West Virginia's Booming Saugeye Fishing
September 29, 2010
Overshadowed by a successful walleye program, our state's
saugeye fishery is well established in four reservoirs. Here's where you should try this season!
By Kevin Yokum
Joel and his partner couldn't believe the number of marble-eyes they were catching as they fished along the sandy point. The hot action continued well into the evening, although the fish did move closer to shore. Having fished some of the finest walleye waters in the country, Joel was not easily impressed. But on that night, he was pleased with the number of marble-eyes he found on this Mountain State reservoir.
After landing a dozen good-sized fish, Joel announced that it was time to call it a night. As they entered the marina proudly displaying the four fish they had kept for dinner, Joel and his partner commented on the exceptional walleye fishing in the lake. The marina operator chuckled and replied that those fish were not walleyes, but saugeyes.
"Saugeyes? What the heck is a saugeye?" exclaimed Joel. Joel's response has been similar to that of many anglers as they became introduced to the latest addition to West Virginia's sport fishery.
The saugeye is a hybrid cross between a female walleye and a male sauger. The resulting hybrid cannot breed with itself, but may do so with either parent species, which makes identification difficult in some cases. Many anglers misidentify this hybrid, and even biologists sometimes disagree on identification in waters where saugeyes, saugers and walleyes are all found. Although not always apparent on every fish, some distinguishing characteristics include darker black bands across the saugeye's back and a white spot on its caudal fin that is smaller than that of the walleye.
This 24-inch Stonewall Jackson saugeye was caught incidentally while this angler was bass fishing among heavy timber. Saugeyes will often hide out around submerged wood during daylight hours. Photo by Kevin Yokum
After initial stockings, angler response to the new hybrid game fish has been terrific. Saugeye fishing became so popular in some of the state's reservoirs that many West Virginia walleye anglers now target saugeyes with at least 50 percent of their fishing effort. Some anglers have shifted their entire fishing effort to saugeyes because of the increased catch rates. However, most walleye anglers fish for trophy walleyes from December through February and then shift to saugeyes the rest of the year, especially from March to May.
Saugeyes were stocked in certain West Virginia reservoirs because they are known to thrive in infertile, shallow reservoirs where warmer temperatures were thought to be beneficial for walleyes to flourish. Walleye populations were marginal at best when stocked in West Virginia reservoirs in the early 1990s. So the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) started stocking saugeyes in certain reservoirs where walleyes hadn't achieved adequate reproduction. It now appears that it was the size of the stocked fish and not reservoir conditions that allowed the saugeyes to thrive.
The DNR has now stopped stocking saugeyes in all state waters and started stocking walleye fingerlings instead. Formerly the West Virginia DNR did not have the capability to raise walleyes to fingerling size and were forced to stock them as fry. Walleye fry were very susceptible to predation and often did not survive. The DNR anticipates that the fingerling walleyes now being stocked will offer anglers the same benefits as saugeyes, and in addition, will have the potential to attain larger size and possibly achieve some natural reproduction.
With new capabilities provided by the Apple Grove Hatchery, the DNR plans to raise their own walleyes and will not have to rely on other states for their saugeye eggs, which have recently become difficult to obtain. Although walleyes are now being stocked instead of saugeyes, over the next five years anglers will continue to benefit from the thriving saugeye fisheries in four state reservoirs. These reservoirs are Stonewall Jackson, Burnsville, East Lynn and Beech Fork.
A bit of excitement surrounding West Virginia saugeye fishing is that during the last few years, anglers have broken the saugeye state record three times. Even after 10 years of stocking on some water bodies, saugeyes seem to be getting bigger each year, as growth potential seems unlimited for these fish in productive reservoirs. Perhaps the saugeye record could be broken yet again in 2003 and it is likely that fish will come from one of these four reservoirs.
STONEWALL JACKSON Stonewall Jackson is blessed with an abundance of cover perfectly suited for saugeyes. These highly sought-after fish may literally show up at anywhere within this 2,650-acre reservoir. However, as with most lakes, certain areas in Stonewall Jackson seem to be gathering points for saugeyes.
Probably the best locations to find saugeyes are the submerged roadbeds that run throughout the lake. The numerous roadbeds near the state park are particularly notable spots for holding saugeyes. Saugeyes are also notorious for moving onto sloping points late in the evening. They seem especially drawn to those that are composed of sand.
