Walleyes and Saugers: Having Cousins for Dinner


This winter, thousands of ice anglers will spend quality time on that big body of water to the north that has earned the tagline, “The Walleye Capital of the World,” Lake of the Woods. With a healthy population of fish, expectations are high for catching a good number of walleyes and maybe even a trophy. Walleyes are not the only fish that find their way into anglers’ buckets. Saugers—a cousin to the walleye—are in big numbers, add excitement to a day of fishing and are delicious. Many anglers targeting walleyes consider them, the “Bonus Fish”. This is one cousin that is welcome to the party.

There are only certain lakes and river systems that saugers live in. Typically, saugers need colder waters and prefer some current. So, a river system as part of the watershed is key for saugers to thrive. They also like the stained waters that are a signature of Lake of the Woods and also allow for a great daytime bite.

How to tell them apart

Walleyes and saugers look very similar yet have distinct differences. Saugers are a long, thin fish with darker backs and brassy sides. They have more brown in their appearance and sometimes will have a dark, mottled coloration on their sides whereas walleyes are golden.

  • Saugers have distinct spots within their top dorsal fin. Walleyes don’t have the spots.
  • Walleyes have a dark spot between the last two or three spines of its dorsal fin, the sauger has none.
  • Walleyes have a white tip on the bottom of their tail. Saugers have no white tip.

This very prevalent fish grows up to about 19 inches, but 12 to 16-inch saugers are the typical fish kept for the fry pan on Lake of the Woods.

There are many reasons saugers are welcome to the party. Day in and day out, saugers keep ice anglers busy. Saugers fill in voids and add nicely to angler’s buckets and, eventually, a fish fry. They behave much like walleyes, eating much of the same forage. Consequently, they are attracted to walleye presentations.

When headed up to Lake of the Woods, many anglers’ focus is on the fish that has made LOW famous—the walleye. On days when going after those walleyes is a test in great patience, saugers play a big part in what makes Lake of the Woods such an enjoyable fishing destination with high angler success rates. Here are a few good reasons ice anglers appreciate the sauger.

Saugers bring consistent action

In between schools of walleyes, or if the walleyes are not biting well that day, saugers normally bite well and keep the activity level high. There have been many days ice fishing that saugers have saved the day and certainly preserved the evening fish fry. If the walleyes aren’t dialed in that particular day, having saugers whacking the lures and deadsticks really adds to the enjoyment.

High population and good size

Sauger numbers at Lake of the Woods fluctuate year to year. Right now, there is an extremely high population of saugers in the system and many of them are big. When I say “big”, I am talking up to 17 or 18 inches. This creates a perfect scenario for a lot of action, that exciting red line appearing on your electronics and that heart-pounding “tap” at the end of your ice rod.

Living quarters

Saugers coexist with walleyes. It is common to come in with a bucket of walleyes and saugers mixed. As a rule, saugers tend to prefer a bit deeper water than walleyes. In addition, they normally hug the bottom. Walleyes will utilize more of the water column, often suspending while targeting tulibees and other baitfish.

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Great for kids

Depending upon the day, walleye fishing can take some patience. Saugers are typically more cooperative and help to bring consistent action to a fish house. Kids want and need action. Saugers will typically keep electronics lit up and bobbers bouncing.

Saugers are unique

Many waterways throughout the Midwest do not have saugers. Saugers traditionally live in waterways associated with a river system and do well in stained water. Thus, most anglers do not have the opportunity to catch saugers on a regular basis.

Saugers taste incredible

The firm, white meat of a sauger is very much sought after. Some locals will tell you they like the sauger better than even walleyes They believe the meat is a bit sweeter. One thing is for sure, they taste good.

Liberal daily limits

There is a strong population of saugers in LOW. In the winter months, anglers are allowed a combined total of eight walleyes and saugers per day. Of these eight, up to four can be walleyes. With these limits, it lends itself well to filling a bucket of fish for an evening fish fry and bringing a few fish home.

Saugers bite all winter

In some lakes when the oxygen levels decrease in February, fishing really shuts off. Lake of the Woods keeps on trucking in February. It is big water and, luckily, there are so many saugers in the system some fish seem to cooperate every day, making for a successful outing. March can be incredible fishing for both walleyes and saugers. It is the month fish are putting on the feedbag for the upcoming spawn and catching fish can literally be nonstop.

Season open into April!

For the avid ice angler who cannot fathom the end of ice fishing, no worries. Lake of the Woods season for walleyes and saugers is open until April 14th. Ice houses can remain on the lake until March 31st. Depending upon the year, we are often still ice fishing and catching walleyes and saugers through the ice until the end of March.

Fun to catch!

Sauger fishing is much like walleye fishing. The fish are typically hugging the bottom of the lake and they are normally a bit deeper. Jigging your favorite lure with a minnow head in one hole and having a deadstick down the second with a live minnow suspended 6 inches from the bottom will usually do the trick. Much like walleyes, every day is different. One day they will be chasing down your jigging lure with wild abandon. On other days, the jigging line will attract them. If in more of a neutral mood, they may prefer a wiggling minnow on a plain hook or small ice jig.

Although walleyes typically receive most of the attention, saugers play an important role in the entire ice-fishing experience on Lake of the Woods. Saugers are fun to catch. They swim the waters of Lake of the Woods in great abundance. When you come for that epic walleye trip, there is a good chance “the cousin” will swim in to pay you a visit!