Sauger?

 

The weather had been cold for weeks and we finally had time to head down to Cheatham Dam in Ashland City west of Nashville. The day was clear and cool that Friday morning as my buddy Terry and I hitched up the boat to try for some of our favorite winter fishing, sauger. We got to the ramp, launched my boat then headed upstream to the wing wall that guides barges into the lock. The sweet spot was just at the end of the wall or several yards back where the wall had a bit of a corner. Get tied off in either of these spots and you were going to catch fish if the schools were there.

Rigging was simple, on a spinning rod loaded with 8# test we tied a football head jig with a #8 treble hook trailer to which we added a feisty minnow hooked through the lips then hooked again with the treble near the tail. Another spinning rod was rigged with a slip sinker held above the hook about a foot by a small split shot a single #2 wire hook was tied on tipped with another minnow (bigger this time) hooked through the lips. The slip sinker rig was dropped down right beside the boat to let the more cautious larger fish have a chance to look it over. The jig was dropped down to the bottom then lifted 4-8 inches then dropped again to entice the cruising schools into a bite.

We lucked up and got the end of the wall and shortly after tying up we started to get bit. This was one of the good years for sauger and we were putting good fish in the boat. Back then the size limit didn’t exist but we were keeping only 15″ or larger fish. Fish in the 2-3 pound class were taking the jigs while fish up to 4 pounds were hitting the slip rig. After a couple of hours we decided to work the current break formed by the wing wall by letting the boat drift along with the current while jigging the football heads along the bottom. We caught fish after fish along with several bonus stripe and had one whatever it was almost spool me when it grabbed a bait and took off downstream.

This was a normal trip for us when I lived a bit closer to Cheatham. We spent many days below the dam in winter cold catching limits of sauger when a lot of people weren’t fishing at all. We caught so many good fish that when we would get there other fishermen would point us out and tell their buddies, “That’s them, that’s the guys I was telling you about. Just watch what they catch.” Kinda makes a feller feel all warm and fuzzy.

Sauger are a favorite pastime in colder months for many people in this area. Some of the best places are in the Duck River, Kentucky Lake near Cuba Landing or Birdsong, the Tennessee River and below most major dams. The funny part is how few people even know what they are. Almost every time I mention them online someone will ask what in the world is a sauger? Surprising for a fish that is as widely distributed as they are and as readily caught.

The sauger (Sander canadensis) is a very close relative of the walleye (Sander vitreus), in fact, close enough to interbreed giving us the hybrid saugeye. While almost everyone knows the walleye many are still missing out on some great winter fishing and what is absolutely some of the best fish for the table. That might be the reason right there, winter. Sauger are best caught in cold water usually with current as they migrate during the colder months. When a lot of people have put their boats away or are busy in the woods bothering the deer or small game sauger are actively feeding throughout our waterways.

A Lake Champlain walleye. Photo courtesy of Jody White.

Walleye from Saginaw Bay. Photo courtesy of Victor.

A good looking sauger.

While winter fishing isn’t for everyone and with the ice up north you couldn’t fish for sauger like we do here it is still a great way to spend time on the water if you have them in your area. The time between the end of deer season and the water warming in spring is perfect for going after sauger. We start catching them as early as November and will catch them until the end of March mainly below the big dams around middle Tennessee. While not all of the dams have the numbers of sauger that Cheatham has they all have fish. The other bonus is the striper population that stays below the dams year round and are a blast to catch on either live bait or big jigs drifted in the current. Or for the catfishermen out there, water temperatures around 35 degrees or above is perfect for catching big blue cats in the same water by fishing large dead shad or skipjacks.

So for those of you wondering what in the world a sauger is and how you catch them maybe this will help. Check around the local tackle shops or marinas especially ones located near dams to see if the sauger runs are in your area. A handful of football jigs, a couple of spinning rods, a bucket of minnows, warm clothes and a thermos full of coffee and you just might be headed to a new favorite winter sport.

 

Overlooked, River Silver

I grew up in Nashville, actually , East Nashville, which let me have access to some of the large TVA lakes and dams that dot the state. Just outside of Nashville is Old Hickory and Percy Priest, both have been favorite stomping grounds since we were kids. Priest is a draw down impoundment, turbines below the dam only run a few weeks a year to pull the lake down to winter pool or if we have a lot of rain, enough to hold the level. Old Hickory is different, it runs 24 hours a day, providing electrical energy to the grid, the more power needed the more of it’s twelve turbines they run. This provides good fishing on both sides of the river just about whenever you feel the need to head that way. Rockfish (stripers), hybrids, catfish, sauger and a list of panfish are caught below the dam either from boats or the two catwalks, one on either side, built for fishermen.

Percy Preist in the summer. You might call this limited fishing opportunities.

