Several tricks can help snag saugers while fishing for walleyes
Like its big cousin, the walleye, saugers provide a dependable early spring bite in many systems. There are tips and tricks to make sauger more than just a bonus catch when targeting walleyes.
Leonard's Three-way Options
When saugers won't respond to his standard vertical jigging approach, Esterville, Iowa, angler Bill Leonard employs a couple variations of three-way rigging when plying sauger haunts on the Mississippi River.
Option one is used to present a live minnow or chub. Rigging begins with the sliding of a No. 10 barrel swivel up the 6/2 Fireline main line. A colored bead follows, and then another barrel swivel is tied to the end of the line. The upper (sliding) swivel is used as the dropper line for either a sinker or heavy leadhead jig. Twelve to 18 inches of light monofilament serves as the connecting line. A 2- to 4-foot section of 8-pound Vanish is tied to the open ring of the end swivel; either a Northland Phelps floating jighead or No. 4 red live bait hook goes on the snell's end.
In fairly snag free settings, Leonard opts for a heavy leadhead like a 1-ounce Lindy Fuzz E Grub or a slender, heavy plastic-tipped jig that pulls well through current. The jig occasionally produces a bonus sauger. When confronted with snags, or when current dictates the need for a heavier weight, he'll go for a big bell or pencil sinker.
"I use this three-way setup in deeper holes," said Leonard. "I keep droppers and leads short, to keep the bait in close bottom contact. The bottom is often a series of sand dunes, with the active fish rising up to the top of a dune to feed."
An upriver presentation is used, by way of either the bow-mount electric or kicker outboard, depending on the current. Use just enough thrust to keep the boat moving upriver. Specific angle isn't a big concern; he generally lets out about 20 yards from an Abu-Garcia baitcaster with a flippin' button. Soft action 8.5-foot Berkley Air IM7 rods fill out the set up. Where two rods are permitted, he puts one in a rod holder and hand-holds the other. Line can be played out to bites with the free-spool button, due to the "floating" sinker dropper.
A second three-way option is a more common one, used to present hard stickbaits like a No. 7 Rapala or 3.5-inch Berkley Firestick. Leonard tweaks this time-honored approach by using "hot" color patterns, like silver/chartreuse and gold/orange. A standard three-way swivel is used to accomplish the rigging. The 6- to 18-inch dropper goes to big bell sinker, as much as 8 ounces; a 2- to 4-foot snell couples the swivel to the stickbait. This is also a pull-it-upstream deal, with rods in rod holders. Slightly heavier rods are needed for presenting stickbaits.
On the navigational pools of the lower Allegheny River in Pittsburgh, Penn., angler Bob Mahaffey targets aggressive sauger with a deeper-running suspending hardbait. His approach is perfect for targeting fish relating to the downstream eddies located below gravel bars and wing-walls associated with lock chambers.
Using a No. 6 Rapala Shad X-Rap — typically in the blue/silver pattern — he pitches casts to the quiet water below the current breaks.
"I work the bait down to where it just touches the rocky bottom," explained Mahaffey. "Once it touches bottom, I begin a slow retrieve, just enough to keep a bit of action in the lure."
Mahaffey doesn't impart any jerks or pauses — just a slow, steady retrieve, occasionally touching bottom. Sauger will often strike right after the lure has ticked the rocks.
Kolinski 'Finisse' Jigging
Pro angler John Kolinski of Greenville, Wisc., contacts sauger on the Mississippi. He also specifically targets them on first-class sauger waters like the Illinois and Tennessee rivers. And when he's zeroing in on these brassy-colored fish he relies on jigging.
"I have found that sauger hold in deeper water than walleyes," noted Kolinski. "I rarely fish shallower than 8 feet for them."
Kolinski scales the jig-thing down when targeting sauger. No bodies or twister-tails that bulk-up the presentation. He goes with a bare leadhead jig, typically orange or chartreuse.
"I keep it plain and simple," he said. "I tip it with a minnow, usually a fathead, or sometimes a piece of 'crawler, depending on the water temperature and time of year.
