The Curious Case of the Carp Sucker - by Tony Forte

Tony Forte explores the Quillback, a match angling staple.

North America has been blessed with a large variety of angling opportunities. Anglers can spend a lifetime with the single minded pursuit of many species. Bass, muskie, trout, and even carp anglers enjoy perfecting their particular craft and maintain focus on a single type of fish.  Although I respect this position and passion, I identify more with anglers that enjoy catching fish regardless of size or pedigree. Sure I have my favorites, but there is always an exciting element to catching and identifying different species of fish. One group of these fish is the carpsucker clan. 

There are four recognized species of carpsucker: quillback, river, plains, and highfin. They are all characterized by a deep body, large scales, small sub terminal mouth, and a prominent dorsal fin (highfin - longest dorsal, river - shortest dorsal). This Carpiodes genus can be pursued in most waters in Middle America and in a few areas of Southern Canada. They account for a huge portion of fish biomass in many waters. They are fairly long lived, 8 to 10 years, and top out around 10# in size. This fish meets many requirements of a worthy sport fish (relatively abundant with broad distribution, good size, etc.).

Why don’t you hear more about them?  Why aren’t they celebrated rather than ignored? The answer is fairly direct and simple. Carpsuckers are very difficult to catch with traditional North American fishing methods. Their diet consists largely of protozoa associated with feeding on algae and tiny aquatic insects and crustaceans. They are not likely to be caught on a spinnerbait, chunk of cut bait, or even a whole nightcrawler. Thus, the majority of anglers are eliminating the possibility of catching one of these fish right from the start. If you combine their eating habits with their physical adaptations (a super sensitive lateral line, and complex eyes), you have a finicky, wary fish. If you see a school of them feeding, you will notice that they are in no hurry. They methodically sweep the bottom for goodies, picking at rocks with patient persistence. Not exactly the type of fish most Americans pursue, run and gun angling tactics don’t apply in most cases.

Identifying Carpsuckers
Distinguishing carpsuckers from other coarse fish species requires a discerning eye. However, when you compare them side by side and start to look at specific features (mouth size and position, tail shape, dorsal fin, etc.), the differences reveal themselves. Here is a comparison of a few species that commonly overlap with the carpsucker. When comparing a carpsucker to the common carp a few details surface. Carp have barbels near their mouth, the tail shape is much different (carp - rounded lobes/carpsucker - pointed), mouth size (carp much larger) and eye position (carp eyes set back further from the mouth) are all key ID features. Smallmouth buffalo are a much more similar to carpsuckers. Color can be a factor in identification (buffalo – light grey/carpsucker – bronze), as well as mouth size (buffalo larger).  Lastly, if you catch a fish over 15# you can effectively eliminate carpsuckers from the equation when comparing carpsuckers to carp or buffs.

Why Pursue Carpsuckers? 
Catch one and you will quickly learn why. They have a graceful beauty about them. The soaring dorsal fin, the unique body shape, and their complex eyes are all interesting adaptations. They are scrappy fighters and tend to burst into short intense runs, even breaking water on occasion.  They are a handful to land on the micro tackle and light line required to pursue them.

Angling Techniques for Carpsuckers
Angling techniques for carpsuckers are just beginning to be discovered. Few anglers are able to catch more than the “odd” carpsucker in a single outing. However, here is an approach that has proven effective for these fish. The most important element is to find an area that holds carpsuckers. They are most common in river systems and their associated backwaters and canals. In high water conditions, they tend to concentrate in areas with low current. You can often distinguish carpsuckers as they swirl on the surface, their long dorsal fin gives them away. Fishing tactics will sound familiar to carp and buffalo anglers. Utilizing groundbait to attract fish in combination with natural baits: Small worms (redworms, European nightcrawlers, pieces of nightcrawler), maggots, beemoths/waxworms, and sweet corn have all taken carpsuckers. A consistent baiting effort (couple of days) produces the best results. Carpsuckers are very general feeders, thus they take awhile to key in on available food sources. Fish near your baited area with a sensitive setup. Try 4# line or less and a size 10 or smaller hook. A sensitive float is a huge benefit, subtle movements in the antenna are often the only indication of a bite. Waggler type floats work well.

Tournament Angling
It might sound strange to think of carpsuckers as a tournament fish, but they are a prized catch for American & Canadian matchanglers.  Matchangling is an all species bank fishing event where total weight is the deciding factor. Thus, a bag of carpsuckers can add up quickly. Attila Agh, member of the United States Freshwater Fishing Federation (USF3), mentions that the art of attracting and catching carpsuckers will be a key element in preparing teams for future world championship fishing events. Two angling disciplines (coarse/match & feeder) stretch the limits of finesse tactics for fish of all sizes. European fish species can be very wary and difficult to catch in competition. Sounds just like our carpsuckers!  Matchfishing team manager, Lee Young, will be counting on Attila and five other anglers, to represent the United States at the 2011 World Sport Fishing Championships this September in Italy.  Go USA!!!

If you like a challenge and you like to catch fish, look into carpsuckers. As anglers start to open their minds and pursue North America’s overlooked fish species, the capture of a carpsucker will surface as a worthy pursuit. More information on fishing for these fish can be found at the following websites:

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