Our Outdoors: A Second for Sauger
When it comes to fishing, I’m a fan of second fiddles, the underappreciated, those that don’t take the top spot when it relates to what many people target on the water. I revel in the solid smack delivered by a rock bass as it steals a jig meant for a smallmouth, or when a white bass snatches a spoon cast out for a pike. Many times, the action these secondary species provide is enough for me to switch up my offering, and even downsize my rod, to continue pursuing them when they’re abundant and willing to
bite. As this summer has progressed, I’ve become more acquainted with one of these secondary fish that has always kept things interesting.
In both recreational crankbait cruises with the family on the party barge, and in those efforts of my own which are more focused on serious fishing, I’ve caught more saugers in the early goings this open water season than I’ve taken in the last ten years. These smaller brethren of the walleye, lacking their white- tipped tail and sporting a spotted dorsal fin have come equally to the perch-patterned diving baits and my trolled crawler harnesses this spring, and as things have warmed, seem to shift from secondary to
primary catch in many of my days on the water. That consistent action, again, is something that can’t be turned down along with the fillets, which while slightly slimmer than those of their golden cousins, are just as delicious.
As with most encounters in the outdoors, the repeated examination of the sauger has resulted in online research and the urge to learn more about them and how they differ from not only walleyes, but other members of the perch family. While they are generally smaller than walleyes, and simply often don’t reach the same size, there are a number of notable items about saugers from their habitat, to their cross-breeding tendencies to the fact that the largest one in the world was caught in North Dakota, and is of eye-popping proportion to what’s normally encountered in the wild.
Bounded by the Rocky Mountains in the west, the range of the sauger stretches from just inland from the east coast on down to northern Louisiana and on up through Colorado and into Canada. Where the fish once freely roamed rivers prior to settlement of the west, the construction of dams has impeded their natural spawning movements, which can be journeys of hundreds of miles as conditions and structures allow in modern times. As a result, they are found in far more limited areas now than they were decades ago, and being not as popular as walleye, their stocking rates to facilitate populations are virtually non-existent in comparison nationwide.
Sauger will sometimes breed with walleyes in the waters where both are present, creating a hybrid known as a saugeye. While sometimes it’s even tough to tell the two parent species apart, the mixed- breed offspring adds an extra layer of challenge, as some studies suggest that where both fish are present, it’s possible that anywhere from two to four percent of the population ends up being a saugeye through natural hybridization. Saugeye will have faded blotchy sides, akin to the sauger and a slight white crescent on the bottom of the tail like the walleye’s, only thinner.
Finally, and perhaps the most amazing fact surrounding the sauger, is that the world record was caught in North Dakota and has stood for almost 50 years. A beast of 28 inches – far more than the average 11 to 14 inchers that find their way to my boat and those of most anglers – weighing eight pounds, 12 ounces was landed by Mike Fischer of Chaseley, N.D., on Lake Sakakawea in October of 1971. Behind the state’s bluegill and northern pike, it is the third oldest record fish in the state’s history. Since that time,
it has also stood as the International Game Fish Association’s all-tackle world record and has yet to be bested in any other water.
While obviously a bonus fish for most anglers trolling for walleyes, the sauger is quickly finding a place in my fishing journals, and in my efforts as well. With its differences from its far more popular relative providing a fun moment or two of identification as a sauger comes up on the end of the line, it’s fun to take a second look and learn a little more about an underappreciated species that adds to the excitement, action and diversity…in our outdoors.
By: Nick Simonson