In these uncertain times, you occasionally need a nice shot of calm. So, how about this vid I shot one beautiful SW Alaskan evening, with chrome bright coho salmon jumping and rolling all around me?
“You want to cook a what?” There’s a long pause and then some crazy, high-pitched laughter like pack of hyenas has just made a kill. I sort of expected a little grief from my buddy Pete, who’s a professional chef at a local seafood restaurant, when I called him for a recipe for suckerfish but not to this extent.
Eventually, Pete takes a deep breath and tries to collect himself. “Okay, I think I’ve got one for you – this should work,” he says. I grab a note pad and pen and start to write as he rattles off the recipe for cedar-planked suckfish.
“Soak a cedar plank in red wine for several hours and then get the coals nice and hot,” he says. “Sprinkle some sea salt on the board. Cook it until the wood just starts to smoke. Throw away the fish and eat the board…Ha Ha Ha Ha!”
More howling laughter ensues until I hang up.
Next, I give another friend, Scott “The Sporting Chef” Leysath, a call. He’s a nationally known wild game chef and the host of the awesome TV show, Dead Meat on the Sportsmen’s Channel. I figure he can help and I ask him the same simple, straightforward question that I ran by Pete: How do you cook a suckerfish?
“You don’t,” he says and then asks if I’m feeling okay.
How this all came about…
I guess I had better back up and give you a little backstory, here. This whole quest to see what a sucker tastes like started when a fishing client of mine caught one while steelhead fishing. As I pulled the hook from the brown and yellow beast’s rubbery lip and tossed it back over the side, he inquired about the sucker’s value as table fare.
“I’d rather eat a week-old cow patty,” I tell him.
“That bad, huh?”
“Nauseating,” I say. “Loathsome.”
“You ever actually try eating one?” he asks.
And he’s got me there. I can’t say that I have ever even considered eating a suckerfish. Heck, I try not to even touch them or let them drip into the boat when we catch one incidentally. After my confession, my client gives me a little look that says:
And just what else do you proclaim to be an expert at but haven’t actually done?
Damn, I’m feeling like my credibility has been eroded but you can’t blame me for taking a wild guess. I figure that if suckers taste half as bad as they look, I can’t be too far off base with my assessment of their flavor. Of course, you could argue that, by using those criteria, nobody would have ever discovered the sublime taste of lingcod, which sport one of the ugliest mugs in the entire ocean.
I also based my appraisal of the sucker’s merits as a food fish on the fact that we humans seem to have figured out a long time ago what tastes good and what doesn’t. If suckers were delicious, I argue, people would be out fishing for them in droves. When a fish is tasty, we seem to be able to get over the fact that it’s ugly or not all that sporty.
Exhibit A: the walleye. Those things are so incredibly good when cooked in hot oil that nobody seems to mind the fact that they fight like a wet gym sock.
My client’s not buying any of this.
“How can you have such strong feelings about a fish you’ve never eaten?” he asks with a smile. He’s got me and starts to crank up the heat under my feat. “Maybe you’re missing something here. After all, the carp is a highly regarded food fish in some countries. Perhaps suckers are just getting a bum rap here.”
I tell him there’s no way I’m wrong about this but he says I’m just talking out my you-know-what because I’ve never eaten a sucker. He’s starting to enjoy this a little too much, so I decide to step up to the…er…“plate,” in hopes of putting an end to this whole thing.
“Okay, fine, if we get another one today I’m taking it home and cooking it,” I say.
Actually, my plan is to switch up from drifting bait to running jigs under floats. I figure that if we fish in a fashion that would virtually guarantee that no suckers would be caught, I’d be off the hook in the end.
Well, what’s that saying about the best-laid plans of mice and men? Let’s just say the impossible happens. I’ll never understand why a sucker ate that pink jig, but he did and that’s what brings me to the whole hunt for a recipe portion of this tale.
