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COLUMN: Spawning run of suckers signals spring in Sundial Creek

Primitive looking fish have been spawning in shallow streams for eons, explains columnist who says spring sucker run can last several weeks
20140511_Grant Wetlands_Sundial Creek_suckers (2)
Suckers are shown in the Sundial Creek.

How are you doing with your "spring things" checklist? Heard the spring peepers? Seen the pussywillows in bloom? How about the 'peenting' calls of woodcock? First dandelion?

There are many natural events that mark this wonderful swing in our weather from snow squalls to rain showers. For some of us there is usually a significant sighting or event, such as those listed above, that must be experienced before accepting that spring is actually here.

For myself, I usually get excited about finding a certain wildflower blooming, or hearing a chorus of spring peepers fill the evening air. So it came as a shock this spring when I stumbled upon a seasonal event that I had somehow overlooked for decades... the spawning run of suckers.

These primitive looking fish have been spawning in shallow streams for eons, and the surrounding Lakes Simcoe and Couchiching are fed by hundreds of little watercourses. Each of these watershed components are providing suckers with a venue for a romantic get-away; and while thrashing about in warm muddy water may not be every fish's dream of the perfect date, it seems good enough for our local white suckers.

Throughout Ontario there are a few different species of these bottom feeding fish, but the most common around these here parts will be the white sucker. During the spawning run the males will have a clearly defined black stripe running along each side.

The fish seen in these shallow streams are often quite large, most easily longer than a foot (that would be 30 centimetres for you metrically hip and with-it folks). These spawning runs are for grownup fish only; for the first seven years of their life young suckers have to wait in the deep lake until the festival is over.

The sucker run may last several weeks, although actual spawning only takes place late in the season. As soon as the spring melt water reaches ten degrees Celsius an ancient urge lures these fish out of the deep cold lake and up through these much warmer currents. After the fun and games are over, they return to the shallow areas of the big lakes, leaving behind their eggs to hatch and the young fry fend for themselves (each female lays between 30,000 and 100,000 eggs).

Despite the apparent easy pickings, anglers do not go after suckers the way they pursue the elusive walleye, perch, bass or trout. Rumour has it that sucker meat is bony and tasteless, so captured in a statement from 1838 that said they are, "a worthless prize full of bones, and very watery". Yuck, who wants to go after worthless prizes?

Yet a peruse of the 1970 Department of Lands and Forests booklet "Fisheries of Lake Simcoe" shows that, for a while at least, suckers were commercially netted and their meat sold. The first blip on the graph was from 1887 through 1902 when over 20,000 pounds of this species was taken annually from Lake Simcoe; the second and longer period of harvesting ran from 1912 through 1940 with well over 50,000 pounds being taken on a yearly average. Looks like the Great Depression had people accepting these less than desirable fish meat into their diet.

Over the last half century few people have actively fished for suckers. There are those who say that pickled sucker meat is palatable or that catching and eating suckers as a survival food is an option, but hardly the glowing recommendation that trout or bass are known for.

But if humans don't eat them, does that mean that they are truly worthless? Hardly.

Young suckers are the main food item for walleye, northern pike and, if you can find them, muskellunge (also known as 'musky'). Very young suckers are taken by kingfishers and great blue heron. And adults are often seen clutched in the talons of our local fish-eating hawk, the osprey. So, yeah, suckers are kind of important to other life forms.

Mind you, seeing that suckers are bottom feeders makes me a little nervous of just what can be found in their muscles and fat. There is still a lot of chemical crap that we humans put into the water and some of that is filtered out by snails, clams and aquatic vegetation.

Of course suckers love to eat snails, clams and aquatic vegetation, so up the food chain goes this chemical transfer. It was this process that first alerted scientists in the 1970s of the nasty accumulative effect that DDT was having on osprey and peregrine falcons (who eat snail-eating ducks).

While we have made good strides in cleaning up some of the effluent that enters Lake Simcoe, we haven't got it all, yet. Until we do, I will utilize suckers as another marker of spring rather than a "worthless prize" at the end of a fishing line.