The Walleye's Quirky Cousins: Sauger
October 31, 2011
Professional angler Tom Brunz says that while he pursues walleyes as hard as anyone, he has a soft spot in his heart for their quirky cousin. His passion for trophy saugers turned into a 40-year love affair with a fish that often fails to get the attention or respect it deserves. Brunz has caught many giant walleyes, but he thinks big saugers—those 4-, 5-, and 6-pound fish—are the most challenging to catch consistently. "Find me anglers who say they can always catch trophy-class fish and you have a batch of liars," he says.
Brunz was the winner of the 2011 MWC Spring Valley Tournament and has spent 25 years fishing all the professional circuits. Tracking his sauger season, he begins the chase each fall as water temperatures fall below 60°F. At this point, the fish begin moving upstream from main-basin areas where they spend summer feeding on shiners and other minnows, shad, and small panfish.
Always in search of current and deep water, the fish invariably hold in or near main-river channel areas with a constant forage supply. One key spot for big fish is the upper sections of deep holes. They may move shallow at times, often using secondary structure like ridges (or bars) adjacent to deep water. Often these areas are well downstream from tailwater areas where smaller fish often spend fall and winter. High-water also draws more fish to tailrace sites and provides faster fishing, but these community spots are dominated by small fish. Brunz says that about the only time there's a good chance to catch a trophy from a tailrace is during the peak of the prespawn.
During fall, when fish often are scattered, he uses 18-pound leadcore line in conjunction with shad-style crankbaits to search for them. He trolls slowly both upstream and downstream, using the down-scan feature on his Humminbird 1198 to look for fish on structure. "Even if I don't see fish, if it's a good spot I take several trolling passes, concentrating on the edges of the deep hole. Finally, I zigzag through the deepest portion of the hole," he says.
He uses Daiwa SG47LGA line-counter reels. Terminally, he ties on a small barrel swivel and adds a 30-foot section of 10-pound Berkley FireLine Crystal. The ultra-thin FireLine allows lures to dive deeper without having to use as much lead line. At the end of the FireLine he uses a small snap to facilitate lure changes. His favorite shad cranks are #5 and #7 Rapala Shad Raps; the #7 Rapala Minnow Rap; Berkley Flicker Shads; and Koppers LiveTarget Yellow Perch and Threadfin Shad. The tight wobble of these lures contrasts with the subtle action of minnowbaits like the Original Floating Rapala, which work best during late winter and early spring.
Working with a partner, he sets two rods on each side of the boat, the first a 10.5-foot medium-action casting rod that goes in a rod holder. He lets out enough line to get the lure ticking bottom, then reels up about 3 feet to get the lure about a foot above the bottom.
St. Croix's Wild River model WC106MMF2 is his favorite rod, but he also likes the 9.5-foot Berkley AIR-IM8 (model A94-9-6M). Rods must have enough backbone to handle the weight of the leadcore, but also enough tip sensitivity to transmit the action of the lure. Leaves and other debris gather in slack-water areas of deep holes, making it critical to check lures often to ensure they're running clean.
Each angler also hand-holds a 6-foot leadcore rod, running a deep-diving crankbait—Brunz's favorite, the Rapala Trolls-To 15 Shad. A 1/2- to 1-ounce rubbercore sinker or snapweight is at times placed 6 feet up the line from the lure to get even greater separation of the lures in the trolling spread. The long rods maximize the overall coverage of the lures, while the short rods with lures fished close to the boat, increases precision and reduces tangles and crossed lines.
Saugers often hold on bottom transitions from rock to gravel, gravel to sand, and sand to soft bottom. These changes can be seen on sonar and felt with the deeper diving lures. With the short lines it also easy to make depth changes that keep lures running right in the zone on and just above bottom.
In late fall when the water temperature falls into the 40°F range, saugers stay belly to the bottom. Brunz switches from leadcore trolling to fishing with three-way rigging, using his bowmount trolling motor to position. The mainline is 14-pound FireLine Crystal tied directly to the three-way swivel. Add a 6-foot leader of 10-pound Berkley 100% Fluorocarbon and tie a snap at the end to attach lures. The dropper is 18 inches of 8-pound mono with a snap swivel at the terminal end to change sinkers. The lighter mono dropper is the weak link in the rig and when it's snagged you break it without losing the rest of the rigging. Have on hand bell sinkers ranging from 2 to 8 ounces. Run the rigging at a speed in combination with current resistance, keeping the line at about a 45-degree angle into the water.