How they do it in Georgia
With my chef buddies absolutely no help, I decide to turn to the information super highway for a sucker recipe. You know you’re looking for something obscure when you Google it and you get anything less than 750,000 results. In the case of sucker recipes I got exactly one…
It came from something called the Flint River Suckerfish Festival, which takes place in Bainbridge, Georgia. Apparently, they have a “sport” gill net fishery there on the Flint and, once they’ve got a big ol’ mess of fish, they cook ‘em up.
This is a direct quote from the webpage. Honestly, I couldn’t make this up:
“Netting sucker fish from the Flint River, gashing them and stirring up some swamp gravy for a good meal has long been a tradition in Southwest Georgia….”
I will not, under any circumstances, be making any swamp gravy.
After exhausting the all my resources, I come to the conclusion that I’m on my own. The idea of planting the suckerfish in the garden and just saying that I ate it is starting to sound like the best course of action. Yet I feel as if I must see this to it’s hideous, gagging end.
Then it hits me. I’ll bread it and deep fry the thing into oblivion. Ever have one of those giant Captain’s Platters at seafood restaurant? You know, the ones that have a bunch of different types of fish all fried beyond recognition. That’s the answer! I will beer batter my suckerfish and drop it into hot oil until the flavor goes away. After all, I could fry an old flip-flop and make it taste okay. Brilliant!
As I’m preparing my little meal, my wife informs me that the family just called and is making an unexpected stop by the house for dinner. Perfect! Now I have some guinea pigs. Hopefully, eating a little sucker will teach them to come over without an invitation!
I mix up a good breading with some beer and Panko breadcrumbs and get the oil going. My first clue that things aren’t going well is that the cat leaves the kitchen when I pull the sucker fillets out of the fridge. Not a good sign…
I’m committed now, so I ignore the cat. Snotty, ungrateful beast. I should have left it to rot at the pound! I dip the fillets into the mixture and then into the boiling oil they go. Family arrives as I’m cooking and I hear my mother ask my wife if something died under the house. I stick to my guns and keep cooking.
“Your septic tank backed up?” my stepfather asks as he pokes his head into the kitchen.
“No, I think everything’s fine, why do you ask?”
“I don’t know, something just smells bad,” he replies.
This is not going well, but I’m going to see this thing out. In 10 minutes, I have the oily sucker chunks on platter and deliver it out to the dining room.
Moments later, we’re in the car headed for the local pizza joint…
Sure, being able to catch fish is a good skill to have, but to really be cool and make the big leagues, you’re going to have to learn how to hold fish up for pix.
Here are some styles you should probably commit to memory…but don’t be afraid to create your own unique style too! Because, ya know, the sponsors are always watching!
Spend enough time on the water and you’ll see some cool and crazy stuff. The past 20 years of guiding have certainly provided me with an endless supply of interesting things — and some of my favorites are when we catch something totally unexpected.
Take the above skull for example. When we pulled this out of the river (on Halloween Day no less!), we were freaking out. I mean — what in the holy heck could it be? Well, when I flipped it over, I saw “Made in China” written on the underside. Mystery solved!
We sure had some fun showing it to other drift boats as we floated by them. Then, at the end of the day, I chucked it back into the river for somebody else to find!
I wish I had photographed all the kooky non-target species my customers have caught over the years but sometimes I’m just too busy running the boat, netting fish and untangling lines to grab a camera. Digging through the archives, however, I found a handful of shots of that are pretty fun. Here are some of my favorites…
Why wives don’t believe that we are actually going fishing
While side-drifting for steelhead one winter’s day on the American River, my client caught a black bra. You can only imagine the lively conversation such a catch started!
Being an enterprising young fella at the time, I of course snapped the pic and kept it in a safe place — just in case I needed it for blackmail purposes down the road. :)
All Mixed Up!
