. You may have heard of such a thing. If you’re like me though, you just never thought much about them. Perhaps you even caught some without realizing it. Tuesday I joined CPW officials with a chance to learn more about the fish first-hand.
I met Kyle Battige, an Aquatic Biologist with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife, at Douglas Reservoir
in northern Colorado at 8:30am. The evening prior, he laid out two nets in the lake with hopes of catching a handful of male sauger
. Now our job was to pull those nets in and hope for the best.
The male sauger will be used to collect milt, which is matched with eggs from walleye
garnered in this year’s massive walleye spawn operation conducted mostly in the Denver area. The creatures derived from this mash-up are referred to as saugeye
, a fast-growing semi-sterile fish with hybrid vigor (read: hard fighting and aggressive) that tend to escape impoundments less than walleye when the water exits our oft-fluctuating lakes. Saugeye are a much-desired fish for stocking in Colorado - Battige says that in 2016 alone, over 17 million saugeye were stocked in Colorado lakes.
Rain gear donned, gloves on, we started on the first net. It is a wet and messy operation. I took the bottom “lead” line and CPW officer Troy Florian grabbed the upper line of the net, while Battige positioned the boat. Foot by foot we drew the net in, placed it in a tub, and paused with each wriggling fish to release it into the holding tank. Suckers, walleye, carp, crappie, shad, and even a few sauger showed up. It’s a quite remarkable way to have a first-hand look at what is swimming down below. And it is a quite humbling way to remind yourself of the really big fish you are not hooking on your own.
With net fully in boat, we paused to measure, weigh and return each fish to the lake. However, net one netted no male sauger. So onto net two, same process. 45 minutes later we again measured and returned fish. However, again no male sauger. No males, no milt. So Battige would re-set the nets later that afternoon and come back the next day to run through the process again.
Home-grown sauger milt is not a necessity – it is more of a luxury. In order to make saugeye without fish from Douglas, the CPW will utilize milt from other states such as Kansas. “We generally rely on out of state trades to get sauger milt, but wanted an in-state sauger source in case we were unable to get milt from other states” says Battige of Douglas.
Why Douglas? It is the primary lake that the CPW is relying on for the sauger program. Battige says “A handful of reservoirs around the state were evaluated as potential sauger brood lakes. There were several criteria CPW was looking for in a reservoir to house sauger: no direct connection to other water bodies, deep enough to provide appropriate habitat, satisfactory temperature ranges, somewhere stocked fish could recruit into adults, somewhere introducing sauger would have minimal impacts on other fisheries and anglers, and a location we could reliably get sauger back out to spawn when we needed them. Douglas ended up fitting most of those criteria.”
Sauger were introduced to Douglas Reservoir first in 2006 as fry, but after deeming that attempt unsuccessful, larger fingerlings were planted in 2009 and each subsequent year except 2010 and 2012. Last year’s netting operation yielded enough male sauger on just the first net attempt (around 8 males are needed annually for this saugeye program).
With a seemingly successful sauger operation established in Douglas, you might be wondering about the status of the immensely popular wiper and walleye fishery of years past. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that despite suspending the stocking of those species for several years to aid sauger survival, the CPW recently continued stocking wiper. And for the walleye, sampling has shown that they are naturally reproducing at a low level, with numerous year classes showing up (including some monsters that I witnessed myself this day). Battige says “I'll continue to evaluate those and adjust stocking of other species as we go.”
Sauger look very much like walleye. To tell the difference, here are a few key things to look for. Sauger:
- Tend to have darker splotches on their sides,
- Have dark spots on their dorsal fin,
- Lack the pronounced white splotch on the tail that walleye have, and
- Lack the pronounced dark spot at rear base of the spiny dorsal fin seen in walleye.
In addition, walleye will have smooth cheeks versus what’s described as a sand-paper-ish texture on the sauger and saugeye. So how to tell the difference between a saugeye and a walleye? I have not found much on this topic except that the saugeye apparently have many of the same features sauger have, plus a dark spot at the rear base of the spiny dorsal fin like the walleye. If you have any other identification tips let me know in the comments section.
So there’s a thriving population of sauger in Douglas (even though I witnessed no males this day, I did handle a few females, and one male was collected Wednesday on the 2nd attempt.) There’s also a rebounding wiper program, a steady supply of naturally reproducing walleye, a good amount of carp for the flats-style sight-fishing carp fly fishers out there, and a never-ending supply of better-than-average trout.
Douglas Reservoir is looking pretty good nowadays. And so is the rest of the state if Colorado is able to continue to develop successful programs like this. With more leverage in the barter game, the more we can all benefit. Got ideas on what to barter for? Perhaps more tiger muskie? Leave in comments below.