There are millions of bass anglers in the United States. Out of these, many fish for species other than bass such as crappie, catfish, and sunfish. What about the rest of the fishermen who are strictly NON-bass anglers? Are they crazy? Is there a fish which holds as much appeal as bass, but hasn't found a foothold like bass have? The answers to the last two mind-boggling questions are: Some of them and; Yes, there are many fish species which have a devoted gang of hardcore anglers fishing specifically for them. In this month's journal, I'll be highlighting just one of these fish.
Our mystery fish is a member of the Perciformes order of fish known as "pikeperch." It is one which is found commonly from as far south as Louisiana and Alabama northward to the Great Lakes and New York, and as far North as well into the depths of Canada. At certain times of the year it is extremely abundant and can be caught by a number of methods. The world record for this fish is a modest 10 lbs 6 oz with 1-3 lbs being the most common range. It lives only in the largest river systems such as the Mississippi, Missouri, and St. Lawrence. Some anglers, especially those in the west may have never even heard of the fish before. This scaled attraction of which I speak is the infamous Sauger.
Sauger are basically small, brown walleye, with a few other distinctions, of course. They have spotted dorsal fins, are mostly brown on their backs with 'saddle' marks, and lack the white spot on the tail of the walleye. Their body is longer and more cylindrical than a walleye, and they are more tolerant of turbid (stained or muddy) water than are walleye. Sauger do have plenty of razor sharp fangs to keep our hands out of their mouths and they feed on much the same prey that walleye do.
(That's 21" folks!)
Now why do some people fish for sauger and sauger only? Who knows, but there are those that do. In East Tennessee in late winter/early spring, the only fish that anyone really talks much about is the sauger. One might think that all other fish like largemouth, crappie, and bluegill didn't even exist anymore. The thing which makes sauger so appealing is that there are areas where they really concentrate when spawning for about a two month period. On any given day of the week, hundreds of Tennessee sauger fishermen call in sick. I guess you'd call it "Sauger Fever".
Where is the best place to catch sauger in the spring? Some common grounds to consistently catch sauger when it's time are directly below the dams on the rivers, and where the river is still flowing at the top of reservoirs in the deeper (generally 30-50 feet) holes. When below the dam, most sauger are taken from the slack water behind the lock. It is best when the current flow is heavy and the dam is generating power. They seem to feed much better during these times. Prime feeding times for sauger is in the morning and evening, however they can be caught throughout the day as well.
What lures and presentations will work best on sauger? Most sauger anglers use 3/8-3/4 oz round leadhead hair jigs. Tipping these jigs with a minnow is extremely effective as well as soft plastic grubs. Since sauger have bony, toothy mouths, a 'stinger' treble hook is often used as a trailer hook. Small to medium-sized jigging spoons are also good lures. For the jigs and spoons, vertical jigging is just about the only way to go. After allowing the jig or spoon to hit the bottom, twitch the rod tip up 2-3 feet and let it fall while controlling the descent and feeling for a bite on the way down to the bottom. I have boated many 20 fish limits with this method. Some days, 40-50 fish aren't uncommon, and there is rarely a time when you won't catch at least a few. One of my favorite methods is carolina-rigging a live threadfin shad or a shiner about 2 feet from the bottom. Live bait seems to attract the larger fish.
Equipment to catch a sauger should include a sensitive graphite rod. I use casting gear because it is more tangle-free than spinning. The line to use should be 8-14 lb test, sauger don't put up nearly the opposition that a smallmouth of equal size does. The heavier line is good to have though, due to the number of snags encountered and the occasional, but not uncommon 20+ lb catfish.
How does a sauger fry up? As far as their table manners go, sauger is one of the best tasting freshwater fishes on the planet. Fried, grilled or baked with butter, they are hard to beat after a long day on the water. The meat is white and flaky like that of a walleye and there isn't even a hint of fishy flavor. They are my personal favorite.
I hope you enjoyed reading this month's journal. Sometime next spring when the other fish aren't biting, give sauger a try!! They're hard to beat and good to eat!!!
Some information contributed by: The Fishes of Tennessee. By David A. Etnier and Wayne C. Starnes. 1993.