On a cold December night, Noble Counts shivered as he sat in his jonboat on the Current River in the Missouri Ozarks and pulled the hood of his coat over his head.
“This is supposed to be the coldest night of the year so far,” Counts said with a slight smile. “I believe it.”
But when you’re an Ozarks sucker gigger, it takes a lot more than that to keep you off the water. It’s part of the game, a tradition that has been passed down over several generations in the Counts family.
“I’ve been out when it’s colder,” Counts said, justifying his actions. “I remember one night when it was so cold that the handles on the gigs were just coated with ice. It was hard to even keep ahold of them. And the front deck was so icy we could hardly stand there.”
Counts paused and added emphatically, “But we got fish!” Counts, his father, uncles, and cousins always get fish.
Their family has been sucker gigging for generations, using a light source to illuminate the bottom of the shallows, then using a long gig to spear the suckers they spot.
That might sound easy, but it’s not. The suckers blend into the bottom with their natural coloration, and it can be difficult to judge the distance and trajectory of the jab that is required to stab one of the nongame fish. But with Ozarks streams holding a healthy population of suckers, there are usually plenty of chances.
The loud drone of the generator filled the cold air as Counts, 28, a mechanic who lives in Eminence, Missouri, guided his boat to a shoal that he said “always holds suckers.” Bill Bryan and Brent Bayer hung over the railing at the front of the boat, intent on spotting one of the camouflaged fish.
Fog lay over the river and stars sparkled like jewels in the sky—it was a beautiful night for sucker gigging.
Counts’ and several other boats, each filled with his relatives, made their way through the dark, recognizable only by the bright lights shining from their bow.
“There’s one!” Counts said, pointing to a motionless fish at the edge of a rock. “Let’s see if he’ll hold still for us.”
Counts backed the boat until it was over the top of the fish. Bryan lowered his gig into the water until the pitchfork-like tines were just above his target. He jabbed and speared the sucker, then lifted it into the boat.
After an hour, the barrel in the boat was teeming with suckers, most of them 12 to 14 inches long and destined to be added to the take of the other boats for a shoreline fish fry.
On shore, a campfire crackled and a line of fishermen stood in front of a folding table, cleaning and scoring the suckers. Close by, others battered the fish and tossed them into the bubbling grease of a large fish fryer.
“We just got done eating the last of the dumb ones,” joked Dale Counts, Noble’s uncle. “Once you get on into the season, they can get a little hard to sneak up on. But there are a lot of suckers in these rivers. Always have been.”
Back in the old days, he said, giggers burned pine knots in metal baskets for illumination. One fisherman would pole the boat through the shallows while the others stood ready with their gigs.
“Back in the day, some of our relatives bought a two-horse motor. They thought they were really something until they looked over and saw guys in another boat, who were poling up river, pass them,” Dale Counts said.
Today, giggers such as the Counts use gas generators to power floodlights at the bow of the boat. The lights make it hard for the fish to escape detection.
Giggers have to be careful not to stab gamefish such as smallmouth bass, catfish, and walleyes that are off-limits. Only suckers are fair game; the season opens September 15 and runs through January on the Ozarks streams.
For the Counts family, that amounts to plenty of time on the water. They and a large group of their friends are usually out at least one night a week.
“Sucker gigging is still real popular down here in the Ozarks,” Noble said. “On the first day of the gigging season, a lot of people will take off work just so they can be ready to get out here that night. We usually have a big group when we go out.
“For our family, this is tradition.”