May 20, 2020
By Dan Johnson
Saugers are walleyes’ little cousins, but their attitude more than makes up for it. These spot-finned, piscatorial versions of scrappy bantam roosters and flyweight human prizefighters attack anglers’ lures with a vengeance that puts all but the most aggressive walleyes to shame.
This ready-to-rumble mindset makes saugers prime targets for fishermen, especially when environmental conditions such as cold fronts put walleyes in a funk. Plus, saugers taste great, giving savvy anglers seeking fine table fare yet another reason to set their sights on these spotted fiends.
To consistently catch saugers, particularly super-size spots, anglers must first understand a bit about their behavior. For starters, sag-bellied saugers are inherently drawn to deeper, darker, and swifter water than walleyes.
On Lake of the Woods, for example, the early summer bite offers a glimpse into how these differences affect fish location. I’ve seen days when intrepid anglers trolling crankbaits or ‘crawler harnesses scored big numbers of walleyes in depths of 12 to 14 feet, sometimes as shallow as 4 to 7 feet near shore, while scads of saugers schooling in 25 to 30 feet eagerly snapped up standard jigs tipped with shiners.
Jig selection is critical to sauger success. “Bright, bold, and bigger can all be important, but I usually base jig choice on current conditions,” Doug Stange says. “Saugers often like a compact package, so short jigs like the Northland Fire-Ball are super at times. I also like the balance of the Lindy Jig, with its slightly broader head. And I’ve caught a ton of fish on the classic Lindy Fuzz-E-Grub over the years. In general, short jigs work well in reduced current, while longer jigs shine in stronger flows.” Klages favors the Lindy Jig as well, and says shades of glow blue, pink, and white are hard to beat on the Missouri River system.
Veteran Missouri River guide Jim Klages of Dakota Prairie Guide Service sees the depth difference on his home waters. “Generally, saugers are going to be in deeper water or stronger current than walleyes,” he says.
Klages targets saugers from prespawn into early summer, and Lake Francis Case is a favorite destination. “The reservoir has a good population of saugers averaging 17 to 19 inches, especially south of Chamberlain,” he says. “The closer you get to the White River, and then below the confluence, is where we get into a lot of saugers. They’re catchable even after dramatic cold fronts shut walleyes down.”
He tears a page from his postspawn playbook to illustrate depth differences. He says under the same conditions, it’s common to find postspawn walleyes roaming near-shore shallows, while saugers patrol deeper water nearby. “In the Postspawn Period, I primarily fish main-channel ledges,” he says. “Saugers may move onto shallow flats, but not as much as walleyes. I often locate saugers in 10 to 15 feet of water on the channel edge, then see a mix of saugers and walleyes in the 8- to 10-foot range, and more walleyes as we move shallower.”
He targets these fish with livebait rigs towed behind 2-ounce bottom bouncers. “One of my favorite setups is a 50th Anniversary Lindy Rig, trimmed to 42 inches, with a pink, #4 hook tipped with a minnow,” he says. “One-inch Lindy Lil’ Guys tipped with a minnow work well, too. I troll a little faster than the current is pushing me. For example, when the boat is moving 1.2 to 1.3 mph with the flow, I troll 1.5 to 1.6 mph. Troll just fast enough so the Lil’ Guys wobble and your lines don’t tangle. Don’t drag the weight on bottom, keep it ticking and your line at no more than a 45-degree angle to the water.”
Are You up for the Ultimate Sauger Battle?
Arguably the longest-running sauger battle on the planet plays out every March on the legendary Illinois River—heralded by locals as the “Sauger Capital of the World.” Two-person teams from across the Midwest converge on Spring Valley, Illinois, to duke it out in the annual kick-off of the Masters Walleye Circuit season.
Sure, there are walleyes in the river. Some dandies, too. But the Illinois’ sauger fishery routinely raises eyebrows. Giants over 5 are possible, and it typically takes better than a 2-pound average to top the leaderboard. In last year’s contest, for example, Ohio’s Dan Johnson (no relation to the author) and Larry Rhoads scored a comeback victory with a 10-fish limit weighing 23 pounds 3 ounces, taken on a combination of hand-lining and pole-lining tactics. It was their second MWC win on the river in the last seven years. In their first win, they hooked their biggest fish—a toad just shy of 4 pounds—on a jig sweetened with a firetiger-pattern Berkley Gulp! Minnow.
Thanks to a long-running partnership between the MWC and Illinois Department of Natural Resources, tournament-caught fish are whisked away to a DNR hatchery, where they’re used as broodstock to restock the Illinois River and other state fisheries.
Longtime In-Fisherman friend and tournament ace Tommy Skarlis, who fished his first MWC Illinois River tourney back in 1993, explains the event’s allure. “I love this tournament for a number of reasons,” he says. “It’s a chance to enjoy the best sauger bite you’ve ever experienced, and the river’s ever-changing playing field makes it exciting for anglers and fans alike, because everyone’s in it until the last minute. Plus, it’s like a big family reunion, reconnecting with old friends and welcoming first-timers to the tournament.”
