Hot fishing for the coldest days
By Lee McClellan
Winter fishing is for hard-core anglers - the people who don coveralls, a baklava, heated socks and carry hand warmers just so they can chase stripers or smallmouth bass in the cold.
They start fishing before sunup and continue past sundown for just three bites. In between bites, these hardy anglers fight fingers so cold that tying on lures is nearly impossible, and battle frosty feet that feel like they’re shot through with pins and needles.
However, the hottest fishing of winter doesn’t involve bass. Saugers bite readily even when the weather’s brutal. “With sauger, you might catch a 100 fish a day,” said Ryan Oster, federal aid coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources’ fisheries division. “Most people don’t get too excited about fishing with water temperatures in the 40s … but that is prime sauger time.”
Saugers are the toothy, tasty relatives of walleyes. Each fall, as water temperatures fall into the 50s, they start moving upstream until dams along the Ohio River, at Kentucky Lake, Lake Barkley or Lake Cumberland stop them. Saugers also locate along old river channel ledges in Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley.
“I start thinking sauger around the opening day of modern gun deer season,” Oster said. “It starts then and gets better the colder it gets.”
The tubular-shaped male saugers, which tend to run smaller than females, move first. The larger females migrate to tailwater areas once the days reach their coldest.
“The larger females are around, but not in significant numbers until mid to late February or early March,” said Doug Henley, Ohio River fishery biologist for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. “The larger female saugers don’t move up en masse until they are ready to spawn.”
Tailwaters on the Ohio River and downstream of the Kentucky and Barkley dams are the best sauger fishing areas. “Tailwaters are a concentrating mechanism,” Henley explained. “When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers removes the gates on the locks and dams and the Ohio River is the same level above and below, the sauger move on through the dam. The fish would be spread out all over the river if we didn’t have the locks and dams to produce that great tailwater fishery.”
Mid-river tailwaters on the Ohio have good access for bank fishing, including the Greenup, Meldahl and Markland locks and dams. Other Ohio River tailwaters are better fished by boat.
Some of the best bank fishing on the Ohio River is below Meldahl Lock and Dam in Bracken County. A parking area located off KY 8 leads to the spillway area of the dam. Saugers stack up from fall until early spring at an eddy formed at the gate wall and spillway.
“The old-timers say the sauger fishing starts after the first killing frost,” said 80-year-old Frank Asberry of Dayton, Kentucky, who’s fished the Ohio River for decades. “The month of November is good. I’ve fished down there since 1967. In my opinion, that is the best fishing.”
Overcast days are good for sauger. A little rain or snow is even better. “One day it snowed,” said George Borchers, of Ft. Wright, Kentucky. “The harder it snowed, the better the sauger hit. Once the snow stopped, they quit hitting.”
Paul Rister, western fishery district biologist for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife, explained that sauger have special lenses in their eyes that are adapted to turbid water and darkness. “Bright light and clear water makes sauger go deep,” he added.
The most effective lure is a 1/16- to 3/8-ounce lead-head hook tipped with a curly-tailed grub, sometimes with a minnow added. Anglers also throw white in-line spinners, small spoons, shad-colored crankbaits and shad-shaped soft plastic baits.
“The water color dictates what you throw down here,” said Ed Kendrick of Ft. Thomas, who fishes Meldahl Lock and Dam several times a week. “When the water is murky, darker colors such as red, black or dark green work well for sauger. In clear water, combinations of red/white, smoke, all white or bright orange are the best. Chartreuse is pretty basic for all water conditions.”
Night, when lure color is not as important, may be the most productive time to fish. Asberry recalled one trip where he had only one walleye and two saugers by 5:30 p.m. Within two hours, darkness fell and ice covered one side of his parka – but he had his limit.
“The saugers were at least 14-15 inches apiece, and a couple were longer than that,” Asberry said. “The walleyes were so big that they barely fit in a laundry tub. Their tails curled up at the ends so they could fit in it.”
