Riege: Mississippi River Walleyes and Sauger

Published 7:05pm Wednesday, March 13, 2013

By Bob & Ginny Riege

The walleye is king in the Upper Midwest when you talk to many anglers about what kind of fish they like to pursue. One fish that is closely related to the walleye is the sauger. The sauger is a “cousin” to the walleye and the meat is very similar to that of a walleye, but this camouflaged commando of the deep is different in other ways.

First of all, the walleye and the sauger are similar in shape. Both of these fish are “cigar shaped” and to the novice they are sometimes mistaken. They both like similar “haunts” and they are often times caught in the same general area. The saugers are usually found in the river systems and some anglers have reported catching saugers in lakes. But with a closer observation they discover that the lakes are part of a river system. Saugers are also referred to as “sand pike” and many times they are caught adjacent to sand. The walleye in comparison can be found in river systems lakes and close to sand flats.

With all these similarities in mind you should also realize that there are differences. The physical appearance of a sauger is noticeable. They have mottled colored sides that gives them the camouflaged pattern. They have the ability to blend into their environment, especially the bottom structural patterns. Their dorsal fin (top fin) is even camouflaged; it has a system of polka dots. In comparison the walleye doesn’t have any of these physical characteristics. Likewise the sauger doesn’t have that distinctive white spot on its tail that the walleye has.

River walleyes love the moving water of the Mississippi, and never stray far from some sort of current. A classic walleye holding spot is a wing dam. Wing dams are man-made rock piles, which extend out into the river, deflecting the current and reducing its tendency to silt in. As the local fisherman knows, all wingdams hold fish, but some are better than others. The wing dams that hold the most fish are the ones that have a deep scour hole behind them and are located on the outside bend of a river or a straight stretch. These wing dams receive less current and therefore their scour holes are not silted in. Needless to say the rocky composition is habitat for food, and the wing dam provides a current break.

There are two popular ways to fish a wing dam. Anchoring is most common, parking the boat on the front side, tip or back side of the wing dam. Jigs or bottom bumping lures can be cast to cover the area near the dam. Since you can fish with two lines at once on boundary waters, many anglers set live bait over the side of the boat and cast jigs to find fish holding closer to the wing dam.

The local walleye fishermen do well most of the time with a jig and minnow. The size of a jig would vary according to the speed of the current. A 1/8 to 1/4 ounce is the favored size for most situations. Popular colors are yellow, pink, black and chartreuse. Live bait rigs such as the Lindy Rig or Wolf River Rig are also used.

River walleyes are more aggressive and seem harder hitting than still water walleyes. They hit a fast moving crank bait. These lures attract fish from far and wide to see what is going on or to stimulate a feeding desire. These lures may be as small as a jig or as large as a muskie crankbait. Two of my all time favorites are the Storm ThunderStick and the small Storm Lighting Shad.

Don’t over look the presentation of drifting to find fish near a wing dams. By letting the current swing you behind the rock piles you can quickly find out if there are any fish around. If you catch one or two, anchor and fish it some more, if not find another wing dam to fish.

Lake walleyes often suspend, and they are very inclined to concentrate at certain depths. It’s different on the river. River walleyes are bottom fish. Always make sure your bait is tight to the bottom. If you aren’t losing baits, you are fishing too high.

The speed of the current is one of the major elements of the river walleye’s world. They want some current, but not too much. They don’t pay as much attention to light presentation, seemingly, as lake fish, and will hold in one foot of water at times if the current is right.

Saugers have adapted more to a river’s murky environment than walleyes have. Their eyes allow them to feed in silty waters where walleyes have trouble seeing. Saugers, maybe because of that fact, stay deeper than walleyes. I like the fact that saugers strike harder than walleyes; too; even small fish hit a lure with gusto.

The sauger gets the commando reputation because of its’ systems of hiding and waiting in ambush of its’ prey. The sauger is also found deeper than walleyes and it usually will not achieve the weigh size that a walleye will. In fact, most state records on saugers tell the angler that a large six-pound sauger will be close to their state record. These commandos like current. They live out their lives in current breaks behind rocks, man made rip rap, stumps, downed trees and below dams, bends of the river, and off the tip of sand bars. They wait and watch and when the food offering floats by they attack and retreat to the protection of the current break.

The middle of the main river channel is where you will find saugers just about all year. In spring, they will be found tight to steep breaks next to shore, where they have easy access to their spawning areas. Saugers spawn later than walleyes, so when walleye action tapers a bit in the spring you can still find saugers ready to hammer your lures.

Whenever I find walleye fishing slow, I follow a simple plan for locating saugers. First I’ll drive up and down the river, looking for the deepest hole I can find. Usually it will be at least 25 feet deep, and often deeper. I’ll stop my boat upstream from the hole and drift back over with at least a 3/8 ounce Northland Vegas Glitter jig, which I hold right under the boat. In these holes the saugers hit the jig with quite a jolt. Schools of saugers roam from area to area. If you don’t find them on the first or second pass through an area move on to another hole. Saugers will usually inhale a bait on your first drift through.

Walleyes and saugers are the glamour fish of the Mississippi River. Whether you are searching for the king of the Upper Midwest or the commando of the deep, methods and table fare are very similar. Hope to see you on the river soon!


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