Wilderness Underfoot: Walleye and sauger

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11745005676479.jpg’, ”, ‘Cousins – The walleye, Sander vitreus vitreus (top) and the sauger, Sander canadensis (bottom), are closely related members of the perch family. The record weight for a walleye in Illinois is 14 pounds. For a sauger, it is 5 pounds, 12 ounces. These fish range throughout the Midwest and Eastern U.S. and much of Canada.‘);

Spring is the most active time of year for the walleye and the sauger.

Although it is sometimes mistakenly called a walleyed pike, a jack salmon or a pickerel, the walleye is actually the largest member of the perch family. It gets its name from its reflective, milky eyes.

This toothy fish is often the predominate predator species within its habitat. Adult walleyes feed on other fish such as perch, bass or bullheads. Juveniles feed on insect larvae and crustaceans, while trying to avoid being eaten by other predators. Female walleyes may lay as many as a half-million sticky eggs that cling to rocks and debris. Widely scattered and left unguarded, most of the eggs become meals for other aquatic animals. Only about one-third of them hatch under the best of conditions, and many of the larval walleye—known as fry—simply starve to death. Males mature in two years, females may take up to five years, and a rare and exceptionally fortunate walleye may survive nearly 30 years.

The walleye’s close cousin, the sauger, shares many traits, but is somewhat smaller in size. Female saugers lay only a tenth as many eggs as walleyes. The adult sauger diet includes smaller organisms such as insects and crustaceans, and small or juvenile fish. A sauger’s lifespan is only about half that of the walleye.

With plenty of hatcheries stocking the waters across our state, walleye and sauger are abundant throughout Illinois. Fishing enthusiasts generally consider the walleye and sauger perfect for both sport and food. These fish put up a good fight, and they’re quite flavorful whether poached, baked or pan-fried—arguably the tastiest of all coldwater fish.

Walleye and sauger often gather in areas under dams, where tailwaters are colder and rougher than other parts of the river. Exactly where you’re likely to find these fish tends to vary depending on characteristics of a given lake or river, as well as the season and time of day. In March and April, they move to shallow rocky or sandy areas to spawn. They may linger in those areas through the end of May. In summer, they go to deeper waters and can often be found in underwater holes or drop-offs. They’re attracted to areas with new weedy growth. Year-round, they favor low light, so during sunrise and sunset, they’re active closer to the water’s surface, but by midday, they move to lower depths. These sight-hunters prefer clean, cool waters, avoiding murky areas with lots of sediment. The sauger can tolerate murky waters better than the walleye.

from the March 21-28, 2007, issue

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