The official end to sucker gigging season arrived on January 15. Unseasonably cold, nasty weather held giggers at bay in early January. On the other hand, the weather broke the weekend of the eighth. On Monday, the ninth, a group  20 or so men met on the upper Meramec River for the grand finale of gigging season.
    The group met with a purpose, other than having a night of fun and frolics on the clear waters of the Meramec. Their mission included gigging all the suckers they were legally allowed to provide fish for the Meramec Baptist Men and Boys Wild Game Dinner on Friday, January 27 at the retreat center on AA Highway out of Steelville.
    Paul and Spencer Hutson organized the gala event. Pete Righter and Jimmy Harman supplied gigging boats that would transport participants up and down the river in their attempt to gig a bunch of fish.
    High winds whipped up and down the river, creating a ripple on the water’s surface, which interfered slightly with spotting fish.
    I climbed in Pete Righter’s boat. His 15-year-old grandson manned the motor like a pro. Motor problems kept us close to the river access where put in, however.
    The first to guys up to gig flexed their arms and waved their gigs as a pre-gig warm up routine. Elbows and shoulders take a beating when thrusting a gig on a cold winter night.
    The Meramec was alive with suckers darting to and fro and it didn’t take long for the giggers to put the first fish in the boat. Laughter filled the cool, night air as the guys missed a couple of fish.
    Righter proved to be the perfect gigging coach. “I’ve done a lot of gigging in my lifetime, “Pete said. “I still love to come along with the guys, but gigging is too rough on my arms anymore. I let the young guys take care of sticking the fish.”      
    At 73 years of age, Righter may find gigging tough on his arms, but he works the logging woods everyday. Perhaps he’s saving his muscle for the logs he timbers every day.
    After a few passes up and down two long holes on either side of the access point,  the younger Righter headed the gigging boat back towards the access, where a band of well organized, well equipped men awaited the first batch of suckers. The cleaning process would begin.
    Several dozen suckers were quickly transferred from the gigging boat tub to five gallon buckets. An assembly line of men went to work.
    Treff Earney, Spencer Hutson and the Siegel brothers began scaling fish. Those guys could make the scales fly.
    “We don’t do to bad for a bunch of old guys,” Ken Siegel chuckled.
    Earney  quizzed  Siegel about who he was calling old. The banter bounced back and forth in friendly gesture as the guys enjoyed their time together on the banks of the Meramec River.
    Once a fish was scaled, it was passed down the line to a pair of guys with electric filet knives. Bright lights, powered by gas generators, made the job much easier than trying to work by the light of a campfire.
    Once the suckers were filleted, they made their way to two guys alternating on a scoring machine. It took a little muscle to push a box of sharp blades across a fish. The end product, however was a fish cut to the skin on the other side, at about 1/4-inch intervals. “All those tiny bones are cut up,” Paul Hutson explained. “Too, the many, many cuts allows the cornmeal to get down into the crevices. And when you cook those babies up, you have a wonderful, crispy, tasty sucker filet.”
    The cleaning crew had almost finished the first batch of fish, when Jimmy Harmon and his gigging crew came roaring back up river towards the access. The bright lights on their gigging rail illuminated the river corridor creating an eerie glow along the river banks as the boat sped upstream.
    The river-men who speed up and down rivers at night to find suckers to gig are a special breed of people. A heart for adventure and a palette for fresh fish fried up on a  gravel bar by a campfire is what motivates these guys.
    “Gigging suckers is just a way of life for us,” Harmon explained. “We’ve done it all of our lives. So did most of our dads. And we are teaching our kids. It sure beats sittin’ at home watching TV.”
    Gigging fish from a moving boat in the pitch black of a cold, winter night is not something that many people in the world have done. “Gigging is a special kind of fun,” Righter said. “Us hill folks have spent a lot of time at it over the years.
    Giggers and fish cleaners rotated positions to maximize the number of fish the party could take. Each person is allowed 20 suckers.
    Someone built a campfire. It became a focal point of the evening as guys rotated around to warm hands and take the chill off. Conversation flowed like the river itself, steady and strong. Old stories of giggers now gone and a few funny mishaps on the river echoed through the night.
    All fingers had almost thawed when we heard the roar of boats coming back up river. Soon the gigging lights flooded our positions on the river bank. We all knew it meant one thing. There were dozens more suckers to clean.
    The troops rallied and the scales began to fly once again. The groups worked a bit quieter than on the first round.
    “It’s been a fun evening,” I commented to Spencer Hutson.
    “Yeah, but we didn’t get to eat any fish,”he said. “The real fun will be at the wild game dinner. We’ve got enough fish to feed a crowd just like Jesus.”