Being born and raised in the Ozarks of southern Missouri, I have come to the realization that there are some things the folks in our area participate in that others across the country would say is definitely not the norm. Things such as racing riding lawn mowers, or having an annual fall festival titled Hootin and Hollarin. It may seem crazy and out of the ordinary to some, but to the people that have lived in these areas their whole life, it is tradition that represents a way of life.
For many years, fall has been a favorite season of mine. Not just because of hunting and fishing, but because it is the time of year that family and friends gather outdoors to have fun with each other and participate in traditions that have been handed down for years. One of those treasured traditions is that of running a flat bottom boat down the rivers during the night hours while gigging suckers. In talking with many people across the country, I have realized that this tradition that I have known my entire life has never been performed or heard of in certain areas of the United States.
Gigging suckers is an Ozarks tradition that has been enjoyed for hundreds of years. The first ones to start this unique method of gathering fish was done in wooden flat bottom boats with a basket that contained a burning pine knot so that they were able to see in the dark when going down the river. Usually occupied with two to three people per boat, they would go after so called “other fish,” which mainly consist of fish named the northern hogsucker and species of redhorse also called yellow suckers, with a 12 to 16 foot wooden pole with a metal spear like object called a gig. Throughout the last hundred years, family and friends have spent many fall and winter nights on the rivers gigging enough suckers to hopefully end the night with a fish fry on the river bank for all to enjoy.
I recently participated in this tradition on a trip with a few friends of mine on the Eleven Point River in southern Missouri. As mentioned before, gigging is a great way for friends to enjoy time together, and this is exactly what occurred as I joined a few of the men that I regularly attend church with on this gigging trip. We all share the same passion for gigging, so we make it a point to go at least two or three times a year together. This particular trip was in early October, when the temperatures were still fairly mild. This is an important thing to note due to the fact that we have been at times when it has been cold enough to freeze ice to our gig poles as we ran them in and out of the water. Needless to say, it can feel extremely cold on a body if one is not properly dressed to travel on the water during the middle of winter.
As we backed three different aluminum style jon boats into the water for the first time this year, one could feel the anticipation and excitement building as the seven of us began our night time journey. As soon as night fell, dark enough for the combination of halogen and LED lights to shine into the water, we began gigging. In our particular boat, we had two guys gigging and one person running the jet style motor slowly along the edges of the river in search of the hogsucker or yellow sucker. As usual for the first gigging trip of the season, it took me missing a few fish before I started hitting the mark when trying to gig. However, after 15 minutes of getting warmed up after a whole year off, we began putting fish in the boat. We gigged a good mixture of decent-sized hogsuckers and a few yellow suckers. After about an hour, we decided to head back to the load dock to meet the other guys and to see how many fish we had total in hopes of having acquired enough to have a feast on the river bank. That night we were able to gig 36 fish, which was more than enough for the seven of us to have a good meal. Along with deep frying our fish, we also fried sliced potatoes, onions and jalapeno peppers to have along with the spread we already had on the table of pickled peppers, okra and one cannot forget the sliced bread and deep fried biscuits. Needless to say, we didn’t leave the river that night hungry. In fact, we had enough food that all of us bagged up leftovers for the next day.
All in all, we had a great evening and it brought me back to why many people enjoy the sport of gigging suckers each year. I am thankful that I have had the opportunity to grow up in a place in which traditions, no matter how strange they may seem to some, lead to having fun outdoors with great friends and enjoying what Mother Nature has provided for us.