Lake Anna Saugeye Success Story

by Chris McCotter


For most Virginia anglers, a saugeye is an unfamiliar name or a strange fish caught in Minnesota. For a select few, nothing could be farther from the truth.

  To understand Lake Anna’s recent success with saugeye, one must first understand Virginia’s long track record with walleye, in fact one river even has its own genetically unique native species. But for the vast majority of state water that hold walleye they are there by the grace of the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) stockings and management.

  W2 caught up with DWR District Biologist George Palmer, who oversees Region 2, a 20-county area from Roanoke to Lynchburg that includes Smith Mountain Lake, Kerr Reservoir, Philpott and Carvin’s Cove to ask about what biologists have learned about walleyes and saugeyes in Virginia. 

     Palmer currently serves as the committee chair of the Walleye Committee that meets each year to discuss plans, how to obtain brood stock, issues, shortfalls, regulations, etc. as well as create a Walleye Fishing Forecast that includes the amount of fish stocked in Virginia and where and how they are doing according to the attending biologist.

  He told me walleye have been stocked in Virginia since the 1930s. In fact walleye were stocked in Claytor Lake in 1939 when it was created.

More recently, in the last decade, Palmer notes up until 2000, walleyes were stocked sporadically in Virginia as biologists requested them, with no specific overall plan. 

  “The request was put in and the order was filled by an out of state hatchery. In 2000, DWR Fisheries Manager Ed Steinkoenig decided DWR was stocking but not creating fishable populations. A committee was formed to examine and investigate the best management practices the DWR could use to create viable walleye fisheries. A report plan was drawn up,” Palmer explained.

   Basically Palmer told me Virginia DWR recognizes two kinds of walleye fisheries: 1) Priority waters and 2) Diversity waters. 

  A Priority water is a fishery that offers walleye as a featured species and is managed so that anglers can consistently catch them. 

  Priority waters include Philpott, South Holston Reservoir, Flanagan Reservoir, Lake Brittle, Lake Orange, the Shenandoah River, the Rivanna River, Burke Lake, Lake Whitehurst, Lake Chesdin, Leesville Lake/Staunton River, Hungry Mother Lake, North Fork Pound Reservoir and the New River.   

  A Diversity water is a fishery that provides an angler the opportunity to catch a walleye or saugeye. Diversity waters include Lake Anna, Little Creek Reservoir and Lake Gaston.

 Annually, there are about 1 million fingerlings that are stocked in Priority Waters first, Diversity Waters second.

  Here where’s the story turns more to Lake Anna. Saugeye have been added to DWR stockings since 2014. This is a cross between a female walleye and a male sauger that proves hardier in warmer fisheries – a good fit for Lake Anna’s often 90+ degree water.

  “What we have found is that saugeyes work better in certain systems; they survive better, grow better and are easier to catch. Lake Brittle and Lake Burke are places where this is true. They are not stocked in waters with native walleye populations like the New River nor in areas used for brood stock,” Palmer. 

  Brood stock is now generated in-state at the Vic Thomas, Brookneal Fish Hatchery on the Staunton River as well as Buller Fish Hatchery which gets its stock from the New River and South Holston Reservoir.

   Long time Lake Anna guide C.C. McCotter has been following the walleye and now saugeye stockings for the past 36 years. Recently, he’s been enjoying a winter run of saugeye on the lake including one hefty specimen nearly five pounds and measuring 24” – the state’s trophy fish mark. He and clients have caught numerous saugeyes this winter from 19-22” and he’s thrilled to have another new resident in the lake.

  “When I caught my first little one a few years back I was surprised and intrigued. When I caught my first big one this winter, I was pumped! Saugeyes are so much better than the walleyes stocked 20 years ago. These new fish actually bite reliably, fight hard and are distributed throughout the lake,” he told W2 recently, “In eight trips in a row this winter we’ve caught them and released all but one.”

   DWR Biologist John Odenkirk has been managing Lake Anna as long as McCotter has been guiding. The career scientist notes he, too, is happy with the results of the experimental stocking of saugeyes into Lake Anna.

  “From all accounts, the stocking of saugeye into Lake Anna has been a huge positive. Scientifically, we are seeing some good trends,” Odenkirk told W2. 

  He cited a gill net survey catch rate of saugeye that established a second consecutive record at 9.9/net night (more than double 4.6/net night in 2022).  

   “An astonishing 357 saugeyes were caught during the survey, with 73% young of year (mean TL=296 mm TL or around 12 inches).  Fingerling stockings contributing to this catch included 5/ac (2021), 1/ac (2022), and 12/ac (2023).”    Odenkirk noted that fry stockings of saugeye AND walleye occurred in 2021 and 2023 respectively. So, yes, the anglers that said they caught a walleye recently, could possibly have caught one.

  Walleyes are native to central North American and Canada including the Ohio River and Great Lakes watersheds. The sauger is closely related to the walleye and very similar in appearance. Saugers are native to much of central North America, including the Mississippi and Missouri River watershed and the the Great Lakes and Hudson Bay watersheds.

 To determine if you’ve caught a saugeye or walleye, first look at the spiny dorsal fin. The walleye will have no spots on this fin and the hybrid saugeye will have spots and bars in the webbing of its spiny dorsal fin. The color of the fish and the presence or absence of the cheek scales may also help identify the difference. The eyes of this species give off an eerie glow due to the tapetum lucidum, a reflective layer on the retina, This adaptation is for feeding at night in low light levels.

    As a hybrid, the saugeye has the advantage of “hybrid vigor”, growing larger than the sauger parent.

   According to Odenkirk, saugeye at age two averaged 534 mm TL (21 inches), exceeding the minimum length limit after less than three growing seasons!

    McCotter notes he’s catching the saugeyes this winter on Anna using mostly crankbaits and swimbaits around rock in 6-15’ with current, though many have also been caught in much deeper water by anglers using blade baits, spoons and live minnows.

   “They hit like a striper or wiper and fight hard right to the net. They often surge at the last second to avoid it,” he warns.

  According to studies, saugeye spawn at night when water reaches 45-50 degrees. Eggs are scattered randomly in rocky or gravelly shoals, often where current is present. The eggs fall into protected spaces in rocks and gravel, hatching about 12-18 days later depending on water temperature. Each fish can produce up to 25,000 eggs per pound of body weight! Adult fish return to deep water after spawning.

  This means that early March should be a good time to catch your first saugeye at Lake Anna and if you want to get serious about pursing them deep, you may be able to continue catching them into early summer.

  The limit on Lake Anna for saugeye is five per angler per day over 18 inches.

  Well, that’s the history of walleye and saugeye in Virginia and Lake Anna. The state record walleye is 15-15 caught from the New River. The state record saugeye is open with a minimum weight of six pounds. Pick a fishery and get out and see if you can catch a state record saugeye. We’ll be happy to cover your story!

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