Fishing for Carpsuckers (Quillback, River, and Highfin)


Welcome to the strange world of angling for one of the most frustrating fishes in the world.


Angling for Carpsuckers


Back in the 80's, when I was 16, I received the book Fishing for Buffalo, by Tom Dickson and Rob Buffler, as a gift from a good friend.  In the book, they spoke of catching "so many Carpsuckers that our arms got tired" at a dam on the Cannon River.  Once I got my driver's license, I went there.  Alas, the dam was gone and there were no carpsuckers to be found.  I thought they were some rare species that I could easily catch if only I could find them.  But where were they?


In the early 90's, I made some progress.  The internet made it easier.  There were lots of them in Florence Lake in southern Minnesota, so I dragged a mob of intrepid fishermen down there to try for them.  Alas, Florence Lake was gone.  My fishing buddies caught creek chubs and white suckers in a creek where the lake used to be. 


Then, I discovered Wisconsin.  Finally, a river with more carpsuckers than anything else.  Around 1996 I scored a copy of the Wisconsin DNR stream survey database and ran a customized carpsucker query.  The results came out as a list of strange numbers and codes scrolling by on a greenscreen monitor.  I had finally found them.


Two weeks later, I stood on the high banks of that river with my brother Andy by my side.  Below us was a large pool.  The water was clear enough for us to see every scale of the fish in the pool below.  There were hundreds of carpsuckers suspended in there, floating in the still water like lazy ghosts.  We laughed as we prepared our tackle, expecting to have the best day of fishing in our lives.  We were seasoned roughfishers.  We had caught every fish we had ever encountered.  A hook, a worm, and a sinker was all we needed. 


We were wrong.  Everything we knew about these fish was wrong.  We had what can only be described as the most frustrating fishing experience we had ever experienced.  We went home skunked, depressed, and perplexed.  We had fished three rods, floats, bottom-rigs, flies, doughballs, everything. 


Luckily, that same year we launched, and dozens of skilled anglers were about to join the hunt.


Over the next decade, the Carpsucker Underground formed.  It wasn't called that, and still isn't.  But a dedicated cadre of like-minded anglers began to unravel the puzzle.  All of us compared notes and results.  A woman in Chicago chummed them in with groundbait and caught them on tiny maggots.  She called them "breath-feeders".  One guy had caught one once on a rapala.  I had snagged one in the face and swore it had reacted to my fly.  A Canadian flyfisher swore to me that if you caught one, you had to throw away your tippet or you would never catch another.  Above all, we learned about them.  As it turns out, they were found in good numbers in most of the rivers we fished in the south.  But they were hard to catch - very hard.  We didn't know why.


I won't claim to be good at it even today.  But here's what we know.


#1:  Carpsuckers are spooky

This might seem pretty obvious, but there's more to it than it seems.  Carpsuckers have big eyes and a sensitive lateral line.  Just getting into casting range can be impossible.  The first lesson I learned about them was to stay the hell out of the water.  You simply cannot approach them in waders.  I duelled a school of river carpsuckers many years ago in a trout stream, and their sensitivity to ripples in the water and flyline moving overhead made trout look like oblivious lunkheads.  So what does this mean?

Carpsuckers are best fished from concealment, on the bank.  Don't make waves, don't use a big sinker, and don't try to wade up to them.  Use small weights and very light line, and don't cast anywhere near them.


#2:  Carpsuckers are Grazers

All of the illustrious members of The Carpsucker Underground had watched these fish feed for many hours.  The fish slowly and painstakingly make their way across sand, gravel, or silt.  They don't hunt for food like a predator, they breathe in tiny bits of food that happen to be right under their nose.  If it's not under their nose, they won't go hunting for it, even if it's a delicious morsel only inches away.  So this means ...

You must place a stationary bait directly in the carpsucker's path. Groundbaiting can encourage them to feed in your general vicinity. 


#3:  Carpsuckers eat only tiny baits

While their mouth is big enough to engulf many typical baits, the opening to their esophagous is measured in millimeters.  Analysis of stomach contents results in a confusing menagerie of microscopic things:  microscopic algae, tiny larvae (tendipedids), miniscule crustaceans (cladocerans), and the smallest of aquatic insects.  

