When the skies started becoming a little grayer and the winds cooler in November, it used to be a signal that the time was getting right for sauger. Yet, only in the past couple of years have sauger seemed to be making the voyage back to their more historical levels.
I can easily recall my first experience with sauger below McAlpine Dam on the Ohio River near Louisville. It was a partly sunny, early December day and I had information that the fish had really turned on. People were catching sauger everywhere along the river, even by casting from the bank.
Outside the neglect to sufficiently clothe myself, my partners and I had a superb day fishing both live and artificial lures. For once it seemed I wasn't there a day late after getting the word. Maybe it was an early Christmas gift. We boated well over 50 of the black-saddled fish, giving us more than enough to keep a good mess of 15 or so among the three of us.
A smaller cousin of the walleye, sauger were once found in great abundance in many major waterways and several smaller rivers and streams in Kentucky. Several years ago, catching a boatload of sauger during the winter months was a welcome opportunity for many anglers looking for ways to combat the winter season's dreariness. One could usually connect with the spunky gamester in numerous spots along the Tennessee, Cumberland and Ohio river systems when conditions were right. Below the lock and dam structures on these waterways were -- and still are -- the hottest spots for sauger.
Yet, changing water and climatic conditions through the mid-80s in many water systems caused a sharp decline in sauger populations. The drop in quality sauger fishing was a slow process during this low rainfall period, but nevertheless was quite noticeable by the time the trend broke late in the decade. The length of the drought was so unusually long, even sportsmen of many years' experience didn't fully realize the impacts Mother Nature's trends can have on fish and wildlife population dynamics. Likewise, state fisheries biologists were sometimes finding themselves in a new, learning situation as they worked to get a handle on the effects of such a drastic weather swing. No two species react exactly the same to fluctuations in weather patterns.
This situation brings up a good point. Extended deviations from normal weather patterns can have very, very long-reaching effects on fisheries and wildlife populations. Even after things get back to what we're used to weather-wise, it still takes a long time for the environment to readjust accordingly. There's no magic wand to wave and transform fish and wildlife populations back to normal in the blink of eye. Wildlife biology just doesn't work that way.
Sometimes the "whys" behind fishing getting worse or game numbers falling off isn't because something is being done wrong; it's because that's the way nature operates at times. She really does dictate production and availability to an enormous degree.
Back to sauger specifically -- during the long dry spell, of the rivers, streams and Lakes that still provided some lingering sauger fishing opportunities, probably the Ohio River had the best to offer.
"Sauger numbers stayed rather strong throughout the entire Ohio River along the state's border," said Doug Henley, Ohio River fisheries biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR).
"The species can sustain itself better in river environments than lake environments when less favorable weather patterns occur. These populations probably still suffered a bit, but the decline in good fishing wasn't nearly as evident as in some of the other well-known, lake-fishing sauger hotspots," said Henley.
Below all locks and dams on the Ohio and also in the mouths of larger feeder creeks, anglers could still catch quite a few fish. Other river systems where sauger fishing has remained fairly consistent are the Kentucky and Green rivers. These two fisheries are often less talked about, but local anglers score well on tasty sauger close to the dams up and down these two waterways. Just as with the larger rivers, the sauger's upstream migration in late winter and early spring is halted by a series of man-made structures, and these are the best areas to find groups of fish, often well before and during the February spawning period.
Leading to lower flow and a slower turnover or exchange of water through most reservoir systems, the early 80's drought had profound effects on most every fishery in the majority of the state's major lakes. The most noticeable change of environment was increasingly clear water and less turbidity. At Kentucky Lake, for example, historically an excellent place for sauger, the changing water conditions caused numbers to plummet. Sauger dropped off in Barkley Lake, too. On the other hand, smallmouth and largemouth bass populations exploded. The same climatic conditions don't affect all species the same way.
When the normal spring rains and water conditions finally resumed late in the decade, on most state lakes anglers began seeing a change back to a fishing situation they were more familiar with. Murky color, spring water levels up in the buck brush, less vegetative cover over so much area in the bays and less sunlight penetration to drive fish deeper had finally become more the norm than the exception. This shift back to usual conditions seemed to trigger more confidence in many fishermen who had trouble adjusting their fishing techniques for certain species like sauger during the extended clearer water period.
