Saugeye Secrets: Ice versus Open Water
August 01, 2011
Mid to late winter is the time of year when saugeyes, hybrid cross between walleyes and sauger, draw increased angling attention. Closet members of the saugeye fan club -- or merely fair-weather wannabees looking to catch something that bites well at this time of year -- trickle down to the shoreline or out onto the ice, depending on the local climate. With a rod in one hand and often dragging a cooler in the other, they're also usually looking to garner a meal in exchange for their efforts.
Why? Besides their savory flavor, saugeyes are an infertile hybrid and don't naturally reproduce (except in rare occurrences with members of their parent stock, notably sauger). Most populations are therefore sustained by stocking, and fisheries departments manage them as put-and-take species, encouraging anglers to harvest a reasonable amount of fish for the table. Since keeping a few tasty fillets neither affects the brood stock nor tortures the conscience, anglers tend to equate saugeyes with Friday night fish fries, rather than a catch-and-release ethic. As lakes and impoundments edge past midwinter into some aspect of late winter conditions, triggering prespawn urges, saugeyes take up predictable positions and exhibit classic behavior according to what the local environment offers. Let's look at several examples, north and south, to see how saugeyes react at this time of year, and what you can do to catch 'em.
The shallow night bite -- Cut a swath across eastern Colorado, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Tennessee -- prime saugeye country. Warm, muddy impoundments abound, often too warm for walleyes, too sparse coverwise to support many bass. Enter the saugeye, stocking solution to too few naturally reproducing predators swimming amidst too much uneaten forage. A case of too, too, too, become too good to be true.
Late January and February bring inshore saugeye movements as fish prepare to fulfill their spawning instincts, even though eggs deposited amidst the rocks will fail to survive. Nevertheless, fish pile up along rocky shoreline points at the mouths of active coves, or along the faces of dams and causeways. With dingy water to begin with in these impoundments, and muddy water flowing into the reservoir, saugeyes go on the prowl in knee-deep water -- particularly at sunset. Casting a shallow minnow imitator like a Storm ThunderStick (Lake Thunderbird, Oklahoma) or neutrally buoyant lure like a Rapala Husky Jerk triggers tremendous catches. The fish move so shallow at last light that you're often better off casting as parallel to shore as possible, running the bait in barely inches of water.
The deeper daytime bite -- Surprisingly few folks bother with it. They just walk down to the bank in the evening when the saugeyes are running and make a few casts along rocky shorelines, pounding nice fish on crankbaits in a couple feet of water next to shore.
Weeks or months later, when the spring (mock) spawning run is over, saugeyes generally fade into the woodwork. Most are caught incidentally by bass fishermen tossing spinnerbaits or crankbaits into shallow flooded wood cover rimming the shoreline, or on exposed rock banks or hard-bottomed shoreline points, where available. A few folks fish roadbeds -- good fishing year-round. Open-water fishing for saugeyes is ripe for exploration.
The ice bite -- Under the ice -- sometimes thick ice like that in Montana, sometimes what little ice forms in northern saugeye states like Ohio -- saugeyes exhibit pseudo-classic walleye-type behavior; they become active at twilight, cruising and feeding in late afternoon on into darkness. Doesn't mean you won't catch 'em during the day, especially on cloudy dingy days. But like walleyes, changing light levels activate them, regardless of how deep they are.
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Deep is relative. On a fairly clear reservoir, saugeyes could easily be down in 40 feet plus, due to their super-sensitivity to light penetration. In a shallow, turbid lake, however, 3 to 6 feet of water may be sufficient, particularly if that's all the depth that exists. Packs of fish may come cruising along barely 2 or 3 feet below the ice, because that's all there is between the ice and the bottom. Set the hook hard enough on a bite, and you'll jerk a small one up and out of the hole.
Unlike walleyes, however, aggressive jigging techniques with spoons tipped with minnow heads don't appear as productive for saugeyes. Rather, subtler or stabler tactics excel. Tip-ups baited with shiners (Fort Peck Reservoir, Montana -- one of a few impoundments where abundant trophy saugeyes occur naturally, rather than through stocking). Bobber rigs or deadsticks suspending minnows hooked through the back, or a few gentle jiggings of a minnow-tipped jighead, followed by long pauses (central Ohio reservoirs). In essence, passive tactics appear to be the hot tickets for cold-water saugeyes.
