Winter fishers don’t need to break the ice

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Saugeye
Saugeye, a cross between walleye and sauger, can be caught this time of year in the open waters below flood control dams, or in shallow flats in ice-covered lakes or reservoirs. (Tim Daniel, Ohio Division of Wildlife, photo)

Folks may think that fishing this time of year involves drilling through ice. But the open water below flood control dams offers a good chance to catch saugeye, especially if a rain increases flow and adds a little color to the water.

From now through March, saugeye — and maybe some walleye — will be in those tailwaters as minnows and bait fish stack up by the dams. In places with white bass and crappie, there will be bonus catches of these species as the fish move upstream.

Saugeye

Saugeye are hybrids, the result of walleye eggs and sauger sperm. Walleye tend to spend more time offshore, in open water, while sauger are river fish. It’s that sauger parentage that makes the saugeye spend more time near land.

“They’re a great fish and provide great opportunities for anglers,” said Cameron McCune, fisheries management technician for the Ohio Division of Wildlife District 3, which covers 19 counties in Northeast Ohio.”They create a near-shore fishery for our shorebound anglers.”

And saugeye have another advantage over their parents that makes them popular with anglers: “Being hybrids, they grow a little faster and are more aggressive,” McCune said. “They eat more, and more often, so they’re easier to catch.”

Below the dams, saugeye can be caught using a variety of baits including jigs tipped with twister tails or minnows, blade baits and jigging spoons. Crappie, catfish, white bass and yellow perch may find those baits tempting as well, he said.

Another technique would be to use minnows under a float, which can also result in success as long as anglers can be patient this time of year.

“Cast upstream and let them drift downstream with the current, on the bottom, setting the depth to keep baits on or near the bottom,” McCune advised. “The saugeye are laying on the bottom waiting to ambush something that comes by.”

The key in cold water is slow retrieval. “Slow keeps it in the strike zone,” he said. When the water warms up, anglers can reel a little faster.

Breeding program

The Division of Wildlife began the saugeye breeding program in 1978. Along with channel catfish, blue catfish, muskellunge, walleye, yellow perch and hybrid striped bass, saugeye are among the more than 45 million fish that come from a network of hatcheries and are stocked in Ohio waters each year.

Fisheries personnel like McCune go to Mosquito Lake and the Maumee River in mid- to late-March, sometimes into early April, collecting walleye eggs. At the same time, other fisheries staff collect semen or milt from sauger in the Ohio River and its tributaries. Those are the only places where sauger can be found in Ohio these days, McCune said.

The milt is brought to Mosquito Lake and the Maumee River, where the eggs are fertilized on site. The fertilized eggs go through a series of iodine baths, hopefully eliminating diseases before they are transported to the Senecaville, St. Marys and Hebron state fish hatcheries.

At the hatcheries, the eggs are put in jars with water from the nearby lakes moving over them continuously. The eggs usually hatch in two to three weeks, McCune said. At that point, the hatchlings are called sac fry. They still have the egg sack attached and their mouth parts haven’t developed, which will take a few more days. Then they’re ready for transport.

Hatchlings released

Some of the hatchlings are released into lakes and reservoirs as fry, while others are stocked in hatchery ponds to be grown out to “fingerlings” before they’re released.

There have been studies done in many lakes and reservoirs to determine whether releasing the hatchlings as fry or fingerlings is more successful. Atwood Lake gets mostly fingerlings and is perhaps one of Northeast Ohio’s best lakes when it comes to saugeye.

“It’s very productive,” McCune said. “There’s a lot of angling pressure, and a lot of success fishing for saugeye.”

Tappan Lake has a great saugeye fishery, while Charles Mill, Pleasant Hill, Alum Creek, Salt Fork, Indian Lake and Paint Creek Lake are also saugeye hot spots. Chippewa Lake in Medina County may join them in a few years after stocking efforts take hold.

As an added benefit, the saugeye may be able to bring the population of white perch, an invasive species, under control as they compete for food, or even prey on the perch.

“We’re hoping the saugeye chow down on them,” McCune said.

Size-wise, saugeye end up in the middle between their sauger and walleye parents, he said. The record for Ohio is 14 pounds, caught at Antrim Lake in Franklin County. Saugeye in the eastern part of the state tend to have size advantage over those in western Ohio, McCune said. Catching one in the eight- to 10-pound range can be common in places like Leesville Lake in Carroll County.

But while lakes to the west have smaller saugeye, anglers there are more likely to catch their limit because of the higher numbers, McCune said.

The tailwaters currently provide the best opportunities to catch saugeye, but in the event that there is ice on the lakes — as in enough ice to fish safely — saugeye can make up a good percentage of the catch. Ice-fishing anglers tend to target shallow flats between three and eight feet deep, where saugeye can be found chasing small bait fish.

Those anglers often employ tip-ups with minnows suspended near the bottom, or jig for the fish using spoons and similar offerings, he said.

Either way, winter fishing in Ohio doesn’t have to involve ice. And anglers don’t have to go far for a great catch of saugeye.

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