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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Some of Kentucky’s best sauger fishing of the year starts in February

The thermometer might say no, but the calendar says yes.

February is the start of some of the best fishing of the year for sauger in Kentucky rivers and tailwaters.

Water temperatures will be cold, but the fishing can be good to excellent, when water conditions are right. Sauger readily bite in water temperatures below 40 degrees F.

Kentucky has six rivers that support quality sauger fisheries (Photo from KDFWR)

Obviously, don’t go fishing during unseasonably cold snaps with dangerous wind chills or ice, or high water conditions from snow melt or rainfall. Weather is a limiting factor in angler success most years. You have to adopt a mindset that winter sauger fishing may be a boom or a bust.

February and March are prime times to catch sauger because that’s when they school up prior to spawning. The combination of photoperiod (lengthening days) and warming water temperatures trigger sauger “runs” up rivers. Dams halt these migrations and concentrate fish.

By April, sauger have dispersed and migrated back down river. Post spawn they are spread out, which makes it difficult to catch them in numbers.

To check the water levels of streams, click on the statewide streamflow table link on the USGS Current Water Data for Kentucky website.

Life history and distribution in Kentucky

The sauger (sander canadensis) is a member of family percidae, which includes walleye and other perches.

Sauger are dark, slender fish with distinctive brown saddle-like markings across their back and sides, a tall, spotted dorsal fin, toothy mouth and large eyes.

They feed on a variety of invertebrates and small fishes depending on the time of year and size of the sauger.

A main food source of adult sauger during the spring is small channel catfish and freshwater drum, in addition to shad.

Small sauger consume mostly benthic invertebrates, such as mayfly larvae, and as they grow their diet expands to small shad and shiner minnows.

(Illustration from KDFWR)

The typical sauger caught from Kentucky waters measures about 10 to 16 inches, but adults can grow to 30 inches, and weigh as much as 8 to 9 pounds. Typically, though, they are usually less than 20 inches, weighing 2 to 3 pounds.

The Kentucky state record sauger weighed 7.44 pounds, and was caught from the Lake Cumberland tailwaters on April 28, 1983.

Kentucky has six rivers that support quality sauger fisheries — Mississippi, Ohio, Kentucky, and the lower reaches of the Green, Tennessee and Cumberland.

In the 2023 Fishing Forecast it said that the sauger fishery in the Ohio River, in multiple counties, is an up-and-coming fishery.

A top area in northern Kentucky to fish for sauger on the Ohio River is below Meldahl Lock and Dam near Foster, Kentucky in Bracken County. Anglers can fish from the rocky shore or a metal walkway with railings.

Statewide, there’s a daily creel limit of six sauger, with a 14-inch minimum size limit, however special regulations apply in some waters.

Consult the 2023-24 Kentucky Fishing and Boating Guide for details.

The 2024-25 Kentucky Fishing & Boating Guide will be released in March, at the beginning of the new license year.

Tackle and techniques

Anglers have several productive lures and presentations for catching sauger.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for the Northern Kentucky Tribune. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

Vertical jigging is probably the most effective because it’s easy to efficiently probe bottom structure such as humps, rock piles, and deep holes. Sauger conserve energy by staying out of the current, then dart out to grab their prey as it swims by.

This technique is most effective when fishing from a boat with a foot-controlled electric trolling motor mounted on the bow. Use the trolling motor against the current, to keep the boat in a controlled drift so that the line can be kept vertical.

Locate fish with electronics, then put your lure right in front of their noses. Sauger typically lay right on or close to the bottom and look up for prey to ambush. They have good vision and can see the colors green and orange best.

Ease the bait to the bottom, and maintain contact with the bottom, while moving the rod tip up and down.

Jigging cadence, or the rhythm at which the angler moves the jig, is a personal choice. But some days the fish seem to want it a certain way, so anglers need to be observant and make changes to the cadence when necessary.

One cadence that seems to work well is to lift the jig off the bottom about six inches, hold it there for a couple of seconds, then let it down to the contact the bottom again. The bite typically comes on the pause, when the bait is suspended above the eye level to the fish.

Lead head jigs should be tipped with live minnows or plastic curlytail grubs, which offer the advantage of being able to catch multiple fish without having to re-bait.

In typical current, a 3/8 or 1/2-ounce jig is usually heavy enough to stay in contact with the bottom, but in deeper water or in heavier current, more weight is needed.

Two of the top jigs on the market for sauger (and walleye) are the Odd’Ball Jig, by Bait Rigs Tackle Company, and the Fire-Ball Jig, by Northland Tackle.

Another option is to vertical jig a blade bait. Blade baits are flat oval pieces of metal with a slightly thicker head and weighted bottom.

The fishing line is tied to a snap inserted into a hole in the back of the lure. Blade baits have two treble hooks, one located below the head and one below the tail of the lure.

A Fire-ball jig with stinger hook. (Photo courtesy Northland Tackle)

Some lures have multiple line-tie positions which allow the angler to vary the pull point based on the depth of water being fished and the desired level of vibration — the closer to the head, the tighter the wobble, the farther back, the wider the wobble.

These shad profile baits should be fished by first lowering the bait down until it hits bottom, then reel it up about six inches or so. Pull the lure up, with a sharp jerk of the rod, and keep the line tight enough to feel the lure wobble back down. Most bites will occur on the fall.

On overcast days, fish a gold-colored bait, on clear days, silver and blue are two good color choices.

Three of the most popular blade baits on the market are:

• The Silver Buddy, a local favorite, a staple in tackle boxes of Kentucky anglers for decades.

That’s because the Silver Buddy was invented by Jack “Buddy” Banks in Flatwoods, Ky, in Greenup County, in 1983.

The Silver Buddy was invented by Jack “Buddy” Banks in Flatwoods in 1983 (Image provided)

Often imitated, but never duplicated, the Silver Buddy, available in three finishes, has enhanced vibration and action due to its construction and weight distribution.

Fishing guru Billy Westmorland, who passed away in 2002 at the age of 65, helped popularize the Silver Buddy, using it to catch big smallmouth bass from Dale Hollow Lake.

• The Vault, by Damiki Tackle, features three line-tie holes, is equipped with Damiki Viper Treble Hooks, and is available in nine colors.

• The Bass Pro Mean Eye offers the most variety.

Anglers can choose the lure that most closely mimics the size of the fish they are pursuing, and its prey. The Mean Eye is available in five lengths and weights, and 13 color combinations.

Another vertical jigging option is rigging a floating crankbait on the 3-way swivel. Tie the line from the rod and reel to one eyelet. On a short leader tie a weight (sinker) on the bottom. Then tie a small, floating crankbait to an 18 to 24- inch leader that’s attached to the third eyelet of the swivel. The weight helps the angler “feel” the bottom, and the crankbait trails in the current, right in the sauger’s line of sight.

Below dams of navigable rivers, fishing from the bank is a viable option since sauger like to stack up in eddies and along current seams below dams. Cast diving/floating crankbaits, jigs or blade baits, from the bank below lock walls and dams.

On relatively shallow flatland reservoirs like Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley sauger can also be taken during the summer months by trolling deep-diving crankbaits across main lake flats.

The sauger is a seasonal fishery, one of the first native gamefish species that Kentucky anglers pursue at the beginning of the new year. Sauger fishing is a good cure for cabin fever.

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