The event is open to all comers, for a fee, which is paid back to the field in prize money. For details, visit masterswalleyecircuit.com.
Throughout the seasons, light levels under water play a pivotal role in sauger location, particularly the depth at which fish hold. “Water clarity is a key consideration, given that saugers are more light sensitive than walleyes,” says In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange, who’s fished saugers for more than four decades on rivers and reservoirs across the continent.
He explains that prime structural elements are often used by both walleyes and saugers, but at different times depending on light conditions. “Take a fish magnet like a rock-gravel ridge lying in 12 feet of water along the edge of the main river channel, for example,” he says. “In bright conditions, such as clear or moderately clear water on a nice sunny day, walleyes may use the hump all day long, but saugers only move onto it early in the morning and right at dark, low-light periods when the walleyes aren’t biting well at that depth on that particular piece of structure. Same territory, different timing.”
When weather conditions go south, such spots can produce some of the largest saugers in the system. “I catch giants on prime structure near deeper water on the most challenging weather days, with wind and snow,” Stange says. “Big saugers roam shallower than normal on these dark days, which are tough for walleyes but prime time for saugers. Be forewarned, it’s slow fishing, but the odds of hooking big fish are good.”
Current is also a factor. “Since saugers generally tolerate more current than walleyes, key big-sauger spots on prime structure are often different that the sweet spots for walleyes,” Stange says. “I check everything from the tail end of structures to the front.
Generally, though, when big fish are feeding they continually move forward into modest current until they reach the upstream side of the structure. Which is why ‘keep moving forward’ is a good rule of thumb as you search for fish.”
Klages almost always trolls upstream when hunting for prespawn saugers. “My go-to setup is a trolling rod and line-counter reel spooled with 18-pound leadcore. At the end of the leadcore, I run 18 feet of 15-pound-test braid, followed by 6 feet of 14-pound fluorocarbon. I like a medium-wobbling crankbait like a Lindy Wally Demon. Trolling speed depends on current strength. For example, when I’m trolling below the mouth of the White River, where the inflow boosts the Missouri’s current, 1 to 1.4 mph might be perfect. Above the confluence, however, where the flow is lighter, I might troll at 2 or 2.3 mph. Because water releases fluctuate from the upstream dam, you can’t go by boat speed as much as the feel of how the bait is working. Touch the rod and feel the vibration of the plug you’re pulling. In the case of the Wally Demon, for example, it’s not a distinctive buzz, but you can feel the vibrations.”
The mood of the fish determines how tight to bottom baits should run. “Saugers are typically more aggressive than walleyes, so on good sauger days you can get away with running lures 2 to 4 feet off bottom and catch fish, when walleyes would want it 6 inches off bottom under the same conditions,” he says. “Other days, even saugers want it 6 inches from the bottom.”
Once trolling speed and running depth are dialed in, Klages spices up his presentation with S-turns and rod manipulations, which briefly alter the lure’s locomotion. “When I get a fish on, I keep the boat moving and let the fish fight against the rod,” he says. “There’s little stretch with leadcore, braid, and fluorocarbon, so if you try reeling in a fighting fish while trolling against the current, you can tear the hooks out. Give the fish 30 or 40 seconds to tire. While this is happening, I pump all the other rods to trigger nearby saugers. Often, that produces doubles and triples, while keeping the first fish that hit hooked up.”
When he finds a particularly productive stretch of the reservoir, he drops a waypoint on his electronics and switches tactics to catch the most fish possible from the area before moving on. “Saugers gather for a reason,” he says. “Things like changes in current, bottom content, and other factors can make a 100- to 200-yard reach hot. To make the most of it, I stow the trolling tackle and break out the jigging rods.”
From the head of the hot zone, he slips downriver with the current, vertically jigging a standard 1/4-ounce leadhead jig tipped with a minnow. “My minnow-hooking method depends on the day,” he says. “I start with lip-hooking, because you get the most bites presenting the bait that way. But if the fish are short-striking, I move the hook point back, sometimes through the body and out the middle of the back.”
He says that jig-fouling snags, moss, and cold-water algae keep him from dragging the leadhead. “I start the process by finding bottom—just a tap, not a drag—raising the jig 8 to 10 inches, holding it steady, then lowering the jig back to bottom and repeating,” he says. “I typically also deploy a dead rod. I experiment with the height at which jigs on both dead and actively jigged lines are positioned until the fish tell me what they want. You can also dial in the amount of time to hold the jig at the top of the lift. If the dead rod produces a lot of bites, I have my clients pause the lift as long as 30 seconds.”
Klages and clients typically savor the sauger bite from early April into the latter half of May. “After about the third week in May, they saugers move deep, especially big fish, while walleyes stay in easily fishable depths,” he says. Elsewhere in sauger territory, the bite continues virtually year-round, through the ice and on open water.
*Dan Johnson is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and public Relations Manager for the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance. Guide contact: Jim Klages, Dakota Prairie Guide Service, 650/680-1910.