Who's the Real Sucker by Mark Usyk
I wrote this story some time ago, while I was still working on the road climbing cell towers. This was a typical day after work for me back then, avoiding hotel rooms, tripping my way up unknown streams and rivers, trying to keep the adventures of the work day both out of my mind and continuing into the evenings at the same time. When you're far from home on unfamiliar waters, you have nothing to lose, except yourself.
I’m in Elmira NY. A few weeks earlier I was here for work and before the week was over, after several failed attempts fishing a couple small streams and one large river, I found myself and my climbing buddies hiding the truck behind a guard rail and some bushes and fishing a retention pond in the middle of the highway… with great success no less. Last night after checking into our hotel room, I grabbed my waders and my fishing pack and made a short walk back down to Newtown Creek, a small tributary to the Chemung River that three of us had been skunked on our last trip down here. The Chemung River was right out the back windows of the hotel, and I mean that literally, as in we climbed out our windows to check it out, but it’s a shallow, wide, dingy greenish filthy looking thing, and I’ve never caught a single fish out of it here during the several times we’ve worked in the area. I’d found a few sources online telling me that there was a small population of stocked Brown trout, many being decent to large sized hold over fish in the Newtown, and after a long, hot day on a black rubber roof relocating a group of antennas, the fact that we didn’t see so much as a minnow the last time we were here didn’t do much to deter me this time. Wading a shady, cool creek seemed like a good plan. I found no Trout.
After drifting an olive Wollybugger through a couple slow runs and twitching it across a handful of pools I climbed my way up a steep bank to the walking path that paralleled the creek. I made my way about 100 feet upstream and then left the path once more to look down on another slow run, standing and studying the water, looking, no, hoping, to find clues, to just see some type of movement, anything. A freaking turtle would have made me happy at this point. Something. Anything. And then it happened.
I saw a long, dark shape at first, then it flashed a golden side of scales and sank back into the dark creek bottom. Finally. I knew what it was. It was a Sucker. It was a fish. I’m not a picky fisherman by any means, I’ll cast a fly at anything with fins, and Suckers have fins. Most everyone I know hates them, they curse them when they’re found at the end of their lines and wish nothing but to get rid of them before picture proof can be taken that would surely lower their fisherman statuses… but I’m not picky as I said. I believe every fish has it’s place in the water, and just because the Suckers place is on the bottom doesn’t make it a bad fish. Many times in the creek behind my home, when the Trout are not biting, when the Smallmouths are laying low and eluding me, the Suckers and Creek Chubs and Falls Fish can fill in for the more desirable fish’s absence.
So the night before I found as I walked farther upstream, as I looked down on a large tail out, that in these spots of broken water, the Suckers had moved in and were spawning. I know that when the creeks are loaded with them and they’re all grouped together at the tails of these riffles that they’re sitting there, just like a Trout would be, waiting for their meals to be churned up off the bottom and right to them. They were still on their way upstream, not spawning yet, and I didn’t know if they would eat or not, but I had nothing to lose and a couple hours of daylight. Looking down at tail fins and dorsal fins protruding from the rough current every few seconds, I could see them in groups of four to even six or seven, and I knew from previous experiences, that I could probably get within mere feet of them if I came up from behind them, from downstream, because just like trout, they face upstream waiting for their food to come to them in these spots. I’ve actually touched one on the tail with my hand before it knew I was there.
So here I stood, finally fish, fish I could see, fish I could possibly grab with my bare hands, but I’d leave the noodling to the southerners on television. These fish I’d catch with my fly rod. I made my way down the steep, overgrown, slick bank, and when I was about five feet from the water’s edge the mud got the best of me and I covered the last few feet very quickly…On my ass.
I stood up and cussed the fact that climbing towers always made me think I was better on my feet under any circumstances. It didn’t bother the Suckers, they were still there, resting almost motionless on the bottom under the shallow, rough riffles, every now and then one would roll on it’s side over another, a pinkish-red tail and brown-gold scales. It was a small piece of water, maybe thirty feet wide, with a pool above it, the riffles originating from a wall of large rocks spanning the width of the creek. The water tumbled over the rocks just beneath the surface and continued into about a 3 foot deep pool where it never really flattened out, only kept churning on the surface over the backs of the fish, motionless in the calm water beneath before it finally settled down a couple feet behind them and continued flowing downstream as another slow, deep run.
I stood downstream from them a good twenty feet and off to their left. I still had on the small olive colored Wollybugger and decided there was no reason to change it yet, as if the first hour of catching nothing with it wasn’t enough of a clue. My casts landed just above the hidden wall of rocks at the head of the section and the bugger would wash down over them and into the slightly deeper water where the fish waited on the bottom. It tumbled and bumped it’s way over the round stones that covered the bottom as it closed the distance to the fish…then went right on by. Many, many times. I started going over in my head what I had in my fly box and finally gave up on the Wollybugger after a couple dozen casts with nothing at the end of them.
I opened my fly box and looked over it’s offerings. Nymphs. Nymphs were probably the ticket, small subsurface “flies” that imitate the larva stage of many insects. I chose a very tiny one, a size 20 hook, and tied it on.
My next couple dozen casts with the tiny offering also went unnoticed. I tried a slightly larger bead head nymph, with the same results. Zero. Nada. Nothing. I tried another, and another, and, well, I lost track of how many I tried, but guessing now, I’d say all of them. I got desperate. I tied on my last ditch effort bug that has proven to catch just about anything that swims, a size 12 hook with red marabou, the tail about the length of the hook shank. Tied with a lot of marabou, it’s a streamer with enough “meat” to entice everything from Bass to Northern Pike. Tied with very little material, they’re carried with the current just off the bottom of a shallow stream bumping the bottom every now and then, perhaps imitating the simplest of all fishing baits, the worm. I tied on the latter version and thought to myself “Five casts. Five casts and if nothing takes it, I quit, and I’m going back to the hotel.” A couple dozen casts later I reeled in all the fly line and made my way up the bank. I changed out of my waders and took my work boots out of my pack. As I was squatting in the middle of the trail tying my boots, and admiring the custom 3wt fly rod leaning against a tree to my side I heard the sound once again of Suckers splashing in the shallow water. I couldn’t help think to myself… Who’s the real sucker?