In California’s Central Valley, Chinook salmon and striper runs often overlap. It’s not all that uncommon to catch kings on striper offerings like crankbaits, minnows, jigging spoons…and swimbaits like this one:
But oddly enough, it doesn’t happen the other way around quite as often. I typically catch a few stripers on eggs each fall but you’d think they’d be all over a sardine wrapped plug. I mean, what’s not to like? A wobbling plug looks like a fish — and with a wrap — it smells like one too, but I just don’t hook all that many bass that way for some reason…
Sucker for a MagLip
Speaking of salmon plugs, I usually catch more suckers in a season on them than stripers. Weird, huh? I’m still not quite sure what suckerfish are thinking when they attack a big wiggling banana.
Perhaps it’s the scent of sardine that gets them riled up — or, in this case, maybe it’s just proof positive that everything’s a sucker for a MagLip!
My buddy Khevin and I were fishing the Trinity River one afternoon off the bank at a popular drift boat take-out spot. He set the hook on a “weird bite” and came up with this unique salmon species: The Pre-Filleted King.
Foul hooked in the tail, Khevin opted to release the fish despite the fact that it looks like there may have been more meat still on the carcass than the angler who cleaned it went home with!
Boondoggin’ eggs for kings on the Sacramento River one August, I had two clients simultaneously snag this unidentifiable hunk of meat. Before I cut the line (heck no I didn’t touch it!), we took a close look at the thing trying to figure out what the heck the backstory was on it.
Clearly the leg bone had been sawed off, which led to a very macabre conversation about folks like Jimmy Hoffa, Freddy and Jason. I’m sure there was perfectly good explanation for why the hideous chunk of flesh was in the river…but we couldn’t think of it.
Well, you’ve got to admire this little guy’s desire! I remember the client asking me why such a small fish would go after a lure that is about its same size. I told him that down there, in the depths, anything you can swallow is one less thing that can gobble you up!
A better question is what’s a catfish doing going for a FlatFish? Well, cats are much more predatory than a lot of folks give them credit for. Now, I’m not so sure that this little guy was actually going for the plug, however. My guess is that the sardine was what he was after.
Getting Jiggy for Sturgeon
Catching a sturgeon while targeting stripers is not at all newsworthy. On the California Delta, anglers routinely catch both species on baits like sardines, pile worms and shad.
I’ve caught plenty of them on accident while salmon fishing with eggs — and even sardine-wrapped plugs. While spooning for stripers like we were doing on this day, I’ve accidentally foul-hooked a few too. But this little fella is the one and only sturgeon I’ve had on the boat that ate a jigging spoon. I suppose it makes sense because they are known to eat live fish like herring and salmon smolt, but I’d hate to try to make a living catching sturgeon on artificials!
Ever done dumb stuff in unworthy boats? I sure have! Here’s one of my favorites from back in my college days….
The salty ol’ sea dog who answered the door had a thick, bushy beard, bottomless black eyes and skin tanned by decades of sea salt and sun.
“Can I help you?” he asked impatiently.
I had seen the old, dilapidated 8-foot wooden pram lying upside-down in his yard near the bay. In a past life, it had been a tender — a little row boat used to get from shore out to fishing boats in the harbor. I had big plans for the little vessel and had come to knock on his door to see if he was interested in selling.
“If you are looking to sell that old boat, “I’ll give you $40 for it,” I said.
The old commercial fisherman tugged his beard and thought for a moment.
“Tell you what, kid,” he said. “Give me $20 and you have a deal…”
I thanked him profusely as he helped me load the rotting plywood craft into the back of my truck. I was so stoked…as a college student I barely could scratch up the $40 I had offered — and now not only did I have my first ever “drift boat,” but I also had $20 extra for beer!
The next morning, my buddy Randy and I dumped the boat into the river and pushed off. The plan was to pull plugs like the guide boats but we hardly had a chance to wet a line. I was too busy rowing in circles — and into trees — and Randy had his hands full with a Taco Bell cup bailing water out of the boat as fast as he could. Apparently, my new drifter had a lot more in common with a pasta strainer than I’d originally thought.