The #9 Rapala Floating Minnow in orange, firetiger, and chartreuse are top choices. At times this past season, Brunz also did well with the #5 Rapala X-Rap in hot pink. This was his best lure during his MWC tournament victory at Spring Valley. Brunz says to experiment with lure size and color. Bright colors tend to perform best when fishing stained waters; realistic finishes like the Kopper LiveTarget Smelt often fool more fish in clearer water.
Where regulations allow, Brunz sometimes fishes a second lure in combination with the first. Take a lure with a lot of action, like the #7 Rapala Jointed Floating Minnow, and rig it behind a lure with less action like the #9 Floating Rapala. The trailing lure is 18 inches behind the first lure, attached via leader and snap to the rear split ring of the first lure. Rigged like this, the lead bait loses most of its action, but at times saugers much prefer the dead lure to the action option. Rigs can be further modified using a heavy jig to anchor the rig in place of the bell sinker, with the angler presenting a jig and two cranks in combination.
Winter into Spring
During winter, the fishing gets more difficult for big fish. Brunz uses jigs to search main-river channel structural elements closer to the dam. Some days anglers must be satisfied with action from smaller fish, knowing that anytime they're fishing efficiently and probing good structure big fish can happen along. Each day Brunz also heads downriver to check key trophy areas. Most of the fishing is within several miles of tailrace areas.
Saugers often like big jigs, so jig weights from 1/2 to 2 ounces are common. Besides, depth control is paramount, so if it takes 2 ounces to stay in contact with the bottom, don't hesitate. Brunz: "I usually tip with a 3-inch Berkley PowerBait Ripple Shad and the 3-inch Trigger X Walleye Swimming Grub. Ripple Shads fish larger than a standard curlytail grub and the paddletail offers vibration that helps fish find the lure in turbid water. I add a large fathead minnow to the jig for even more bulk, action, and scent. Bigger saugers love bulk and at times the gaudier the rig the better. If minnows are running small, add 2 or 3 to take up the entire gap of the hook."
Gaudy also goes for jig color at times, with orange and chartreuse, green and purple, pink and pearl, and flame red and blue, being good choices. Brunz says contrasting colors stand out more in turbid waters. And he also instructs to experiment with jigging strokes. The standard lift-drop or lift-hold-drop often produce fish, but other times dragging a jig is better. Fish preference for jigging maneuvers often changes during a day on the water. And he says that saugers can be as fickle as they can be aggressive; so the addition of a stinger hook to catch short-strikers often is in order.
Vertical swimming lures like the Jigging Rapala or a jigging spoon also become important as winter slides into spring and fish approach the Prespawn Period. Brunz uses #7 and #9 Jigging Rapalas, adding a small tail section from a real minnow to the rear single hook on the tail of the lure. Most of the fish eat the entire lure instead of just nipping at meat hanging on the treble hook. Another tipping option is a small tail portion from a 3-inch Berkley Gulp! Minnow.
Brunz: "For jigging spoons I like options that fish precisely, without much side drift, so favorites include the Bay de Noc Swedish Pimple and the Acme Kastmaster. I have them in sizes up to 1 ounce and in gaudy colors, once again, along with traditional options like silver and gold. If fish are in shallow water I also use the 1/4-ounce JB Lures Rattling Varmit, a noisy spoon with a lot of flash and vibration."
Jigs tipped with 4-, 5-, or 6-inch ring worms also work well at times, especially as fish move shallower in spring and anglers pitch jigs instead of just fishing vertically. Hair jigs like the 3/4-ounce Hutch Hogg Hunter Bucktail Jig or the 1-ounce Ole Pete's Tackle Hair Jig also work, with these jigs offering the larger profile that saugers sometimes prefer.
Brunz uses hair when jigs are fished aggressively, because they don't have to be tipped to trigger fish. Drop the jig to the bottom and pops it up a foot or so with a sharp rod-tip lift, to attract attention. The saugers typically pin the jig to the bottom after it falls back. This jigging motion also works with other jigs and should always be considered, even in the coldest conditions. Again, experiment and let the fish tell you what they want.
