Missouri Study Tracks Sauger, Walleye Movement

December 01, 2004

Sauger and walleye in the Missouri River near Fort Benton appear to swim downstream as much as 150 miles to spawn before returning to their exact location, a graduate student has found.

“We thought they swam upstream or up the Marias River to spawn,” says Steve Leathe, Fish Wildlife and Parks regional fisheries manager. “This is sort of a reverse migration.”

The surprising findings come in the middle of a study by Brian Bellgraph, a graduate fisheries student at Montana State University. Bellgraph is in the second year of tracking walleye and sauger in the Missouri River between Morony Dam and Fort Peck Reservoir.

A year ago, Bellgraph put radio transmitters into 14 sauger and 12 walleye. The fish were captured near Fort Benton and Loma. “We implanted the transmitters in the fall because we didn’t want to interrupt their spawning, which takes place in the spring,” Bellgraph says. But when he went looking for them this year, he couldn’t pick up any radio signal. “We finally found them by flying over the river in an airplane,” Bellgraph says. While not unprecedented – sauger in the Yellowstone swim downstream to spawn – the movement downstream was surprising. Equally astounding was the fishes return to their prespawning habitats.

“In some cases then came back to the same pool, or within a few hundred yards,” Bellgraph says. This after swimming up to 300 miles round trip in the muddy Missouri. Other components of the study included food habits. Bellgraph found sauger and walleye eat similar foods, mostly bottom fish.

This fall Bellgraph put transmitters in 15 sauger and 15 walleye to track next year. Anglers who catch tagged sauger or walleye are encouraged to release them immediately. An antenna that looks like a steel fishing leader sticking out the bottom of the fish, 6 to 10 inches past the tail fin, easily identifies tagged fish. After releasing a tagged fish, anglers should report the size, species and location to FWP.

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