Suckers, Saguaros, and Stallions, Oh My!

It's sometimes incredible to see just how much life depends on water. Fish, plants, horses, birds, and even people all gravitate towards it. The Salt River is no exception. Being the closest flowing river to Phoenix, it naturally would receive a lot of attention from locals and tourists alike. It got my attention for sure.


I remember back to when I first discovered over a year ago (Man, was it really that long?), and one of the first "random species" you'd see in the top left corner of the page was a Sonora Sucker. Being the curious and amateur roughfisherman that I was starting to become, I read up on the article. I saw that they were in Arizona, and that they were in the Lower Salt River. I then began to read up on all the other endemic species in the area: Roundtail Chub, Colorado Pikeminnow, etc., and felt a need inside me to pursue these fish someday.


Needless to say, time went on, and those endemics got pushed to the back of my mind as I pursued other species in my locale. I had all but forgotten about these species until the day came that my parents asked me if I wanted to go to Arizona to watch some Spring Training games (Go Cubs!). I said yes, of course, still not remembering the species that were down here. I really hadn't thought about them in ages. I don't remember when, but I had come onto the website and lo and behold, the "random species" was none other than a Sonora Sucker. Hoo boy.


Without much hesitation, I ran the idea of exploring the Salt River by my parents. Thankfully, my dad was interested in catching fish as well, so they agreed. 


Flash forward to last week, and I was in Arizona. We had bought our overpriced licenses ($20 a DAY? REALLY?) and our Ugly Stiks had survived the plane ride from Des Moines. It was finally time to fish the Salt. My parents and I loaded into the car in a fashion similar to a Griswold family vacation and we hit the road. Our first spot had a few people fishing/


The Bridge Hole
The Bridge Hole

We decided that we wanted some piece and quiet to fish, so we headed downstream. Once we got beyond view of the bridge, we were alone. It was time to begin fishing. At the end of the long stretch of rapids we had walked down, there was an appetizing looking hole. I was more than excited to fish it.


The Rapids (and rocks that were uncomfortable to walk on)


After spooking what I believe were Desert Suckers, I pretty quickly realized that this river was like no other river that I had fished before. To put it in context, I hail from central Iowa, where 13 months out of 12, the rivers are muddy. Here, the river was gin clear. Possibly some of the clearest water I've ever fished. Fish get kinda spooky in that water.


My dad testing the waters.

After giving up on the pool below the rapids, I went to catch up with my dad who had already ventured downstream. As I caught up to him, he told me to stay low. He had spotted a decent sized fish sitting still in front of him. A Sonora Sucker! He had tried it for a few minutes and wanted to explore more water, So he kept heading downstream while I tried my luck with the sucker. After a few frustating minutes, I realized he wouldn't bite. I moved on to our next spot. Since I am still currently the worst at taking expedition photos, I have to describe to you what this hole looks like. 


On one bank, there is a shallow mud flat that slowly drops into deep hole in the middle. On the other bank, there is a steep rock face with a small ledge for anglers to walk on. Amazingly, the steep cliff continues into the water, creating a wall on this side of the river. Very cool.


My dad standing on the side of the steep rocks.


This was an incredible spot, there were large bass appearing and disappearing through cracks in the rocks like a chase scene in an old Scooby Doo episode. Too bad they would spook if a bait landed anywhere within 5 feet of them. No sign of any other suckers, however.


After baking on the rocks for long enough, my dad and I went downstream even farther, What we found there could only be described by the phrase "too good to be true". I first noticed a small sucker feeding on a rock below some rapids. Then I noticed another. And another. And another. Soon we found there to be more than a dozen FEEDING suckers in this pool. Some looked upwards of 6 pounds I hastily placed my worm in the face of one and braced myself for a strong run downstream. It never came. The suckers all ignored our baits. Remembering one of the lifelist entries I saw on RF (thanks Gerry!) I managed to cover my hook in algae and then placed it back in the path of the feeding suckers. I again braced myself for a screaming run downstream. Again, it never came. The suckers showed no interest.


The No-Lucker Sucker Hole


I was despaired, but thankfully my dad had gone back into the deep hole and had spotted some suckers in spawning behavior. I knew how to catch spawners. They were running out of the depths of the hole onto the shallow flat for a few minutes, then going back into the depths for a few minutes> My dad waited on the shallow flat, while I clambered back onto the rocks to try for the ones in the deep. Not 10 minutes had passed before I heard my dad yelling. I climbed around the corner to see his rod bent and his drag being owned by a large fish. We were both certain it was a sucker. After a spirited fight, the fish was at hand. (keep in mind, I'm still on the rocks)


Sadly, this was the best picture we were able to get (Sorry Dad!)


