- A story about fun times from way back when I was a kid and nothing was complicated, nothing was new – and people were people through and through.
By Larry Whiteley
Grabbin’ suckers is age-old fun, nothing complicated, nothing new. Just ask the folks from Nixa, MO. It goes back to a time when families lived from the land. They raised pigs, fattened and butchered them. They milked a few cows by hand and drank the milk, and they kept plenty of chickens for their eggs. When they wanted fried chicken for Sunday dinner, they would just grab one, cut off its head, pluck the feathers, then fry it up on the old wood stove in lard made from the pig,
They always looked forward to April and May when sucker fish would school together in great numbers on the shallow shoals of local streams and rivers to spawn. Fish from the sucker family include yellow suckers, white suckers, blue suckers, and redhorse. They were a special treat to the hard-working local families, and they caught them any way they could.
In later years both farmers and city folk started using fishing rods with 20 to 30-pound test lines, heavy sinkers, and big treble hooks. A small white cloth was attached above the hooks, so they always knew where they were in the water. When they saw a sucker swim past the white marker, they would jerk hard and hope the hooks sunk into the fish.
Fishermen would stand on the gravel bars or elevate themselves on trees, rocks, and even ladders to better see the fish in the water. Some even used stable flat bottom boats. Polarized sunglasses became popular because they could better see the fish. There was no limit on the number of suckers you could keep back then.
Suckers are delicious, but they are filled with tiny, thread-like bones. The fish were scaled and fileted, leaving the skin attached, to prepare for eating. Cuts were then made through the filet about 1/8 inch apart to cut the tiny bones into small pieces. The filets were then covered in a flour and cornmeal mixture, making sure to get the mix down between the cuts. Then, on to be deep-fried at 325 to 350 degrees for some of the best eating you could ever experience. Some locals canned or pickled sucker filet chunks to enjoy all year long.
Grabbin’ suckers was so popular and was such a longstanding local tradition, the local town folk suggested they have a special weekend to celebrate this fish and the fishermen. The first “Nixa Sucker Days” was held in May 1957. Businesses closed, and so did the school. Main Street was lined with booths and games. Fishermen in their boats and floats of all kinds came parading down the street. There was musical entertainment, awards for the biggest sucker, a Sucker Day Queen was crowned, and, of course, fried suckers were served along with all the fixins. You could even have a bowl of ‘sucker soup’.
I was an 11-year old Nixa boy at the time, and I loved it. I wanted to be a sucker grabber, too, someday. My uncle was Rex Harp, who won many of the awards for biggest sucker fish. He was considered “King of the Sucker Grabbers” and always took his vacation when the suckers started their spawning runs.
When I was older, I worked to save money to buy everything I would need to be a sucker-grabber. By then, I was married with kids and my weekends were spent grabbin’ with friends. We enjoyed it because there was always plenty of action compared to regular fishing and having to wait and hope a fish took your bait.
When my sons got older, I started taking them. We have some great memories of sucker grabbin’ together. By then, suckers were a 20-fish limit per day, instead of all you could catch. I fried a lot of suckers back then. The egg sac found in female suckers was a special treat when fried up, just like I did the suckers.
For many years we went as a family to Nixa Sucker Days. It was an excellent time to see old friends and family, have fun, enjoy music, and eat suckers. Sucker Days was always on the local news and was even featured one year on the national news.
As my sons and grandkids got older, we fished more for crappie, walleye and bass in the spring, as well as going turkey hunting. The desire to go sucker grabbin’ faded.
There doesn’t seem to be as many folks sucker grabbin’ anymore. Nixa Sucker Days has changed too. Most of the old-timers are gone. This year the event will celebrate its’ 63rd year. It is now known as the Nixa Sucker Days Music, Arts, and Craft Festival. Visitors can still get a chance to taste real fried suckers, they say, along with other fried fish. There’s even a parade and music, but it’s mainly an arts and crafts festival now and not like the good ole’ days.
I have fond memories of grabbin’ suckers with friends and family. I remember great times spent at the old Sucker Days. My grabbin’ rods are stored in the barn, and grabbin’ suckers is back on my bucket list. I keep telling myself I am going to go one more time. I am getting old. I need to do it while I still can.
A few years ago, I was in Minnesota for an outdoor writer’s conference. During an interview with the local Visitors Bureau, I asked what fish species were in that area. They gave me a sheet showing and talking about all of them. They wanted to talk about the walleye, pike, crappie, and yellow perch. I wanted to talk about the fish that was at the bottom of the list – suckers.
I asked them if people actually fished for them. They said, “No way! It’s a trash fish. Nobody eats them. They sometimes catch them when fishing for other species and just throw them out for the eagles to eat or take them home and grind them up for fertilizer for their gardens.”
I smiled and said, “Let me tell you a story about grabbin’ suckers and a special day a town has every year in their honor.” I even told them I would be willing to come back and teach them how to fish for them, show them how to cook them, and pass out samples to the locals. I told them it could start a whole new fishing industry for them. They had no idea what they were missing. I’m still waiting for their call.
Author Note: Be sure to check your local rules and regulations before trying this where you live.