Eggs Are For Suckers by Greg LaBonte
May rolling around in Western Maine means a few things: gobbling turkeys, fiddleheads sprouting, stripers arriving, black flies buzzing, and for fly anglers, the sucker spawn. Each May, thousands of longnose suckers (Catostomus catostomus) meander their way from the muddy and murky lake depths in search of swift water with one thing on their mind – sex. Suckers blanketing the riverbed so thick, it’s as if you can walk across their darkened backs. One by one, year after year, suckers return to the same stretch of water to extend the survival of the species. If there’s one thing a fly angler loves, it’s consistency.
As a trout or salmon in Maine, you’d look forward to two events more than any other after a long winter: smelts running and suckers spawning. Trout and salmon are so eager to pack on the pounds after a depriving winter, once sucker eggs start flowing, well, the fishing doesn’t get much easier. Throw almost any egg pattern out there at the peak of the sucker spawn and you’re likely to not just catch a few average brook trout, but some of the largest and most beautiful brook trout on the planet. Three to five-pound brook trout are not uncommon during this time, with a mix of 20” landlocked salmon, the fishing is dreamlike, a fairytale to those who have yet to experience it. The allure of fishing the sucker spawn is so great, rivers typically get crowded (by Maine standards), even in the Rangeley or Moosehead areas. Most anglers tie on some round ball of yellow or orange yarn with a few split shots chewed on to help get the eggs down in the swift current. Anglers dead drift eggs behind pods of suckers, where trout and salmon eagerly await, a location some call the conveyer belt.
Something that goes unnoticed by most anglers is the increase in bug life during the sucker spawn, but who cares about bugs when fish are slurping down eggs? Well, I do, because I don’t use eggs during the sucker spawn. Do I think there is something wrong with using eggs? Absolutely not! I think they are extremely efficient and can put a ton of fish in the net, I just don’t want to use them, it’s just where I am in life. Am I missing out on catching fish? I don’t think so, in fact, I think I have a leg up on the competition.
The majority of anglers are dead drifting egg patterns, but where is the challenge, where is the sense of adventure? I think one of the best ways to improve your overall skill set as an angler is to step outside the aisle of normalcy. So, I swing soft hackles during the sucker spawn (my favorite can be found here). Sometimes trailing a nymph or a dry fly if the Hendricksons have arrived. How many soft hackles have these ardently feeding fish seen this year? In my estimation, not many! This unusual tactic begs the question, why soft hackles, why not something else? Soft hackles imitate a shuck of an insect or an emerging insect, one of the easiest meals a fish can get, a low risk high reward meal. As I said earlier, insects are starting to hatch with more consistency during May, so undoubtedly fish have seen, possibly even consumed some emerging insects. That soft hackle imagery is in the fishes’ mind and not as a distant memory, but as a present circumstance triggering a feeding response. Also, fish have seen few if any soft hackles swung by anglers and because of the unfamiliarity with this pattern, I find fish are extremely receptive and willing to strike a variety of soft hackles.
Now, of course I could just dead drift egg patterns and catch the same amount of fish, maybe less, maybe more, but would I possess the knowledge, would I have found another piece to the puzzle that is fly fishing? No. Find an angler that won’t step outside of their comfort zone and I’ll show you an angler that is limiting their capabilities. For me, expanding my understanding of fish behavior is paramount for my fishing success. Of course, I felt a sense of hopelessness at first, grabbing a soft hackle during the sucker spawn, but the evidence does not lie.
In life, there often exists a myriad of routes to finding success and I find that fly fishing is no different. Push yourself to uncomfortable places and you just might find the road less travelled that we all long for. So, if you find yourself fishing the sucker spawn in Maine, you might want to think twice before opening your fly box filled with those juicy eggs, instead expand your horizons and grab something unique, something to separate yourself from the expected.