Two points, in particular, come to mind for being good saugeye areas on Stonewall Jackson Lake. On the lower end of the state park, the lake point that contains the state park boundary sign is a great place to find saugeyes in the spring. Another sandy point located just in front of the restricted area (near the dam) seems to hold saugeyes year 'round, and usually produces some big fish in the spring.
Like walleyes, saugeyes are attracted to rock structure. Although little deep rock structure is available in Stonewall Jackson, numerous areas of shallow rock exist. Commonly known as "riprap," this limestone rock designed to stabilize steep banks is abundant around Stonewall Jackson Lake. Anglers should note that riprap areas are always likely spots to find saugeyes, regardless of the time of day.
The last saugeye stocking in Stonewall Jackson occurred in May 1999, with over 72,000 fingerlings being stocked. Saugeyes are difficult to distinguish from walleyes in appearance, but any fish caught during the spring of 2003 greater than 14 inches should be a saugeye with the exception of a few rare 25-inch-plus fish that may be remnants of past walleye stockings.
BURNSVILLE LAKE Burnsville Lake (968 acres) was one of the first West Virginia impoundments to be stocked with saugeyes. The result was phenomenal. Saugeyes added a new dimension to the sport fishery at Burnsville, providing anglers with an excellent tasting game fish to pursue. Approximately 50,000 saugeyes were stocked annually in Burnsville from the early '90s up until 2001, when walleyes were stocked instead. Although saugeyes are no longer st
ocked in Burnsville, plenty of 15- to 25-inch fish still remain available in the lake.
Deep rock structure, which saugeyes love, is found in the form of an old roadway and submerged bridge piers near the center of Burnsville Lake. Anglers can locate this deep structure near the area where Knawls Creek enters the main lake. This area is the lake's widest point and the rock structure is located on the downstream side of the mouth of Knawls Creek. This is an excellent place to fish for saugeyes, especially if they are holding in deep water.
Burnsville has additional saugeye habitat created by long, sloping points that run deep into the lake. Saugeyes seem to lie on the backside of these points and feed on baitfish as they move across the point. Saugeye fishing on these points is particularly good in the evening and after dark.
Submerged roadbeds are another saugeye hotspot within the lake. Numerous roadbeds are scattered throughout the reservoir at varying depths. Targeting a bed or dropoff on the side of the roadbed is certainly a likely location to find saugeyes.
In early spring, Burnsville Lake features a fabulous tailwater fishery. Saugeyes move into the tailwater in great numbers, particularly during early-spring high water conditions. The concentrated numbers of saugeyes below the dam make the Burnsville tailwaters one of the most consistent locations to catch saugeyes in the entire state.
EAST LYNN LAKE Saugeyes are so plentiful in the 1,005 acres of East Lynn Lake that they seem to be everywhere. However, two areas really stand out as springtime hotspots on East Lynn: Brushy and Lick creeks. The area that encompasses the mouth of Brushy Creek and extends up into the creek is an ideal location for spring saugeye anglers.
Typically, saugeyes hold just off the flats in the creek channel during the day and move up onto the flats in the evening. In the Brushy Creek area, main-lake points on either side of the creek mouth are especially good during the late afternoon and evening. Evening has proved to be, by far, the best time to catch a limit of saugeyes on East Lynn.
The mouth of Lick Creek has also established itself as a great spot to target saugeyes. Here saugeyes concentrate at the creek mouth, but seem to hold in a little deeper water than on Brushy Creek. Look for saugeyes to hold in the deeper water about 10 to 20 feet out into the main lake. Additionally, there are rock cliffs in the Lick Creek area that are definitely worth checking out. Saugeyes really relate to rock structure and these cliffs are prime rock habitat on East Lynn.
East Lynn Lake was last stocked with saugeyes in 2000, when approximately 60,000 fingerlings were released. Saugeyes from this last stocking will be at least 15 inches and larger, providing anglers with ample opportunity at catching quality-sized saugeyes.
Besides offering anglers abundant numbers, East Lynn may present the state's best opportunity at a state-record saugeye. This lake has garnered a reputation for producing big saugeyes in the past and is a likely spot to yield the next state record. Currently, East Lynn is home to the state's length-record saugeye, which was caught in 2000 by Wendell Williamson. His hefty saugeye measured 27.1 inches and weighed 6.13 pounds.
