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Poor man's salmon: there's nothing wrong with suckers - if you know how to can them.

There's nothing wrong with suckers--if you know bow to can them

When I was growing up in rural Ontario, Canada, every spring there would be a sucker spawning run up a nearby stream from Lake Huron. Ever since I was about 12 years old, I would look forward to April and the challenge of catching some of those suckers. Actually most of the time it was not a challenge as it is a shallow stream and thick with suckers, but it was a lot of fun. My friend and I would ride our bikes to our favorite spot and stand in water that wasn't much past our knees. We would try catching the suckers with our bare hands, and we did this until we had a few fish or until our hands and feet were so cold that we couldn't feel them anymore. Over the years I also caught suckers with a net, and also by spearing them.

Suckers, or scientifically, Catostomus, are considered a "coarse fish'" or "garbage fish" and therefore the laws regarding the catching of them are very liberal. Using a bow and arrow, netting, and spearing are all legal ways of taking suckers in Ontario. When it comes to limits, suckers are classified as a baitfish. The bag limit is a generous 40 pounds per person until March 31st, and after April 1st the possession limit is an even more generous 120 fish per person. I spoke with an American fish and game officer and he advised me that the regulations are similar in his state.

Most people don't like eating suckers because of the numerous tiny bones, and also because they are bottom feeders so people think they are dirty. However, if you ask those who eat suckers they will tell you, contrary to popular belief, that the meat is quite good. I would always eat the few fish that I caught every spring, and although the meat was firm and tasty, I didn't favor them because of the difficulty of eating a fillet with a hundred little bones in it.

A superb way to prepare them

It was not until last year that I found a superb way of preparing suckers. It was mid-April 1995, and I was 26 years old and still going sucker fishing. I had since married and moved away, but I was visiting my parents at the right time, the peak of the sucker run. My dad, sister, cousins, wife and I all went to the stream, but we were beaten to our favorite spot. There were eight or nine Amish men in the stream with nets, filling up feed sacks with suckers. They were just finishing because they had just about as many as they could carry. As they were leaving, I spoke with one of the young Amish men and asked what they did with them all. He told me that they canned them all, and that it's great for two reasons: the bones dissolve, and you can eat them all year long. I had never canned fish before so I thought I'd give it a try. We went into the stream and got a few suckers and went home to fillet them.

How to fillet a sucker

Depending on how you clean fish, it can be a difficult chore, or quick and easy. The easiest way to fillet a sucker is as follows:

* Don't worry about gutting the fish. Leave the entrails where they are. There is also no need to take the scales off or cut the head, tail and fins off.

* With the fish laying on its side, cut straight down just behind the gills until you hit the bone. Then, without removing the blade, turn it sideways and cut straight along the backbone to the tail. You now have one fillet removed.

* Turn the fish over and repeat the steps on the other side.

* You now have both fillets removed and the rest of the fish is for the compost.

* If you have some of the entrails on your fillet, then you cut too deeply over the stomach area. It's not a big deal though. Just scrape or wash it off, then continue.

* The next thing I like to do is slice out the rib section, because the rib bones are large and easy to remove. You will see the ribs on the inside of the fillet. Just place the blade underneath the ribs and slice the section right out.

* Now comes the skinning of the fillets. With the skin side down insert the knife at the tail and cut the meat from the skin. If you start the cut about a half inch from the tail it will give you something to hold as you pull the knife between the skin and the meat. Pliers can be used to hold onto the fillet near the tail for a better grip.

* When I have tried cutting with the blade parallel to the meat, sometimes meat was wasted by being left on the skin and other times I cut through the scales. I have since found that holding the blade on an angle works best. It is almost as if I'm scraping the meat from the skin.

* Here's another option that might make skinning easier for you. When you are slicing the fillet from the fish, don't cut it right through at the tail. If you leave an inch attached to the fish you can flip the fillet over and hold onto the fish when you skin it. This saves using pliers to grip the fillet as you skin it.

It is difficult to explain. The best way to learn is to practice. Then these steps will become natural.

This method of filleting fish is the cleanest, neatest and fastest way that I've tried, and I find that it only takes about a minute per fish. All that you have to do now is rinse and dry the fillets, and you're ready for the next step.

