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Sauger fishing part thrill, chill

Larry Woody • Jan 31, 2017 at 2:30 PM

It's always exciting to feel the thump of a sauger hitting a jig or minnow as it bounces along the rocky bottom of a riverbed.

That's assuming your hands and fingers aren't so numb that you can't feel anything.

Winter time is sauger time in Tennessee, and some of the finest fishing is in the winding Cumberland River, specifically in the swirling tailwaters below dams on Old Hickory, Cheatham and Cordell Hull lakes where the fish congregate.

Sauger are hard fighters and considered by many to be the tastiest fish of all species.

The drawback is that you may get frostbite while waiting for a sauger bite.

The fish are most active in the winter months of January and February, which makes fishing for them a challenge.

As a youngster I sauger-fished with my Uncle Bud on the Tennessee River below Watts Bar dam. We used lead-head jigs Uncle Bud molded himself and hand-tied with dyed hair. We fished from the bank, casting upstream, letting the jigs sink and bumping them along the bottom as they were swept along in the current.

Snags were common, and we would go through a couple dozen jigs on an average trip. But since Uncle Bud made them himself, they were cheap.

As the jig bumped along the bottom you would feel a sudden tug, and the jig would stop moving. You set the hook, hoping you had a sauger, not a rock.

It seemed like the coldest days were the best days. Balls of ice would form on the rod tips as we reeled in our line. We would swish the rod tips in the water or peck them against a rock to dislodge the ice, and resume casting.

In recent years sauger fishing has been slow on the Cumberland. The best sauger fisherman I know is Lebanon guide Jim Duckworth, and even he has had trouble finding fish. I rarely hear of anyone filling a 10-fish limit.

But that doesn't mean they're not trying. Visit any tailwater or slow river bend this time of year and you'll see boats drifting or anchored in place, anglers patiently working jig baits and lures.

Rarely, however, are the areas crowded, even in the choice tailwaters. Unlike prime-time crappie season when dozens of boats are often wedged into a hot spot, sauger fishing is relatively solitary.

A favorite rig is a lead-head jib heavy enough to sink to the bottom in a strong current, tipped with a live minnow. Because sauger tend to bite tentatively, a "stinger" hook attached to the jig shank will improve your chances of setting a hook in a nibbler.

Modern-day sauger fishermen have a variety of ways to battle the cold, from hand-warmers to in-boat heaters. Duckworth advises wearing heavy, wind-proof coveralls and head gear during bone-numbing boat rides to and from the fishing hole.

He also advises fishermen not to over-do it. When the cold becomes too extreme, get out of it. No fish is worth hypothermia.

Likewise, being careful on the water is critically important during the winter when a dunking can be fatal. Life jackets are mandatory when fishing tailwaters, and it's advisable to keep then on at all times.

Despite such chilly challenges, a platter of golden sauger fillets is a great reward for a cold day on the water - once you've thawed out enough to hold a fork.

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