You must use small hooks and tiny baits to catch feeding carpsuckers. #14 scud hooks, small circle hooks, and tiny pieces of worm will work.  A single kernal of canned corn can also be effective.


#4: Carpsuckers are light biters

This is an understatement.  The Chicago Match-Fishers use a tiny, sensitive float rigged with a dozen tiny flecks of shot the size of pepper grains,  A carpsucker will breathe in the bait so gently that the float will barely move at all.  Bite detection for carpsuckers without using a float is almost impossible.  In cloudy water, a float and leger rig is probably a good option if you know that carpsuckers are present in good numbers.  But in clear water, you can detect the bite by sight.  Depending on the angle, you might see the mouth extend or quiver.  Or you might see the pectoral fins quiver.  The fish might just stop and twitch its lips. 

Don't expect the carpsuckers to pull on your line, ever.  Sometimes, you'll get lucky and they'll hook themselves.  But you have to be tense and ready to strike when they approach your bait, and when they have it, you have to strike quickly before they spit it out. 


#5: Carpsuckers are moody

Sometimes, these fish just suspend without feeding and become torpid.  By suspend, I mean exactly that - they hang motionless, well off the bottom. In these cases, even a perfect presentation is useless and you're going to have a bad time if you keep at it.  

Be sure the fish are actively feeding before trying to catch them.  You can usually tell that they are feeding because they move slowly upstream while hugging tight to the bottom. If they're not, you're better off looking for some active fish than fishing for the inactive ones. 



The gear I use is

8 gama octopus hook

4 pound flouro

weight to hold it's spot in the current and easily reposition without spooking the fish

They are not chasing your bait you just have to get it in front of them and watch your fleck of crawler close and set the hook when the fish suckes it up. Sometimes you win most of the the time the fish does.


I use exclusively braid for carpsuckers. 
A number 12-14 hook with a piece of a waxworm. For weight a tiny shot, just enough to hold in the current. 
A spookier fish you will not find. 

I typically watch the fish. if they are moving downstream I don’t bother. If they are working a straight line upstream then turning to drift downstream to start again I will fish for them. This is active feeding in a territory.
I find this situation to be the best.
I will set my bait in their path and kneel down or lay down. Often I will cast 10 feet ahead of them and wait. It could take 20 minutes for them to work up to the bait. When they are over the bait they will often keep going, but watch their pectoral fins. When they strike the bait their fins will flip as they suck in the bait, its subtle but a better indicator of a strike. When you see that set the hook.

We have tried experiments with braid vs Mono on highfins and quillback. Often they will swim away from the bait if we use mono and wont be frightened by the braid. Why I am not sure.
Perhaps the braid has a more natural feel.


I'd love to get some more comments, corrections, and feedback to this.  Feel free to discuss and comment.

Species Covered:


Fins's picture

A few autums back MuskieMags and I were hitting the Ottertail trying to get him a lifer bigmouth buffalo. While watching herds of carp swim by in the very cloudy water, there seemed to be fish trailing the carp that I suspected to be quillbacks. I didn't know for sure as I had never seen them before. I didn't even mention it to Mags that I thought there might be quillback swimming with the carp. As I recall we had a lot of fun catching a variety of species. I had to leave early and on my way home I get a call from a very excited adult roughfisher who had just caught their lifer quillback. I can't remember the technique he used to catch it. But that is all it took for me to make a return 1.5 hour trip one way to try for them quillbacks the next day. That night I read and researched all I could on fishing for carpsuckers. At the time successfull anglers were using a well balaced float with a small hook. So I did my best to duplicate this with what I had. The next morning at the Ottertail I casted out into some slack water near current were I had seen the fish the day before. I used a small piece of crawler which was touching the bottom but the float would echo a bite since it was to cloudy of water to sight fish. Not long after I made that first cast my float twitched and I set the hook. Fighting the fish I thought how easy was this I could see this shadow of what, at first gance, looked like a quillback. I soon realized that it was a small carp and I was suffering from quillback feaver. As the hours clicked passed, I stuck with the float. I got side tracked by a muskie and started thoughing a jig and retrieving it eraticly. To my surprise I snagged a quillback while messing with the ski. Although I didn't land the snagged quillback, it recharged my ambitiions and went back to floating a micro piece of crawler. As my time on the river was comeing to close that afternoon, I was praying to get hooked up, I was promising never to fish with two lines in Minnesota during the open water season ever again. In my final minutes I can't remember if I saw a tick from the float or was just going to reel up  or what. But a fish was on and as it neared I was amped to see a quillback at the end of my line.

