Sauger were once found in abundance in Wyoming’s waterways, but today are now restricted to streams east of the Continental Divide. While anglers may catch a glimpse of the fish in the Wind-Bighorn River and Tongue and Powder River drainages, the species has been absent from North Platte River for more than a century. According to the Casper Star-Tribune, biologists intend to put sauger back into the river after more than 100 years of exile.
“It would be a shame to let them blink out and let a heritage species blink away” said Wyoming Game and Fish biologist Paul Gerrity. “They’re fun to catch and great to eat.”
Sauger are toothy, hot-dog shaped fish bearing a close resemblance to walleye, with which they can interbreed. In the 1900s, pollution devastated the sauger population in the North Platte River while a number of factors contributed to their decline across Wyoming and Montana. Along with migration barriers, habitat loss, and competition with newly introduced species, sauger were also at risk of hybridizing with walleye. Fisheries agencies in Wyoming and Montana have been attempting to increase the number of sauger in Bighorn Resevoir, but a few setbacks in recent years have complicated matters.
According to the Billings Gazette, low water levels and warm weather killed a large percentage of six million eggs captured by wildlife officials in 2011, leaving only 60,000 to hatch. The Bighorn Resevoir is an important sauger fishery because testing has shown the fish there to be genetically pure, free from possible walleye hybridization. Officials are hoping that if they reach their target number of fertilized eggs next year, sauger can begin to be reintroduced to North Platte. In addition to returning the fish to one of their native habitats, the North Platte provides ideal conditions for sauger with its slow-moving waters and warmer temperatures.
While the push to increase sauger numbers is primarily to benefit anglers, the fish also provide another defense against invasive Asian carp. Biologists say that while sauger may not have any effect on trout populations, they hope the fish will take a bite out of non-native carp, which provide fierce competition for sauger in many parts of the country.