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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Saugeye fishery has blossomed in Ky., providing a bonanza for anglers

What started out as experimental stockings in 2013 has blossomed into a bonafide fishery management success story for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR), and a bonanza for anglers.

The Saugeye has found a home in Kentucky.

This hybrid thrives in fertile waters where shad are present, adapts well to lake environments, and tolerates turbidity and warm water better than walleyes.

A Saugeye is a cross between female Walleye (Sander vitreus), and a male Sauger (Sander canadensis), an example of interspecific hybridization, the interbreeding of two different species.

Saugeye (Photo provided)

Hybrids are typically sterile. However, Saugeye can backcross with either parental species or spawn with other Saugeye.

They feed often, which explains their “hybrid vigor,” characterized by rapid growth rates. This aggressive feeding behavior also makes them easier to catch than walleye.

In May 2019, the Kentucky state record for Saugeye was broken twice in less that three weeks.

On May 6, Louisville resident Dennis Rhea was casting a silver, minnow-shaped crankbait in Shelby County’s Guist Creek Lake when he hooked into and boated a 6-pound, 13-ounce Saugeye.

Rhea’s record Saugeye was 26 1/2 inches long with a girth of 14 1/2 inches, surpassing the previous state record of six pounds, nine ounces caught from the Ohio River in 1998 by Chuck Kouns.

Fifteen days later, on May 21, 2019 Lexington angler Clay Smith was trolling a pink and white shad-profiled crankbait for trout in the Cumberland River below Wolf Creek Dam when he hooked into something big.

“(When) I hooked it I thought it was an extremely large trout or a walleye,” Smith said. “When I got it in the boat, I truly thought it was a walleye. My fishing buddy thought it was a sauger.”

Turns out it was a hybrid of the two species, an 8-pound, 8.8-ounce Saugeye, and a new state record, verified by a team of fisheries biologists who examined the fish at the department’s headquarters in Frankfort.

The Saugeyes stocked in Kentucky lakes are spawned and reared at KDFWR hatcheries in-state.

Josh Pennington, hatchery manager at the Pfeiffer Fish Hatchery, in Franklin County, said the spawning is done at the Minor Clark Fish Hatchery, near Morehead. “They send us hardened eggs in bags filled with water and oxygen, then we hatch the eggs and raise up the fry to stocking size.”

Soon after saugeye eggs hatch, the young fish begin feeding on zooplankton. “We fill a pond, and fertilize it, to allow the plankton to bloom,” said Pennington. “Then we put the fry in the pond at the rate of about 100,000 to 120,000 per acre.”

By May the saugeye reach stocking size of 1 1/2 to 2 inches in length, and are trucked to the lakes where they are released.

On average about 100,000 saugeye of stocking size have been raised each year at the Pfeiffer Fish Hatchery since 2013.

Depending on availability, the small lakes have been stocked through the years at rate of about 50 to 100 fish per acre, with the target stocking rate now being 100 fish per acre.

Taylorsville Lake is typically stocked with about 60,000 Saugeye a year, or a stocking rate of about 20 fish per acre.

Under optimal conditions, Saugeye can grow to seven or nine inches or longer in their first year after stocking and by year two, reach harvestable size (14 inches), with some fish even reaching 15 to 19 inches long.

Size and Coloration

Identification is tricky. Saugeye look similar to both parental species.

Saugeyes typically have dark brown backs with darker saddle-shaped markings like a Sauger, and a white tip on the lower tip of the tail like a Walleye.

Saugeyes also have continuous black lines on the spines of the dorsal fin, while Sauger have rows of distinct black spots.

Distribution in Kentucky

Walleye and Sauger are native to Kentucky and are members of the Perch family (Percidae). Both species are present in six Kentucky rivers.

Kentucky’s state record Saugeye was caught by Lexington Angler Clay Smith on the Cumberland River below Wolf Creek Dam (Photo provided)

The rivers include: the Barren River, from the dam that impounds Barren River Lake, downstream to the confluence with the Green River; the Cumberland River, from Wolf Creek Dam that impounds Lake Cumberland, downstream to the Kentucky/Tennessee line; the Green River, from the dam that impounds Green River Lake, downstream to the remains of Dam #3, at Rochester, Ky.; the Kentucky River; the Nolin River, from the dam that impounds Nolin River Lake, until the confluence with the Green River, and the Ohio River.

