Our Man In Canada
January 27th, 2003

Beauty's But Skin Deep

By Dave Smallwood


In the central part of northern Saskatchewan, early June is much like early March farther south. Mornings are cool and odds are even with regard to rain or snow. However, after eight months of winter, weather was of little concern as we made our way down a portage trail to the Churchill river.

When we reach Otter Rapids, Kevin waded knee-deep into the current where a swirling back eddy curved upstream. His first two casts went unheeded. Repositioning himself, he laid his Bead Head Nymph gently beside the rock face, then let it sink and drift for a few seconds in the eddy. As he began a very slow hand-twist retrieve, his sink-tip line suddenly snapped taut, took a hard right and accelerated into the rapids, all of it, plus a large portion of backing as well.

It was glorious battle. Before the fish succumbed, my partner had suffered two icy dunkings while clambering up and down the river bank, dunkings which I thought served him right for getting the first hook-up. Finally, there in the eddy's backwater lay one of the finest-fighting fish, pound for pound, that a fly fisher has ever seen - Catostomus catostomus - the longnose sucker. Honest folks, I'm serious.

Bear with me as I introduce you to a species that will test your tackle to the utmost and turn otherwise unsuccessful days into memorable ones. Two main prerequisites we seek in game fish are that they take a fly and fight well. Aesthetics shouldn't factor into this formula, but let's face it, suckers are, well, homely. Cylindrical body, bulbous head, a large, rubbery-lipped mouth devoid of teeth (hmm...sounds like me). However, Mother Nature did endow them with a reserve of sheer strength, so once hooked they take the shortest route to fast water, and there's not much an angler can do about it. That's power! If this fish could jump, they would probably become an endangered species. No, suckers are not pretty, but think back to those days then pike were considered little more than garbage fish. They were unworthy of our attention - until we discovered that they willingly take flies. Amazing how quickly out attitude changed, wasn't it?

Longnose suckers are circumpolar, and in Canada are actually more prevalent than lake trout and pike. They are not found in Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, the Arctic Islands, or any offshore islands along the West Coast. Although white suckers (Castostomus commersoni) are confined to North America, they are found in many of the same waters.

Although whites are abundant in warmwater lakes, both species thrive in cold, fast-flowing rivers like the Churchill.

The spring spawning period is best for locating large concentrations of suckers. They spawn mostly in streams and rivers, but shallow areas of lakes also suffice. Longnose suckers enter the streams once water temperatures exceed 41° (5° C), usually mid-April to mid-May. Thousands may ascend, with up to 500 passing a given point in 5 minutes. Their runs peak several days before white suckers enter the stream when temperatures reach 50° F (10° C). While spawning periods offer the largest concentrations, relatively large numbers occur almost anywhere there is clear, cold water.

Fishing pressure is light, which may explain their forgiveness of splashy approaches and poor presentations. However, a shadow cast over a pool will cause them to scatter. Their diet consists mainly of invertebrates found along the bottom, predominately scuds, caddis, chironomid larvae and pupae, and may flies. Although once considered predators of trout and char eggs, this theory has since been dismissed.

For lake fishing, a 5-7 weight rod will suffice, with line choice depending on the situation. I use a weight-forward floating line with a 10' tapered leader and a 5X tippet. Patterns I find successful are No. 18-12 Hare's Ear Nymph, Zug Bug, Pheasant Tail Nymph, Caddis Pupa and Gary LeFontaine's Deep Sparkle Pupa series. Some days they rise readily to dry flies.

In rivers I prefer an 8-weight rod with a Teeny 200 or 300 line. Their combination of a 24' sink-tip with sink rates of 5.5 ips and 6.5 ips respectfully are just the ticket for cutting through fast currents and reaching the bottom. Shorter, heavier leaders work best. I favor 1 - 2' 2X or 3X leaders as they fish may weight up to 7 lb (3.2 kg).

Whichever retrieve you use, think "slow." Allow enough time for your fly to sink to the bottom, then use a slow hand-twist retrieve. The take is not particularly gentle, but the fight is awesome. Two quick suggestions: Once a sucker takes your fly, be patient - it's going to be a long fight. Don't touch the reel - the handles will be a blur at this point and will hurt your "fingies." As your fly line streaks out through the rod guides, remember the words of John Davies of Herford, who in 1616 penned those immortal words: "Beauty's but skin deep." ~ Dave Smallwood

Credits: Excerpt from Fly Fishing Canada written by Outdoor Writers of Canada, edited by Robert H. Jones, Published by Johnson Gorman Publishers. Used with permission.

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