May–June 2022

Minnesota Profile

Sauger (Sander canadensis)

With barely a fraction of the walleye’s popularity, the sauger is closely related and every bit as tasty.

Roy Heilman

In waterways across Minnesota lurks a keen, toothy predator that most people rarely encounter. The sauger has barely a fraction of the walleye’s popularity, yet is closely related and every bit as tasty. 

Appearance. Saugers have the torpedo-shaped bodies and dual dorsal fins characteristic of the perch family. Though differentiating them from walleyes can stump even experienced anglers, look for the defining characteristics: dark spots on the leading dorsal fin, irregular dark blotches on the body, and the lack of a white tip on the lower tail. Saugers are not known for their size; adults commonly measure 12 to 15 inches, and those over 20 inches are considered large. Saugers have a reflective layer in their eyes that aids night vision and is even more developed than that in walleyes.

Habitat and Range. Saugers’ eyesight helps them thrive in deeper and murkier haunts. They are native to much of the eastern United States and southern Canada in mostly riverine habitats. In Minnesota they inhabit mainly large rivers like the Mississippi, Rainy, Minnesota, and Red. Some large lakes in the north, like Rainy and Lac la Croix, also host sauger populations.

Life Cycle. Spawning occurs in spring, typically just after the walleye spawn and in slightly deeper water. Like walleyes, saugers do not create nests; females broadcast eggs over gravel or rock substrates, which are then fertilized by males broadcasting milt. Fertilized eggs hatch in one to three weeks. Fry begin life absorbing their yolk sacs and feeding on zooplankton. As they grow, their diet broadens to include larger invertebrates as well as crustaceans and fish such as shiners, shad, and yellow perch. Hybridization with walleyes may occur. Their offspring, called saugeye, are capable of reproducing and can grow faster than either parent species.

Status. Saugers are thought to be declining over much of their native range due to river dams, which alter habitats and hinder migration. Their status has not been defined in Minnesota.

Angling. When targeting saugers, tackle and methods commonly used to land walleyes are appropriate. Anglers will likely need to adjust location, however, as saugers often occupy deeper, darker places in rivers and lakes. In early spring, find saugers below Mississippi River dams as they attempt to migrate for the spawn. Lake Pepin is a good choice in summer, as sauger numbers there are consistently strong. Throughout the open-water season, live bait rigs and jigs tipped with minnows fished at or near the bottom are solid choices. There may be no better place in Minnesota to catch saugers through the ice than Lake of the Woods, where a sauger-walleye mixed bag is more likely than not and the bite lasts all day. Use live minnows or bright and shiny jigging spoons to increase your odds in its bog-stained depths.