The northern hogsucker (Hypentelium nigricans) is a fairly common but relatively unknown member of the sucker family found in free flowing streams across much of eastern North America. A rather distinct fish with an almost box shaped head, these hogsuckers can be difficult to spot for those who don’t actively seek them out. With a mottled body that serves as a natural camouflage, northern hogsuckers often blend into the bottom even when they approach two pounds (0.90 kg) in size.
Northern hogsuckers play an important role in the ecosystem. By overturning rocks as they feed they kick up a lot of aquatic insects like nymphs into the water column. The insects then become prey for other species of fish. Northern hogsuckers can also be eaten but other larger fish and piscivorous birds of prey.
Northern Hogsucker Identification
Northern hogsuckers have a square head with large lips covered by small bumps. They sport a black line around their lips that is not found in any other species. Northern hogsuckers have large scales that can almost seem speckled. Overall they have a golden brown sheen. Several saddle-shaped dark patches can often be found along the upper part of the body, though some hogsuckers appear to sport more of an all-over natural camouflage pattern.
Northern hogsuckers can grow to a maximum size of about 14.5 inches (37 cm) and weigh up to two pounds. But they are more commonly spotted and caught in the eight to ten inch range and weigh no more than a pound. Smaller northern hogsuckers just three or four inches in length can also be common at certain times.
Northern Hogsucker range and habitat
The northern hogsucker can be found across a range stretching from southern Ontario, Canada all the way down to southern Mississippi. East to west its range spans from New York to South Dakota, with some gaps in between.
Northern hogsuckers can only be found in moving waters, particularly small rivers and streams. Although they are definitely not lake fish, they can occasionally be found in reservoirs fed by moving waterways. Northern hogsuckers tend to stay around riffles where they root around in the substrate in search of food. Northern hogsuckers mainly eat aquatic insects, crustaceans and microalgae.
The northern hogsucker is commonly described as a warm water fish. This is certainly accurate as they can be found in waters like Pennsylvania’s Pigeon Creek. But we have also seen them in the upper reaches of some trout streams like Loyalhanna Creek in Pennsylvania and the Little River in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We’ve caught northern hogsuckers in Pennsylvania’s Pike Run and the North Fork of Ten Mile Creek.
Fishing for northern hogsuckers
To say angling for northern hogsuckers is not a popular pastime would be a major understatement. When hogsuckers are caught at all it is usually by accident. But there are those who specimen anglers who seek out northern hogsuckers for their lifelists or just good fishing fun.
Northern hogsuckers are actually quite strong fish for their size. Their blockheaded shape and experience swimming in currents can make them formidable fighters on light tackle. But in order to fight a hogsucker you must first catch one.
Live bait is without question the most effective approach to fishing for northern hogsuckers. A red worm or nightcrawler on a small hook works well. The best approach is to locate hogsuckers then cast upstream. Ideally you either want your bait to get right in front of, or even under, the fish. You can do this by drifting your bait naturally with the current. But is more effective to anchor your bait on the bottom lightly with weight.
Northern hogsuckers can be caught on artificial lures as we have confirmed with experience. It is not an easy thing to do. But a perfectly placed small soft plastic lure like a Mini Trout Magnet or fly like a hare’s ear nymph can elicit a strike from these fish.
Lures that mimic northern hogsuckers
Northern hogsuckers might not be the most important source of food for any predator species they certainly do get eaten by bigger fish. So it can make sense to carry lures or flies that resemble hogsuckers at times.
When northern hogsuckers approach full size they can be some of the largest fish in the waters they inhabit. But where they coexist with fish like northern pike they could still be a prey fish. It is still more common for smaller hogsuckers to be eaten by larger species.
In parts of Canada, hogsuckers are sometimes sold as “pike bait.” Everywhere else there are lures like the Rapala Countdown in Hot Mustard Muddler and Perch colors. Both do a pretty good job at replicating the look of a hogsucker.
For fly fishing there are a number of streamers that can pretty accurately imitate northern hogsuckers including the Brown Sculpin, Black Marabou Sculpin and Grizzly Sculpin and Cranford’s Pandora’s Box in Olive & Black.