The old saying "Don't judge a book by its cover," is true of the sucker family. They have an image of being a useless trash or rough fish, which is not true, as we will see. Some of the seldom seen sucker species are quite handsome, in their own unique way. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, eh?
There are 65 species of suckers in the world, with almost all being found in North America. Only two species are found outside of the North American continent, occurring in Asia. One is found in China, while the second in Siberia. The Chinese sailfin sucker is native to the Yangtze River and is the largest sucker in the world, attaining a maximum length of three feet and weight of 88 pounds. The sailfin sucker is an endangered species due to pollution, dams, and overfishing. The Siberian species is the longnose sucker, which is also common to North America and the Lake Superior watershed. The redhorse genus is the largest, having 22 species, six of which are found in Michigan.
Suckers are in general a small species of fish, typically ranging from 15 to 29 inches in length and three to 14 pounds in weight. One species, the Bigmouth buffalo, attains a weight of over 60 pounds in Iowa. The largest sucker in Michigan is the Black buffalo, with the state record being 33.25 pounds, taken in the Grand River in Ottawa County. All spawn in the spring, with the spring sucker runs just beginning in the Copper Country. They have large reproductive capability, with a single female being able to produce from 10,000 to 50,000 eggs, depending on the species and age. They live in a wide variety of places, from the Great Lakes, to inland lakes, to large rivers, to small streams.
Their diet consists of aquatic insects, clams, crayfish, mussels, freshwater shrimp, algae, and worms. They feed by vacuuming these items off rocks, logs, etc. on the bottom of lakes and streams. Suckers have pharyngeal teeth rather than the usual predator fish teeth of the pike and walleye. They are found in the throat area and are used to crush and grind the shells of small clams and crayfish.
In Michigan, we have 15 species of suckers, most of which are found in the Lower Peninsula. They are: Quillback, Longnose sucker, White sucker, Creek chubsucker, Lake chubsucker, Northern hogsucker, Bigmouth buffalo, Black buffalo, Spotted sucker, Silver redhorse, River redhorse, Black redhorse, Golden redhorse, Shorthead redhorse, and Greater redhorse. The Creek chubsucker is an endangered species, while the River redhorse is threatened. Only four of these species are found in the U.P., being the Longnose sucker, White sucker, Shorthead redhorse, and Silver redhorse. All four of these species are found in the Ontonagon River system and the Portage Lake waterway.
Suckers are often viewed as valueless, tasteless, nuisance, rough or trash fish. Not true in any of these areas. They are an important part of the aquatic ecosystem and as food, both commercially and for sport.
They are valuable as forage fish in lakes and streams, being a part of walleye, pike, and muskie's diets. They are important to fishermen for bait. Ice fishermen setting tip ups for pike often use small white suckers. Muskie anglers often use a large white sucker as bait. Pike darkhouse anglers use a live white sucker for a decoy while spearing. Area lake trout anglers frequently use a chunk of sucker as cut bait on their jigs when bobbing. Many are now gathering their sucker bait from local streams and preserving them with borax. They are easily caught on hook and line with worms. The lower Sturgeon River near Chassell is a good area.
Tasteless you say? Truth is suckers are among the tastiest fish, being low in cholesterol and high in protein. Both longnose and white suckers have firm sweet flesh, especially when taken from cold water. Shorthead and silver redhorse are harvested commercially. Fact is, if you have ever bought and eaten freshwater mullet, you have had sucker.
Suckers can be canned, smoked, or cooked fresh. They are a boney fish, having many Y-bones (intramuscular) like pike, so care has to be taken. Canning will dissolve many of these bones. Smoking suckers will allow easier removal of these Y-bones.
Sucker patties are a favorite of mine. One can prepare them one of two ways. In both cases you need to fillet the sucker in the usual manner. You may now bake the fillet in a 350 degree oven until the flesh flakes, which allows easy removal of the bones. The other method would be to cut the raw fillet into one inch chunks and pull out the biggest bones. Then grind in a food processor. You then take your raw or cooked sucker meat, combine with bread crumbs, eggs, your favorite herbs/spices, form into patties and fry like a burger. Then serve on a bun with tartar sauce and your favorite condiments. Great eating and healthy too.