Sauger Return to Swim Again?

First discovery of a sauger fish in Lake Champlain since the mid 1990s

Story by Nicole Weber
Photos provided by Emily Zollweg, Tim Mihuc, and Jeff Loukmas

Sauger (Sander canadensis) has been low in number in Lake Champlain for a long time, but the recent discovery of an adult female in the southern part of the lake has brought hope and discussion.

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Sauger have not been caught in Lake Champlain since the 1980s.
Photo provided by Emily Zollweg

Dr. Tim Mihuc, wetland ecologist and coordinator of Lake Champlain Research Institute, says sauger look similar to a walleye, except saugers have spots along their dorsal fin. Sauger also prefer warmer, muddier, and more turbid water than walleye, which leads Mihuc to believe that if there are any more sauger they would be found in the southern region of the lake. “I’m sure there are populations, or else we wouldn’t have caught one,” Mihuc says.

Emily Zollweg, senior aquatic biologist with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation fisheries department, found the 20-inch long, seven-year- old female fish on April 5, 2010. Zollweg caught the sauger by chance during her last day of walleye collecting.

Mihuc says the sauger has been low in numbers since the 1980s for unknown reasons, but he does offer a guess: “Possibly habitat related,” he says.

On the other hand, Scott Blair, owner of Blair’s Bait and Tackle, says he didn’t know sauger were low in number. “I’ve been catching sauger for years,” Blair says. “I caught one last spring and have been catching them for the last several years. They’re usually small, and I throw them back,” Blair says.

“The real big question is—what is the status of the Lake Champlain population?”

Mihuc wonders if the fish Blair caught were actually sauger and if they were from the southern part of the lake.

“People think they’re walleye and toss them back,” Blair says, adding that he has been catching one to two saugers a year with a golden shiner rod. He has been catching them in the southern part of the lake by Fort Ticonderoga and Shoreham.

Though Blair has been catching sauger, their population has still been low in the area, and DEC officials recently conducted a meeting about sauger management.

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Scientists are wondering whether or not there are sauger in Lake Champlain.
Photo provided by Tim Mihuc

The preliminary meeting was held on Feb. 17, 2011. Mihuc was one of two non-state fish biologists that attended the meeting. 

“The real big question is—what is the status of the Lake Champlain population,” Mihuc says. How big the sauger population is, how fit the population is, and how to reintroduce and regulate the sauger population was discussed.

The question of whether or not Lake Champlain can be used as a site to restore the population is still in question. But if any place in New York would be able to restore and manage sauger populations, it would be Lake Champlain because it is the only place in the state with recorded findings since the mid 1980s.  

“The best thing we can do right now is learn more about the abundance, distribution, and habits of the sauger populations in the lake,”says Jeff Loukmas, Warmwater/Coolwater Unit Leader of the Bureau of Fisheries of the DEC.

Currently the DEC is planning on surveying and implementing target monitoring for sauger in Lake Champlain during spring 2011. “This time next year we hope to have a better understanding of (the sauger population). (We) won’t know the exact number, but a relative number, and we’ll know where they are spawning,” Loukmas says.   

If more sightings are reported, the DEC might decide what other locations would be priority for establishing more populations. “If you want to restore populations, you have to find already existing populations” Mihuc says.

“(We) need to conserve rare species in this state.”

Whether or not it’s likely that sauger can be reintroduced to the whole state, Mihuc comments, “No, I don’t think that is a realistic goal. We are (only) looking for populations that are viable, strong, reproducing populations.”

As of 2008, sauger regulations state that a person can only catch up to three 18-inch fish per day. “That’s a reasonably old fish,” Mihuc says. Lake Champlain is the only lake with set regulations in the state.

Why did sauger drop down to a record low in New York State? Sauger is a fish that is adapted to warmer water and New York, especially northern New York, has colder water. Sauger’s range in habitat actually extends all the way out to Central U.S. and up into southern Canada, according to Fishes of Vermont, a book published by the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife. Lake Champlain is actually the edge of distribution for sauger.

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What will the future present for sauger among the Fishing Pier in South Bay?
Photo provided by Jeff Loukmas

A possible reason why sauger have dwindled is the introduction of zebra mussels in the area. Both Loukmas and Mihuc believe that zebra mussels, an invasive species, may be a possible factor as to why sauger dropped in number. Since zebra mussels clear up the water, and sauger like muddier water, the introduction of zebra mussels as a species may have hurt sauger populations.

There are a number of reasons why the sauger could have dropped, but the important thing to know is how to conserve the sauger that are left. “(We) need to conserve rare species in this state,” Mihuc says. People can help conserve sauger by following regulations and reporting any sightings of sauger to the DEC.

“It’s a big lake; it could potentially support a lot of fish, especially with a species that can reproduce at that capacity.”

The DEC does not know what the future has in store for the sauger. Loukmas and Mihuc agree that sauger breeding fisheries/hatcheries could be a possibility. More information needs to be collected on the current state of the sauger population within New York.

Loukmas is thinking positive and says he believes sauger may possibly be able to return to a population of around 10,000. “It’s a big lake; it could potentially support a lot of fish, especially with a species that can reproduce at that capacity.”

One thing is for certain—finding an adult sauger and a baby sauger means the possibility of a growing population and evidence of reproducing, all of which imply that sauger may come back in abundance to Lake Champlain.

Why do you think sauger came back?

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