Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Suckers
Nature Bulletin No. 412-A   March 27, 1971
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

THE SUCKERS
The suckers are a-runnin' ! " That exciting news spread quickly over the countryside back in the days before there were so many "don'ts" in our fish laws. Suckers migrate upstream soon after the ice breaks up and congregate on gravelly riffles to suck up food and lay their eggs. Then you would see groups of men and boys, by day or at night with lanterns, heading for some clear creek or river. It was one of the surest signs of spring.

Because suckers seldom bite on a hook, these fishermen used dipnets, snag lines rigged with treble hooks, wire snares, fish spears or pitchforks. A generation or more ago, these methods were made illegal in most states because anglers claimed that they also made inroads on gamefish and panfish. Now it is known that suckers and their kin -- the redhorses, buffalofish and quillbacks -- are competitors of those preferred species. As a result, many states have made one or more of the old-fashioned ways of sucker-fishing legal again.

The members of the sucker family, nearly a hundred species of them, are the most numerous of the large fish in most of our streams and lakes. With the exception of two or three kinds in Siberia and China, all are found in the fresh waters of North America where they range from coast to coast and from northern Canada to the Gulf States. In Illinois there are about 20 species that vary in size from the little Chub Sucker, of our headwater streams, up to the Bigmouth Buffalo and the Round Buffalo that sometimes exceed 50 pounds.

The fish of this family get the name "Sucker" from their habit of sucking up plant material, small animal life and sediment from the bottom. Their downturned mouths with fleshy lips are well-suited for probing mud, or among rocks and pebbles. Many kinds have a mouth which, when extended, looks like a short elephant trunk or an attachment for a vacuum cleaner. All have toothless jaws, fins without spines, and bodies covered with scales. Most of our common kinds, such as the White Sucker, Spotted Sucker and the several Redhorses, are elongated fish with round bodies. The 3 or 4 kinds of Quillback, the Smallmouth Buffalo, and the rare Blue Sucker, have deep and more or less flattened bodies.

All lay large numbers of eggs -- hundreds of thousands by the buffaloes -- which they scatter over the bottom or among water plants. None gives the eggs or young any parental care. The young of all kinds are important food for gamefish and, when the size of your finger or even larger, make fine bait for bass, wall-eyed pike, northern pike, muskellunge and large catfish.

Because carp and buffalo are about the same size and shape, many people confuse them. The carp has barbels or "whiskers" at the corners of its mouth, a bony saw-toothed spine in the back fin, and the lower half of the tail is orange or red. The buffaloes have none of these features.

Commercial fishermen, using nets and seines in the large rivers of the Middle West, catch and sell millions of pounds of buffalofish. Like the carp, their flesh is rather coarse with large numbers of small wiry Y- shaped or star-shaped bones. Suckers and redhorses are not marketed on a large scale but when taken from cold clean streams their flesh is firm and sweet-flavored.

Strangest of all these fish is the Hog Sucker, also called Stoneroller and Hammerhead, well known to boys along small creeks. With its monstrous square head, wing-like fins and long snout, it is one of Nature's caricatures.


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