I suppose you could count the day as a success by the fact that we arrived back at the takeout alive. Sure, we had a few casualties: I lost a hat, a blue Lil’ Playmate cooler and some skin off my cheek in a dust up with an overhanging alder branch — and another tree took Randy’s most prized possession: his snow white Apache fiberglass fly rod and spinning reel combo. Overall, however, we were happy with the mission and made plans to do a two-day float through a rugged canyon in the thing.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can’t for the life of me understand how we thought we were prepared for a multi-day canyon float after a Class I run had almost done us in. But I guess that’s the beauty of youth…you think you can do anything.
For the next couple days, we prepared little boat for the big voyage. We dubbed her the “Rotten Tomato,” for the peeling red and green paint on her sides and interior. All the seams where the plywood came together got caulked and then gone over with fiberglass cloth and resin. After she dried, a quick water test on the local lake proved the leaks were fixed and she was ready for battle.
On a Friday morning, we got a lift to the upper put-in. Randy and I loaded some food, camping gear, fishing stuff and a plastic bailing bucket (just in case) into the boat set sail. As our shuttle driver pulled out of sight, I noticed that our leaks had mysteriously come back — perhaps even worse than before. Of course, that was in the days before cell phones so we had no way to call our ride back. Even if we’d had a phone, though, I’m pretty sure we would have just continued on anyway…
All we knew about this stretch of river was there was a portage you had to do around a set of falls. Supposedly, the cataract was somewhere roughly halfway down but we had very little intel to go on. And no Google Earth for that matter, either.
As Randy bailed, I got a little more comfortable on the oars. We successfully negotiated a couple class II rapids, which got our confidence up and then managed to catch a halfpounder on a plug. Things were looking good! Then it started to rain…
The canyon was socked in with low clouds the second half of the day and the rain never let up. That, of course, caused more work for both of us. Randy had to bail faster and I had to get out and drag the boat over almost every riffle because the water was so low everywhere but inside our boat. The little 8 footer probably had 20 gallons sloshing around on the bottom at all times.
As evening approached, we were spent. We pitched camp and ate cold, smoky hotdogs and beans cooked over a very wet pile of wood that just didn’t want to ignite.
The morning dawned clear and cold and we quickly bailed the boat, loaded up and pushed off. We fished, rowed and bailed for a few hours until the river made a hard right into a steep canyon wall. At first it looked as if the water simply disappeared and then, when we were past the point of no return, it dawned on us that we were probably headed for the waterfall! I rowed frantically and totally inefficiently as my first mate carefully stood up on the cooler to get a better look.
“Dude, I can’t see anything…but I hear some very loud, rushing water!”
With the river picking up speed and the canyon walls stretching up into high vertical faces on both sides, there was nowhere to go but downstream. The roar got louder and the pucker factor went through the roof. Even we dumb, “invincible” kids knew that this was a bad situation and there was no way out!
Just as I had resigned myself to the fact that we were going to get swept over the falls, we rounded the bend and the river revealed itself. Instead of a deadly drop, there was simply a fast riffle making all the racket. Exuberant high fives ensued and we continued on our merry way.
The high of surviving the “faux falls” was short lived, however, as we soon came to a rough patch of water about 300 yards long. It was foaming whitewater riddled with boulders, one exceptionally large log and ended with a 5-foot drop. Discretion being the better part of valor, we opted to portage. The terrain was very steep and littered with the same boulders that were in the river. Big suckers, too. And thats precisely when we realized that the Tomato was quite possibly the heaviest 8-foot boat ever built. I’m not sure if it was just that she leaked so much that all the plywood was super saturated or what, but man it felt like it was made from cast iron.
We grunted, yanked and pushed the boat up one side of a rock, rested and then slid it down the backside. Then it was blood, sweat and tears to get to the top of the next. On and on we went for what seemed like forever. After leaving a trail of red and green paint across the boulder field, we eventually got the boat back in the water, just below the drop.
