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Fishermen Follow Tradition and Pursue Suckers on Ozark Rivers

November 1, 2006

STOCKTON, Mo. _ In the cold of the night . . .

That’s where you’ll find Jason Kuessner following Ozarks tradition once fall arrives.

Much the same as his grandfather and father before him, he knows that the crisp, see-your-breath weather of autumn signals it’s time to head into the dark and go fishing.

It’s time to flip the switch on the boat lights that illuminate the bottom of a clear-water Ozarks stream and go sucker gigging.

“When I tell some people that I’m going gigging, they have no idea what I’m talking about. They’ll say, `The frogs won’t be out at this time of the year,’ ” Kuessner said with a laugh. “But you mention gigging to people in the Ozarks and they’ll know.

“Back where I’m from _ Current River country _ they’d almost let school out for the start of the fall gigging season. On opening day, there would be all kinds of boats on the river and camps set up along the bank.

“Sucker gigging was a big deal. And it still is. Here in the Ozarks, it’s just something that has a lot of history to it.”

Though only 34, Kuessner has been part of that history.

He remembers the cold fall and winter days of his youth when he would join big parties of family members and friends on traditional gigging trips on the Current.

Back then, he said, the fishing was mostly for sustenance. “People had to fish to eat,” he said.

Kuessner remembers the old-timers telling stories of how they would burn pine knots in a cage at the front of the boat to illuminate the river, then float downstream, with several fishermen at ready with their gigs.

The men would study the bottom for signs of suckers, rough fish that are common in the clear-water Ozarks streams, and jab the long pitch-fork-type gigs at them once they were spotted.

After several hours of fishing, the men would head for a gravel bar, clean their catch and fry it up along with potatoes, onions and biscuits.

The group would sit around a blazing campfire for hours, telling stories about past adventures, laughing about giggers who had fallen into the cold water on winter trips, and embellishing the “good old days.”

Today, Kuessner is keeping that tradition alive.

He still looks forward to the cold nights of fall when he and friends can get out on the Sac River below Stockton Lake.

“You can gig during the day,” he said as he launched his boat. “But it’s best at night, when the lights mounted on the front of the boat really light up the bottom of the river.

“And the colder the better. When the water temperature really starts to drop, those suckers will get lethargic, like all fish do.

“That’s when they’ll stay put for you and you have a better chance of gigging them.”

Kuessner laughed and said, “I remember one night when it was five below when we started and 12 below by the time we got off the river. It was so cold, the front of the boat just turned to ice. But the gigging was good. We got a lot of suckers, and that fire we built sure felt good.”

The weather wasn’t that extreme when Kuessner joined two friends, Les Jarman and Ken White, for a night of gigging Wednesday. But Kuessner knew the action would be just as good.

“These rivers are just loaded with suckers,” he said. “And when the conditions are right, like they are tonight, you can just about count on getting them.

“The water’s clear, because we haven’t gotten a lot of rain down here. And the wind has died down, so we don’t have waves breaking the surface and cutting down on visibility.

“We should really get them tonight.”

Just a few minutes into the trip, that prediction came true.

The moment Kuessner flipped a switch, five halogen lights illuminated the bottom of the river. And Kuessner, leaning forward against a railing at the front of the boat, began seeing yellow suckers.

When he spotted one that was particularly stationary, he went into action. He eased the gig at the end of a 12-foot pole into the water, slid it through his hand like a pool cue, and hit his target. Kuessner, Jarman and White spent the next hour gigging suckers from two holes in the Sac. Once they had 10 fish, they headed for a gravel bar and began scaling and cleaning their catch.

“Some people stick up their nose at eating suckers, but those are the ones who have never tried them,” Kuessner said. “Once you’ve tried them, you’re usually back for more.”

With the gigging season on Ozark rivers continuing through the end of January, Kuessner figures to enjoy plenty more of those meals. And he plans to be preparing them for other fishermen, too.

He has started a guide service designed to give fishermen a complete look at the gigging experience, from catching the fishing to eating the catch.

“It’s not for everybody,” Kuessner said. “But a lot of fishermen have always heard about gigging and they’ve wanted to give it a try. This gives them a chance.”

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Ozarks sucker gigging

_WHAT: Sucker gigging is an Ozarks tradition. Fishermen go out at night on clear streams, use lights to illuminate the bottom and rely on gigs attached to long poles to spear suckers and other non-game fish.

_SEASON: The Ozarks rivers and streams are open to gigging from Sept. 15 to Jan. 31.

_LIMIT: There is a daily limit of 20 non-game fish in aggregate. The exception is the carp species, which may be taken in any number.

_THE FISH: Suckers are slender non-game fish that get their name from their sucker-type mouth. There are several species found in Ozark streams, including hog, redhorse and yellow suckers. Fish from one-half to 2 pounds make up the majority of the catch, although bigger fish can be taken. River redhorse suckers as big as 17 pounds have been taken in Missouri.

_MORE INFORMATION: Jason Kuessner, who guides gigging trips, can be reached at (417) 276-7087.

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