Midnight Run


About three weeks ago, I went to a shaded, mossy creek in far northeastern Minnesota to check on the sucker run.  Incredibly, there was still ice on the banks of the creek, so the water was still told cold for them.  In other parts of Minnesota, they had already run, but this is an unusually cold, late spot.

Suckers spawn in sandy, pebbly waterways in the spring when the water reaches a certain temperature.  I don’t know what that temperature is exactly, though some people will tell you what it is.  I don’t really care myself, and don’t have a thermometer anyways, so the information doesn’t do much good.  The ramps are up and the buds are swelling and it’s time to go check.

They don’t always swim upstream into a river or creek – if the conditions are right, they can spawn in the sandy shallows of a lake, so the run isn’t as obvious.

A week and half ago, I stopped by again, this time at midnight.  There they were.  I still had whitefish frozen and dried, and smelt canned, so I didn’t want to get but a couple fish just to eat and participate in the season.  This night, however, I just sat and watched them.

Every once in a while there’d be a raucous thrashing and flapping as they moved their way up the shallows into the next pool.  But mostly it was a quiet fish lovemaking affair.  The males would press and splash up against the females, waiting for her to drop her eggs, and trying to coax them out of her.  “Just like teenage boys at a high school dance,” said one old time fisherman in the area.

In Minnesota you can dip net, spear, or get them with a bow.  It is not legal, however, to catch any fish by hand – at least by my interpretation of the hefty tome that is the MN fish and game laws.  In this creek, however, you certainly wouldn’t  have any trouble just reaching in and picking them up.

It is also not legal to kill fish and just throw them on the ground, or back in the lake, or dig holes and bury them alive, but people think this is good sport for sucker fish.  There exists the common idea among fishermen that the suckers are eating all the walleye eggs, and so we should kill off the suckers.  Some good friends of mine in Vermont went “suckering” this year at a hole we found last spring when I was living out there, and they found quite the scene.  Adults pulling out suckers, throwing them at each other and laughing, stuffing them down holes in the woods and under tree roots, leaving them scattered everywhere.  Third grade lives on.

It is true that suckers eat walleye eggs, but I imagine quite a few things eat walleye eggs, and walleye fry, and juvenile walleyes.  I know that on Big Sand Lake, the lake where my family has a small cabin, it wasn’t the suckers that took down an incredible walleye fishery in the early 1990s, when we would catch them regularly.  It was the constant stream of boats from all over the state, once the word got out that it was a hot spot for big walleye.  I guess it is a question of balance:  Taking out lots of suckers – an abundant fish to be sure – and then eating them, seems to accomplish many goals at once.

The book “Fishing for Buffalo” has some insight into some of this, as well as the sucker in general.

I wish people knew that suckers can be good to eat.  Breaded and fried fresh from the stream, they were as good as any fish I regularly cook.  It is true they have a softer flesh, and sometimes in the warmer weather I find myself less interested.  But then there’s smoked sucker, which some of my friends made this spring.  Since we don’t have salmon, I’d say it is as good as anything out there.


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