“Well, dude…those must be the falls,” said Randy. “Glad we are done with that!”
Again, we were going on very limited and woefully incomplete intel on this mission but from what we had ascertained, it was smooth sailing after the falls. And, based on the info we had, we were now halfway home.
Randy and I then settled into a routine. I rowed and backed our plugs down the river and he bailed water with his cup. Stoke, stroke, scoop, scoop, scoop. Between his feet, there was a 2-foot line of bare wood, the paint long since worn off by the constant bailing. Since the river was still low, we were getting out at almost every riffle to drag our little vessel across the shallow bars. It became pretty apparent to us why real drift boats don’t have keels. It was exhausting but we were in good spirits knowing that, despite the slow fishing, we’d successfully made it through the tough spots and were on the home stretch.
Soon, the river started to narrow again and the gradient increased. The banks got steeper and the current picked up pace. Instead of floating out to the low lands near the ocean, we were descending into another canyon! And that’s when we heard it. Faint at first, but growing ever louder. There was no mistaking the low rumbling noise: There were falls ahead!
Luckily, there was a gravel bar within reach so we pulled the boat up onto the bank. We couldn’t see the whitewater from our position, so we hiked downstream to get a glimpse of what we were up against. I say “hiked,” but it was more of a scramble. The narrow cut in the hills was awash in boulders that made the ones we’d portaged earlier look like spawning gravel. These dudes were impressive: some were car sized, while others looked bigger than UPS trucks. More than a few were the size of small apartments. As we crawled downstream, it dawned on Randy and I that we were in for a brutal push-and-drag session if the falls were as bad as they sounded.
Well, they were. The river squeezed between two large boulders and then plunged a good 10 or 12 feet straight down.
“Um, I guess these are the real falls…”
It then hit us at the same time: Not only did we have another grinder of a portage on our hands but once we got through it all, we’d only be halfway home. Not really an awesome realization when it’s around 3 pm, you’ve still got roughly 8 or 9 miles to go and you didn’t plan on enough food for two nights on the river!
The passage over all those massive boulders was a slow, painful affair. When we finally made it to the drop, we could see that there was nowhere easy to launch the boat. So, I made an executive decision to push the boat off a 10-foot cliff to save time. As soon as she got airborne, I had some clarity. This drop could very easily blow the Tomato into a bazillion pieces and then we’d be stuck hoofing it out. Bailing and dragging her over gravel bars was laborious, but certainly better than walking over rough terrain while carrying all of our gear.
My heart was in my throat as she fell. The Tomato hit the water below with a sickening slap, shuddered for a moment and looked as if she was about to come completely apart. Then she centered up and started bobbing proudly.
“Randy, pease try to talk me out of it the next time I think dropping a boat off a cliff is a good idea!”
As the miles passed and the sun set, we had a huge new respect for our little craft.
“Dude, floating is so much better than walking…can you imagine hiking outta here?” Randy said as we floated past a thick wooded area. “We love you, Tomato!”
We shot the last few miles in the dark. All we had was a tiny penlight to see where we were going but we eventually got back down to the takeout. The Rotten Tomato had delivered us safely…and had earned a much more honorable name. That evening on the way back to the dorms, we christened her The Queen of the Canyons.
That was just the beginning of the adventures we had in that boat. She made all sorts of river descents, spent a lot of time trolling the lakes and even saw some saltwater action. Not a bad second life for a discarded tender.
We never could get the Queen to stop leaking so she eventually gave way to a 10-foot Sears Gamefisher jonboat (which I have written about here in the past). At the end of college, I took her back home to my folk’s house in Auburn, CA where my mom considered using it as a planter box.
The Queen wasn’t having any of it, though. She had one more adventure left in her. That winter, the small creek on my parents’ property got unusually high, and one night, The Queen set sail one last time. I never saw her again…