Overlooked Early-season Saugers


It’s hard to believe that the holidays are over. But I also know from the many emails that many anglers are sitting at home just champing at the bit for warmer temperatures so that they can shake off those Winter cobwebs and catch some early-season fish. With that said, I’ll let you in on a little secret: Even though it may be cold out, there is some very hot fishing going on right now.

Here on my home river, the Mississippi, fishing in the open ice-free water below the dams can be some of the fastest, most rewarding fishing of the year. When large schools of tasty saugers congregate below the dams, anglers can reap the benefits of this great bite. One thing that I want you folks to note is that the methods I am about to tell you can also be used on other systems with open water such as the Illinois, Rock and Wisconsin rivers with equally good success.

When it comes to tactics to use on open water I find that there are many that work. But for overall success, nothing beats a nice big minnow. In the winter I prefer to use large minnows. If I can find them in the 3-inch range I’ll use them. Also, if I can find shiner minnows I prefer them to the fatheads most bait shops carry. You will find that without a doubt, shiners will catch more and larger saugers.

With these minnows, there are two rigs I use exclusively. The first one I like to call the “DJR” or double-jig rig, consisting of a three-way swivel with either a 1/2- or 3/4-ounce bright-colored lead head jig to replace the standard dropper weight. A lively minnow is then nose-hooked and attached and kept in contact with the bottom. Off the other eye I’ll run a 3- to 5-foot leader with another colored floating jig head and I’ll then attach a minnow. By fishing this double-jig rig I’m giving the fish two different looks. The most effective way to fish this rig is to slowly back-troll upstream, making sure the lead head is making bottom contact. Try and keep your line as vertical as possible for best bait control too. And if the current warrants, you may have to increase the weight of your dropper jig to maintain the proper line angle.

Another extremely effective method is to vertically jig a plain jig and minnow combination over structure. Simply slow-troll or slip with the current using a very slow lift and fall motion of 1 foot or so. Again, it is very important you keep the jig in contact with the bottom. Watch your line as you let your lure fall. Try and follow it down, keeping as tight a line as possible since you will find that 99 percent of your hits will come on the fall. Learning to control your line is critical.

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A little trick that works well in winter is to bulk up your jig by adding some type of plastic tail. I have found that 3-inch twister-type tails work well. As for colors, white, yellow and chartreuse seem to work best. Also, on occasion black can be very deadly, especially on cloudy days.

Work these rigs near obvious current break areas that drop off into the main river channel. Hungry saugers looking for an easy meal will hold on these break areas in good numbers during this time of the year.

One last presentation that will take some extra fish is to simply hang a lively minnow over the side of a deadstick rod. The rocking action of your boat will provide all the movement you need. Make sure you have the bait near the bottom and keep the rod secure to keep it from being pulled over when a fish hits.

The rigs I’ve mentioned this month are hard to beat; they are easy to use. With that said, I know it may be a little cold outside, but I guarantee you will “warm up” quickly when you get into the awesome January sauger bite going on in a river near you.

So dress warm my friends and get out and make some early-season river memories.