Myth Busters: Sucker Edition
On the President’s Day holiday, I stood on a foot bridge overlooking crystal-clear springs, fishing for largescale suckers.
It was part of my New Year’s resolution to expand my angling horizons – to gain a greater appreciation for other species beyond the usual rainbow and brown trout. I’m a naturalist with a fly rod. Fishing is my means of exploring the underwater realm.
It was a beautiful day to be in the Thousand Springs region of Idaho, enjoying springs protected by The Nature Conservancy. The suckers were highly visible; large fish congregated by the dozens.
But my sucker reverie was soon interrupted. Within minutes two different people approached me to share their sucker knowledge. Like they had a compulsion to do so.
“We call them pike minnows, or carp. They’re invasive.”
Three strikes here.
This highlights a big problem with fish conservation: Most people don’t really know fish. Anglers included.
Aside from some common game species, most are happy to lump everything else together. Like my new friend.
His short comment was filled with error. To boot: Suckers are not pike minnows, native fish with an image problem of their own. (They’re blamed for declining salmon runs, never mind dams).
They definitely aren’t carp, which actually are non-native species. Suckers are not invasive: 78 of the some 80 species in the sucker family, Catostomidae, are found exclusively in North America.
I barely had time to respond when another visitor approached.
“Fishing for suckers, huh? Well, I don’t think you’re going to catch them here. The water’s too clean. They only live in polluted streams. They eat garbage. That’s what I heard.”
OK, let’s think about this carefully for a second:
The. Water. Is. Too. Clean.
Here we must confront the most common of sucker myths: that this is a fish so vile it actually needs our pollution, our sediment, our trash.
And it’s totally, completely, 100 percent wrong. If you think about it, it makes no sense. No fish needs dirty water, after all – not even carp.
For many sucker species, it’s quite the opposite. They need the purest, cleanest water. They need healthy river habitats. They need free-flowing stream so they can make their spring spawning run – just like other, more celebrated migratory fish.
The sucker, ultimately, is the perfect symbol for healthy rivers and fisheries. So why do the myths persist? The answer lies in angling culture and its own cherished mythology.
The Fishy Truth About Recreational Fishing
Anglers are fond of their conservation achievements, and rightly so. They point out that they are often the people who know rivers best, and thus are uniquely positioned to defend them. See the fight to protect Bristol Bay for a dramatic illustration of this.
The literature of angling is heavily populated with certain themes: respect for fish, for rivers, for nature.
Sometimes trout fishing can be portrayed as an almost transcendental activity. No clear line between religion and fly fishing and all that.
Many anglers do genuinely love native fish and natural habitats, too. Nonetheless, closer examination of angling history reveals murkier waters.
Recreational anglers have often been the most enthusiastic purveyors of non-native species, spreading the same usual suspects – rainbow and brown trout, largemouth bass, walleye – hither and yon, with no regard for local ecology.
Truth be told, some anglers would rather follow a hatchery truck filled with domestic trout than learn stream ecology.
But more to the point here, there is a long tradition of creating fish villains: any species perceived to feed on precious trout and bass.
“A Good Slice to the Belly”
Sadly, this viewpoint still persists. Consider the comments on an Idaho fishing forum concerning what you should do if you catch a sucker:
“Kill and through [sic] back.”
“If you catch them while trying to catch trout of coarse [sic] they are in direct competition with the trout. They eat the same thing. There is only so much food and if the suckers are eating it. Less food for the trout.”
Comments like this make me sick, and not because of the massacre of the English language.
Don’t pass this off as just the online rantings of vigilante anglers. In some lakes, tiger muskies — a hatchery-produced hybrid — are introduced specifically to control suckers. The reason? So hatchery trout don’t have competition.
At this point, some readers will invariably identify me, as an avid angler, as part of the problem.
Some think we should just leave wildlife alone, all the time — a comment I receive a lot when writing about interacting with wildlife.
Fair enough. Still, even if you never go fishing, you’re (pardon the pun) not off the hook.
The fishing community has often been antagonistic about suckers, but the non-angling community hasn’t been much better.
There is truth in the idea that protecting something starts with knowing and loving it. We need people defending rivers and freshwater habitats.
The Rough Fish Brigade
That’s a great trend. But an often unheralded group of angler-conservationists is taking it farther: celebrating all native fish species.
Calling themselves rough fishers, they go crazy for suckers and species derided by others as “trash fish.” They rightly recognize them as interesting angling quarry, true, but also recognize that these fish need conservation attention.
They rail against misguided fishery policy that treats these species as competitors to “game” fish. They encourage young anglers to respect and protect all fish species.