Researchers found that in lakes and rivers with naturally reproducing populations of both Walleye and Sauger, Saugeye hybridization is uncommon, occurring at a very low rate, about 2 to 3 percent.

There’s speculation that the current Kentucky state record Saugeye, caught from the Cumberland tailwaters last May, could have been a naturally occurring hybrid.

In Kentucky, Saugeye have been stocked in seven small, state-owned lakes, and one major reservoir.

Here’s some details:

• A.J. Jolly, 175 acres in Campbell County.

The fishery is rated fair/good.

The lake has been stocked annually since 2013. There are good numbers of quality fish present, with fish up to 25 inches possible.

• Boltz Lake, 92 acres in Grant County.

The fishery is rated fair/good.

First stocked in 2015-2016, harvestable size Saugeye are present.

• Bullock Pen, 134 acres in Grant County.

The fishery is rated fair.

Saugeye have been stocked in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2019. Harvestable size fish are present.

• Carpenter Lake, 68 acres in Daviess County.

The fishery is rated good.

Saugeye were stocked in the spring of 2019 as 1 1/2-inch fingerlings, by October 2019 they were near 10 inches long. Growth rates are excellent as Saugeye are feeding on small shad and crappie. Biologists anticipate that some fish may reach legal harvestable size (14 inches) by fall 2020.

• Guist Creek Lake, 317 acres in Shelby County.

The fishery is rated fair/good.

Has been stocked every year since 2013, and Saugeye up to 25 inches are possible. Good numbers of quality sized fish are present.

• Additionally, there are developing Saugeye fisheries at two other small lakes: 114-acre Lake Carnico in Nicholas County, first stocked in 2017, and 169-acre Wilgreen Lake in Madison County, first stocked in 2018.

• Taylorsville Lake, 3,050 acres in Spencer, Anderson and Nelson Counties.

The fishery is rated fair.

Growth rates have been excellent, with some fish reaching about 18 inches, after just two growing seasons.

Initially stocked in 2015 at just 2 to 3 fish per acre, the lake is being stocked now at 20 fish per acre.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

Food Habits

Saugeye, like walleye and sauger, are piscivorous, that is the feed on fish, eating mostly shad, shiners, and other minnows.

But once a Saugeye reaches 15 inches in length they also begin feeding on small crappie, which can benefit crappie growth rates in small lakes where crappie numbers are too high and fish become stunted.

Fishing Tips

In the fall fish shallow mudflats and points at depths of five to seven feet.

Late fall to early spring is one of the best times to fish for Saugeye since they tend to migrate to the upper reaches of lakes, and in rivers, stack up in tailwaters below dams.

Warming water temperature in the spring cause Saugeye to disperse back downstream in shallow, turbid reservoirs, where they locate on old river channel structure. Focus on drop-off edges, and shallow flats, particularly if the water’s muddy.

Anglers fish with spinning or casting rods (6 to 7 1/2-foot long), with reels spooled in 8 to 12-pound-test line.

Most classic walleye rigs and presentations work for Saugeye. Jigs tipped with live bait are particularly effective.

Saugeye, like walleyes and sauger, hug the bottom, so use enough weight to maintain bottom contact. Vertical fishing minnow-tipped jigs is a proven winter presentation, December through February.

In the spring and summer drifting walleye spinner rigs, tipped with live nightcrawlers will catch Saugeye. Another proven presentation is casting or trolling crankbaits across flats. Anglers also cast small suspending jerkbaits or swimbaits.

Since Saugeye often travel in schools, continue fishing an area methodically after the initial catch is made.

Creel Limits

Statewide, in Kentucky, there’s a six-fish daily creel limit and a 14-inch minimum size limit on walleye, sauger and their hybrids.

Saugeye are Kentucky’s newest gamefish, making a splash with fishery biologists and anglers alike.

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