Stabs in the Dark

Every fall, a centuries-old tradition takes place on Ozark streams—gigging for suckers at night.

Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett. Photographs by Justin Leesmann

The river is on fire, lit with 4,000 watts of spotlight bolted to the bow. I watch the men on the front deck, a pair of silhouettes against a river that glows green, blue, and yellow, like a witch’s cauldron.

Each figure holds the long shaft of a wicked gig, the barbed tines fat as cigars. The man on the right suddenly tenses, shifts forward, and slides the tip of the 14-foot-long pole into the water. The boat shifts in pursuit, the gigger on the bow deck tracking his target. Then, without warning, he jabs the gig down, into the green light. It’s a miss. He pulls the gig up, makes a second jab, then a third. I watch, spellbound. My turn is coming.

“That fish has him dancing,” says Brad Reed, who’s sitting beside me, manning the outboard tiller. Reed is an anvil of a man who farms beans and corn and handles cattle with hands that could crush river rocks. His buddy John Helling is too focused to respond. On the fourth jab, Helling pulls the gig from the water, and turns toward us. A 3-pound sucker droops from the gig tines like a sopping wet mustache.

“That’s a good one,” Reed says. Helling scrapes the fish against a welded plate bolted to the bow deck for just this purpose. Freed from the tines, the fish drops into a galvanized washtub, and Helling turns back to the river.

After two hours of watching, spearing these fish doesn’t look so difficult. I’ve gigged plenty of frogs, and I can spot the suckers even from the back of the boat. The lights wash a huge 50-foot half-circle of the river like a stadium, and suckers, bass, and catfish dart back and forth in the glare. I’m itching to give it a try, but Reed warned that he doesn’t put beginners on deck too early. “They’ll stir the fish up and don’t kill a thing,” he said. “We’ve got to get fish to eat before the newbies get going.”

Which shouldn’t be a problem. Helling and his gigging partner Glenn Braun are on fire. They must have 30 fish in the tub when Reed leans over. His hoodie shadows his face, and his voice is as gravelly as a prop grinding sand: “You ready to try, Ed?”

Food for Thought

For 200 years, sucker gigging has been a beloved tradition in this neck of the Missouri Ozarks. Navigating johnboats rigged with bright lights and wielding heavy custom-made gigs, locals throng to the riverbanks on fall and winter nights. As the giggers chase golden redhorse suckers, northern hog suckers, and white suckers through the shallows, shore parties break out over bonfires and deep fryers crackling with fish and potatoes. There’s music. There’s beer. There’s enough Carhartt to carpet the planet.

The sucker-gigging season runs from mid September through January, but the best fish sticking cranks up after autumn’s leaves are flushed downstream and cold, dry weather drops the water levels. That’s when I arrived at the Meramec River, a spring-fed beauty that flows under limestone bluffs an hour west of St. Louis. The very name of the river harkens to an old Algonquian Indian phrase meaning “river of ugly fishes.” The moniker is spot-on.

My plan was to hook up with a crowd of local giggers for a few dark Ozark days, sleeping off a full belly of fried suckers late each morning before hauling the boats to new water each night. I failed to figure in the freak weather that would sweep across Missouri just as I arrived. Our first night was a bust. Temperatures dropped 50 degrees in one day, and freezing rain iced the boat ramps on the Meramec and Bourbeuse Rivers. It was a complete shutout—so Reed, Helling, Braun, and I joined my buddy Justin Leesmann, his dad, Bob, and a few of their friends for the next best thing: We beelined to Reed’s farm shed along the Bourbeuse to cook fish, drink beer, and talk about sucker gigging.

The sport’s history in the Ozarks is murky. There’s a complete absence of gigging artifacts or oral histories from Missouri’s era of Indian inhabitance, so it’s unlikely that it was a Native American tradition. What probably happened was the wave of Scots-Irish settlers of the mid 1800s brought with them a subsistence-living culture that turned Ozark rivers on fire at night. Back then, pioneers poled 30-foot wooden longboats and lit the water with blazing knots of sap-rich pine. They called it fire fishing, and the decades that followed brought sucker gigs crafted from old truck springs and shorter gigs that were actually shot from handmade bows.

