DONIPHAN, Mo. • If it weren’t for the whine of an outboard motor and bright lights mounted on the front of an aluminum John boat, the three men could have been night fishing in a far-gone millennium.
They brandished long wooden poles with jagged metal gigs attached to the end.
Imagine Neptune, god of the sea, gripping his trident. Only the four-pronged gigs were thrust repeatedly into the shallow depths of the Current River in a brute force tradition to kill sucker fish playing out now on Missouri streams.
Guts can fly when gigs rip through fish flesh. So far this night, though, the suckers were winning.
Fish darted left and right, beyond the reach of the lights and 11-foot poles. Two of the men, standing on the bow of the boat, kept banging the gigs against the rocky river bottom in defeat.
“There’s plenty of fish,” Al Stevens, one hand on the throttle, shouted from the back. “We just have to have better aim.”
Stevens wouldn’t gig this night. He had the important task of steering the boat in pursuit of fish and later manning the vat of hot cooking oil set up on a gravel bar.
Stevens, 67, who has spent years on this stretch of river in southeast Missouri, had seen better talent, but he admitted it takes skill to gig, even in shallow water.
Soon enough, success hit and an impaled fish was held up on display. It weighed maybe one pound.
“Right behind the head,” said Ray Joe Hastings, 77, showing off the reward of his gigging prowess before raking the bloody fish into a trough.
Hastings was still far from his nightly limit of 20 “rough” fish.
Unlike angling for a few keepers in the spring and summer with rod and reel, gigging is about quantity not size. Buffalo, carp and drum are fair game. Suckers are the main target, particularly the northern hogsucker, which has blotched brown scales that blend in with rocks and a lot of little bones that used to make them difficult for humans to eat.
Tradition plays into most fishing, but gigging is distinctive in several ways. Apart from the primitive method, the season runs into winter, from Sept. 15 to January 31.
The darker and colder the better, some say.
Descendants of Scotch-Irish immigrants popularized gigging in the Ozarks during a spell when the rivers were roadways to move logs and railroad ties to market. Now it’s a regional sport that attracts extended families and circles of friends who take turns gigging, cleaning, cooking and eating the fresh kill.
On this night in another boat, a couple celebrated their wedding anniversary. Upriver in Van Buren, there was a “gig-off” going on to raise money for a cancer support group. Last year, there was a gigging course just for women. They dumped a bunch of oranges in the water and warmed up on those.
Before battery and generator powered lights were the rage, giggers used metal fire baskets to illuminate the river.
“Fishing is a popular activity, but sucker gigging is practiced mainly by local residents due to the need for specialized gear and extensive knowledge of the river,” according to a study, “Fire Fishing in Missouri: An Ozark Folk Tradition.”
“As a result, the Current and Jacks Fork rivers are premier locations for participation in sucker gigging, unbeknown to many ‘outsiders.’”
Respondents to a survey in the area said they’d been gigging, on average, about 25 years. They gig 11 times per season in a group of five or six people.
The study said gigging has been overlooked by researchers: “Perhaps this is due to the secretive nature of sucker giggers since this activity is done at night. Low fishing status and small amounts of revenue generated from this sport might be other explanations for apparent neglect.”
Fishermen spend more than $40 billion on equipment each year in the U.S. Gigging contributes very little to that number. It’s mainly ignored by major advertisers that focus on game fish like bass and trout.
Consider the gigs.
They can be purchased at a few hardware stores, but most are originals made out of old pitch forks or truck springs that are hard to come by.
Hastings, one of the men in the boat, has been collecting gigs for years. Nearly all 400 of them are handmade. Where one has one or two tines, others have three, four, five and six. Some are for poles, others are smaller, shot from a bow.
Gigs need to be made out of hard steel because they get pounded into rocks. The sharper frog gigs won’t cut it.
Hastings, who has been featured in publications such as Rural Missouri, finds gigs at flea markets and makes some himself. Others were given to him once word of his collection gained steam and upon the release of his book: “Bow & River Gigs Used In the Clear Streams of the Ozarks.”
“Isn’t that crude,” he said holding up one of his favorites from the late 1800s that’s made out of a mule shoe. A diver he knows found the rare gig in the river six miles below Doniphan.
More modern regional gigs are named after the people who crafted them. Melvin Lassen. Oatman Tanner. Frank Nickell.
Each maker has his own style.
One of them, Nickell, started developing his craft as a boy in Ripley County, when he found a way to both have fun and put food on the table. After working at a Chevrolet plant in St. Louis for 20 years, he came back to the country and made hundreds of gigs.
“Frank is gone now,” Hastings writes in his book, “but the giggers of Ripley and surrounding counties will keep the memory of this ‘Legendary Gig Maker’ alive for many years to come when they use his gigs on a regular basis during gigging season!”
The season is perhaps most popular during the first two weeks, before hypothermia becomes a factor.
“Giggers tend to be a select group of people,” said Jerry Elliott, Missouri Department of Conservation district supervisor in West Plains. “There tend to be diehards who go out and brave the cold conditions.”
The other night, Stevens thought it was too hot to be gigging. He got by just wearing overalls. Scores of bugs flocked to the powerful lights.
Still, he enjoyed being on the water and they ended up with enough fish for a full meal.
With the help of his granddaughter’s husband and Hastings, Stevens propped up an old ironing board on a gravel bar to prepare the fish. He scaled and filleted the suckers, then scored the meat several times with a sharp knife so the hot oil heating up in a nearby vat would seep in and crystallize the remaining bones.
“For years, people wouldn’t eat these fish because they are so full of little bones,” he said.
He rolled the meat in corn meal and seasoning, plopped it into the oil alongside hush puppies and breaded potatoes and pickles.
A bonfire helped illuminate the fresh feast, which capped off the end of a ritual that will be repeated in the deep freezes of winter.