The fisheries in Kentucky waters responded similarly, including a resurgence of sauger in Kentucky Lake. Populations seemed to react more positively to increased flow and higher turbidity that created a more preferred, "river-like" environment for fish species in Kentucky and Barkley lakes. Further upstream in the Tennessee River system that forms Kentucky Lake, sauger have also rebounded noticeably and anglers in the area are certainly enjoying this recovery.
"I think we could see sauger fishing come back in the quantity and quality that Kentucky Lake has been known for in the past," said Bill McLemore, KDFWR we stem district fishery biologist.
"Our electrofishing studies indicated a large increase in sauger numbers this fall. Based on what's happening further up in the Tennessee River and what we've learned from our studies, things look very positive at this point," McLemore said.
Closer to normal rainfall also helped fishing on the rivers, because the higher flow tends to draw and concentrate the species more, beginning in late fall and continuing through early spring. Good fall rains pull fish closer to the dams all along the Ohio River, making the fish easier to catch. Watching for significant rains in the fall and winter fishing seasons is a good way to judge when better sauger fishing may occur.
Sauger Fishing Tips
the aspect of scoring on sauger, there are some differences in what works better in a river or tailwater versus techniques to try when fishing a lake. Below the dams on the Ohio, fishing guide Brad Weakley says, "I've always had good success catching sauger during the colder months using brightly colored lead-head jigs and twister tails, minnows rigged on a jig head, or a combination of the two."
Depending on the flow and water level, Weakley says anglers may have to experiment some in locating where the fish are holding in tailwater areas. The guide also cautions to be aware of how fast the water is moving and not get in a dangerous position when maneuvering a boat below the dams.
"At times, most of the fish may be concentrated right in the middle of swifter moving water, and there are also times when fishing just outside the current, where irregular bottom features exist, will be more productive," said Weakley.
Since most river and tailwater sauger fishing is conducted on or just above the bottom, choosing appropriate lure weights is important. Generally, using just enough weight to get your lure down and keep it near the bottom is best. But, you may have to adjust the weight from one day to the next if you need to make a longer cast to get to the fish and get the bait down more quickly, or if you need to hold the lure longer in one spot closer to the boat before the current takes it downstream away from the fish.
Some of the better jig and twister-tail color combinations to employ for sauger include white, yellow, chartreuse, orange and other bright patterns. Remember that like the walleye, sauger are light sensitive. They usually won't stay in areas where the sunlight penetrates too deeply.
Artificial jigs or spoons are usually preferable for easier and faster fishing action. However, many times artificial lures just
aren't what the sauger will hit. Minnows have rescued many a trip for anglers when the jig-and-curlytail offerings scored slowly or not at all. Always keep minnows on hand when sauger fishing.
If you're fishing Kentucky Lake, the upper end of the lake will likely be where more fish can be found. Tributaries may also be good places to try casting or trolling jigs, and even small minnow-like artificial lures can work. An overcast sky and dingy water color create better fishing conditions. Main lake rocky points near the river channel are good places to look for sauger during the November through a prespawning period. After the spawn, sauger return from upstream creeks to main lake channels and points. Drifting minnows at various depths along drop-offs and channel cuts near points will help you take late spring and summer sauger.
As far as equipment goes, spinning reels, eight- to 14-pound test line and medium action rods usually turn the trick. It's not too often you'll need a heavy rod and reel. You'll just need a combination strong enough to handle the weight you're using to keep your lure where you want it. You might want to keep several extra sinkers, jig heads and plastic grubs at hand, too, because you can count on losing a few in the rocks and debris found in all tailwaters.
If you haven't tried sauger fishing, now is a good time to go. Hopefully, Kentucky will continue its present, more normal weather pattern and sauger fishing will continue its positive trend. At least for this species, the return to normal should be quite beneficial for the resource and the angler.