Saugers also move shallower and closer to the bank at night. “At night and in the early morning, you can almost catch them at your feet,” Kendrick said. “Then, as the day goes on, they move farther out into the river.” Asberry, Borchers and Kendrick typically meet at 4 a.m. to fish. They’re usually back home by 9 a.m. with their limits.
As winter approaches and the water cools into the 40s, anglers should switch to minnows, Asberry said. “The fish become more lethargic, and you need minnows for them to hit,” he explained.
Meldahl isn’t the only place to try these patterns on the Ohio River. Markland has a long, wide bank fishing area on the Indiana side of the river with lots of rip-rap and good flow.
McAlpine Lock and Dam at the Falls of the Ohio is another excellent bank fishing area. At low water, the river becomes a series of easily wadeable chutes, runs and shoals. Saugers move into the current and provide good action for anglers using small crankbaits with flashes of chartreuse. Fly anglers can saugers on white and chartreuse Clouser minnows.
Saugers also stack up below the lower gates of McAlpine Lock and Dam during water releases. These gates are located next to the hydroelectric plant.
You’ll need a boat to fish below Smithland Lock and Dam in Livingston County, but this location offers some of the Ohio River’s best sauger fishing. “Seventeen to 18-inchers are common,” said Oster, who once served as a fishery biologist in that area. “My biggest there is 21½ inches.”
Oster also fishes below Kentucky and Barkley dams using the same techniques from a boat that he uses at Smithland. His favorite lure is an orange or orange and chartreuse hair jig tipped with a minnow. “I use a jig that is heavy enough to get down to the bottom so I can vertical jig in current,” he said. “You’ve got to get down 20 to 30 feet deep.”
Oster prefers 1-ounce hair jigs with a football head. These are designed to vertical jig big rivers in heavy current. “I always put a little meat on there, either a minnow or a grub,” he said. “If you get it near the bottom, they’ll hit it. They’ll drill it.”
Whether you’re vertical jigging from a boat or fishing from bank, bring along plenty of baits. You’ll lose them by the handful in a tailwater. “You can’t let your lure sit,” Kendrick said. “If it gets to the bottom, it’s gone.”
Anglers also catch saugers in the Cumberland River downstream of Wolf Creek Dam. The current state record, a 7-pound, 7-ounce brute caught by Rastie Andrew in April 1983, came from the Cumberland River near the Winfrey’s Ferry.
“We see them all of the time,” said Dave Dreves, fisheries research biologist for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife who oversees the management of the Lake Cumberland tailwater. “We saw quite a few this past spring in the Rockhouse pool of the river while sampling for trout.”
Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley also hold sauger. Catfish anglers often take them while working ledges along old river channels, or bass anglers may hook a sauger while fishing deep-diving crankbaits and Carolina rigs across offshore bars in summer.
“The northern end of the lakes near the canal is best for winter fishing,” said Paul Rister, western fishery district biologist for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. “Any anomaly in the bottom that can create current, such as a hump in the middle of nowhere, an unusual bend in a creek channel, or an underwater ledge, is where the sauger hold.”
It isn’t easy fishing. “You are going to have to search and work for your limit,” Rister said. “You may have one little bitty hump in the middle of a 200-acre flat. It is like fishing in a field, a needle in a haystack, but once you find them you can quickly get your limit. Once you find a good honey hole, you ought to GPS it or mark it on a map. You can come back to it again and again.”
Fish these humps by slowing drifting over them with minnows. “Use a double crappie rig and put a minnow on each hook,” Rister said. “Once you are done drifting, reel up and do it again. If you mark fish, drift it at least twice. Keep drifting till they quit biting.”
Other anglers vertical jig small spoons or jigs tipped with minnows along ledges and channel bends. Running a deep-running, shad-colored crankbait across the channel or along the ledge also draws strikes.
Sauger fishing peaks in winter, so bundle up and try it this year. You don’t need anything but a handful of lead head jigs and a bag of curly-tailed grubs.