My Purple Maribou fly undulates in gentle current, swings across a shallow run dotted with submerged boulders, and disappears. I have been Spey casting for three long hours. A cold north wind blows. Dark clouds signal rain on the way. Then–what I wait and hope for each time I fly fish for steelhead–a two-part grab. My reel sings when the fish blitzes to the middle of the river. Before I can shift my stance and settle in, a white-belly sucker parachutes to the surface, my fly firmly embedded in its dorsal fin.

That breezy fall day on the Columbia River was not the first time I’ve been fooled by the take of a sucker. More than one has come to the landing net with a No. 3 Mepps spinner in its fleshy snout. A sucker can also put a bend in your rod when you drift a corkie and shrimp for steelhead.

At a recent seminar given to our local flyfishing club, Jose Karry, the head fishing guide for VICE Outdoors in Boise, mentioned he occasionally points out a school of suckers to his clients when he fishes for trophy trout downstream of American Dam.

“Do you target suckers,” I asked.

“No, but most anglers don’t snub the opportunity to hook a fish that is more than twenty inches long,” he replied.

“What patterns do you use?” I asked, thinking back to a sucker I caught on a Brown Hackle after I spotted the fish slurping caddisfly exuviae from the surface of the Columbia River.

“Imitation mayfly, stonefly, and midgefly patterns often work, usually on a dead drift. Suckers will also sometimes actively chase streamers. They have to be presented right, though.”

The misunderstood sucker is an important part of aquatic food webs. Their regular diet of attached algae and tiny insect larvae does not lead to competition with game fish. Juvenile suckers serve as prey for white sturgeons, walleye, channel catfish and smallmouth bass. Adult suckers are important food for predatory birds, including bald eagle, great blue heron and American white pelican.

Four species of suckers are present found in the Columbia Basin. Largescale suckers are the largest and the most abundant species, reaching lengths of up to 27 inches and 6 pounds. Their smaller “cousins,” bridgelip suckers, are distinguished by smaller scales and an olive color. Mountain suckers may only reach 6 inches in length and are found primarily in tributary streams. Longnose suckers are restricted to northeastern waters of Washington State and Canada.

According to Native American lore, “sucker fish” once looked much like any other fish in the river. He ended up with twice as many bones and scales after beating eel (Pacific lamprey) in a gambling game. When sucker fish became arrogant over his newly-acquired looks, the other animals decided to teach him a lesson. As the story goes, after sucker fish stole a bite of hot stew that Skunk had prepared for Coyote, his burnt lips swelled to such size he could no longer feed on the surface of the water. Consequently, sucker fish became forever relegated to sucking food from the bottom of the river.

Suckers were once a staple of Native American diet.  According to the anthropologist Eugene Hunn, suckers were valued by the Sahaptin-speaking people of the mid-Columbia, second only to salmon. The arrival of suckers in streams adjacent to winter camps was a celebrated event because they were often the first fresh fish available in the spring.

The explorer David Thompson added to early taxonomic confusion of suckers by calling them “black, grey or red carp.” Lewis and Clark later used the term “mullet” to describe suckers that they observed. During their return trip up the Columbia River in April 1806, the Expedition camped near Wallula Gap and met up with Chief Yelleppet of the “Wallah Wallah” tribe who brought “…an armload of wood and a platter with 3 rosted mullets.”

            Over the past two centuries, human development activities and introduced predators have led to declines in many native fish species of this region. So, why have suckers endured? For one, suckers are not subjected to sport or commercial harvest. Contrast our trash-fish opinion with Midwesterner anglers who consider a closely-related species, the white sucker, to be tasty sport fish.

            Suckers are resilient because they are suited for living in slow=moving reservoirs and lakes, as well as fast-flowing rivers. Although considered a cold-water fish, suckers are more tolerant of elevated water temperatures than salmon and trout. Suckers have few specific habitat requirements for spawning because they broadcast eggs and provide no parental care.

            Suckers commonly enter tributary streams to spawn. Historically, they migrated long distances up and down the Columbia River and each spring and summer. However, mainstem dams now present a partial barrier. For example, passage counts of suckers at Priest Rapids Dam once ranged to 100,000 fish per year. Upstream migration dropped to less than 20,000 suckers per year within two decades after the project was built.

Don’t toss an unwanted sucker on the bank to rot. They have no spines to stick you and no teeth to bite you. Although bony, the flesh of suckers is firm, white and has a mild flavor. Why not handle and release the next sucker as if a wild trout?

Alternatively, harvest that next sucker as proof of your angling prowess, soak its meat in a favorite cure, and smoke it over hardwood chips. Serve this tasty treat alongside snack crackers and Gouda cheese at the next holiday gathering and see if your beer drinking friends can guess what they just ate.