Sauger vs. Walleye: Do You Know the Differences?

Last Updated: January 20, 2022

There are several species that swim in the waters of North America that share very close similarities with each other, such as muskies and pike, spotted, smallmouth and largemouth bass, and in this case, sauger and walleye.

Sauger and walleye are cousins and look similar in appearance to anglers who are not familiar with the differences between the species. Let’s take a closer look at these two popular sportfish. What are the differences between sauger vs. walleye?

Body Coloration

Let’s start by looking at the most obvious way to tell the difference between a sauger and a walleye.

Walleye have a bright golden yellow coloration that many anglers will be familiar with. Still, this golden coloration can vary by region, and in some areas, walleye can appear very light and pale in coloration in some regions or much darker in others and have an almost olive green appearance.

Sauger, on the other hand, has a coloration that looks brass in appearance, and the sauger also has dark blotches covering their body.

Top Tip: These dark blotches are a key indicator that you have caught a sauger and not a walleye.

The dorsal fin, adipose fin, and tail also look very different between the two species. Sauger have dark rows of spots that are very prominent and run across their fins. Walleyes do have some lighter vermiculations on their adipose and tail fin but not on the dorsal fin.

Walleye have a very key indicator on their tail fin, and that is the white tip on the bottom fin fork. This is even apparent on baby walleye.

Saugers do not have the white marking on their tails, and this is another great way to distinguish between the two species.

Size

Sauger do not grow as large as walleye do, and when comparing a mature walleye and sauger side by side, you will notice that sauger and shorter in length and are very slender compared to a mature walleye.

If you are trying to determine if you are handling a walleye or a sauger, looking at the overall body can help, and if the fish is very slender for its size, there’s a very good chance you are dealing with a sauger.

Species Range

Walleye

holding up a walleye

Walleye have a pretty extensive natural range, and an even larger range where they have been introduced by stocking and artificial propagation.

The walleye can be found from the Arctic south, reaching all the way to the Arctic Ocean in areas of the Northwest Territories not far from Alaska and stretching south to the Great Lakes.

Author Note: Natural ranges spread east to the St. Lawrence River and Quebec, and farther south in some areas of Arkansas and Alabama.

Introductions of the walleye have spread them far and wide and include Atlantic and Pacific drainages, the region around the Gulf of Mexico in states like Texas, and even in select bodies of water in the southwestern states of Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and even California.

Sauger

measuring a caught sauger

The range of the sauger is not nearly as widespread as the walleye, in both native and introduced ranges.

Sauger can be found in the Great Lakes region, St. Lawrence River, Mississippi River Basin, areas of Quebec and Alberta, and areas in Alabama and Louisiana.

When looking at a map of the saugers’ range, you will notice that their native ranges are concentrated mostly along river systems, whereas walleye are commonly found spread thoroughly throughout regions as they are commonly found in both lakes and rivers.

Habitat

While these two species live in the same areas, they do have preferred habitats, with sauger not liking habitats that walleye can and will thrive in.

 Let’s take a look at the preferred habitats of the two species.

Sauger

If you recall from above, the native range of sauger is much more confined to river systems and not as widespread compared to the walleye; this is due to the river and stream systems being the preferred habitat of the sauger.

Sauger like fast current, and while they typically stay out of the fast-moving water most of the time, they stay in the deep holes, pools, and eddies with sandy or muddy bottoms just adjacent to fast current.

Current is like a conveyor belt that brings a constant stream of food to the areas that the sauger calls home, allowing them to feed without expending large amounts of energy swimming against the current.

Top Tip: Sauger can be found in lakes as well, especially those that are connected to rivers and streams, allowing them to move and migrate from different bodies of water.

Walleye

Walleye will also inhabit the same pools in river systems alongside sauger, which means if you are fishing these areas there is a good chance you can catch both during a fishing outing.

Walleye prefer deep and cool lakes, reservoirs, and flowages. While they can be found in very shallow water in lakes, they typically do well in lakes where the shallow waters have access to nearby deep basins or holes.

Walleye also like rock and gravel bottoms, and rocks are also where spawning will typically occur, but they can also be found in and around submergent vegetation and sand bottom area where they feed.

Walleye are also fans of the lake basin and will suspend in open water where they hunt and feed on schools of baitfish, and anglers typically target walleye in these areas by trolling lures like crankbaits or crawler harnesses.

Saugeye

caught saugeye

Since the two species are so closely related and live together, they can also spawn together.

The “saugeye” is the hybrid offspring of a walleye and a sauger and shares the physical and visual features of both parents, which can make them a bit difficult to identify.

Saugeye have dark oblong splotches on their bodies that tend to be smaller than the typical sauger, they also feature a tell-tale white tip on their lower tail like the one a walleye has, but these white tips are often much smaller than that of a full-blooded walleye.

Fishing

Both species have the same diet and can be caught using the same lures. Presentations like crankbaits, jigs, minnows, nightcrawlers, leeches, and other baits and lures will catch both species.

Author Note: Targeting one specific species can be hard to do if both are present, and more than likely, you will catch both on any given fishing trip, or you may only catch walleye and not any sauger, or vice versa.

Some anglers who fish waters with both species have noted that they may only catch sauger in certain conditions, which could be because sauger have better vision than walleye when it comes to low light conditions, which is a surprise for many anglers to learn.

As a result, in low-light conditions such as muddy or murky water, the sauger will have an easier time locating your lure or bait compared to walleye.

Final Thoughts

Even with the knowledge of how to tell these two species apart, you may still encounter situations where the colorations are not prominent, and even the avid angler who has caught both species can have a difficult time distinguishing between the two.

Once you get your hands on prime examples of both species, it will become easier for you to determine what species you are dealing with.

It is important to know as an angler, as some rules and regulations for your area may be different in terms of harvest sizes and possession limits.

Both fish taste great – if you end up catching one, check out our guide on how to fillet them.

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