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…
A peek at one part of what is causing California’s salmon collapse…
Can you tell if the steelhead you just caught is a wild fish or of hatchery origin?
It’s a question I get asked all the time…”How can I tell the difference?”
It’s important information because in many places, it’s legal to only to keep hatchery steelhead. In other words, wild fish must be released.
And, honestly, even in the handful of places where a wild steelhead can be retained, they should be released voluntarily anyway. There simply aren’t that many of them left and they are of much greater value on the spawning gravels than on a grill.
Hatchery steelhead will be missing their adipose fin, which is the small fleshy one on the back between the dorsal fin and tail.
Prior to release from the hatchery, the fin is removed from juvenile steelhead (via scissors or automated machine).
Since it never grows back, the lack of the adipose fin on an adult fish makes it easy to identify as of hatchery origin…and, therefore, in many rivers, legal to keep (check the regs before you go to make sure!).
You’ll sometimes encounter a fish that’s a “tweener” — one that has a partial adipose fin. While this can occur in the wild (rare), it is more often the byproduct of a “miss-clip” by the person doing the fin removal.
Where done by hand, you can imagine that there are going to be some imperfect cuts when people are trying to get through tens of thousands of baby Steelhead.
One other clue to look for, however, is sign of an eroded dorsal fin. When jammed together in fish hatcheries, baby steelies often rub against each other and the concrete walls, resulting in worn down fins.
And here’s another example…
These two examples are pretty obviously hatchery steelhead but what about this one below….?
The dorsal in the above fish is pretty intact and there’s more than a just nub of an adipose but I’m still sure this one is a hatchery steelie (we let it go anyway). If you have any doubt whatsoever my advice is to let the fish go!
Now, before you get any ideas about bringing a pair of scissors with ya to the river, note that most regulations read something along these lines: The adipose fin must be missing and the wound must be healed…
Unfortunately, there are some pea-brained “anglers” out there who fish in the spring when the smolts are out-migrating and clip the fins off wild ones so they can be kept upon return as adults. Lame lame lame!
Of course, wild steelhead will be proudly sporting a fully-intact adipose fin and should always be released carefully with minimal handling.
When you see that your fish has an adipose, it’s best to refrain from netting it, unless you have one of those fish-friendly knotless nets. Also try to avoid dragging it up in the rocks.
Whenever possible, I’ll gently beach them in the shallows, where I can quickly unhook it and snap a photo. Be advised that in places like Washington State, it is illegal to lift a wild steelhead out of the water for a photo.
That doesn’t mean, however, you can’t get a pic. Simply kneel down in the water with the fish. That way, if it squirms and you loose your grip, you’re not dropping it from altitude down onto the rocks.
Of course, if you catch a hatchery fish and it’s legal to keep it, by all means take good care of it and enjoy fresh fish on the grill. Many hatchery managers encourage you to keep clipped fish so don’t feel guilty if you want to take one for dinner…
Want to take your steelhead game to new heights? Check out my huge, 300-page “users manual” jam packed with all the stuff you need to know to become one if the top 10% of steelhead anglers. It’s available through Amazon. Click HERE
Fall is here and that means it’s time for one of my all-time favorite activities: Plugging for king salmon!
If your plug game needs a little tuneup, check out my eBook Plug Fishing for River Salmon which contains everything you need to know to become a proficient wiggler angler.
It’s a quick read full of diagrams, photos and how-to goodies. And at $ 2.99, it costs less than a single lure!
Here’s a quick glance at what’s inside:
Just click the link above and it will take you to Amazon or google my name and the title of the book and you’ll find it.