JACKSON — It’s routine business for Wyoming fishery crews to nab nontarget species when they’re out netting to gauge the abundance and sizes of prized game fish like cutthroat and lake trout.
But it’s a rarity to catch a state record.
Wyoming Game and Fish Department Jackson Region Fisheries Biologist Clark Johnson can count himself among the small tribe of de facto state record-holders whose winning catches came not on a rod and reel, but in a gill net while surveying populations for work. The “winner,” in this case, was a beefy Utah sucker he subdued an hour or so after dark on a late October day while netting lake trout on Jackson Lake.
“When it came in, I thought we should measure and weigh this thing, because it was close to a state record,” Johnson said. “Turns out it was.”
The sucker stretched the tape to 26 inches, weighing in at 9 1/4 pounds. Had it been reeled in, it would have edged out the standing state record sucker by exactly 1 pound, dethroning a fish caught in the Snake River backwaters just above Palisades Reservoir 15 years ago.
It is possible Johnson’s net-caught fish would have beat all other Utah suckers reeled in and weighed on a certified scale everywhere. The Utah state record is significantly smaller, at 6 pounds, 6 ounces, while tops in Idaho is just shy of 9 pounds — and that’s the extent of their distribution.
Utah suckers are a native species endemic to the Upper Snake and Bear River drainages that people often consider a “rough” or “trash” fish, Johnson said. Wyoming manages the bottom-dwelling species as a “nongame” fish, meaning there are no limits or seasons, and they can be taken by bow and other unconventional means. Some Jackson Hole anglers target them to stash away as lake trout bait, while others even use them as table fare.
“I haven’t tried them, but I know a few people that have, and they’re not bad,” Johnson said. “They have a light flesh meat that’s fairly firm.”
Desperate to become a record-setting angler? Johnson recommended ditching the pursuit of species people obsess over and homing in on underappreciated, arguably less eye-pleasing aquatic critters like suckers.
“Those nongame fish, if you want to be a state record holder, those are the ones to target, simply because other people aren’t targeting them,” he said.
Johnson speaks from experience that’s not limited to the recent encounter with the behemoth sucker.
Last spring, also on Jackson Lake, the Wyoming fisheries biologist nabbed some would-be record-setting Utah chubs in survey nets. The approximately 2 1/3-pound Wyoming record was hooked out of the same lake by Jackson angler Adair Dickerson in 2017, but Johnson’s springtime netting foray produced “two or three” chubs larger than that.
In all likelihood, those chart-busting Utah chubs and suckers are kicking it under the ice in northern Jackson Hole right now.
“We took a quick picture of it, and it was released,” Johnson said of the 9-pound sucker. “It was doing just fine, and I’m confident that fish is still swimming around. I’m sure nothing would have eaten it — it was too big.”