they were now here was to spawn in the fast-moving shallow water. They would remain here for a week or two when they would disappear as mysteriously as they had arrived.

Naturally at the seasoned age of five I was quite certain that I knew far more about the fine art of angling than dad, who after all had only been practicing it for thirty odd years. As I began to plead my case for the retrieval of the fishing poles, he gave me one of his, I know I am not going too win this one kind of looks and turned to the truck for the fishing gear.

When he returned, I eagerly grabbed my pole and shot a cast among the swarming fish. Several casts later, I looked back at dad who was sitting behind me whistling an annoying old Roger Miller tune. He stopped whistling for a moment and with a smirk asked "how many you catch." "None," I replied in frustration, reaching down to my fishing box for a different lure which was sure to prove him wrong.

After twenty minutes of constant casting and lure changing, dad stopped whistling again and with a sympathetic smirk said "guess they’re just not biting today huh."

He then got up with his pole and flopped an old red and white daredevil spoon into the stream and let it settle to the bottom. When the first sucker passed over it, he pulled hooking the fish in the side, handing me the rod he said "hold on tight now." The fish raced down and across the stream, pulling the Dacron line from the old Phlueger Supreme casting reel. Other fish scattered as my fish frantically struggled to shake the hook. When the fight was over, we hauled him up and dad carefully unhooked him. As we released him back into the riffles dad said, "that’s the only way to catch them, but it’s probably best to leave them alone and just watch them while they’re spawning, don’t ya think."

The bridge over Queset would become one of my favorite childhood haunts, it was a short walk from my cousin’s house, from where I could sneak away to visit my new found friends, the white suckers. I could easily spend hours laying across the tracks looking down through the railroad ties into my own private aquarium. Unfortunately these visits were usually quite short lived, and lasted only as long as it took my mother to track me down. After my capture I would find myself unmercifully banished from the stream to serve a lengthy internment in my bedroom as punishment for my skulking ways.

One afternoon while sitting at the bridge watching the suckers, two men arrived with fishing poles in hand. They worked at the Steadfast Rubber Plant that was a short distance up the railroad tracks from the stream. Apparently the day before another plant worker had seen the fish here while having his lunch and had told these two would be anglers about my sucker friends.

They looked down into the stream at the fish debating what species they were, one said bass the other said trout I said suckers. Both looked at me curiously while they readied their tackle to begin fishing. Ignoring me now, they began casting feverishly into the groups of uninterested fish. Why the hell don’t, they bite one man said of the other, the other shrugged and replied "don’t know never saw trout or bass act like this before" as he continued casting at the fish.

They’re sucker fish they don’t bite, you have to snag them I said, (advice that I would soon regret giving). Ya now something, I think the kids right, they are suckers one of the men replied, damn filthy suckers said the other. The two men then began snagging the suckers one after another and tossing them up onto the black dusty grit of the rail bed. I asked the men if they were taking the fish home to eat, to which they replied no. So why are you killing them, I pried.

Sitting to take a break one of the men explained to me that the suckers were just a trash fish. As he tossed his empty lunch bag and nip bottle into the stream, his co-worker added that they were a filthy fish that lived in filthy places where no other fishes could be found. He went on to tell me about a filthy polluted stream near his home where suckers lived, he said it was surprising to find them in a clean stream like mine.

At the sound of the plants whistle the two men tossed the rest of their trash into the stream and headed back down the tracks to the plant. After they left, I began gathering up my sucker friends and bringing them back down to the stream. One by one I washed the black coal dust off them and set them back in the riffles. With a splash of the tail and a twist each slowly swam off, joining the rest to resume their spawning dance in the riffles of Queset.

From the human perspective the white sucker is very much the Quasimodo of river fishes. Not particularly pretty to look at and of little value to anglers because they seldom give chase to lure or bait. Even the fish’s common name. White Sucker relegates it to the ranks of the unknown and unwanted. If the white sucker had been blessed with the colors of a rainbow trout and the eating habits of a pickerel, it would undoubtedly be one of our most celebrated fresh water game fish. Because like Quasimodo who appears sluggish and clumsy, the suckers, when intoxicated by spring love, display a power, tenacity and endurance that would put many of our celebrated "gamefish" to shame.

At this point in my sucker dissertation, I know some will be thinking, "what the ^%$&* is this chowda head talking about" and I would have probably thought much the same if my brother and I had not witnessed the following scene below Fort Halifax Dam on the Sebasticook River.

Here in the spring of last year we watched the suckers swim up the ledges below the dam and make charge after charge into the foaming spring flood water cascading over the dam. It was a hopeless endeavor, the dam being fifteen feet high and impassable to any fish excluding perhaps our good friend the sea lamprey. But the suckers were unaware of this, one after another and in groups of two’s and three’s they charged into the white water. At first stalling when striking the wall of water, then seemingly by force of sheer will power they would put forth another burst of energy which would thrust them vertically up into the falls. Here they would stall again, swimming furiously yet making no headway. Finally the force of the water drained their energy and sent them somersaulting down slamming against the concrete apron of the dam. It was an experience that gave me a whole different perception of the humble white sucker.

The sucker, strangely enough also suffers from the fact that it has been blessed with the ability and adaptability to survive in some of our foulest waterways. Much like the two fellows in my childhood encounter, many people disdain the sucker for being a filthy trash fish. They seem oblivious to the fact that it was we who created the filth, the sucker just happens to be one of the few creatures tough enough to survive in it. Like the lamprey, brook trout and our other indigenous fishes, the melt water of the glaciers was the suckers original home and habitat. To think suckers or any other species for that matter are filthy because they can survive or thrive in the filth that we create seems very strange, but quite common.

If your still with me, we must now ask, what about the white sucker from our Rivers’ ecosystem’s perspective, what does it contribute to the wonderful web of life that we know as our Great River? I would offer that the white sucker is to our Great Rivers ecosystem what the wildebeest is to the African Plains ecosystem. The white sucker is to our Great Rivers ecosystem what the lemming is to the Arctic Tundras ecosystem. Simply put the sucker is food. Most riverine predators from water scorpions to bald eagles eat white suckers.

White suckers are an incredibly productive fish that spawn in large mainstem rivers and in the tiny trickles that drain into them. In brooks like Queset or West Meadow the adults seem to appear from nowhere in the early spring. They swarm up out of the swamps to flash their spawning colors in the shallow riffles of the streams and rivers. Their bulky bodies seem out of place in the narrow, shallow waters of the smaller tributaries.

When not in the physical act of spawning the suckers stay beneath over hanging branches and under bridges. This may be an inherited trait, from times past when bald eagles and ospreys were abundant in these locales. The unwary sucker in open water would have been an easy target and an important early spring food source for these feathered marauders.

Several weeks after spawning the sucker fry emerge from the gravel. When they are about a half, an inch long they can be found in small schools under over hanging brush and in tiny back eddies. The careful observer will be amazed by how many of these juvenile suckers can be found in a short stretch of water. Often the kingfisher swooping down from an overhanging branch will be plucking these tiny fish from the stream.

To make a long story short, (ha, ha) the white sucker is a little appreciated but vital cog in the ever evolving wheel that is our Great River. This is my ode to the Humble White Sucker, my dear childhood friend, and faithful traveling companion throughout the rivers of the City of Brockton and beyond.

 

White Suckers spawning at Satucket

 

More Sucker info - Here