BY JOHN HAGEMAN CONTRIBUTING WRITER
Sandusky, Ohio — At the 31st Ohio Sea Grant charter boat conference on March 3, Jeff Tyson, supervisor of the DNR Division of Wildlife’s Fisheries Research Station in Sandusky, announced that plans are under way to begin reintroducing sauger into Lake Erie.
Related to (yellow) walleyes and the now-extinct blue pike which all shared Lake Erie until the early 1960s, very few saugers remain in the lake or western basin rivers.
Saugers are pretty easy to tell apart from walleyes, as they have rows of black round spots on the webbing of their spiny dorsal fin. Walleyes just have black in-between the last few. Walleyes have few or no scales on their cheeks, while saugers cheeks are well-scaled. Saugers look yellowish-brown/white with black splotches on their sides, while walleyes are green/yellow/white skin with occasional darker saddle bands.
Saugers were once caught in Lake Erie by the millions by Ohio’s commercial netters all along the south shore, especially in the fall and spring. A comment relayed in an 1893 U.S. Fish Commission report stated that they were so abundant in the spring and fall near Cleveland that, “scarcely any other fish can exist!”
In fact, the commercial catch from 1884 was 5.3 million pounds and peaked in 1916 at 6.2 million pounds, according to a 1956 ODNR report.
Due to their importance, they were one of the species raised in the Put-in-Bay State Fish Hatchery, which may explain their high catch rates around the islands during ice fishing season. In one winter during the mid-1940s, islanders caught nearly 4 tons by hook and line to sell to mainland fish markets.
They disappeared, however, from the sport catch in the late 1940s and became commercially insignificant in the by 1964, about the same time blue pike vanished, largely due to widespread pollution, the expansion of the dead zone into the western basin, an explosion of the smelt population, and reduction of their benthic food supply. What little population remained was speculated later to have been absorbed into the more numerous walleye population through hybridization.
From 1974 to 1976, sauger fry and fingerlings were stocked into Sandusky Bay. Netters and anglers caught some of these fish for the next several years. Some natural reproduction occurred, as fish hatched in 1977 were occasionally seen for a few years.
Some were occasionally seen trapped on the travelling screens at Toledo Edison’s Bayshore power plant in the spring of 1977. At the time, it was assumed that they were native Maumee River fish, but we later learned about the stocking project, which coincided with the stocking time frame.
That same year, an estimated 1,900 were caught by anglers in the two rivers, mostly in the Sandusky, but the state record of 7.31 pounds, 24½ inches was established in the Maumee River in March, 1981.
The daily limit of saugers was treated similarly to how largemouth and smallmouth bass limits are set with a daily catch counted singly or in any combination of they and walleyes added together.
Due to changing conditions such as higher fertility, turbidity (cloudiness) and temperatures which favor sauger, Ohio’s fisheries biologists feel that the timing is right to give this species another opportunity to re-populate the nearshore areas of the lake again. This species is also more likely to stay in the western basin instead of migrating eastward as walleyes do when the water temperatures warm up in midsummer.
It is now common practice to try to genetically match stocked fish to native populations. There are investigations planned this year that will compare populations in other states to historic Lake Erie specimens.
Once a genetic match has been settled on, stocking efforts will begin in locations that will offer the best chance of creating self-sustaining populations.