In past years at this stage I would just fry or bake the fillets, then struggle to eat them without choking on tiny bones that I didn't see. Now I have to put a little more work in preparation by canning them, but I enjoy eating them far more, and I can eat them anytime I want.

These fillets are all ready to be placed in mason jars, but before I start with the canning procedure some cautions are necessary. The canning of fish requires more care than canning high acid foods such as fruits or tomatoes. The United States Department of Agriculture considers the pressure canner the only safe method for canning meat and fish. The Amish man told me that he cans with the water bath method, boiling the fish in the jars for three hours. This method is unsafe and I strongly recommend against it, and I'll explain why.

Water boils at 212 degrees F. (at sea level), but in a pressure canner steam expands and builds pressure, and as the pressure builds the temperature increases. At 5 pounds pressure the temperature is 228 degrees F., at 10 pounds pressure it's 240 degrees, and at 15 pounds pressure the temperature is 250 degrees.

This is important to know when we consider that there are four agents that cause food spoilage, and all must be destroyed in the canning process. The four agents are molds, yeasts, enzymes, and bacteria. Molds, yeasts and enzymes are easily destroyed by boiling water. However, bacteria such as botulinus can only be destroyed by temperatures above the boiling point of water. Having said that, I would ask that you not try this at home unless you have a pressure canner, and follow all the warnings and directions that come with it.

Now back to the recipe.

* Take the fillets and pack them into hot pint or half-pint mason jars.

* Do not pack them too tightly, and be sure to leave one inch head space.

* Do NOT add liquid. The fish creates its own liquid as it is cooked.

* One teaspoon of salt can be added per pint if desired.

* Wipe the rim of the jars and put on the hot lids with sealing rings.

* Follow manufacturer's instructions for using your canner.

* Process the suckers for 110 minutes at 11 pounds pressure. (Add one pound pressure for every 2000 feet increase above sea level.)

Remember that it is better to over-process food than to under-process it. Over-processing will do little harm, while under-processing can result in spoilage.

After the jars are taken out, make sure they are properly sealed. With the metal lids it is easy to tell, because you will hear them pop as they cool. If you have a jar that doesn't seal, there may have been some debris on the rim or a crack on the rim. Don't worry though: you get to have the pleasure of eating it right away.

If you open a jar and you're not sure whether it was sealed properly, check for foul smell, or discoloration. If you are still not sure, boil the fish for fifteen minutes. Often odors will become evident while cooking that were not detected before. Some experts recommend that all home canned meats be boiled before use. I must admit that I rarely do this. If you are sure of proper processing and of a proper seal it shouldn't be necessary. However, boiling the food before use does not harm it, so if you prefer to err on the side of safety, I would recommend it.

You can also can other types of fish, but I've never seen the sense of canning a nice fresh boneless fillet of bass or walleye. When it comes to suckers though, this method can't be beat. Not only do the bones dissolve, but the meat is firm and the flavor is great. I was amazed when I tasted it for the first time. It tasted like salmon! My wife and the rest of my family tried it, and they thought it tasted like canned salmon too. I took some to work and my co-workers thought I was crazy, asking them to eat canned sucker. Despite their initial reluctance they tried it and were pleasantly surprised. They also thought it tasted like salmon.

If you live near a lake that has suckers, watch the rivers and small streams in the spring for the spawning run. The peak of the run is only about three weeks long. In a large deep river the run might last for a month, but in a small shallow stream (where they are easier to catch) the run is usually shorter, sometimes just two weeks. The time of the run can change slightly from year to year also, as it depends on the ice-out, the water temperature and weather conditions. In southern Ontario where I live it's usually mid to late April, however one of my friends in northern Ontario told me they don't have their run until early June. In some states that have a milder climate the suckers may be spawning in March. Suckers range over much of North America, so keep your eye out for them. Don't forget to check your State or Provincial regulations, then catch some suckers and try this recipe. You won't be disappointed.

My wife and I realized that we would not have to buy salmon in the store again. We will be out there in the spring with our net, jostling for position with the Amish men, and filling our feed sack with "poor man's salmon."
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Author:Coulbeck, Brad
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:May 1, 1996
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