Identifying sauger

by Drew Myers | May 1, 2009

identifying sauger - sauger fish

Many Ontario anglers have caught sauger, but were unaware they even existed in our waters, let alone knew the fish they just fooled with their jig-and-minnow combos were not walleye.

Sauger are near dead-ringers for walleye. But, like a secret society, sauger exist and often thrive in the shadow of their larger, less-freckled cousins. You might also be surprised that this mysterious species is more common in Ontario than you think.

My first introduction to sauger was while living in Ottawa and going to university. When I could manage, I would sneak out onto one of the frozen stretches of the Ottawa River to catch some fish and augment my often meager protein supply. Even a student can only live so long on pasta and rice. Heavy jigging spoons tipped with minnows would normally result in a few walleye and sauger for dinner. Catching sauger for the first time really piqued my interest. To my untrained eye, they seemed to have few differences from walleye. I pondered why they even exist as a different species and what makes them different from walleye. I did know they hit hard and tasted as good as walleye. For a starving student, sauger being edible was enough reason to fish for them.

I’ve since run into sauger many times while fishing Lake Temiskaming, Lake of the Woods, and Eagle Lake, to name a few places. Each time I pulled one through an ice hole or off a mid-lake shoal, my interest in these walleye clones grew.

Sauger sleuths
Sauger and walleye have iridescent eyes, due to a layer of light-reflecting tissue that increases low-light vision. Sauger count on your walleye limit, so distinguishing them from walleye is helpful. There are a number of differences.

Sauger are, in general, smaller than walleye, with most sauger being between 10 to 16 inches long and slim for their length. Sauger often have dark random blotches on their sides, although this is more common for those living in murky water.

Clear-water sauger are often devoid of these dark spots, so they’re not always the best way to identify the species. Sauger also have rows of dark spots on the dorsal fin and tail, which on my home water of Eagle Lake is often the most striking difference between them and a small walleye (they have irregular black markings on the fins.) Sauger also lack the prominent white mark on the bottom of the walleye’s tail.

If you want to really delve into sauger identification, do what Erling Home from the Royal Ontario Museum does. Count the pyloric caecae in the abdominal cavity. “Walleye have three longer pyloric caecae, which are pouches or bags attached to the digestion system, while sauger have four or more of these parts and they’re shorter than those found in a walleye,” said Home.

So, if you’re really keen to know if you’ve caught a sauger, get in there and have fun in the fish’s guts. I will stick to finding fin spots, thank you.

Sauger range from just north of the Gulf states to just south of James Bay, west to the Rockies, to east just inland from the eastern provinces and states and all parts in between. In Ontario, sauger are widespread, but are not found everywhere.

In 2002, the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) produced an atlas of sauger waters in Ontario, in order to get a handle on where they can be found. The atlas states there are 228 waterways with sauger in them in the province, with the majority being in northwestern Ontario.

The twilight zone
Sauger prefer turbid water. River systems like the upper Ottawa around New Liskard, big shallow lakes, and some turbid bays of Lake of the Woods and Wabigoon are examples of classic sauger habitat.

“You rarely see sauger in clear water,” said Tom Mosindy, MNR Lake of the Woods Assessment Unit biologist in Kenora. “Sauger are even better adapted to low light and turbid waters than walleye, so they do better than walleye when the water is murky. Sauger are also tied to bottom prey, with invertebrates like mayfly and other insect larva being common food for them.”

There’s also a connection between sauger and a curious prey species, the trout-perch. “Few anglers would have encountered a trout-perch, a small fish that’s part of the perch family, but has some characteristics of the trout family,” said Mosindy. “Yet, they’re extremely light sensitive and rarely active except at night. Trout-perch are a predominant prey species for sauger in Lake of the Woods, but only occasionally show up as prey for walleye. It could be sauger, which are even more inclined to be nocturnal feeders, have more opportunity to feed on trout-perch.”

Apart from doing well in turbid water, sauger also make mass fall migrations toward spawning areas in South Dakota’s Mesurrie River, says David Willis, a sauger expert and head of South Dakota State University’s Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences Department. “These fall migrations toward spawning areas occur on a much larger scale than walleye,” said Willis. “Sauger tend to stack up below dams on the river, which makes them important sport fish to anglers at this time of the year.”

