February 29, 2024

Hardcore Game Fishing

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Rough Fish of the River

The author smiles with a large creek chub, one of several river rough fish he enjoys catching.

There’s just something about flowing water and the exhilaration brought on by the anticipation of a new spring season that stirs my angling passion like nothing else. It’s no wonder that so much of my fishing time is spent knee deep in the flow trying to secure a good foot hold in the current, testing the water, looking for a few early season fish. It’s invigorating to be surrounded by nature’s beauty and further enriched by such a great variety of fish life underfoot. Amongst the medley of finned stream and river inhabitants, it’s no doubt that trout are at the top of the the list in popularity. During my time on the water, however, I’ve come to develop a fondness for an ancillary group of fish that some might refer to as a rough fish. This curious aggregation may not have the glistening hues of a rainbow trout or the aerial prowess of a smallmouth bass, but are nonetheless well worth spending some angling time on. The species in reference here primarily consist of white suckers, fallfish, creek chub and common river carp. This stalwart group certainly make up what they lack in grandeur with a consistent willingness to bite and a mean-spirited fighting style.

Like many other trouters my original encounters with these fish came as an unintentional by-catch. However as time went on my attitude towards these once thought menacing fish began to evolve. I came to realize that during some of my fishing outings when the trout were simply uncooperative I could turn to the more reliable rough fish to provide some gratuitous rod bending action.

I discovered a new niche in river fishing and it was very rewarding. If you also are attracted to the allure of the flowing water, then chasing the river rough fish occasionally might add an exciting new dimension to your angling adventures. 

Rough Fish Season

Early in the season—before the trout stocking begins and the rivers are just coming to life— you may want to pay a visit to your local flow and check out some of the riffles leading into the deep pools to try to view some activity of white suckers, fallfish or creek chub preparing for the spawn. Sighting a school will give you an idea where to begin your early season efforts. During my experience, I’ve noticed they have a penchant for gathering under small bridges in eddies on the downstream side.

A slowdown in water flow caused by a deepening in the stream is also an enticing holding area, as is a backwash created by a small waterfall. The movement of the schools usually begin in late February or early March, when the sun provides a few extra degrees to the water temperature. You may also notice some early hatching of stone flies. I welcome the sight of having one land on my sleeve, letting me know that the water temperature is approaching that magic mark heralding the onset of another season of fishing.  

The author holds a large white sucker for a photo before release.

How to Catch Rough Fish

A favorite technique that I would suggest to create some early season success with these fish consists of a few forms of bait presentation. Primarily nightcrawlers, worms or frozen shrimp rank high on the list that I’ve had good success with. The frozen shrimp come in handy in the cold months when worms and nightcrawlers may not be available. A bag of small size shrimp will only set you back about five bucks if you buy them in Walmart. Thaw a few, and put the rest back in the freezer to use throughout the season. They work surprisingly well on a variety of fish. The rig is fairly simple as well. It consists of an appropriate sized hook, perhaps a number 4 or 6 should do nicely (I prefer a circle hook), and a splitshot sinker or two to stay close to the bottom. If your fishing area is too strewn with snags you may want to add enough weight to keep your bait stationary on the bottom to avoid having it swept downstream into a snag. The addition of a small barrel swivel is helpful as well since the moving water can cause your rig to spin and twist in the current causing line twist. A half of a nightcrawler or shrimp should be adequate to attract some attention.

The author prefers to use size 4 or size 6 circle hooks baited with small pieces of (thawed) frozen shrimp to catch rough fish, like this fallfish.

Look for some slower moving water and allow your rig to glide slowly through it or have it lock on the bottom in the deeper portion. If fish are present, it normally doesn’t take long to feel that familiar tap-tap indicating a fish has found your offering. Although I’ve had formidable results using live bait, I’ve also had excellent experiences using a variety of artificial lures as well. In particular, small curly tail grubs and miniature crayfish imitations work exceptionally. Small in line spinners such as a 1/16-ounce rooster tail have also proven outstanding. Another consideration is imitation baits, such as Berkley Gulp or PowerBait. The small worm and pinched nightcrawler imitations produce very well.

Don’t be surprised if a successful hookup results in a rod-bending, drag-pulling tussle with a formidable size fallfish or sucker. These fish are extremely hard fighters, and if you’re a fan of light line like myself, you’ll need to play them carefully in the moving water in order to avoid a broken line. Once brought to net, one of these hard-pulling beauties will surely bring a smile to your face and invigorate you to want to continue in their pursuit.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the size some of the white suckers and fallfish can achieve. It’s not unusual to have an occasional fish measuring nearly 20 inches. A fish of that size in moving water will cause your drag to engage and surely test your angling skills with light tackle, but oh what fun. The streams I fish all seem to produce incredibly robust and healthy fish. They are colorful and blemish free glistening specimens. The mating colors on the male fallfish are particularly interesting. Some have brilliantly red colored gill plates, which at a quick glance during the fight might cause you to mistake one for a rainbow trout. 

Creek chub can be identified among other rough fish by their uniquely shaped mouths, reddish-brown gills and distinct bumps on their front of their head.

There are a number of streams in my north Jersey area where I ply the springtime water for these fish, and I’ve found success in several. This is not a difficult fishing style and it can provide some great action during the early spring season prior to trout time. Check out your area and pay a visit to the various waters to find a suitable location. Walk the bank to survey the stream looking for slow moving pools, and look carefully, because if the water is clear enough, you may see some large schools of suckers or fallfish cruising the bottom. Seeing the fish is a great confidence booster and it has led to much success for my early season outings.   

The fish are numerous, and I’ve had amazing experiences viewing the huge schools while in my kayak paddling downstream. Knowing the large numbers of fallfish and white suckers that abound in these waters, it was no surprise that my shore bound springtime efforts would result in some formidable catches. If you’re anxious to wet a line in the early season I eagerly suggest trying to hookup with some of the river’s rough fish to begin your new year of fishing. Tight Lines. 

Related Content

Early Season Action: The Sucker Run

Carp Fishing Tips for Big Rivers

The post Rough Fish of the River first appeared on On The Water.

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