The One Day the Lowly Sucker Gets its Moment of Fame

Nixa, Mo. — Glenn Scott sat in a lawn chair near the line of kettles where the fish were being fried on Nixa’s biggest day of the year, Sucker Day, and listened as one of the old-timers talked about how unique this festival was.

“Actually, we’re not the only town that has a Sucker Day,” said Scott, who has been the chairman of the Nixa festival for 26 years. “There’s a town in Oklahoma (Wetumka) that has a Sucker Day, too. But theirs was named after a guy who came into town years ago and fleeced the locals out of their money. He got them to pay for a circus and then he skipped town without ever putting it on.

“Ours is all about the fish.”

Indeed, this is the day when the lowly sucker gets its one moment of fame.

Through the years, the creeks and rivers have been full of the bottom feeders when they moved up to spawn. Fishermen would climb trees overlooking the water and set up ladders in the shallow streams so that they could spot the fish. Then they would go sucker grabbing, using a rod and reel with a treble hook and a heavy weight. They would cast under a school of fish and jerk up quickly to snag them.

That’s been an Ozarks tradition for years, and that tradition eventually spawned a festival. Nixa barber Finis Gold and his friends rains went sucker grabbing one spring day in 1957, and decided to haul the fish back to Nixa to feed the town a free meal. That gathering became so popular that it turned into an annual celebration, complete with the traditional fish fry, a fishing contest, a parade, a queen contest and rows of vendors.

“Years ago, the businesses would close up shop, the schools would close and everyone would go fishing on Sucker Day,” said Ray Wilcox, 80, who grew up grabbing suckers on Finley Creek. “You’d see crowds of people in the streams on ladders, trying to grab suckers.”

It’s not quite that way anymore. The fishermen no longer go out the day of the festival to compete for who can catch the biggest fish. And the population of fish, along with the number of anglers chasing them, has dropped off.

But make no mistake, Sucker Day is still a big deal in Nixa. Avid grabbers keep their catch throughout the spring and donate them to the organizers of the festival. Then old-timers fry them up behind the booths as a long line of customers form at a concession stand, just waiting to plunk down their $7.50 for a meal.

That was the scene last Saturday as several thousand people flocked to Nixa, a town of about 19,000 residents located 25 miles south of Springfield, for a celebration of a fish not often held in such high regard.

“I’ve had people who just couldn’t believe we’d eat suckers,” said Jim Bryant, who when asked where he lives will answer “eight dips down the road and turn right.” They say they’d fix them on a board, then throw the suckers away and eat the board.

“But once we get them to try them, they’re pleasantly surprised. If suckers are prepared the right way, they’re delicious.

“And the people around here know it. We’ve had people lined up around the block just waiting to buy a meal.”

Fishermen in the area have donated as many as 3,500 suckers to the cause some years, and most of them were eaten by the time the one-day festival was over. The yellow and white suckers, both of which range up to two pounds, are the most desirable table fare. But redhorse and blue suckers also are taken.

“Suckers have good white meat,” Wilcox said. “You just have to make sure you score them to get rid of those bones. If you do that, they’re delicious.”

Sucker Day is about more than just the meal, though. There is a parade to open the festival, a Miss Sucker Day pageant, a Runnin’ for the Suckers 5K run, entertainment and displays of past Sucker Days. But the real entertainment comes from hearing the fish stories told by the old-timers who are frying the fish.

“This is what Nixa is known for,” Scott said. “It’s something we’re pretty darned proud of.”

Wilcox, has been frying the suckers for 40 years and he has supplied his share of fish over the years. He also has picked up enough fish stories to fill a book.

“I remember how some old boys would always take over their limit of suckers,” Wilcox said. “Well, they had an old dog that would bark if he saw the warden coming and they would dump part of their fish

“The warden figured that out, though, and he fed the dog so that he could sneak up on those old boys. He got them for having over their limit.

“One of those guys said, ‘We have to get a new dog.’ “

Wilcox also laughs about the years when he would weigh the suckers that were caught for the fishing contest.

“I would go to weigh them, then I would clean the afterwards and lead balls would fall out,” he said.

The Ozarks sucker grabbing season, which ended May 15, was only fair this year. The cool weather delayed the suckers’ spawning run up Ozarks creeks. And rains murkied the water and made the suckers harder to spot.

But many fishermen still followed tradition and went out. And Nixa Sucker Day was still an event that packed Main Street and followed tradition.

“This is what Nixa is known for,” Scott said. “It’s something we’re pretty darned proud of.”