Sucker gigging a winter tradition in the Ozarks

January 23, 2013 at 03:05 PM

Time hasn’t done much to change the fishing on frosty nights on the Niangua River.

Chuck Knight has heard the stories about how his grandpa and many others would spend winter nights on the clear Ozarks stream, gigging suckers.

Today, he and his friends are following tradition, doing the same thing, albeit with more modern equipment.

“Back in my grandpa’s day, they’d bring a trough with them and they’d light pitch to make a nice fire that would last and give off some nice light,” said Knight, who lives in Lebanon, Mo. “That would make the suckers in these clear Ozarks streams really stand out.

“We’re doing the same thing today, except that we’re using halogen lights and electricity. Other than that, we’re doing things the same way they did 50 years ago.”

A recent night served as proof. Moments after darkness enveloped the mid-section of the Niangua, Knight and two friends — Jeff and Stan Green — stepped back in history.

As soon as cables were attached to a battery, a bank of lights at the bow of the boat illuminated the rocky bottoms of the Ozarks stream.

Knight and Stan Green leaned on a rail, with gig poles in hand, studying the clear water for a fish that blends into the bottom.

When Jeff Green, who owned a cabin just up the hill, steered the boat into the shallows, Knight spotted a mottled hog molly, otherwise known as a northern hogsucker, and quickly jabbed his multi-tined gig into the gin-clear water. He brought it out of the water with a fish attached, the first of many for the night.

“This is redneck fishing,” Knight joked. “But it sure is a lot of fun.

“And the best part is eating them. A lot of people can’t imagine eating suckers, but they haven’t tasted them.”

Knight and the Greens took turns at the front of the bow, regularly gigging suckers as the temperature steadily dropped and created a fog that hung over the water. By the time they were done, they had plenty for a fish fry.

Most of the suckers were taken in a stretch directly below Jeff Green’s secluded cabin, which was giving off the only light along this part of the river.

“This has always been a good place to gig,” Green said. “Part of it is that it is so secluded. There aren’t any public ramps on this stretch of the river. And with water levels being low because of the drought, other giggers just can’t get to this stretch of the river without going to a lot of work.”

In a matter of minutes, the pile of fish were scattered on a table and the sound of an electric fillet knife carried through the woods.

The fishermen filleted the suckers, then scored them in a series of crossways cuts about one-quarter of an inch apart. By the time, the fillets were breaded and dumped into a fry basket with sizzling oil, they were on their way to becoming a tasty meal. French fries and biscuits fried and dipped in powdered sugar completed a shore dinner that is now tradition in the Ozarks.

“These suckers have a lot of bones,” Knight said. “But when you score them like this, those small bones will disintegrate and you have a great fillet.”

For Knight, who is a tournament bass fisherman on Lake of the Ozarks, such winter pursuits might seem like something that is out of character. But he has been sucker gigging since he was 6 years old. Now 43, he still chases suckers with the same enthusiasm as past generations of his family did.

“When I was younger, we’d have big groups out there gigging suckers and having a fish fry on the bank,” he said. “Gigging has always been popular in the Ozarks.

“There are a lot of suckers in these Ozarks rivers and it’s always been a popular winter pastime.”

Ordinarily, redhorse and white suckers make up the majority of the catch for Knight and the Greens. But on a recent outing, the hog mollies were more abundant.

“The hog mollies are so camouflaged, they are hard to see,” Knight said. “But they’ll stay put for you. You can pull the boat right up to them, and they won’t move.

“The other suckers are moving all the time. Just like in hunting, you have to lead them.”

The needed equipment hasn’t changed over the years. Fishermen using long wooden poles with gigs that have three to four lines. They use an aluminum flat-bottom boat equipped with a jet-modified motor so that they can skim through shallow water and reach the spots where the suckers often congregate.

“The suckers we’ll get will average 12 to 16 inches,” Knight said. “Occasionally, we’ll get a big redhorse, but most of the fish are just pan sized.

“But they make for some good eating if you get enough of them.”

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.