In Reed’s barn, no one recalls anyone gigging with a pine torch. “But I do remember my grandpa out with lanterns on the boats,” Helling says. The men would wedge a sheet of tin behind the lantern to reflect the light onto the water. That was the first step up from a jack-pine torch, but hardly the last. On his 18-foot johnboat, Reed runs a 1,000-watt mercury vapor lamp as a center light, framed with two 1,500-watt quartz lights. Powered by a 6,500-watt generator that rumbles amidships, the system could punch light through a half mile of fog. While some giggers are turning to LED lights that run off car batteries, Reed isn’t convinced. “Them lights I run,” he says, “the white light and blue light blend, and it cuts the water like nothing else.”

The only other specialized equipment required is the gig. In the past, gig heads were hand-forged of iron, with one to four brawny spikes that had to be tough enough to bounce off rocks. Reed’s are made from steel cut with a water jet, then tempered for strength. The heads are as wide as a man’s outstretched fingers, with four barbed prongs. A good sucker gig might run you $120, not counting an $80 fiberglass pole.

Killing time we’d hoped would be spent on the river, we play rounds of Ship, Captain, and Crew, making dollar bets on the fall of the dice, and feast on fried crappie and catfish, fried potatoes, and fried venison tenderloin. I figure it’s a good time to question the culinary merits of Missouri’s most famous trash fish. I’ve read soaring rhapsodies about a hunk of fried sucker. The fish are scored deeply to let the hot oil get at its many bones, “dissolving” them, as I’ve heard, so you never know they are there. I wave around a chunk of fried blue cat, and ask: “Compared to this, just how good is a sucker?”

Justin Leesmann bites first: He’d put sucker over any fish but salmon and walleye. Nate Hagedorn is unequivocal. “I’d throw a trout out the window for a fried sucker.” No one disagrees.

It’s Reed—widely considered the best gigger of the bunch—who throws down the gauntlet. He’s holding a piece of fried crappie and looks at it solemnly, as if considering a communion wafer. “I’d rather eat a white sucker,” he says, “out of cold water, scored right, and fried right, than a crappie.” This stuns the crowd. The crappie’s stature on the plate is fairly unrivaled across much of America. There are murmurs of dissent.

“I don’t know,” Bob Leesmann says, weighing in from the top of a ­5-gallon bucket. “You’re pushing it there.”

Reed doesn’t back down. “Out of cold water,” he says again, slowly. “Scored right, to get at them bones.” I look around the shed. Nobody argues. In the middle of Missouri, in the middle of an ice storm, these are not inconsequential matters. I’ll get my chance to vote soon enough.

Moving Targets

I step up to the bow deck with Reed speaking into my ear. I can barely hear him over the outboard motor and the generator. “When the water gets cold they school up and run in packs,” he says. “So you gotta bust ’em up.”

Leaning over the homemade bow rail, I struggle to get the gig into position. The gig is unwieldy—it must weigh 15 pounds—and the fish are deeper and quicker than I imagined. Few of them hunker down on the bottom. They’re on the run, the boat chasing them like a beagle on a rabbit. There’s a grace period during which fish move off from the boat, startled by the light but not yet panicked—but that period doesn’t last long. Each time I home in on a sucker, it takes me a few seconds too long to muscle the gig over, and the fish darts away. I try turning the tines parallel with the boat to lessen the drag, and that helps some, but not enough. I jab at a dozen suckers and come close only a couple of times. Now I get what Reed meant about the newbies waiting their turn.

Reed and I have been at it for an hour when he points his gig toward a dark splotch on the bottom. “There’s a hog molly,” he says. “See him?” Hog mollies are northern hog suckers, built a bit flatter than the rest of the bottom feeders with mottled spots for camouflage, and they tend to hold tighter to the bottom. Easy stickings, so to speak. Here’s my chance. “Get on him, Ed. Get on him!”

I force the gig upstream, against the current. The barbed tines hover over the hog molly for a half second as I calculate the optical distortion. You have to aim behind the fish to compensate for refraction—one more split second and I make my jab, grunting like a javelin thrower. I hear a dispiriting chiiink as the gig hits the bottom. I have no idea where the fish went. When I glance over at Reed, he’s back on his side of the bow deck, piling suckers into the washtub. I was concentrating so hard that I didn’t notice the end of the boat ramp sliding into the light. It startles me. The boat grinds into the riprap with a grim tone of finality.

