Return of the sauger to Wyoming waters
Over 100 years ago, sauger fish were abundant in the North Platte River.
By 1948 a U.S Public Health Service report said that the North Platte River from Casper to the Nebraska state line was so polluted from raw sewage and refinery waste being dumped into the river that there were doubts the species could ever be recovered.
Seventy years later the river has made a dramatic comeback, and this summer sauger were released into the river by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
Sauger are closely related to the walleye, a popular sport fish around the country. They are also native to many drainages in Wyoming east of the continental divide and have continued to live in the Wind River, Big Horn River and Powder River drainages according to Matt Hahn, Wyoming Game and Fish fisheries supervisor.
“They look like walleye, but sauger are better adapted to live in a river versus a lake,” Hahn says. “What we’re hoping is the sauger will stay in the river better and provide a popular sport fish for people. They are good eating and they’ll grow pretty decent size, over 20 inches, so that stretch of the river is just perfect for a sauger fishery where it wouldn’t make a good trout fishery.”
The past sixty years of restoring the river to healthy conditions has been a group effort according to Hahn and WGF public information officer Janet Milek, as a general realization around the country caused people to look for more sustainable and environmentally friendly ways to dispose of waste.
By the mid-1940s, most of the larger-bodied native fish had disappeared from the Platte and looking back, Hahn says it’s a major success story, turning the river around and getting stable flows to where the North Platte is now one of the best fisheries in the state.
Returning the native species to its original habitat was a natural progression to return the North Platte River to what it used to be. Upstream, the river is home to some of the best trout fisheries in the state and downstream where the river warms, conditions are just right for the return of the sauger.
The first load of 6,000 sauger was released into the river below the Dave Johnson Power Plant in June of 2017, although, due to survival rates from the original hatchery, it was much less than they were hoping for. The second load of 110,000 sauger was released in June of this year. Hahn says that the fish won’t be able to migrate farther upstream because of a dam, but he is hoping the fish will go downstream to Glendo Reservoir in the winter, then they can run up the river in the spring for spawning.
Hahn says the Wyoming Game and Fish are hoping to stock about 100,000 sauger each year for three consecutive years before they stop to monitor the populations and see how the fish are doing on their own.
“We’ll do a combination of netting downstream in Glendo Reservoir in conjunction with electro-fishing in the river. We can do actual population estimates in the river through electro-fishing where we come up with a number of fish per mile,” he says. “We can look at a number of things like growth rate, condition and diet analysis and how many younger fish there are that would indicate successful reproduction.”
Because all of Wyoming’s fish hatcheries are for trout, Wyoming Game and Fish’s fish culture section trades Wyoming-raised trout with other states in order to get the sauger needed to stock the river.
“It was a big effort thanks to our fish culture section, they did a lot of work and spent a lot of time to make these different trades,” says Milek.
Although Milek was unsure of the exact trade agreements, she says that multiple states were involved.
“One thing our guys try to do is create diversity for anglers,” Milek says. “So this is just another species to add to that diversity.”