Scientific Name: Stizostedion vitreum X Stizostedion canadense
Common Name: Saugeye
Saugeye are a naturally occurring hybrid in water bodies that have reproducing populations of both walleye and sauger. Trautman (1981) suggested that in water bodies with walleye and sauger a hybridization rate of about 2-3% could be expected. Billington et al. (1997) found that 4.1% of all Stizostedion (walleye, sauger, and saugeye) sampled in the Illinois River were saugeye. The sites sampled in the study were not stocked and were sustained through natural reproduction.
In the 1980s, state DNRs around the Midwest began experimenting with stocking saugeye as a sport fish in reservoirs and rivers. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, walleye were stocked with little success in turbid, structure-deficient reservoirs. In the late 70s, it was discovered that saugeye not only survive better than walleye in reservoir habitats, they also grow faster and are more easily caught by anglers. A phenomenon known as “hybrid vigor” can most likely explain the hybrid’s aggressive feeding behaviors. Saugeye were immediately popular with anglers, and states such as Ohio began replacing walleye with yearly stockings of saugeye.
Saugeye look similar to both parental species. They are best identified by the “blotchy” saddle markings on their side and back similar to sauger, but they usually have white pigment on the lower portion of their tail along with dark blotches on their dorsal fin membrane. Identification of saugeye can be difficult in water bodies that have all three Stizostedion species, such as the Ohio River, but if it is possible to compare the three species directly at one time, identification is much easier. Ohio, along with most other states that stock saugeye, does not stock both saugeye and walleye in any reservoir.
There is little doubt that saugeye stockings in reservoirs provide for better sport fishing than walleye stockings. Most reservoir systems lack the necessary water clarity and habitat required to support self-sustaining walleye populations. Stocking programs tend to be very costly when the time and effort needed to produce, raise, and stock fingerlings is taken into consideration. When it became apparent the sport fishing return was marginal for certain reservoirs stocked with walleye, stocking saugeye became an attractive option. Saugeye provided many benefits when compared to walleye. They are generally easier to rear than walleye, and as mentioned earlier, survive and grow better in reservoir systems. When creel surveys proved that saugeye were also easier to catch, it seemed stocking saugeye was the solution for better angling.
As early as the mid-1980s biologists began to notice an unexpected consequence of the saugeye stocking programs. It was originally assumed that saugeye would be sterile, because they are a hybrid species. Unfortunately, research projects started clearly documenting not only saugeye X walleye reproduction, but also saugeye X saugeye reproduction. Johnson et al. (1988) found that male saugeye crossed with female walleye resulted in 10% hatching success of second-generation hybrids. Fiss et al. (1997) not only documented walleye X saugeye reproduction, but also found saugeye X saugeye reproduction in Normandy Reservoir, TN.
Considering all of the potential genetic impacts associated with stocking saugeye, why do some states continue to stock them? For saugeye to have any impact on native populations of walleye and sauger, they must be exposed to them. By considering factors such as connectivity with other watersheds and presence of walleye and sauger, it is still possible to create great saugeye fisheries in situations where the risk for reproduction with parental species is low. For example, in Ohio, up-ground reservoirs and central Ohio reservoirs are stocked heavily with saugeye, but realistically those fish will never come into contact with native fish. The up-ground reservoirs are completely isolated from their water source, and central Ohio reservoirs are farther than 100km from the Ohio River in most cases. While anglers stocking saugeye that they caught into other water bodies is always a risk, by cautiously selecting waters for yearly stockings state DNRs can create saugeye fishing opportunities without harming native fish populations.
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