The family name Catostomidae refers to the downward-facing mouth of most sucker species. At least fifteen species of sucker can be found in Michigan, including six species of redhorse sucker, two chubsuckers, and one hog sucker.
Springtime is sucker time in many Michigan rivers. In large rivers of southwest Michigan, longnose suckers begin leaving Lake Michigan for upstream spawning sites soon after ice-out. White suckers soon follow and both of these species can be caught during the spring steelhead run that typically peaks in mid-March. Redhorse suckers migrate later in spring as trees begin to leaf out. Some redhorse spend their entire lives in rivers, while others migrate into rivers and creeks from inland lakes or shallow Great Lakes environments. Quillbacks typically live in large rivers and nutrient-rich lakes and bays. Although rarely seen by most anglers, quillbacks can be extremely abundant in shallow spawning riffles during late spring.
Michigan’s Lower Peninsula is on the northern edge of the range for many sucker species. In cold trout streams of northern Michigan, sucker runs occur later in the season and fewer species are present. The white sucker is the most widespread species and lives in a variety of habitats ranging from Upper Peninsula creeks to Lake Erie.
Young suckers often congregate in large groups in shallow water to avoid predators. Suckers do not have sharp spines to protect them from predators, which makes them a favorite meal for gamefish like northern pike and muskellunge. Adult suckers have few predators but remain shy by nature for much of the year.
Many species grow horny tubercles on their skin during the spawning run and become more aggressive, sometimes injuring one another as they butt heads and jockey for position on prime spawning gravel. Although suckers do not always die after spawning as Pacific salmon do, the spawning run is very stressful and some suckers do not survive.
The ecological role of suckers is a topic of active research. Like salmon, suckers can bring nutrients into small, nutrient-poor creeks during their spawning run. Their eggs and decaying carcasses stimulate the food chain in small streams, and young suckers are easy prey for many predatory fish and birds.
The underslung mouth of most suckers is designed for foraging on the bottom, but each species has its own unique preferences when feeding. Shorthead redhorse turn rocks over with their pointed snouts and feed on tiny insect larvae or patrol seawalls, moving vertically in search of food. Quillbacks filter sediments through their gill rakers, feeding on small invertebrates and bits of decaying leaves and other organic matter. Some buffaloes feed in open water, straining out zooplankton with comb-like gill rakers, and the river redhorse feed on mussels that are crushed between molar-like teeth in their throat.
Suckers often make up the majority of fish biomass in medium to large rivers. Despite their abundance, suckers don’t get much attention from managers and biologists. In the past, removal projects targeted suckers in efforts to boost populations of more popular (and sometimes non-native) gamefish that prey on similar food items. However, there is growing recognition that suckers play an important role in ecosystems.
Identification of suckers to the species level can be challenging even for trained professionals, which has led to the lumping of very common species into the same category as extremely rare species. For example, “redhorse suckers” include six Michigan species ranging from the widespread shorthead redhorse to the state-threatened river redhorse. This presents a management challenge since unlimited harvest may be appropriate for one species but is certainly not appropriate for the other.
All of Michigan’s sucker species are native to North America, but the status of bigmouth, black, and smallmouth buffalo is unclear. Buffaloes are large carp-like fish native to the Mississippi River basin and possibly the southern Great Lakes basin, but buffaloes were also stocked in the Lake Erie basin in the early 1900s. In recent years, buffaloes have been moving northward into Ontario waters of the Great Lakes where they were not previously found. Oddly, the smallmouth buffalo has never officially been recorded in Michigan waters, although it has been found in Ontario.
Importance to Fishery
The spring spawning run provides a great opportunity for children and casual anglers to hook into lots of big fish with simple tackle. Most suckers average 1 to 4 pounds; worms or nightcrawlers fished on bottom will catch plenty of fish. Other methods, including dip nets and spears, are also legal. Fly-fishing provides more of a challenge, but drifting small brightly-colored egg imitations can also produce fast action at times. Some rivers attract large crowds to known fishing holes for the spring run, but sucker fishing is a relaxing endeavor that does not feel like the “combat fishing” sometimes associated with fishing for more popular species. When the suckers are in, everyone catches fish.
Most suckers have firm white meat that tastes mild and slightly sweet. The only drawback is the large number of bones found in fillets. Similar to the Y bones of pike, sucker bones are usually smaller and more difficult to remove. To get around this, suckers can be canned, ground, or scored and fried in hot oil to soften the bones. With a little extra preparation, they make a great meal and provide an abundant, renewable, and delicious source of food.
Many Michiganders have stories from grandmothers, great-uncles, or other relatives who relied on suckers as a dependable addition to the family dinner table during the Great Depression. Some still carry on the tradition with annual sucker camps that provide canned fish, ground fish patties, and lessons for children accustomed to getting food at the supermarket.
In addition to being sought by recreational and subsistence anglers, suckers are important to the bait industry. Young white suckers are a favorite prey of large predatory fish like northern pike. “Sucker minnows” command a premium price and are popular bait for tip-ups used in ice fishing.