Sucker fish identification

Written by john lindell
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Of the 73 species of suckerfish that exist around the world, 68 inhabit waters in North America. The suckers are freshwater creatures that can live in streams, rivers, ponds and lakes, eating from the bottom with the use of a mouth that contains no teeth. The most common sucker species, the white sucker, northern hog sucker and members of the redhorse sucker group, are all medium- to large-size fish.


The most obvious feature on a sucker is its mouth, which is often fleshy-lipped. The mouth has no teeth, as the sucker possesses what biologists call pharyngeal teeth. These are like teeth but exist in the sucker’s throat, grinding up the different things the sucker eats. The sucker uses its downward-projecting mouth like a vacuum cleaner, sucking up algae, bugs, larvae, small invertebrates, plants and other foods.


Suckers have smooth scales, but most species lack scales on their heads, which gives this area a smooth feel. The scales are typically larger than those on an average fish are, and they reflect light well. Suckers have dorsal fins that lack any sharp projecting rays. The “National Audubon Society Field Guide to Fishes” says that suckerfish will have at least 10 rays in their dorsal fins and the underneath anal fins are well back on the fish’s body.

Common Suckers

The white sucker and northern hog sucker share a similar range in parts of the eastern United States, with that of the white sucker larger and extending into most of Canada. The white sucker can grow to 24 inches long and weigh 2.27kg., while a northern hog sucker is slightly smaller at its maximum size. The white sucker has a body like a tube, an olive green to brown head and back and a white belly. The lower lip will split into separate sides on a white sucker. The northern hog sucker is a darker shade than many suckers, allowing it to blend in with its surroundings. The brown upper back and head, along with mottling and four darker patches on the back that the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission website says resemble saddles, help identify this sucker.


The redhorses are a family of 18 different kinds of suckers that have representation in the United States from the Great Lakes to much of the Deep South. These suckers get their names from their reddish-orange fins, which may have just a hint of the colour or be all reddish. The redhorses look alike in many instances, with some species able to attain lengths of around 30 inches. The redhorse family has the soft big-lipped and downturned mouth of the common suckers and prefers medium-size clear rivers and the slow-moving portions of large rivers as a habitat.


Some suckers are quite small, such as the 7-inch-long torrent sucker of Virginia and West Virginia, a sucker that exists in fast-flowing brooks and streams. Other suckers, like the smallmouth buffalo of the Mississippi River system, can attain weights close to 22.7kg. Suckers often will muddy up the water as they feed, giving themselves away in a river or stream setting. Some suckers will take part in a migration upriver to spawn in spring and early summer. A sucker will initially fight quite hard if you hook one while fishing, giving you a strong fight until it tires.

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