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.
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.