Saugers play a role as the generally more tenacious and aggressive cousin of the walleye. They provide open-water action from fall throughout winter. They're fine eating. And the trophy fish are one of the most difficult fish of all to catch consistently. Sometimes the toast of the town is a quirky cousin.
*Steve Ryan, Des Plaines, Illinois, is one of In-Fisherman's most frequent contributors and also serves as a Field Editor for In-Fisherman's Ice Fishing Guide television, which begins a new season on The Sportsman Channel in early October.
Stange Talks Saugers
—Timing, Territory, Tendencies
In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange has been fishing for saugers for more than 40 years, on rivers and reservoirs across North America, but primarily on various portions of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Stange: "Water clarity is a vital consideration, given that saugers are more light sensitive than walleyes. Prime structural elements in tailwater areas and downstream often are used by both walleyes and saugers, but at different times. Take a fish magnet like a rock-gravel ridge (say 12 feet deep) at the edge of the channel, for example. If the water's low and clear or moderately clear and you have a nice sunny day, walleyes often use the hump all day long, but saugers only use it during early morning and right at dark, times when walleyes typically aren't biting well. Same territory, different timing.
"I also catch giant saugers on those types of spots—prime shallow territory near deep water—on the most difficult weather days, with wind and rain and snow. Those dark days are sauger days, when big fish roam shallower than normal. Those are tough days for walleyes, but prime for big saugers. It's slow fishing, but the odds are good for a big fish.
"Saugers also generally tolerate more current than walleyes, so no surprise that on prime structural elements, key big-sauger spots often are different than the sweet spots for walleyes. I check everything from the tail end of structures to the front. Generally, though, when big fish are feeding they keep moving forward into modest current until they get near the front of the structural element. 'Keep moving forward,' is a good rule to think about as you search for big fish. Morning, evening, dark days on clearer water, move forward. The death of all fishing in rivers is cold, really dirty fast-running water, although you're more likely to catch a limit of eater saugers on a day like that than you are walleyes. I love a meal of 12 inchers."
Stange: "Bright, bold, bigger can all be important in choosing jigs, but I usually base jig choice on current conditions. Saugers often like a compact package, so short jigs like the Northland Fire Ball are super at times. I also like the balance offered by the Lindy Jig, with its slightly broader head. And I've caught a ton of fish on the classic Lindy Fuzzy Grub over the years. The short jigs work well in most current conditions but shine in reduced current.
"Longer jigs work well in more current, with my all-time favorite being the Caps Rock-A-Roo bucktail, tipped with a minnow hooked through the lips. That's a package that flows beautifully in current as you move the jig along slowly near the bottom. Keep in compact in modest current, make it flow in more current."
—Buoyancy and Fish Position
Stange: "Fish regulate their buoyancy by making adjustments with their swim bladder in order to function best in different environmental conditions. It takes longer for fish to make changes in cold water. No surprise that the bottom- loving sauger spends winter close to bottom in modest current.
"Note the current conditions where you're catching fish. It takes only a slight change to move fish on the structural element. Or say the Army Corp opens another gate and the flow increases distinctly on one structural element and modestly on another. The fish on one element might turn off or move, while on the other they might turn on."
—Turning Neutral Fish
Stange: "Saugers can be aggressive at times, even during the dead of winter, but more often most of the fish are in a neutral or negative mood. Neutral fish can be caught if you concentrate on jigging moves and stay in the right current conditions, which generally fall into three categories: no current; slight current; or slight, but distinct current. Anything faster should only be fished if all else fails.
"Drop the jig and minnow to the bottom and position your rod tip a foot above the water. Reel the jig just off the bottom about 2 inches. I put my trigger finger on the line at this point. The key zone for these saugers is from the bottom and up about 6 inches. Move the boat along very slowly about 2 or 3 feet and stop. Don't move your rod tip. Let the jig swing back into position. Let the jig remain motionless for about 5 seconds. Drop the jig to the bottom to make sure you're maintaining depth control. Make a depth correction if necessary, then move the boat again.
"Work slight current the same way but you can also drift over potential areas. Work through slight-but-distinct current areas either with or against current, or make controlled drifts with the current. Concentrate on keeping the rod tip still in order to detect the slightest bumps by sauger. You'll scratch a few extra fish by the end of the day."