BEECH FORK LAKE Since the early 1990s, saugeyes have become one of the featured sport fish species in 720-acre Beech Fork Lake. This prized game fish has become a much sought-after quarry for Beech Fork anglers, in large part because of its excellent taste.
One of the most consistent spots on Beech Fork Lake to locate saugeyes has been the area where Millers Fork empties into the main lake. This large tributary carries food and fresh water into the lake, making it an ideal place for saugeyes to congregate.
Furthermore, there is a good quantity of standing timber in the Miller Fork area that holds a variety of fish including saugeyes. Saugeyes seem to frequent the timber areas particularly during the day. Bass anglers looking for bass often inadvertently catch saugeyes while fishing in the midst of the timber in early spring. By targeting the timber areas during the day, anglers may encounter saugeyes that are frequently overlooked.
Another great spot for saugeyes is along the many submerged roadbeds running throughout the bottom of Beech Fork Lake. Besides absorbing heat from the spring sun, these roadbeds provide the rock structure saugeyes prefer. This type of structure also creates excellent ambush spots for feeding saugeyes. Anglers should key in on areas where the shoreline has been riprapped, as saugeyes love to hold near rock structure even if it is in shallow water.
Approximately 18,000 saugeye fingerlings have been stocked annually in Beech Fork Lake since the early 1990s. Although walleyes have been stocked in Beech Fork the last two years, saugeyes remain abundant within the lake. Based on past records, there are likely state-record-sized saugeyes in both East Lynn and Beech Fork lakes.
In addition to fine lake fishing, Beech Fork offers a marvelous tailwater fishery. The tailwater is particularly good for springtime saugeyes as they move into the tailwater just downstream of the lake's outflow. Saugeyes become exceedingly concentrated in the fairly narrow and accessible tailwater, which provides an ideal location for shoreline anglers.
TIPS AND TACTICS Tactics for saugeye fishing are very similar to those employed by walleye anglers. The hotspots, sandy points, roadbeds and dropoffs, are generally the same locations where walleyes would also be found. Saugeye fishing is definitely best during low-light periods. While saugeyes can be caught during the day, evening and after dark are prime times to catch these fish.
As low-light periods approach, saugeyes move to sandy points and other feeding stations in search of baitfish. Their eyes, just like that of walleyes, see exceptionally well in low-light conditions. An angler coming to fish on any of these four lakes for the first time should look to sandy points to initially find saugeyes.
Rock structure remains the classic habitat of saugeyes. Unfortunately, none of the four lakes has an abundance of deep rock structure, but all of the lakes do have shoreline areas that are covered in riprap. Although not very deep, this rock structure attracts lots of game fish and especially saugeyes. Saugeyes are drawn to riprap so much that I recommend saugeye anglers fish riprap any time of the day.
The one submerged rock structure present in most West Virginia reservoirs is roadbeds. These submerged roadbeds have the features that saugeyes favor. An extremely effective technique to catch saugeyes is to crawl jigs tipped with live bait across a submerged roadbed and then bounce the jig down the vertical dropoff until it reaches bottom. Saugeyes just can't seem to resist the lively action of a bouncing jig tipped with live bait.
During the day, saugeyes seem to like holding arou
nd the standing timber. A number of radio telemetry studies on saugeyes have shown that this is a common behavior for saugeyes in many parts of our country. Each year bass and crappie anglers catch numerous saugeyes while they are fishing among the timber. Smart saugeye anglers will adapt their techniques to fish among the timber when fishing in full-light conditions.
Minnow-tipped jigs are hands down the most popular lures/bait for saugeyes. Jigs tipped with night crawlers are also a superb combination for saugeyes. Stick baits and small crankbaits can be productive on saugeyes, especially when fished across points and around islands. The retrieve-and-pause technique used with stick baits seems to be particularly effective on larger saugeyes.
No characteristic is more important when looking for saugeyes than depth. Generally saugeyes stay in deeper water during the day and move to shallower water to feed during the evening and night. This is one reason nighttime trolling in the spring is so effective.
Whether you're looking for tasty table fare or exciting early-spring fishing action, saugeyes may be just the fish for you. And the four reservoirs detailed here are the places to test your skill, though a little luck is always welcome, too, when fishing.
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