After the excitement died down, we realized that we were a little hungry. I crossed back over to the side of the river with a path and we walked back. I still wanted my sucker. When we arrived back at the bridge hole, we were delighted to see that everyone had left and that we had the place to ourselves once again. We then discovered why everyone was fishing here earlier: SUCKERS!


Spawning Suckers!


Huge pods of huge Sonorans swirled around our as we waded out onto the spawning flat. This was the place. To an untrained eye, the swirling of the suckers may have seemed random and chaotic, even to me. After a few minutes of observation, I began to notice a pattern. The females would swim around alone until they found a nice rock patch (as pictured on the left-hand side of the photos above) and would sit on them. 5 or 6 males would then crowd around her and fight to spawn with her. This was when I would make my move. I would drop a bait in the pod of 7 or 8 stationary suckers. They would spawn, do their business, and swim off. When they swam off, I noticed that my line was tightening up and following one of the suckers. I laid into that set! A few screaming runs of pure Arizona sucker-power later, a new fish squirmed in my hands.




Finally! A lifer! Number 54! Since I had given the majority of the school quite a spook, we took a quick trip up to Lake Saguaro to take in some views and catch a bite to eat. Let me tell you, even though the lake blocked the river, it was beautiful. 


Guess I won't be fishing here.


We got some lunch (sandwiches for my mom and dad, slice of pizza for me) and we went to find a place to unwind along the lake for a little while. We found a nice shaded area near a fishing pier and I decided to go cast a few times from the pier. I located a bass on a bed near shore that all the other anglers had missed. Since I grew up bass fishing in local ponds and lakes, my instincts kicked in. I rigged up a wacky-rigged plastic worm and began pitching it over the bed. My experience chasing bass as a youngster paid off in full, as I was rewarded by a nice fish in a highly-pressured lake.


2.5ish pound bass!


After the bass was caught, we ventured back to the river, where I hoped to connect with more Suckers and even possibly a Roundtail Chub. Back at the bridge, I had waded out onto that same shallow flat from earlier and saw that the suckers had resumed their spawning activity. Perfect. After repeating the method I had used previously, I was hooked up once again. This time I decided to snap a few photos as the Sucker came in.


Cool, Crystal Clear Water.


Soon the Sucker was in my hands. (I was by myself for this fish so the photo is subpar)



You can see the flat behind the sucker on which the rest of the school was spawning. Reminded me of watching goldens and shortheads spawn at the Root. After this fish was released, I waded back downstream to catch up with my dad, who had returned to the rocky ledge once again. Once I got onto the rocks with him again, I started throwing a Mepps around in hopes of a Roundtail Chub. After a half hour of fruitlessly chucking a mepss around, I got a strike. As I reeled it in, I knew that it wasn't a bass. It came to the surface and began to thrash around. A longer, paler, slender fish. Could it be? 




Rainbow Trout. Not what I wanted at all. Oh well, Back to the river he goes. Soon my dad received a similar hit.


My dad's rainbow trout.


As the sun got lower and lower in the sky, we realized our time was limited. I recalled seeing some mosquitofish in a small side pool earlier, so I tied on a tanago hook to try and bag one more lifer. After a little bit of frustation, I had one!


Lifer #55- Western Mosquitofish!


After this, we waded upstream to where we would get picked up by my mother. On our way up we encountered some friendly neighbors (haha get it?)



And that so finishes the tale of two Iowan Anglers who ventured out into the desert. Do I want to go back and pursue more endemics? Hell Yes I do.

Species List: 
Bass, Largemouth
Mosquitofish, Western
Sucker, Sonora
Trout, Rainbow


Matt Miller's picture

Nice report and great job on those suckers. I visited the Salt River for the first time last August; there were very few fishermen but the water was packed with people floating in tubes. It made the fishing a bit challenging but I did manage to catch my lifer Sonoran sucker.

One of the many fun sides of roughfishing is investigating the endemics and oddities of the fish world, wherever you happen to be.

Corey's picture

Great job on the Sonoran - I love those fish. I also fished Lake Saguaro from that same dock that you did but I was skunked!



Hengelaar's picture

Man, that was sweet. I love seeing that country. My first ever visits to the US, I fished the Salt River, so seeing those rocks, and that ultraclear water, and those awesome Saguaros, and those wild horses, and those cool suckers brings back great memories. Ha, I did some casting from the rocks at Lake Saguaro, too. Only got one or two little bass, though. Yours is much nicer.


Eesh, I coulda given you some spots! But who knows if those are still any good, a million years later... And you found those Sonorans yourself, which is much cooler. Offer stands, of course, for if/when you head back that-a-way.

Fishn sure is neat

FP4LifesDad's picture

Great report and great pics buddy, thanks for sharing!!


Carp Chaser's picture

Those Sonora Suckers are beautiful, well done!

"There's always a bigger fish"