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Sauger slam: rigs and presentation tricks for more spotfins now.



When saugers won't respond to standard vertical-jigging tactics on his favorite Mississippi River fishing grounds, pro Bill Leonard of Estherville, Iowa, employs a couple variations on three-way rigging.


The first is used topresent a live minnow or chub. Leonard slides a #10 barrel swivel up his 6/2 FireLine mainline, followed by a colored bead. Then he ties a second barrel swivel to the end of the line.

The upper (sliding) swivel is used as the dropper line, with either a sinker or heavy leadhead jig affixed to 12 to 18 inches of light mono. In fairly snag-free settings Leonard opts for a 1-ounce jighead; he favors Lindy's now-discontinued Jumbo Fuzz-E-Grub, but other slender, heavy, plastic-tipped jigs can suffice. The jig occasionally produces a bonus sauger. When confronted with snags, or when current dictates the need for a heavier weight, then a bell, a pencil, or a Lindy NO-SNAGG sinker gets the nod. A 2- to 4-foot section of 8-pound Berkley Vanish is tied to the open ring of the second swivel, followed by either a Northland High-Ball Floater jighead or #4 red hook. "I use this three-way setup in deeper holes," says Leonard. "Short droppers and leads keep the bait close to the bottom--which is often a series of sand dunes, where active fish rise up to the top of a dune to feed."

He favors a slow, upriver presentation, powered by his bowmount electric or kicker outboard, depending on the current's strength. In either scenario, use just enough thrust to keep the boat moving upriver.

A soft-tipped 8 1/2-foot Berkley Air IM7 rod and Abu Garcia baitcaster with a flippin' button (which helps quickly feed line to biting fish) round out the setup. Where two rods are permitted, he puts one in a rod holder and handholds the other.

Leonard's second three-way option incorporates a stickbait such as a #7 Rapala Original Floater or a 3 1/2-inch Berkley Frenzy Firestick Minnow in "hot" color patterns like silver/chartreuse and gold/orange. A standard three-way swivel with a 6- to 18-inch dropper tows a bell sinker weighing up to 8 ounces (depending on depth and current); a 2- to 4-foot snell couples the trailing swivel to the stickbait. This is also a pull-it-upstream deal, with rods, slightly heavier that those used for the previous rig, deployed in rod holders.


On the lower Allegheny River's navigational pools, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, river rat Bob Mahaffey targets aggressive saugers with a deep-running suspending hardbait. His approach is perfect for targeting fish relating to the downstream eddies below gravel bars and wing-walls associated with lock chambers.

Using a #6 Rapala X-Rap--typically in the company's Silver Blue pattern--he pitches to the quiet water below these current breaks. "I reel the bait down to where it just touches the rocky bottom," explains Mahaffey. "Once it hits, 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 often strike right after the lure has ticked the rocks, but may bite anywhere along the retrieve.


Longtime In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail angler John Kolinski of Greenville, Wisconsin, pursues saugers on the Mississippi, Illinois, and Tennessee rivers. And when he's zeroing in on these brassy-colored fish he relies on jigging a bit deeper structure than where he'd look for walleyes. "Saugers hold in deeper water than walleyes," notes Kolinski. "I rarely fish shallower than 8 feet for them."

Kolinski scales the jig-thing down when targeting saugers. No bodies or twister-tails that bulk-up the presentation, just a bare leadhead jig, typically orange or chartreuse. "I keep it plain and simple," he says. "I tip it with a minnow, usually a fathead or sometimes a piece of 'crawler, depending on the water temperature and time of year."


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 nightcrawlers of the year in your driveway following a rainy night, that's the time to add 'crawler pieces to your jig," he adds. "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 dances his jigs to a couple of different steps. 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," Kolinski says. "Bump bottom and lift 4 to 6 inches, then hold. I may not always hold for a full minute, but at least 20 to 30 seconds."

A second option is to "drag a jig," as he calls it. This calls for a lighter leadhead. If you needed a 1/4-ounce jig to maintain contact when fishing vertically, lighten up to 1/8 or 3/16 ounce. Let the lighter jig trail upriver behind the boat as you drift in the current, proper line angle running in the 30- to 45-degree range. This steady downriver drag can increase sauger catches when fish are less aggressive.