So for me a lot of luck, a float, a size 10 egg style hook, and a half inch piece of crawler did the trick. Since then I have fished the Ottertail and have never scored nor have seen anyone else catch one. Let alone see one there since.

O Lord it's a big one. If you let me get em' in I promise I let em' go.

Outdoors4life's picture

I should also add time of day has been important. Sun high in the sky and the hotter the temp the better. Most of teh Quillbacks I have caught I have been sweating so bad my eyes are burning. Good sun glasses make the site fishing much easier. They have been a good fighting fish for me since I can only get them to bite when I use my ultralight.

It is all perspective!

Acer Home Inspections

Hengelaar's picture

A very interesting read.

Oh, to be a member of the illustrious, non-existent Carpsucker Underground...

Fishn sure is neat

Eli's picture

Sweet. Just stumbled across this. Going to try the ledger float, tiny hooks, and maggots next summer at a spot I know has quills.




Everythingthatswims's picture

I have this little hole on a small river called the rivanna here in charlottesville. It is a roughfisher's dream spot, chocked full of big white suckers, about 20 or 30 common carp in the 25-30" range, a few longnose gar, yellow and brown bullheads, white catfish (pretty rare species of bullhead), channel cats up to 10lbs, big gizzard shad, and tons of micros, heck, one time I pulled a 2 or 3lb eel outta there when I was fishing for catfish. Most importantly, the hole is absolutely brimming with river carpsuckers. I have snagged one or two over the years, but never came close to a real hookup with one. Now, I am inspired to go fish for them there, I have my #14 nymph hooks, my 2lb flurocarbon leaders, fly fishing splitshot to balance on the line like people do in the UK, and a shimano sedona 1500 spooled with 4lb mono... Something better happen. I also think I hooked one when I was fishing for carp this summer with corn, never saw it though because the water was muddy though. And on the bright side, if things don't work out, I have plenty of other stuff to be entertained with. 

Check out my blog @

philaroman's picture

THANK YOU for this site!!!  This is the ONLY place I've been able to find useful info for targeting Quillbacks w/ bait & I've been looking for quite a while!  Now, I have a MUCH better idea of how & why I've caught them...  more importantly, why I've caught so few, despite their abundance, as reported by sampling.

all my Quills (not that many, but all nice size) came as by-catch w/ carp techniques that pre-date hair rigs & boilies: sliding sinker; long 2-3' leader; dough/paste on a small, short-shank hook w' the point covered (all my Quills have been fair-hooked -- never snagged)

the scenario for my very limited Quillback success was always pretty much the same:

  • I get no carp, but I get various weird little line twitches & my baits come back mostly  intact, but "disturbed" in a way that seems a bit more uneven than mere erosion by current
  • I figure, "oh, well... small stuff is in the area... white suckers & bigger fallfish/chubs are better than nuttin'."   I happen to use long light Steelhead rods, rather than proper carp tackle, so I can enjoy the smaller stuff.  [the Delaware R. Basin has no redhorse, at all; White & rare N. Hog are the only sizeable suckers; Quills are the only carpsuckers]
  • I scale down to about 4X tippet for leader & #10 hooks (smaller/lighter might be better, but I like to keep things marginally carp-worthy, in case they show up)
  • Instead of jerky, aggressive little bites that usually indicate fallfish/chub/sunfish, or slower, more deliberate sucker bites, my line just shakes w/ barely any movement of the rod tip (or none at all), which is like a big neon sign flashing QUILLBACK!!!  it's very distinctive, almost like "line bites" from carp brushing against the main line, but it's much more prolonged & consistent...  up to several minutes.  Now that I've learned that Quills have tiny throats, it kinda' makes sense.  I think they pick up my bait, they like the taste, they can fit it in their mouth, but need to suck it apart before they can swallow -- hence, the prolonged, barely detectable bite (zero-stretch braid is key -- I doubt I would notice anything w/ mono)
  • with such a light, uniform bite & my hook point covered, it's really tough to decide when to set the hook.  when these rare opportunities at feeding Quills happen, my initial hook-up ratio is downright pathetic, but if they keep biting, I "dial in" over a couple hours & hook about 1:3, or even 1:2

surprisingly, I've never caught a Quillback under a float, despite using much lighter tackle & I've never seen one swimming around, that I could readily identify -- I guess I have stealth issues :)


P.E.T.A. sucks!!!  Plants are living things, too -- they're just easier to catch!

