Sauger bite during the holiday season

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By Lee McClellan
Kentucky Afield Outdoors

S​auger are starting to hover just above bottom downstream of dams, waiting for a stunned shad to tumble into their orbit. Anglers started catching sauger below dams on the Ohio River recently, with some catching fish in excess of 15 inches long.

With water temperatures on the Ohio dropping into the upper 40s this week, the numbers of sauger below the locks and dams on the river are only going to grow.

The peak concentration of sauger below dams coincides with the coldest weather of the year. Sauger readily bite in water temperatures below 40 degrees, the most reliable winter fish of all.

With many Kentuckians getting some days off during the holiday season, sauger provide a cast-starved angler a chance to get away from the bustle surrounding the holidays and put some fish in hand.

Hardcore sauger anglers begin fishing on the opening weekend of modern gun deer season as fish begin congregating below dams on the Kentucky and Ohio rivers. They also arrive in large numbers in the tailwater areas below Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley at roughly the same time.

December is the start of the good sauger fishing with the peak coming in February. The fishing lasts until late March when they spawn and disperse downstream.

Sauger in tailwaters strike 3- to 4-inch pearl, orange and black, chartreuse or orange and lime green curly-tailed grubs rigged on leadheads ranging from ¼ - to ¾-ounce. The weight of the leadhead depends on current. Some anglers will go up to a 1-ounce weight if needed to get the offering on the bottom. Lures that don’t strike bottom regularly don’t generate many sauger strikes.

Blade baits catch numbers of sauger. On overcast days, a gold blade bait works best. On clear days, silver and blue blade baits work better. Blade baits mimic the shad and shiners sauger eat. Jigging spoons in the same colors also score sauger.

Presentation is critical for catching sauger consistently. Boat anglers have two options in flowing areas below dams. If you have good current, fish vertically and jig your lures off the bottom. At normal to low flows, hold your position with a trolling motor and scoot your lure across the bottom.

Bring plenty of lures as the gnarly bottom common in tailwater areas on rivers will eat your baits, especially blade baits or jigging spoons with treble hooks. Some anglers switch out the treble hooks on these lures with a single hook to help avoid snags.

Bank anglers below dams should work current seams with grubs rigged on leadheads heavy enough to occasionally strike bottom, but not so heavy they hang up on every cast. Anglers fishing from the bank also catch many sauger fishing live crappie minnows on the bottom.

The locks and dams on the Kentucky River mainly offer boat fishing opportunities and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources stocks sauger in the river annually. The best bank fishing opportunity on the Kentucky River is just below Lock and Dam #2 on the Henry County side of the river at Lockport.

Consult the “Find a Place to Fish” page on the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife website at​ to find the boat ramp nearest the tailwaters below locks and dams on the Kentucky River.

The relatively new bank fishing structures built on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River below Meldahl Lock and Dam near Foster, Kentucky in Bracken County make an excellent spot to sauger fish from shore. The tailwater below Meldahl is one of the best sauger fishing spots on the river.

The Ohio River below the McAlpine Lock and Dam in Louisville is another highly productive sauger fishing spot. Bank anglers have ample fishing opportunities at the Falls of the Ohio State Park in Clarksville, Indiana, just across the river from Louisville. Anglers with a valid Kentucky fishing license may fish from the bank on the Indiana side of the Ohio.

It is helpful to know the river conditions before making a sauger trip to the Falls of the Ohio. Those planning a trip should call 1-502-775-5056 and listen to a recorded announcement on river conditions that updates every four hours. Listen for the release of the “Upper Dam,” which refers to the five gates on the upstream end of the McAlpine Lock and Dam complex near the Indiana side of the river.

Sauger anglers want the release from the Upper Dam to be 8 feet or less. The recording also refers to the lower dam, which is downriver beside the hydroelectric complex and only accessible by boat. The road access to Shippingport Island that allowed anglers to fish beside the hydroelectric outflow is temporarily closed.

The Cumberland River just below Wolf Creek Dam offers excellent bank fishing for winter sauger. The fishing platforms and bank access below Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley make highly productive bank fishing spots for these fish.

There are quality sauger over 15 inches in the Green River Lake tailwater, the Barren River Lake tailwater and in the Salt River below Taylorsville Lake. “You can catch a combination of walleye and sauger in the Green River,” said David Baker, Central Fisheries District biologist for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife.

The public recreation areas immediately downstream of Green River, Barren River and Taylorsville lakes also offer easy bank access for sauger anglers.

If screaming children, complaining relatives and overeating are giving you the holiday blues, lift your spirits by catching some tasty sauger.