I still remember my first experience with suckers. My father, uncle and I were fishing a riffle just below Big Rock Hole, on the Pomme de Terre River - a place now submerged beneath the surface of Truman Lake.
Dad generally did his fishing with a flyrod and popping bug, but that spring morning my uncle had prescribed worms. We were fishing from an anchored johnboat.
The action wasn't exactly fast. I was convinced the only thing we were going to catch was a sunburn, but a sensation emanating from my fishing pole brought me back into focus. It was not a strike or a hit or a bite that would indicate a fish trying to take my bait; it was more like a feeling that something was going to happen.
The line was tight and quivering, so I raised my rod tip and began to reel. All of a sudden I found myself battling a fish that, with the assistance of the downstream current, proved to be a formidable adversary.
My catch tired fairly quickly and I swung a 2-pound, sparkling, golden torpedo-shaped fish into the bottom of the boat. At my feet lay a glistening, streamlined specimen with large scales, large eyes and, most notably, a large down-turned mouth.
I'd never seen anything like it before. It looked more like a carp than anything else.
"Redhorse!" my uncle exclaimed. It was obvious to him from the puzzled expression on my face that I was confused, so he explained, "Sucker, redhorse sucker. Good sweet meat - a little bony, though."
The name was appropriate, what with that goofy-looking mouth. The longer I looked at the fish the more I could see sort of a horse shaped head, and the fish's tail and belly fins were a reddish color.
My uncle was right when he said suckers were good to eat. Skillet fried, the sucker proved sweet and flavorful, although bony.
Years and many suckers later, I was taught how to enjoy this fish without having to winnow bones from the savory meat.
There are two methods we use to fix suckers. (I know some people pickle them, but I've never tried it.) Deep-fried sucker is my favorite, but there's nothing wrong with canned suckers.
To prepare suckers for frying, you need to scale and fillet them, leaving the skin on. Suckers have no spiny fins and scale easily with an old spoon. Wash the fillets and pat dry with paper towels.
The next step is to score the fish. Scoring the flesh allows hot grease to dissolve the bones, making the sucker fillet essentially boneless and as delectable as a channel cat or walleye fillet. Before cooking, bread the fillet by dropping it in a bread bag containing cornmeal or seasoned flour. Shake to thoroughly coat the fillet.
Next, put your fillets into hot lard, vegetable oil or peanut oil, cook until golden brown, drain and enjoy.
Canning also works well with suckers. I like to skin and chunk the fish. I run the fillet knife along the back just under the skin from the head to the tail, making a cut on both sides of the dorsal fin so it can be removed. I then remove the head and entrails and, with pliers, peel the skin off. I then wash the carcass and use a knife or cleaver to chunk it in 2- to 3-inch pieces.
I fill jars with sucker chunks, leaving an inch of headspace, and add one-quarter teaspoon salt per pint. Seal the jars with flats and rings (no water is necessary) and pressure cook for 90 minutes at 10 pounds. The pressure canning makes the bones edible, although you may wish to discard the larger ones. Your finished product can be used just like you would use salmon or tuna fish, and the flavor will be as good or better.
Suckers may be odd looking, but they do well on the dinner table or at a gravel bar fish fry.
Suckers may be pursued by sport fishing methods, as well as some uniquely Ozarkian methods, such as gigging and snagging/snaring. See the "Summary of Missouri Fishing Regulations" for more information on seasons and methods.
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