Corey's picture

And thanks for adding your info! I'll insert your techniques into the main article.


Since I wrote this, I've picked up that some people swear by vanilla-flavor dough. Anyboy try this?

Dr Flathead's picture

I saw two Quillback get caught one day on pineapple/vanilla dough.  Both by the same lucky angler.  This really means nothing because of what else happened that same day.  My buddy caught one right next to me on a big ball of crawlers.  Fair and square on the inside of the mouth.  Good aggresive bite too.   This was during the Coon Rapids dam Carp contest several years ago.  I'm sure the area was littered with chum, which probably got them sifting the bottom good. 

roughfish29's picture

My methods for carpsuckers ar as follows,


1. Spot Carpsucker

2. Spook Carpsucker

3. Repeat


Seriousy though this is a good read. I'll defnately be looking back at this in the future

philaroman's picture

among my top flavors for dough/paste are vanilla extract, fish oil, unrefined sunflower oil and honey...  any one (not all together) used in tiny amonts, otherwise the dough slides off the hook too easily from too much sugar/oil

P.E.T.A. sucks!!!  Plants are living things, too -- they're just easier to catch!

andy's picture

Is a good read
Eric Kol's picture

"In these cases, even a perfect presentation is useless and you're going to have a bad time if you keep at it."


that sums up the first several YEARS of sight fishing these so called carp suckers, mainly with fly tackle. In that time I foul hooked several but never had one that I felt was a solid no qualms about it fair hook. In 2014 I found a lone quillback very actively feeding in a crystal clear eddy over a sand bottom maybe a foot to 18"deep. There was plenty of leaf litter and small debris in the swirl and this carpsucker was taking small morsels from all around. Using an 11 1/2 foot rod, a sz 10 octopus/circle hook with a small nub of crawler and enough weight to more or less pin it in the fast current, I was able to get the bait in the feeding zone. It only took a couple of very very tense adjustments to get the bait in the right place. Unlike any other previous time of getting my ass handed to me by these non terrestrial alien fish (native fish, yeah right!  maybe a native of Jupiter's moon Europa) this particular quillback was very aggresive and pounced on my crawler from maybe 9" to a foot away! A perfect coup! sight fished in clear water (as is my favorite way to catch any fish) and with witnesses. The later being important because between landing the fish and fiddling with the camera, the newly life listed quilly snatched back its freedom and returned to the eddy for more chow. The chances of finding a lone quilly feeding with abandon likely won't happen again any time soon, but I will now try not to be only focused on the schooling throngs, but alo look for outliers in specialized feeding situations.

Carpy Diem!

In reading a local forum, some guys reported catching a lot of Quillbacks when targeting Sturgeon. This is by boat on a big river, probably crusing all day & anchoring over holes/eddy's. One guys Post/Boast was seeing lots of Quillbacks over 10lbs. It's interesting as hell how difficult a fish can be when targeted, but as by-catch, some people pull them out all day long & throw them back by the hundreds.

Out on the Potomac yesterday, I took this video yesterday of what I believe to be quillback:

As sunset approached, there were probably twice that many splashes. What are these bottom-feeders doing up at the surface? Just in a big school and getting pushed up? 

Dr Flathead's picture

I'd say those are shad of some sort breaking surface.  Maybe gizzard or hickory shad?

philaroman's picture

definitely one of the river herring species...  I'd guess blueback & alewife

P.E.T.A. sucks!!!  Plants are living things, too -- they're just easier to catch!

pmk00001's picture

Hey welcome to the forum Matt!

