COLD WEATHER WALLEYE / SAUGER
Many anglers associate the walleye as a fish up North, when in fact the world record is a whopping 25 pound walleye from Old Hickory Lake in Tennessee. And a check of big walleyes shows 20 - 22 pounders also from Arkansas, Kentucky, and Missouri.
This is one reason we have spent some time the past few years fishing Bull Shoals Lake in Arkansas where we have caught nice walleye.
For us here in Illinois, the walleye record is 15.08 pounds from the Pecatonica River and we are blessed with the Illinois River that ranks up there with the best for sauger (the cousins to the walleye) where we do some fishing for couple months of late fall from Lacon up to Starved Rock. Walleye and Sauger are cool-water fish and will make their winter spawn run up rivers and reservoirs to find suitable habitat to lay eggs or where they are stopped by dams. The males are 1st to arrive in spawning areas and last to leave. During much of the fishing season from May through September it is tough to keep up with the walleye, since they are simply always on the move and seem to be scattered. But during autumn and winter they school up and are more predictable as they migrate back to shallows and to put on the feedbag.
A combination of dropping water temps, a decreasing food base along with lower light levels triggers this movement. The decreasing food base as winter nears makes minnow rigs the popular bait again. This includes live minnows, jig/minnow combos, 3-ways and floating jigs or even some artificial (Gulp) minnows. The fishing techniques are much the same as in the spring but we find that for the next few weeks trolling crankbaits near the bottom to be a productive presentation. To obtain the near bottom presentation, tie on a 3-way swivel, a short about 18 inch dropper line to a 1 oz. weight and a 4 - 6 foot leader to a slender 3 inch crankbait. These slow side-to-side roll baits run about 2 foot deep so the weight will keep them near the bottom, just run about 1.5 mph and let the weight just tick the bottom.
Spots we key into on lakes or reservoirs such as Bull Shoals Lake or here on Lake Shelbyville are breaks off big flats with inside turns and main-lake points near mouths on creeks or rivers where walleye migrate to as winter approaches. A major factor to consider when you find these fish is how they got there. In most cases it will be along a well-defined breakline where many transition fish can still be found and caught. We discover crawler rigs and trolled crankbaits work well early in the fall than later go to jigging.
For the river where sauger are more abundant, common spots are inside turns of river bends and even better if there is some sand, small gravel, a harder bottom or areas with clam shells. Sometimes we will find fish holding in holes that have been gouged out by barges. Also try in or along an eddy adjacent to moving water. Those crankbaits work early on as do the 3-way rigs with floaters and again later we turn to jigging a minnow.
There are a few differences between a walleye and sauger but to identifying the sauger, look for large rows of dark spots between spines of the spiny dorsal fin and the walleye has a light-colored tip on the lower lode of its tail fin. Sauger have been stocked since 2005 in Lake Shelbyville to determine if they have the potential to spawn successfully in the Kaskaskia River or the reservoir. The IDNR feels the fishing prospects for sauger in the lake was fair or better in 2015.
Lastly is the saugeye, a hybrid created by crossing female walleye with male sauger that must be stocked on a periodic basis to maintain a population. The most notable lake is Evergreen Lake which has been stocked since 1992 and held the State Record Saugeye of 9 lb./10.88 oz until 2012 when a 15 lbs 0.8 oz Saugeye was caught in the Pecatonica River. Several walleye lake stocking programs have been changed to a saugeye fishery as they favor more turbid water and tolerate eutrophic waters better than walleye.
Walleye tournament trails have had a lot to do with spreading the word about walleye/sauger fishing and more anglers have taken notice to these toothy critters and made them guests for dinner. One of these series is the Illinois Walleye Trail and the one we have fished is the Spring Valley Walleye Club tournaments www.spring-valley-walleye.org
There are great rewards in late fall and winter fishing with the use of a great resource many anglers overlook, not to mention the great time just being out. Dress for the conditions and enjoy the great sights of fall along with some eagles you will see this time of year.
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Till Next Time, GOD BLESS & GOOD FISHING.!