I loaded up the boat to try for rockfish and cats one warm Saturday afternoon during mid summer. No wind and a partly cloudy sky promised a good evening on the river. I got to the ramp at Old Hickory, which I hate, it is extremely steep, long and narrow, got the boat launched, then headed upstream to the dam. The turbines are on the left side going upstream with flood gates in the center and the lock on the right. Underwater downstream of the flood gates are large rock piles that hold fish but steal terminal tackle at an astounding rate. There is a good current break where the turbines meet the flood gates, this break flows down the edge of these rock piles at mid river, this is where rockfish and cats cruise.

Gary Hanson with a nice rockfish from Alabama. One of the fish we were after. Photo credit: Gary Hanson

I was at the far end of the turbines. This view is from the fishermens’ catwalk.

I pulled up to the face of the dam where the current break begins, we rigged heavy jigs and started casting into water flowing fast from the turbines. This provided good exercise but no strikes so I started wondering what I needed to change. I was tied to the corner of the dam in an eddy and noticed something running shad along the front of the flood gates in the slack current. Stripe (white bass) do this all the time and I sure don’t mind catching them, I’ve caught big stripe in this spot, so my decision was made.

I rigged a 6 ½ foot spinning rod with a #7 Countdown Rapala, another with a white ¼ oz Roostertail and started casting where I could see strikes. It only took a couple of casts for the rod to bend to the handle and a fight to start. After a few seconds a silver rocket came out of the river, back arched, mouth open, twisting and throwing spray. My fishing partner throws into the same spot and gets the same results, now two skipjacks are putting on a show like miniature tarpon, at times several feet in the air. Landing a 2 pound skipjack, I smiled, forgot about what I had come to the river to catch, made another cast and held on.

Tennessee tarpon. Great fighters and almost completely overlooked.

Skipjack are called Tennessee tarpon around here and have earned their name. Besides being some of the best live or dead bait, they are an absolute blast to catch. Every evening during warmer weather they move along the dam and riprap assaulting baitfish. This particular evening they were moving, along with schools of stripe, against the dam face keeping shad pushed to the surface. All along the walls shad were jumping out of the water trying to shake the predators. All I needed to do was follow along with my trolling motor, casting past the splashes, then retrieving through the school. Very few casts went without a strike.

We had hit after hit from stripe and skips, spinning rods bent, reels screaming from the strain as good fish stripped line. We followed schools along concrete surfaces watching shad as they flew out of the river, onto the sloped face, flopping as they went from frying pan to fire. We weren’t the only ones that knew about this evening ritual, black crowned night herons and great blue herons, stood along the water’s edge waiting for shad to appear. They happily speared a shad supper they didn’t have to work for. The action continued, larger fish began showing up as light levels dropped. As bigger fish came in they got more aggressive, several times we had two large skipjack on one bait, straining the poor light rods and eight pound test we were using.

As dusk set in the action slowed, so under the sodium lights illuminating the river from the dam, we rigged up for catfish with a fresh stock of bait. With a live well full of stripe, any cats would be bonus fish. Darkness came and we drifted the current break with a breeze created by water from under the dam rushing by cooling us and keeping the skeeters at bay. We did manage to catch a couple of good cats that night, one blue going about 8 pounds, before packing it in. If we hadn’t seen a cat that night it wouldn’t have mattered, stripe and skipjack had given us a great time.

When I lived close enough to run out in the afternoons many times I went just for the skipjack. I would fish the lock side of the river since it has less current, waiting for the schools to start running the banks late in the day. I use several baits to catch skips, jig and twister combos, Roostertails, #7 Countdowns, anything 1 ½ to 2 inches in length mimicking a shad works. 6 ½ to 7 ½ foot spinning rods with 8 to 10 pound test is all you need. These are fish that so many people never fish for and I love to catch, they are incredible fighters and provide bait for my catfishing trips.

Skipjacks are simply one of the best baits for cats and stripers, either live, cut into chunks or whole, they are great and free. I get as many as I can and freeze them, guts in one bag and fillets in another for later use. Most people use a cast net and it works like a champ. There are several guys from Viet Nam and Laos I’ve met that net big numbers of skips and big gizzard shad to eat. They cut the bellies out leaving a really nice fish which they stack into boxes, the bellies and innards go into a bucket. They will gladly give you the insides which saves me time on those days if I just want to catfish and they are at the river.

Keeping with my theme of having fun outdoors, not making it work like tournament fishing or big time deer management, I have no problem fishing for species most people turn their nose up to if you mention fishing for them. I am out to enjoy whatever time I get plus I need skipjack to help fill my freezer and those of needy families I bring food during the year. In many areas skipjack are plentiful, almost completely overlooked, great bait and better fighters. Do I even need to say it?

Go out and give these guys a try. What a fun way to spend a summer afternoon, rod bent double, drag screaming, silver in the air throwing spray and a smile on your face.
 
 

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