If you’ve arrived at this page, you’re a) probably an angler and b) scratching your head over two very similar fish: sauger and walleye. ‘How the heck am I supposed to tell the difference?’ We hear you loud and clear!
To the untrained eye, sauger and walleye look so similar in appearance that one is often confused for the other. But it is still possible to tell them apart. This article will show you how to spot all the physical differences between these popular predatory fish.
Pro Tip: The best way to know the difference between a sauger and a walleye is to look at the dorsal fin. Saugers have distinct spots along their entire dorsal fin, whereas walleyes have no spots but do have a clearly visible black spot on the membrane between the last two or three spines. Walleye are bigger, while sauger are smaller and more slender.
Sauger vs Walleye: Can you tell the difference?
Walleye and sauger are closely related so it’s no surprise that even professional anglers have trouble telling them apart. If you think you’ve caught either one of this river and lake-dwelling fish, you may also have trouble nailing down exactly which species you’ve got.
Though very similar looking at first glance, sauger and walleye have a few defining characteristics that can help you tell these two fish apart. Generally speaking, the major differences are color and size; walleye are often bigger and lighter in color, whereas saugers tend to be smaller and darker.
Sauger vs Walleye: Color Ranges
One of the quickest ways to see differences between walleye and sauger is to look at the coloration on the bodies.
Walleye typically have darker backs with black bars or bands running across them. They will often have lighter-colored flanks, sometimes with a hint of gold, yellow, or an olive brassy color. Their bellies will be light or whitish color. Small walleye are prey for a number of other fish and bird species but once they reach adulthood they themselves are top of the food chain!
Many anglers who fish at Lake Winnipeg have been lucky enough to come across the stunning Greenback Walleye. The flanks on Greenback Walleyes are much lighter and silvery than their northern counterparts.
Sauger is prey for both larger fish and birds, so they have dark backs and flanks to help camouflage them in darker waters. Only their bellies feature a light, whitish color. They are also usually covered in dark spots all over their bodies. Saugers can be found in lakes and rivers situated further South and appear lighter in color than their northern counterparts.
Defining characteristics and distribution
Walleye are spread across the Nearctic Region which stretches from Mexico up to Canada and Alaska and can be found in many freshwater lakes and rivers across North America.
Walleye have large pearlescent eyes that help them see better in the dark. The bright white that you can see in their eyes is light reflecting back through the pupil. This means that walleye can see extremely well in darker waters.
Walleye are generally slim, long (they can reach up to 107cm in length), and have large canine teeth. Their average weight is 5kg with a maximum weight of 11kg. The largest recorded walleye catch was a whopping 25lb in Old Hickory Lake, Tennessee in 1960.
Just like their walleye cousins, sauger can be found in most of the same waters across the United States and parts of Canada. They prefer the cooler, deep pools over shallow waters frequented by walleye, which may be why saugers are a little trickier to catch. Saugers also feature a similar reflective layer in their eyes that helps them see at these depths. The largest ever recorded sauger weighed 8lbs 12oz and was caught in Lake Sakakawea, North Dakota in 1971.
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Sauger vs Walleye: Dorsal fin
The spiny dorsal fins of these two species are translucent but can still be distinguished from one another. Walleye fins tend to feature a dark patch close to the rear spines. Saugers do not have this dark patch on their dorsal fin but instead have small circular black spots.
Another way to tell these two apart is by the markings on the tail fins. On the walleye’s lower portion of the bottom tail fin, you will find a white patch that extends up to the tip. This will sometimes be a white dot but has been known to cover the entire half of their tail, and can only be found so it’s an easy spot and a great way to tell the two fish apart.
Sauger tails do not have this white marking and instead have a pattern similar to black spots on their dorsal fin.
The color of both walleye and sauger is often determined by the body of water they inhabit.
As mentioned earlier, walleye can often change drastically in color depending on the waterbody. However, no matter which color variation of walleye. The color of the body will be a solid or uniform pattern throughout. This differs from a sauger as they will generally have a less consistent pattern with dark blotches or spots appearing across their sides.
Sauger vs Walleye: Size
One easy-to-spot difference is the comparative size of sauger compared to walleye. A mature sauger will often be smaller in size and appear more slender than a mature walleye. The average walleye length is between 10-20 inches with a maximum length of around 34 inches.
Sauger comes in at around 8-12 inches and will reach a maximum of around 26 inches in length. This naturally affects their weight with walleye averaging between 2-4lbs and the occasional 20lb+ behemoth. The sauger’s slim build means it averages around 1lb with a maximum of 8lb in weight.
What is a Saugeye? Hybrids of walleye and sauger
With such a similar genetic makeup, it’s not surprising that hybrids of walleye and saugers have been found. These hybrids are called Saugeye (what else?) and are favored among anglers as they tend to be larger and faster than their parent species.
In looks, saugeye are a blend of sauger and walleye. They will often have dark patches on their bodies and spotted dorsal fins like the sauger and their coloring runs from yellow to a golden brown. Like walleye, saugeye also have a whitish spot at the base of the dorsal fin, but not as clearly defined.
The largest recorded saugeye ever caught weighed 15lb 10oz.
Sauger Fishing vs Walleye Fishing
With so many saugers and walleyes in water bodies across the US and Canada, you may find yourself catching one or both of these fish at some point. Their similarities and locations mean that there is no specific method for catching either walleye or saugers and lures or live bait can be used. Here’s our list of required gear for walleye fishing.
Both fish can be caught in open water or on the ice with specialist lures including soft baits, spinner baits, crank baits, and jigs. If in doubt, ask your local bait shop for expert advice.
Suitable live bait for walleye and sauger include leeches, waxworms, nightcrawlers, crayfish, and smaller baitfish like shiners or minnows. The Lindy Rig is a popular way to rig baits for walleye, as is the bottom bouncer rig. Some anglers suggest using small sauger to catch walleye but it’s worth checking the local laws and restrictions beforehand.
Sauger vs Walleye Taste
When it comes to the taste test, these popular fish share a lot of similarities. Walleye and sauger offer versatile meat that can be grilled, fried, or baked.
Traditional seasonings like salt and lemon juice also work well with these mild, slightly sweet freshwater fish. The meat can also be smoked to infuse the flaky texture with additional flavors.
Final thoughts on sauger vs walleye
Although both walleye and sauger are frequently mixed up due to their many similarities, once you know what makes them different, you’ll be ahead of the game. Pay close attention to the coloring, size, and general appearance of the fish to make an accurate identification.
If you think you’ve caught one or the other but are still not sure, then don’t worry about it too much. Give yourself a pat on the back for a successful catch!