Minnesota walleye and sauger ace Terry DeZurik says saugers sometimes defy the notion that you have to keep your jig within inches of the bottom to get bit. In fact, in the Red Wing area of the Mississippi River below Lock and Dam 3, he routinely catches them much higher in the water column. "We get saugers, goodsized ones in the 21- to 22-inch range, pulling and drifting YUM RibWorms in 20 feet of water," he says. "But often the key is to get the jig 5 or 6 feet off bottom."

While DeZurik still believes bottom is the place to be most of the time for catchable saugers, higher is better in certain scenarios. "Suspended saugers are most common when the river is running low and there's little current in the area I'm fishing," he says. "Under these conditions, I've had great action while boats bouncing bottom around us went fishless."

DeZurik's typical one-two sauger punch leads with a downriver drift, followed by an upriver drag. He first fishes a productive area, say a 200-yard stretch of river, then uses his bowmount to pull the jig back upriver. During the drift phase he uses a 1/8-ounce ballhead jig, then switches to a 5/16-ouncer when heading upcurrent. In both cases, the tipping of choice is a 4-inch YUM RibWorm, often in a strongly contrasting color pattern such as Black Neon Chartreuse.

The downriver drift is a vertical deal. Lower the jig until it touches down, but rather than raising it a few inches off bottom, wind in about 4 to 6 feet of line to keep it in the faces of any high-riding saugers. On the upriver leg, DeZurik lowers the heavier jig to bottom and engages the reel without raising the rig--the current swings it well off bottom when he pulls it upstream. "Hold the bait still, though. Don't impart any extra action," he warns.


The portion of the Ohio River where I fish for saugers can be outstanding, particularly when there's an exceptionally strong year-class or two in the mix, making the fish competitive. When such is the case, there's no need to bring the minnow bucket--saugers crush a jig tipped with a tube.

Simply insert a 3/16- or 1/4-ounce jighead into a thin-bodied, 3-inch softbait (I like a YUM Tube) and drag it along the bottom of a sauger hole. Fish it as you would a jig-and-minnow, dragging it on bottom as the boat slides downriver, occasionally lifting and holding.

Tubes are also effective when saugers make an evening migration up onto gravel bars or flats, 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.

In shallow pitching situations, two of my favorite tube colors are YUM's Green Pumpkin Chartreuse and Mardi Gras. Since line-watching is a big part of strike detection, high-vis line is a must. I use Gamma Technologies' 4.9-pound-test copolymer in high-vis gold.


What they give up in size to their larger, marble-eyed kin, saugers more than make up for in attitude and, often, in sheer numbers. Armed with these strategies you can catch them consistently all winter, even on days when these spotted terrors come hard.

DEPTH PERCEPTION Sauger location by size

FINDING SAUGERS ISN'T extremely complicated. Inflows from oxbows and backwaters, channel edges, sand dunes, clambeds, and various tailwater current breaks and seams can all hold fish. But, as with so many species, targeting the biggest fish in a system requires an understanding of what the big boys (and girls) prefer.

It's a Walleye In-Sider truism that sag-bellied spotfins in rivers don't hold with the little guys. While small saugers cruise the deepest available water, such as pools, holes, or mainriver basins, bigger fish favor the same structure as walleyes, except they arrive and feed in such spots early or late in the day, staying for extended periods during foul weather.

Thanks to their low-light-loving ways, saugers at any given time are likely to hold a bit deeper than walleyes on the same piece of structure. If the 'eyes are at 15 feet on a channel edge, for example, you can expect saugers at 20 down to 35 feet on the same break.

Current is also a factor. Look for supersized saugers at the head of structural elements such as sandbars, gravel bars, points, and humps. Keep in mind they often hold on the current side of structure, more so than walleyes, and inhabit areas of stronger current than walleyes tolerate.

In reservoirs, seek saugers tight to bottom on sand-, gravel, or rubble flats off mainlake points. The first one or two coves of main creek arms behind major points are also worth checking. Depths of 30 to 40 feet are not uncommon. Again, current is key; expect the biggest fish in or near slight current at the head of the structure.--Walleye In-Sider staff

JEFF KNAPP, Veteran guide and fishing writer Jeff Knapp ( lives in Pennsylvania and is a frequent contributor to Walleye In-Sider.
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Author:Knapp, Jeff
Publication:Walleye In-Sider
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2009
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