Ask your average fisherman about sauger fishing and you might get some head scratching. Or you’ll get the pat response “I catch a few when I’m fishing walleyes.” Tragically, most anglers misidentify saugers as small walleyes, although trophy-size fish in the 5- to 6-pound class are frequently caught in spring.
Truth is, while walleyes and their kissing cousins may look similar—and occasionally occupy the same river locations—they are entirely different animals.
|Saugers can be easily distinguished from walleyes by a few key features.
Sauger devotees will tell you that these brassy, streamlined machines attack baits with an amped-up, out of control attitude that puts ‘eyes to shame. While walleyes torture anglers with most subtle morse code, saugers bum rush the party and punch your bait in the face.
One guy who understands saugers is 2011 Cabela’s MWC Spring Valley tournament champ Tom Brunz of Madison Lakes, Minnesota. In fact, it was Brunz’ sauger playbook that put him and his partner Mark Meravy in the money when dyed-in-the-wool walleye guys struggled.
|2011 MWC Spring Valley champ and river expert Tom Brunz with two meaty saugers.
For fishermen just starting down the sauger path this spring, Brunz recommends keeping two key things in mind: depth and current.
Like walleyes, saugers benefit from a physiological advantage for feeding in low light called the Tepetum Lucidum, a layer of specially adapted cells in the retina not unlike those found in raccoons, cats and other nocturnal creatures. Saugers have more of these cells than walleyes, which make them even more sensitive to light—hence their preference for deep and stained waters.
“At just about any time of year, you will consistently find saugers deeper than walleyes,” says Brunz.
Since saugers largely inhabit river systems, deep is relative. Sauger location is entirely dependent on water levels at any given point in time.
“There’s no magic number,” says Brunz. “Just look for them in waters deeper—yet in close proximity—to where you find walleyes.”
This is a boon for anglers as saugers will feed actively into the day, not just at the optimum twilight hours on a walleye’s watch.
“During the spring you’ll find walleyes hugging the shorelines in shallow water—look for saugers in deeper pools adjacent to these areas,” says Brunz.
“…saugers will feed actively into the day, not just at the optimum twilight hours on a walleye’s watch.”
Another key element of productive sauger habitat is current, which makes tailrace areas, feeder creek inlets and deep eddies excellent spots. Find moving water and chances are you’ll find sauger.
Brunz says, “While you’ll find spring walleyes away from the current, you’ll find saugers right in the current a majority of the time.”
|Think stickbaits and cranks in Easter egg colors for spring sauger action, like any of the above baits!
Soggy Bottom Boys
While walleyes favor gravel, rocks and sand, you will often find saugers in siltier and muddier areas than their cousins.
“Don’t be afraid to probe waters you wouldn’t fish for walleyes,” says Brunz. “Saugers are a lot less picky than walleyes when it comes to bottom composition. In the spring you’ll find them in rock, gravel and sand, but a lot of times you’ll want to locate those part-sand, part-silt-or-mud bottoms with current. Spawning areas typically involve some kind of grass, too.”
Then once you dial in where they’re feeding and resting, it all comes down to presentation.
Easter Basket Baits
“Saugers like gaudy-colored stickbaits,” says Brunz. “Purples, oranges, reds, pinks, yellows, chartreuse and all of those combined.”
While anglers and biologists and still unsure of what it is about these colors—or contrasts—that trigger sauger strikes—it’s become a staple of smart sauger sticks to keep a box of easter basket-colored baits on the ready at all times.
“I prefer baits like the smaller Storm Thundersticks, floating Rapalas and X-Raps in the strangest and gaudiest colors I can find. Don’t hesitate to try out baits that you wouldn’t consider using for walleyes. Saugers love ‘em,” says Brunz
Taking into account the sauger’s highly developed visual sense, Brunz says, “Biologists tell us that birds and fish see UV, which is good enough for me to start using some of the new UV stickbaits I’m starting to see on baitshop shelves.”
(For more information on new UV lures hitting the market, check out Tony Cappechi’s article on UV baits here.)
“While walleyes torture anglers with the most subtle morse code, saugers bum rush the party and punch your bait in the face.”
More often than not, Brunz utilizes long-lining and pull-lining techniques that employ a 10-foot or over trolling rod, 12-pound mono and any number of three-way rigging options for pulling stickbaits through the current.
“When it comes to rods, I’m using a St. Croix trolling rod that has some backbone because I’m using some serious lead to get the baits down deep and into the current,” says Brunz.
“You really need that rod length because the first bait leader may be 10-foot or more from the three-way swivel. The rod length makes landing and netting the fish that much easier,” says Brunz.
Depending on the situation and the regulations on the body of water he’s fishing, Brunz will employ any number of three-way rigging options.
|Three-way rigging set up and tool kit.
“Where legal, the tandem floating stickbait rig is pretty standard,” says Brunz. “Simply attach your main line to a three way swivel, attach another run of mono off the second swivel loop to the first stickbait, a mono leader off the back of that stickbait to the second, and a 12- to 18-inch mono leader terminated to a big heavy egg sinker off the third swivel loop on the bottom.”
While Brunz admits that this rig catches fish, there is a better way.
“The only problem with the classic three-way rig is that the first stickbait loses action when another stickbait and leader is attached to the back,” says Brunz.
|Where legal, consider a heavy jig dropper. No boat? This rig works well for shorebound anglers, too!
“That’s why I like to incorporate a second three-way swivel and run two separate stickbait leaders. It preserves the action of both baits and invariably leads to more boated fish.”
|Chase Parsons of The Next Bite TV explains three-way rigging in rivers. The rigging he describes for walleyes holds equally true for fast and furious spring sauger action!
Look for more sauger info next month at www.fishingclub.com as we gather exclusive on-the-water video footage of Tom Brunz and partner Mark Meravy pre-fishing for the 2012 MWC Spring Valley tournament on March 24th and 25th.
Jim Edlund is the former online editor at North American Fisherman. Now a self-described “Gun For Hire,” he’s left corporate life to trailer his boat (and snowmobile) and cover the best fishing in the U.S. Have an idea for a story? You can reach Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org.