Finding redhorse suckers

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Each spring, usually on the same week of the calendar, something magical happens on a small creek in Eastern North Carolina. The first time I witnessed it, I was mesmerized by both the size and number of these golden fish spawning. The water was no deeper than a few inches in many places, but here there were hundreds of fish weighing in over five pounds each. Their annual ritual reminded me of the many photographs and videos I had seen of salmon in the Alaskan wilderness with the great grizzlies lined up along the sides of the banks looking for an easy buffet.

Since I learned of their annual migration, I have made a point to be there to greet them each year. I never tire from the experience. My kids have joined me through the years as well, and as that mysterious week approaches, they start questioning me: “are they here yet?”

Just as quickly as the redhorse sucker comes to the end of their trek on that creek — my hometown has a dam that prevents further travels for them — the redhorse can head back downstream. One year, while trying to get my last few fish of the run, the sun was approaching the horizon at the end of the day’s journey across the sky.

All at one time, as if it had been choreographed by the best of Olympic-quality synchronized swim teams, the top of the water erupted for as far as the eye could see. And they were gone. Their shimmering reflections beneath the surface of the shallow but clear water disappeared. I checked again the next day, and again, no fish were there to be spotted or caught. Suckers so abundant that from their eyes, down their back, and to the fork in their tail could be seen above the water line were now void until the next year’s spawn.


Redhorse suckers prefer deep rivers with a moderately swift current when not spawning. They may hang around sunken trees or large rocks. Spawning redhorse suckers again prefer current but may be found in shallow waters, even as shallow as half of their height. They are adept to swimming viscously through shallow currents and natural falls.

They are found in as many as 25 states in the continental United States and some of Canada.


Find them during the spawn. The spawn is an amazing thing to watch, as hundreds can be spotted in a casts distance in either direction. The fish prefers small crustaceans. Shallow streams and creeks with an abundance of mollusks will assist in locating them during the spawn, but nothing beats talking to some old timers and hearing them speak of redhorse, horsefish or carpsuckers.

Their mouths are located on the bottom of their head and have fleshy lips with a mouth no bigger than a nickel. Use small lures such as jigs or Beetle Spins with a small hook, but heavy enough to stay near the bottom. Feel free to fish upstream, downstream and through heavy currents, as the fish is strong and the current does not deter them.

You may find fish resting from the spawn in slightly deeper pools with sandy or rock bottoms that still offer a moderate current.


The redhorse sucker can also go by carpsucker, redhorse, or horsefish. It gets its name from the long face resembling a horse’s head and its brilliant orange and red colorings on both the thick scales and dorsal, anal and tail fins. It resembles a cross between a common carp and overgrown goldfish.

The redhorse sucker spawns anytime between the middle of March and very early April. The spawn usually only lasts a week to 10 days. The redhorse sucker averages between four and 10 pounds, with heavier fish less common. They can also reach lengths of over 24 inches when mature. They have been known to live as long as 25 years. They usually reach sexual maturity in three to five years. Their lips can extend down as much as a half inch from their body when feeding. There are as many as six subspecies, with the best way to tell the difference being the shape of the lips. It is important to know the difference as some are listed, as endangered in certain parts of the country.

Bill Howard is an avid bowhunter and outdoorsman. He teaches hunter education (IHEA) and bowhunter education (IBEP) in North Carolina. He is a member of North Carolina Bowhunters Association and Pope & Young, and is an official measurer for both.