WALLEYES & SAUGERS
Walleyes and saugers have recently bathed in the limelight of a swelling fishing scene. Once the topic of a few magazine articles, some periodicals are now dedicated solely to walleyes and saugers. Walleye fishing tournaments have become popularized by large purse winnings. Manufacturers have responded with tackle specifically aimed at improving anglers' walleye catches. And with this remarkable transformation, there has been a tremendous resurgence of interest in ice fishing for walleyes and saugers.
Some anglers might suggest this is because strong populations of walleyes and saugers exist in waters encompassing virtually all of the North American ice-fishing scene. Many argue it's the thrill of watching tip-up flags trip, or the feel of smashing strikes on an ice rod. But no one will deny the draw of a sweet, fresh walleye or sauger fillet taken from winter's icy waters, carefully seasoned in a tasty coating and fried to a steaming, mouth-watering golden-brown crisp.
Walleyes can easily be identified by their pale, golden-green sides, whitish-gold bellies, a black spot at the rear of the dorsal fin, and a distinct white tip on their lower tail. Saugers are distinguished by their brownish-grey sides, often blotted with darker brown patches spread across their flanks, and a pattern of distinct black spots on their dorsal fin.
Walleyes and saugers are cool-water, schooling fish that remain quite active beneath winter's icy covering. Their characteristic, light-sensitive eyes enable them to see well even during low-light or dark conditions, and productive evening "bites" are common.
Habitat and Feeding Patterns
Although walleyes and saugers are historically creatures of a river environment, thanks to widespread stocking, solid populations have been sustained in many natural and man-made lakes.
Walleyes and saugers have often been coined by much of the ice-angling fraternity as inhabitants of deep, hard-bottom structure, largely because of their affinity for deep rocky flats, humps, bars and points. Ice experts have also noted bulrush beds on shallow and mid-depth structures are productive during early season, and mid-depth, gradually sloping drops are prominent staging areas for schools awaiting up-river spring spawning migrations.
In fact, provided food is available, oxygen concentrations aren't limiting and sunlight penetration isn't direct, shallow stumpfields, gravel or rock flats, weedy shallows and mid-depth weed edges are typical winter walleye habitat, especially early or late in the season. Since walleyes and sauger have such light-sensitive eyes, shallow-water fish usually hold tight to cover or move into deeper water during the day, then stalk shallow prey by moonlight.
During bright daytime periods, especially in deep, clear lakes, walleyes relate to more stereotypical, deep-water patterns. Rocky, main basin points, humps and shoals and their edges are good places to try. Still, these schools may be very mobile. Not only are they likely to drop deeper during bright parts of the day and rise at night, but they may also migrate from structure to structure, searching for food.
Walleyes and saugers remain active throughout the winter, but most action occurs right after ice-up and just prior to ice-out.
First ice typically provides the best fishing, especially for big fish, as larger females are gorging themselves to enhance egg production. By mid-season, action slows. Ice anglers hold a variety of opinions to substantiate this behavior, but most attribute slow midwinter action to increasingly cold water temperatures, reduced baitfish populations, and lowered oxygen concentrations. Egg production is also no longer a primary concern. By late season, action typically rebounds as forage availability, water temperatures and oxygen concentrations increase.
Since walleyes and saugers have light-sensitive eyes and a feeding advantage over other predators and prey during periods of darkness, the most intense winter feeding forays take place during low-light and evening periods. Most winter trophies are taken during wee hours of the morning, with many experts believing full moon periods provide the best opportunity for quality fish.