Gobs of ice formed on the tips of our fishing rods as we cast and retrieved, numb fingers cranking frozen reel handles.
I couldn’t feel my toes. I was afraid to check my nose for fear that if I touched it, it might break off.
Before launching the boat we had to break a skim of ice around the ramp.
When I left home that morning to drive over to my fishing buddy’s house, the thermometer read 22 degrees. It didn’t feel nearly that hot on the water.
From the back of the boat I could hear my buddy’s teeth chattering, which was a good sign – at least he wasn’t frozen solid.
But what’s a little hypothermia among friends? It was February, and the sauger were running.
Wintertime is sauger time in Tennessee, when the streamlined fish with the big marble eyes congregate in tailwaters below dams and in deep pools in river bends.
Sauger are arguably the best-eating freshwater fish ever to grease a skillet, although I’d rate them a dead heat with their walleye cousins. Walleyes are often caught in the same areas as sauger, along with their hybrid relative, the saugeye.
Maybe the reason why sauger taste so good is because of the sacrifice involved in catching them.
Unlike crappie fishing on a warm spring day when the bluebirds are singing and the dogwoods are in bloom, sauger make it rough on a guy. The best fishing comes during the worst weather.
As a kid growing up on the Plateau I didn’t mind the cold. I couldn’t wait to go sauger fishing with my uncles below Watts Bar Dam on the Tennessee River.
Casting from the bank, we would bump hand-tied hair jigs along the rocky bottom from dawn till dusk, pausing only long enough for an occasional sip of hot chocolate from a thermos and gulp down a half-thawed baloney sandwich.
Bank fishing remains an effective way to catch sauger, although fishing from a boat allows the angler to cover more territory and reach some hot spots (hot, as in terms of fish, not temps) close to the dam and concrete walls.
Lebanon guide Jim Duckworth in recent years has shared some of his favorite sauger spots on the Cumberland River. Jim knows every bend of the river and where the fish tend to gather.
The time-tested method of catching wintertime sauger is bumping jigs along the bottom. Garnishing the jig with a live minnow improves your odds. If the fish are biting tentatively or nipping off the minnow, attach a “stinger” hook – a small set of treble hooks – to the single jig hook.
The biggest challenge in sauger fishing is combating the cold. Layers of cold-weather clothing are a must, and modern accouterments such as hand-warmers and in-boat heaters are worth the price.
Safety is imperative; a plunge into icy water can be fatal. Wearing a life jacket is mandatory when fishing tailwaters, and advisable at all times.
If you get too cold, quit. Sauger are fun to catch and delicious to eat, but they’re not worth risking frostbite.
And keep in mind, it won’t be long till crappie time. You should be thawed out by then.