I've fished that part of the Potomac for about 30 years and there are indeed lots of quillbacks there this time of the year.  One magical day a few years ago, when the water was clear (like it is now) I managed to sight fish three quillbacks in a couple of hours.  I could see them feeding on the sides of rocks, I think maybe they feed on herring spawn.

Quillbacks jump a lot in that area as well, but I'm not certain those are all quills in your video, I don't have to tell you there are lots of other fish in that area right now! 


TonyS's picture

I was able to have some great success last season with Quillbacks.  You will need the following to stalk them on shallow flats like I have been:

  1. patience/observational skills, you are stalking/hunting
  2. Polarized sunglass (and decent water clarity)
  3. The ability to dispear into the scenery
  4. patience

My preference for rigging is a 3.9m Keiryu pole with 0.15mm mono, a #16 hook, a tiny shot and a single maggot.  This is preference and I've done it with shorter rods, braid, bigger hooks, etc.  My most consistent success is with what I described above but it certainly is not required.  The rigging should be subtle and if you make even a ripple on the water near a Carpsucker you are hosed.  I prefer the smallest bait I can see, maggots and wax worms are great as the white color is way easier to see than a worm chunk (worm chunks work too)


My preference for spots is small sand/silt flats.  Here the carpsuckers feed in the straight line grazing pattern observed by several others here.  This provides a semi-predictable pattern.  Once you've found where they feed you can spend the next half hour so trying to manuver close enough to target them... 


I am a big fan of finding a situation with small groups of carpsuckers, less than a half dozen.  Fewer eyes on you mean less risk of spooking them all.  On top of that, I'll watch the individuals within these groups and pick out the most active one.  Look for mouth movements and gills flaring / sifting debris.  The fish that does this the most in a small group is the easiest target, watch that fish an set up to target that individual fish.  Individuals that will stray slightly from the line (I mean slightly, like maybe 2" to the fishes left/right of the track they are following) often seem easier than the ones that that stick hard to the line. 


And then there is the hook set. This is one of the more difficult parts.  A hook set a split second too early/late will result in foul hooking them on the outside of the lips, rather than inside the mouth. One needs to predict the pick up and watch for the bait to disappear (ideally) or for the mouth/gills to quiver at the right moment and hope the timing is true... They are crazy fish, fun but can be frustrating...


The most important thing is to not waste your time on a carpsucker that is not "actively" feeding.  A carpsucker that is not feeding is NOT feeding.  At least not on these late spring / summer flats

andy's picture

Carpsucker anglers are like Jedi masters, and you are closing in on Yoda territory.

Eli's picture

I'd like to get any info available on blind fishing for quills. They're in my area for sure, I mean, look at this:


Snagged while casting, unfortunately, but I still threw up in my mouth a bit when it came to the net. The visibility is about 2'' so no sight fishing. Ground baiting is a possibility but would draw in every juvenile channel cat from mile around. What's a man to do? Definitely a holy grail species around here. I really need to catch one.







TonyS's picture

No idea... I've gotten a few blind over the years but that never put together anything consistent.  I considered trying a little bolt rigged maggot feeder deal.  I bet that might work but then blind fishing for tough species is a tough game with abundant and agresssive species around...

pmk00001's picture

Eli do you have a dam or something to stop their migration around you? That would be where I'd concentrate they should be there now!
Eli's picture

It's funny you say that, Pat, as this one was snagged at the base of a weir!




Osprey's picture

I've got a question? Has anybody ever tried using those Ultra-Sensitive Wire Spring Bobber Rod attachments when targeting Carpsuckers? You know the ones some people use for icefishing? I'm sure somebody has thought about using these to detect light bites? Just thought I would throw the idea out there for anyone who wanted to try it out. I only have river carpsuckers where I live, and the ones I know about are very small and won't bite a fish hook. Maybe it'll work, or at least help? Maybe it's just a bad idea? Don't know?

Dr Flathead's picture

It like you almost gotta think outside the box when targeting carpsuckers.  Something like this might be highly effective, especially in a blind fishing scenario.  Thanks for posting it. 

Eli's picture

I have a european quiver tip rod. It's redonkeylessly sensitive. Biggest issue (for me) is finding them and getting them to chew. If those two things happen, I'm sure I'll detect the bite.