My turn is over. My gig is up.

Out of the River, Into the Frying Pan

By now word about our fish fry on the riverbank has spread, and the group of a half dozen giggers has swollen with the addition of perhaps 15 others. Their disappointment shows when they hear I was skunked, and I’m a bit embarrassed myself. One fellow, Cayman Reed, sidles up close. He’s a polite young man. “It ain’t easy till you figure out the trick,” he says.

“So what’s the trick?” I ask.

"You get that gig right above the head," he says, very seriously. "And you don't stick him, but you pin him to the bottom."

“Really?” I laugh. “That’s the big mystery? That’s all you got for me?”

He turns a little red. “It’s kinda hard to explain,” he admits, and I pat him on the back. Given my sorry showing so far, I’m grateful for any advice. Thankfully, there’s not much time to lick my wounds. I can’t claim a hand in our haul, but 100 pounds of fish need cleaning, so I roll up my sleeves.

Back in the day, Ozark folks salted and pickled suckers for long-term storage, but in modern times, almost all of the fish are bound straight for fish batter and hot grease. Our base camp is already set up for a serious feed. A fire roars on the riverbank, surrounded by camp chairs. Four propane tanks power the floodlights and fish cookers. A Formica tabletop is perched on oil drums. There are card tables and an ironing board topped with scrap wood—an ingenious mobile fish cleaning station. I’ve stumbled into a hillbilly Burning Man.

I elbow my way into a half dozen guys cleaning fish on the bed of a work truck, and someone slides me a scaler. The secret to sucker cuisine is in the scoring. A few guys meticulously score fish with cuts maybe 1⁄4 inch apart, all the way to the bone, but Reed has a more inventive method: He runs fish through a homemade scoring contraption. A fillet is placed in a tray, then put through said contraption with a couple dozen stainless-steel razor blades that open up the meat. “Like one of those blooming onions,” Nate Hagedorn says. It’s as odd a way to prep a fish as I’ve ever seen. The last step, though, is fish fry 101: Dredge the fish in dry batter and slide them into a black-iron pot simmering with oil. Reed dips them out with a long-­handled wire spoon and we dive in as soon as the fish are cool enough to handle. The bones have vanished. Each 1⁄4-inch segment is crisp as a potato chip. I take a bite.

I’m with Reed: Scored right and fried right, I’m not sure I’ve tasted better.

Hog Molly Heaven

While there’s a 20-per-person limit on suckers, no one wants to gig more than they can eat, and we have plenty. I’m starting to wonder if I’ll head home batting zero for the night. That’s when Braun tells us that he and his wife will take all the extra suckers we can provide. Thankfully, motive and opportunity conspire to get me back on the boat, gig in hand, with revenge on my mind.

This round I’m partnered up with Nathan Collins, soft-spoken and thoughtful beyond his 18 years. It hasn’t been that long since he was the beginner himself, watching from the back of the boat. “First I wasn’t tall enough to reach over the rail,” he tells me. “Then I wasn’t strong enough to hold the gig. It’s a physical sport. But I just watched a lot till I figured it out.”

By now the fish have been stirred up by hours of gigging, and they’re flighty. Still, Collins is a machine. He’s sticking fish after fish, while I’m jabbing at flashes like swatting mosquitoes by hand. Brad Reed is on the tiller, and there’s no hiding the fact that he’s trying to run down fish on my side of the boat. My arms are wearing out when I spot a hog molly playing possum—­hunkered down behind a rock. My kind of trash fish, I think. I hover the four barbs over the ­sucker’s back, and when I jab the gig home I feel the tines pin the fish to the bottom. Cayman Reed was right. That’s the trick.

“There he is! Yes, sir!” Collins praises, with as much relief as good wishes, I suspect. “Nice hog molly! Not bad!”

Not bad. I figure that's pretty high praise for a greenhorn gigger. I shouldn't have expected to roll into the Ozarks and pick up a lauded tradition without paying a few first-timer dues. I scrape the fish into the washtub and finally feel like I'm in the game. The best part is, the night's still young.