"I have found that sauger hold in deeper water than walleyes. I rarely fish shallower than 8 feet for them."
— John Kolinski, pro angler
Interestingly, Kolinski has found 'crawler-tipped jigs to be effective during the first hints of spring, especially following a rain that washes warm, colored water out into the main river.
"When you see those first nightcralwers of the year in your driveway, following a rainy night, that's the time to add 'crawler pieces to your jig," he added. "When I use fatheads, I like the medium sized ones, especially the plump females. Some days the fish don't take those dark, bumpy-headed males."
Kolinski accomplishes jigging-for-sauger a couple different ways. When doing the standard vertical slip/drift, he maintains bottom contact by occasionally touching bottom and then holding.
"I tell people to hold for a minute after they've re-established contact with the bottom," he said. "Bump bottom and then lift 4 to 6 inches, and then hold. I may not always hold for a full minute, but at least 20 to 30 seconds. I just hold it still, adding no action."
A second option is to "drag a jig," as he calls it. This calls for a lighter jig. If you needed a 1/4-ounce jig to maintain contact when fishing vertically, lighten up to 1/8 or 3/16. Allow the lighter jig to trail behind (upriver) as the boat drifts in the current. He said the line angle runs in the 30- to 45-degree range. This presents a lighter bait, something that can increase sauger catches when the fish are less aggressive.
Kolinski fishes jigs on a seven-foot medium action spinning outfit loaded with Trilene mono.
Minnesota angler Tony DeZurik finds saugers sometimes defy the notion one must keep a jig within inches of the bottom to get bit. On the Red Wing area of the Mississippi, below Lock and Dam 3, DeZurik catches sauger well off the river's bottom.
"We catch sauger, good-sized ones in the 21- to 22-inch range, pulling and drifting Yum Rib Worms in 20 feet of water," said DeZurik. "But often the key is to get the jig 5 or 6 feet up off of the bottom."
DeZurik finds these "suspended" saugers when the river is running low; there's little current in the area he fishes. During the downriver drift, he uses an 1/8-ounce jig. When he's fished through the productive area, in this case about a 200-yard drift, he uses the bow-mount troll motor to pull the jig back up river, trailing a 5/16-ounce jig behind the boat. The offering of choice is a 4-inch Yum Rib Worm on a ballhead jig. He opts for a contrasting color option like neon/chartreuse.
The downriver drift is the standard vertical deal: Lower the jig until it touches bottom, but rather than raising the jig up a few inches off the bottom, he winds in about 4 to 6 feet of line to position the jig. During the upriver pull, he lowers the heavier jig to the bottom. The current swings it well off of the bottom when as he pulls it against the current.
While DeZurik concurs that the bottom is where catchable saugers are much of the time, there are occasions when a high-riding bait is the deal.
Rib worms are one angler's choice to reel in saugers.
"I've had days when we've caught sauger while the boats around us have gone fishless," he noted. "And you have to hold the bait still. Don't impart any extra action."
The portion of the Ohio River that I fish for saugers can be outstanding, particularly when there is an exceptionally strong year class or two present. The fish can be competitive. When such is the case, there's no need to dip into the minnow bucket. They'll jump on a bait-less jig like a tube.
Simply drag a thin-bodied 3-inch version like a Yum Tube — with a 3/16 or 1/4-ounce insert jighead — along the bottom of a sauger hole. Fish it like you would a jig-n-minnow, dragging it along the bottom as the boat slides downriver, lifting and holding occasionally.
Tubes are also effective when saugers make an evening migration up onto a gravel bar or flat — a situation that calls for pitching from an anchored position. Since these are feeding fish in shallow water, often it's wise to lighten up the jighead size a notch. Pitches can be made to the shallows without the hassle of launching your ripped-the-lips-off minnow up into the trees.
Two of the better colors are green pumpkin/chartreuse and Mardi Gras. I prefer Gamma Copolymer in high-vis gold to help detect strikes.