Unless you want to make a trip to South Dakota for fall sauger fishing, this information might not help you – although a combination of fishing, duck and pheasant hunting in the Dakotas would be a grand idea. However, checking out manmade or natural blockages on Ontario sauger waters like the Rideau system in eastern Ontario might be a wise strategy for an enterprising angler with a taste for fall sauger fillets.

Small, but mighty
I definitely have a taste for sauger. While I tend to like some of the more obscure sport fish (my buddy Andy likes to remind me that early in my guiding career I thought any day we caught a whitefish was a good day – and I still do). Objectively, though, sauger have much to offer an angler. They are, in my experience, more aggressive than walleye. Often, they really thump a jig. This might be because they tend to feed in low light and in murky water, so they need to make the most out of feeding opportunities and act quickly.

Changing neighbourhoods
Sauger have different locational patterns, depending on the waterway. Sauger in Lake Temiskaming, for example, are found shallow, says John Henderson from Temiskaming Shores and owner of John’s Tackle Box. “Walleye are out feeding on baitfish in deep water, while sauger are in the 3- to 20-foot zone close to shore and on shoals,” he said. Sauger also seem to stage for spawning well before walleye start to show up near their spawning areas, he adds.

On the other side of the province, Enrique Salinas, an experienced angler from Dryden, finds the opposite situation in Wabigoon Lake, which has more than its share of sauger. “Sauger in Wabigoon are almost always deep,” said Salinas. “In the long years I’ve fished on the lake, I’ve only caught maybe five sauger in shallow water. Most of them are in the 20-foot zone. Often, you catch sauger when you drift off the rocks of a walleye shoal into deeper water.”

In general, expect sauger to also be more current oriented, school more intensely, and be closer to bottom than walleye. Even more so than walleye, sauger hit best in low light or at night.

Sauger delights
In my experience, sauger are suckers for minnows. A jig-and-minnow combo might be the ultimate presentation for these fish. This might be due to the fact sauger are bottom huggers and survive best in murkier water. A jig and minnow has an attractive profile, smell, and works the right zone for sauger.

To increase your chances of catching sauger, work the jig-and-minnow in the bottom two feet of water, keeping the jig active, but not moving it too quickly. Watch your graph for fish hugging bottom; these are often sauger. If you’re marking fish but not getting hits, try lifting the jig off bottom with a darting motion, imitating a fleeing baitfish. This often triggers sauger into striking.

I often think the difference between an avid angler who will fish for the rest of their life and those who enjoy fishing but might drift off to other activities is a deep-seated fascination with all fish. For those who love fish in all their forms, can’t get enough of fishing because it lets them interact directly with fish, sauger are another option. These mysterious fish are adapted to a certain set of conditions in Ontario waters. Get to know them and keep an eye out for this spotted walleye imposter that can thrive in the murkiest water and during the darkest nights.

Sauger tidbits
Sauger (Sander canadensis) spawn soon after walleye, normally in May or the first week in June, when water temperatures are between 39°F and 43°F in depths from 2 feet to 12 feet. Spawning occurs at night over sand to boulder bottoms. Sauger and walleye hybridize. The offspring are called saugeye. This really messes up your chances of making a positive identification of your catch. Generally though, hybrids grow larger than pure sauger and exhibit characteristics of both parents.

Young sauger hatch in about 25 to 29 days and grow quickly to as much as 6 inches by their first fall. Then, growth slows to less than that of walleye in the same lake or river. Sauger can live as long as 13 years. Because of this, a sauger of comparable size to a walleye will have a higher load of naturally occurring mercury in their flesh. To avoid this toxic heavy metal, you might want to consider releasing larger sauger in preference for walleye or other shorter-lived species of similar size.

Sauger feed near bottom on baitfish, insects, and invertebrates. In turn, pike, walleye, muskie, perch, and other predatory fish eat sauger.

The world-record sauger, caught in North Dakota, weighed 8.12 pounds. The Ontario record, caught from the Detroit River near Windsor, weighed 4.4 pounds and measured 22.2 inches (Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters Big Fish Registry).

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