Where to fish varies big-time. In western impoundments, classic point structure abounds, and saugeyes react much like walleyes, relating to drop-off edges. But in eastern agricultural areas, such structure is often absent, and fish relate to whatever's available. If a prominent structural feature like a submerged roadbed or extended shoreline point exists, by all means, fish it. If an active creek empties into the lake, try fishing through the nearby safe ice a hundred yards offshore. If a dredged canal or channel offers deeper water than the surrounding lake, fish it. If a distinctive river channel winds across an otherwise flat featureless basin, find it and fish it, even if it's only a few feet deeper than the surrounding area.
In some saugeye lakes experiencing high siltation due to agricultural run-off, a 6-inch taper in a hundred yards might be all it takes to focus fish movement across a 4- or 5-foot-deep basin with 8 inches of ice cover. Hard to believe? Believe it. To a 4- or 5-inch tall fish, a 6-inch difference in depth may be more significant than we realize, especially in such shallow water. Think cattle grazing across the plains, following the bottom of a gentle gully, and you're on the right track.
The deep daytime bite (clear open water on deep lakes) -- Faced with post-ice conditions where the water's clear and the water temperature's still too cold to draw many saugeyes up the rocky face of the dam (mock spawning area) at night, think deep, just as for walleyes. Except think walleyes with even more sensitive eyesight, because that's what saugeyes inherit from their half-sauger parentage. Classic livebait rigging with large minnows, or gentle jig-and-minnow vertical jigging tactics, will trigger fish.
The kicker, however, is perhaps leaning a bit deeper than you'd expect for walleyes. That at first sounds strange, based on the saugeye's reputation for biting extremely shallow at night or in muddy water. All true. But until conditions that break up sunlight penetration, they'll often remain extra deep. Focus your attention along river channel bends or at the intersections of river channels in the vicinity of dams and causeways. And be ready to switch to fishing the shallows when conditions change, such as:
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The shallow daytime bite (muddy open water) -- Spring rains and run-off can generate ultramuddy conditions on reservoirs supporting saugeyes. The classic hot-spot, day or night, occurs below the spillway of the dam, assuming saugeyes also populate the river section below the impoundment. Fish run upriver and pile into the tailwaters below the dam, falling prey to diving crankbaits cast from shore, or to jigs tipped with plastic shad tails hopped across the bottom. Active creeks pouring muddy water into the lower end of the impoundment, preferably near the dam or through rocky causeways, become instantaneous fish magnets. Once again, they're conditions conducive to biting in conjunction with proximity to a rocky spawning area. Chocolate milk water teems with saugeyes so shallow that their backs are nearly out of the water, sometimes even during the day. Big pigs wallowing in hawg heaven -- mud wrestling 'eyes.
The shallow night bite (open water) -- Like the hot bite for their southern kin, the shoreline night bite draws most saugeye angling attention up north. Except here it usually occurs a few days or weeks after the ice disappears. When the word gets out that the bite is on, hordes of anglers walk down to the faces of dams or rocky causeways, typically casting minnow imitators or neutrally buoyant crankbaits from shore for hawg saugeyes that can top 6 or 8 pounds in some waters.
Water temperatures warming near 40F, often spurred on by muddy water run-off, trigger the shallow night bite. Launch your boat and longline troll minnow-imitators through extreme shallows along the dam or nearby causeways; you're destined to catch fish, providing you can position your lines and lures shallow enough without interfering with shorecasters sailing casts over your head. Faced with crowds in key locations, either move elsewhere or go back ashore and join the foot brigade.
Saugeyes usually aren't difficult to catch if -- and that's a big if -- you're not forced to deal with clear water during bright daytime conditions. Muddy water turns 'em on, day or night, and they seem able to see, feed, and thrive in water so chocolaty that it tempts you to plant spring crops rather than make a cast. And the cover of darkness does wonders in drawing saugeyes extremely shallow, transforming them into willing biters that sometimes nearly nip at your toes along the waterline, where you seemingly can't fish too shallow, even when casting parallel to shore.
In essence, saugeyes are an interesting breed -- actually a crossbreed -- well worth the effort of exploration. They often grow big, mean, and feisty, and they bite like crazy in muddy conditions that would shut down walleyes for days. And they taste better than they should, yet you can usually eat 'em guilt-free without harming the fishery. And if you blink, they look just like big fat walleyes with an attitude.
Can't beat that with an Ugly Stik!