Bill Dasinger remembers fishing holes in the Missouri River that were so full of sauger that his jig couldn’t hit the bottom before it was snatched by a fish.
“The sauger were in there thick at certain times of year,” said the Wolf Point angler. “There were holes that would start holding sauger in the fall, and those fish would stay in the same spots until they spawned in the spring.”
That abundance is harder to find now, in part because Montana’s sauger population is declining in the lower Missouri and elsewhere.
A native of Montana east of the Continental Divide, sauger (Stizostedion canadense) are closely related to non-native walleye. Both members of the perch family are found in eastern Montana’s large, turbid rivers, though sauger appear to prefer river habitat while walleye are better suited to lakes and reservoirs. Both species are springtime spawners, sometimes migrating long distances to congregate on shallow gravel bars and riffles in mid April and May.
The close proximity of spawning adults of both species can create saugeye, sterile hybrids of sauger and walleye. When 10 percent or less of a population, hybrids aren’t a threat. But if populations decline leaving a higher percentage of hybrids it can be a problem.
That is what happened in the early 1990s on the Missouri River from Coal Banks Landing, southwest of Big Sandy, to Morony Dam, eight miles northeast of Great Falls. Drought reduced the sauger population and the number of hybrids started to rise among the remaining sauger. The drought also reduced flows in important sauger spawning tributaries, such as the Teton and Marias rivers.
Fewer and fewer sauger were showing up in biologists’ sampling, and on anglers’ hooks. Widespread declines in sauger populations and habitats prompted the fish to be named a “species of special concern” in 2000.
In the past decade, biologists have been paying close attention to sauger and their warm water habitats, sampling more intensively, recommending more conservative angler limits, and learning where walleye and sauger populations intersect.
The scrutiny appears to be working as sauger populations in the middle reaches of the Missouri are increasing, according to FWP monitoring on the Missouri River. It also helps that anglers are learning to tell sauger from walleye. Last summer a creel survey showed anglers released about 70 percent of the sauger caught. The word is out that the species is in trouble.
Anglers can help conserve sauger by learning to recognize this native fish from the walleye. If it has spots on its dorsal fin, it’s likely a sauger. Sauger are also torpedo shaped, in contrast to the walleyes’ deeper physique.
Dasinger, a hard-core walleye angler, has a special sweet spot for sauger.
“They were here before any of us were,” he said. “I love the places where they live. They are survivors.”