Annual gigging season—an Ozarks tradition—quickly approaching

By Bill Cooper
    Some 3,000 years ago, a member of a Late Woodland Indian clan traveled far from home on the day's hunt. Darkness fell with the young hunter still several miles away from the other eight members of his band.

    Cold, clear, water lapped at his knees as he crossed the headwaters of the upper Meramec River by the light of the harvest moon of late fall. The hunt had been unfruitful, but the hunter remained alert. Lights seemed to flash in the crystal clear water. The ancient hunter thrust his stone-tipped spear into the shallow riffle and impaled a wriggling yellow sucker. He, too, would proudly contribute food to the clan when he returned.
    Sucker gigging, as it is known today, is an Ozark tradition that has been around for well over 200 years, since the settlement of Scottish-Irish immigrants in the rough, rugged hills of the Ozark Highlands, which are home to cold clear water streams. The clear streams teemed with what sport fishermen deemed trash fish, because suckers are bottom feeders. The hardy immigrants regarded the plentiful fish as a handy food source, which could be cooked and eaten immediately, or salted and cured, smoke cured, or pickled for future use.
    The late Bruce Brown, from Jake Prairie (northwest of Cuba) was a bit of a local legend when it came to gigging and grabbing suckers. “He was good at it, very good,” said Danny Marshall, a close friend who spent a lot of time with Brown on the river.
    Brown loved fried suckers cooked on a gravel bar fresh out of the water. “There was nothing better,” Brown would say, with that captivating smile of his. Then he would chuckle and say, “You know.”
    I did know. For more than once, Brown had served me fried suckers with all the trimmings. He easily turned suckers into a feast.
    Brown worked for many years for the Missouri Department of Conservation at the Maramec Spring Park fish hatchery. I saw him often when I worked as superintend of the park. Many times he would offer me leftovers from a previous night’s fish fry. Cold suckers aren’t the delicacy they are when hot. Still not bad, however.
    On one visit, Brown offered me a sample of pickled sucker he had brought for his lunch. My furrowed brow must have echoed my concerns. Brown chuckled and said, “You gotta try it once just to say you did. Besides, it won’t kill you. I prepared it in a salt brine.”
    Brown could charm a snake out of its skin. I watched with a slanted eye for his reaction as I put a chunk of the brined sucker in my mouth. I wasn’t sure that I wasn’t being set up. I’d been the butt of Brown’s pranks a few times previously.
    The salty brine and pickling spices coupled with the delicate flavor of the sucker like a fine wine and cheese. While Brown awaited my response, I slyly grasped the quart Mason jar with the fish contents and headed out the door.
    “ Oh no you don’t, buddy,” Brown retorted, as he grabbed me by the shirt collar. “This stuff is for special occasions, like my lunch. I only share this good stuff with those on their best behavior, and you are borderline.”   
    Spear fishing or "gigging" was common among American Indians. Winter time tactics included the cutting of holes in ice and dangling wooden lures to attract fish within spearing range. Another tactic, which required less skill, consisted of simply watching an open hole in the ice until a fish appeared.
    The rest of the year Indians used their canoes and hunted fish at night using torches as a source of light. Usually, a single prong spear was utilized to stick large fish while a three-pronged spear was used for smaller fish. Long, wooden poles tipped with bone, stone or copper were the weapon carried by those fishermen of long ago.
    Twenty-first century gigging technology in the Missouri Ozarks is not far advanced from the methods of the ancient hunters. However, gigging seasons now limit hunters to the cool weather months from September 15 to January 31. Although modern day giggers are not compelled to do so to survive, some urge deep in their souls pulls them to Ozarks streams on cold winter nights to gig fish and follow the traditions of their ancestors.
    Legendary knife maker Ken Richardson of Dillard, Mo., began gigging in the early 1960s. "I remember some of the old timers like Cletus Cottrell of Cherryville, who used to talk about gigging out of long cypress Jon boats. They built pine-knot fires on the front of their boats for light."
    Ingenious innovations are the norm for Ozark giggers.
    Richardson rocked in his old rocking chair at his daughter and son-in-law's Mountain Man store in Steelville as he continued. "Most guys made their own rigging to hold mantles for light. A piece of shiny metal served as a reflector to angle the light towards the water," Ken laughed again. "Those rigs worked like a charm until you hit a limb. Then you found yourself in the dark!
     I stood on the bow of a gigging boat with well-known gigger Danny Harmon from Steelville on a pleasant winter night several miles above Scott’s Ford. “We are in trout waters, so you have to be sure to I.D. a fish before you stick it.”
    Harmon was an anvil of a man, stout and strong, with eyes of an eagle. He stabbed fish with authority. His next thrust wielded a hefty sucker, which when lifted from the water hung limp as a wet handlebar mustache. “That’s how you do it Cooper,” he said.
    Several jabs later, all I netted was a duller gig from striking bottom hugging rocks. Trying to calculate for the refraction of the water, the movement of a fleeing sucker from a speeding boat proved akin to running the Pythagorean Theory and differential equations through your head at the same time.
    I kept missing the suckers until Harmon put everything into perspective. His words of wisdom echoed through the cool night air on the Meramec River that night. “Cooper, all you have to do is stab when the fish is not,” he said.
    EDITOR’S NOTE: Bill Cooper is an award winning outdoor writer and inductee of the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame as a Legendary Outdoor Communicator. He is the host of the Living the Dream Outdoors Podcast, which can be found on most social media platforms. He lives in rural St. James and can be followed at outsidealways.