White Sucker Run!
By Doug Collicutt
I saw them from a distance, two boys about 11 or 12 years old, and I knew exactly what they were doing. Each was straddling a section of the small creek, with one foot on one big boulder, the other on another rock, bent over at the waist, hands at the ready. Instantly, I was transported back 30 years in time, to another creek and another spring, and another sucker run. One of the boys made a lunge at something in the water. I saw the flick of a tail, a spurt of water, heard a not-so-muffled curse, and chuckled to myself as the lad lost his footing. First one foot then the other slipped off the rocks, and into the creek went his $90 Nikes. I could almost hear the tirade his mother would lay on him. But the boy was unconcerned about his now wet foot wear. "Jeez", he said excitedly, "I almost had that one!"
"Get back in place", said the other, "there's more in there." How quickly they learn. These boys had, as I had done so many years before, already surmised that another fish would be by shortly, forced into the gauntlet of the rocks and waiting fishers by the undeniable urge to travel upstream to spawn.
It was late April, the small creek was flowing fast, but far less so than 2 weeks prior at the height of spring runoff. Then the water was high and muddy, and no rocks could be seen. Nor were there any fish to be seen either. There were likely a number of kinds of fish there at the time, but you just couldn't see them in the swift-flowing, turbid waters. But the heavy spring flows had subsided and the time was right for the White Suckers to spawn, so up the stream they poured seeking out the safer waters of this small tributary of the Assiniboine River in Winnipeg, and, no doubt, in nearly every other small stream in Manitoba that drained into a major river or lake.
The White Sucker (Catostomus commersoni) is one of the most common large fishes in our province. Weighing up to 2 kg or more, they are a good-sized fish, but are rarely taken by anglers and are even less well known to the general public. But if you've ever eaten "mullet", chances are you've had White Sucker on your plate! That's the commercial name used when white sucker or one of several other sucker species is sold in stores and markets.
I walked up to the two boys and innocently asked what they were doing. Before one boy could answer, a sizable school of the fish appeared below the rocks. "WOW! Look at all those fish, I wonder what the heck those suckers are!," the other shouted.
"Exactly." I responded.
"Huh!?" was the reply from the first boy, as he turned to me.
"Exactly", I continued, "they're suckers. White suckers, to be more precise. That's their name. And they've come up into the creek from the river to spawn. The females lay their eggs right in the riffles".
"Riffles? What's that?" said one of the boys.
"That's where the water is flowing quickly over gravel or small rocks," I replied. "Suckers like to spawn in small streams where the bottom is gravelly. In small creeks like this about the only place where there is gravel or rocks is in these riffles." But I could see that they're interest in my lecture was limited. Another batch of suckers were assailing the riffles where we stood, and the boys returned to their positions to try and catch one.
"What are you going to do to it if you catch one?" I asked. I had noticed they had no pails or anything else that could hold a fish.
"I da' know," was the response from one. I'd expected no less. When it comes to boys and creeks, the "catching" is the important thing. The what-to-do-with-it-after is secondary. Ah . . . twas ever thus.
Carry on for the Biology of the White Sucker!
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