Working past another chunk of ice, Cookie Lawson and his two boatmates found the spot.
Somewhere 30 to 40 feet below them, the fishing had been pretty good as the Mississippi River rolled through the lock and dam at Guttenberg. By early afternoon the men were pulling out their 16-foot boat for the trip home to Dundee. With 30 saugers between them, it had been a good morning.
"The saugers were biting pretty good today," smiled Lawson. "We didn’t catch any walleyes, though. They were all saugers. We fished probably three and a half hours and got our limit."
He pointed to the thick 13 to 16 inch fish flopping on the deck of their jonboat.
"There’s some good eating there."
As they trailered the boat, DNR creel clerk Shawna Kerndt finished her chores; measure the fish, ask a few questions and send them on their way. Each angler is quizzed about his or her time on the water: How long were you fishing? How many did you catch? How many did you throw back?
Early in her stint as creel clerk, Kerndt removed the otoliths, the hard bony structures which help with equilibrium, from a sampling of fish.
"Biologists can determine the age of each fish," she explained. "It is the same principle as counting rings of a tree. They show how long they were at one year, at two years, and so on. It’s important for tracking growth."
From them, researchers determine how much pressure anglers place on the popular species. They can determine how well length and possession limits work. On border rivers like the Mississippi, walleyes carry a 15-inch minimum length requirement. There is no length limit on saugers and hybrid "saugeyes." There is a daily possession limit of 10 and no more than six of those can be walleyes.
Though an occasional walleye would show up, most of the creels were filled with saugers on this day.
"The majority of fish I’ve seen today have been 13, 14, 15 inches," noted Kerndt. "There have been some real nice saugers, 15-16 inches, and I’ve seen five walleyes in the 15 to 18 inch range."
The boat ramp traffic was busy on the sunny, mild day I stopped by. As several boats put in at about 1 p.m., many of the morning anglers were coming off, with their limits. Today, jigs were working for them.
Lawson’s partner, John Thurn of Dundee offered simple advice. "Just try every one. Which ever one they are biting on, you stick with it."
He held out a three-quarter ounce chartreuse, oval jig.
"I used it right off and didn’t change today," said Thurn. "Yesterday, they were biting on a three-way jig with a minnow."
Thurn said the bites were coming just an inch or so off the bottom of the river on that morning. Besides a light pole for feeling those bumps, he fishes very slowly for winter saugers and walleyes.
The congregation around the lock and dam is a wintertime phenomenom in Iowa. Even in the most bitter winter weather, the agitation of water through the locks keeps a pool open. Before ice-up this past fall, walleyes and saugers had come upstream; an instinctive migratory move. The dam is as far as they can go. With that concentration of fish, anglers are drawn like magnets. Come spring, they will disperse again.
But hooking a keeper is no sure bet. The fish may be concentrated, but the hidden crags, shelves, dropoffs and holes are deceptive. Francis Lawson of Cedar Rapids is on the water almost every weekday.
"There are really small spots out there where the fish are," he observed. "Fish every day, you can keep up with them. If you fish once a month, you won’t. The fish stay close, but eventually move. Over a month’s time, it varies quite a bit."
With 30 to 40 boats below the dam on a busy Saturday or Sunday, a lot of anglers go home without cracking that underwater roadmap. And reports up and down the river show that while fishing activity in one pool may be red-hot for a few days, the next one is "off" even though weather and water conditions are nearly identical. That’s what keeps anglers like Lawson, Thurn and Carlson coming back day after day.
Walleyes/Saugers; Know the Difference
Part of the job of a creel clerk is knowing the difference between walleyes and their sauger cousins.
After the first few hundred fish checked in, creel clerk Shawna Kerndt could tell from a distance. Still, she offers a few tips for anglers who aren’t sure. That is important anytime, but especially so when dealing with different possession and length limits.
"The first characteristic is the coloration," explained Kerndt. "Walleye have a greenish texture all the way through. Saugers, and hybrid saugeyes, have brownish, mottled sides."
She then fanned the dorsal fins of nearly identical 16-inch fish.
"You notice here on the walleye, the black pattern goes all the way through. On the sauger, it looks more like dots scattered on the fin."
If there is still a question, Kerndt suggests checking the texture of the cheeks.
"The sauger has scales on it. You can feel it, whereas a walleye’s cheeks are smooth."
Although some anglers look for a white tip on the tail, that is not Kerndt’s first choice. A walleye does have a white spot on the tip of its tail. A sauger does not. But the hybrid saugeye, can have that white tip. Since saugeyes and saugers are treated alike for possession purposes, that can only lead to confusion