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Illinois River

Steve Vande Mark netted an Illinois River sauger for his tournament partner Dennis Lantzy during a past Masters Walleye Circuit event on the Illinois River. (Courtesy photo/MASTERS WALLEYE CIRCUIT)

SPRING VALLEY — The Illinois River has done more than run through the life of Adam Sandor. It’s helped shape it.

The semi-professional fisherman was age 3 or 4 when his dad first lured him into a boat on the river. Today, Sandor is 34 and owns the Illinois Walleye Trail with his wife, Kim. The competitive circuit holds events on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. The next one is at Spring Valley on the Illinois River March 18, followed in a week by the 26th annual Masters Walleye Circuit season opener at Spring Valley March 24-25. Visit www.illinoiswalleyetrail.com or www.masterswalleyecircuit.com.

“It’s my home water. I’ve been really successful there,” Sandor said of the Illinois River. “It’s the body of water I am most comfortable with. …I’m partial to it.”

It’s easy to see why. Sandor and his father, Steve “Pinkie” Sandor of Ottawa, won the 2009 MWC annual season opener, which is the last weekend every March on the Illinois River. They were once MWC Circuit Father and Son Team of the Year. They also were 2009 Illinois State Walleye Champions of the Illinois Walleye Trail and 2010 IWT Team of the Year.

Sandor also likes to fish for catfish on the river, but he focuses on walleye and its smaller cousin, the sauger. The Illinois River is home to both species, but holds far more sauger than walleye.

No doubt, walleye and sauger lived in the Illinois River for years. But their numbers plummeted along with other species when the river became badly polluted. When the Clean Water Act in the mid-1970s caused water quality to improve, fish repopulated the river. Sandor remembers his dad and granddad telling stories of tying off their boat below Lover’s Leap at Starved Rock and catching their first sauger. They recognized the type of fish from trips to catch walleyes in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Canada.

Most of the credit for spreading the word about what eventually became one of the best sauger fisheries in North America goes to Spring Valley businessman Bill Guerrini. He saw the river’s potential to draw angling tourism. He formed the Spring Valley Walleye Club and convinced the MWC, which was in its infancy, to join with the club to co-host the first tournament at Spring Valley.

Today, there are plenty of 2-pound, eating-sized sauger to be caught. The most common method is to use a ¼- to ½-ounce jig to keep the bait directly below the boat. An angler uses the bow-mounted electric motor to match the drift speed to the current.

The weight of the jig choice depends on how fast the current is moving. The goal is to keep slack out of the line so a fish can be felt when it bites the bait, which is often a 4-inch plastic minnow replica.

A second technique is to troll upstream using a three-way rig with a heavy weight on the bottom and a leader of two to three feet tied to a plain hook and minnow or a floating bait like a Rapala.

A third tactic is to use heavy lead-core line and troll upstream with big lures that look like shad.

Anglers target places where fish gather to escape the current, such as river bends or slack-water areas called eddies behind current breaks, such as points. Other good spots are places where creeks or tributaries empty into the main river. Hard-bottom spots where sauger and walleye lay eggs are best in spring.

Sandor and Guerrini think the influx of huge numbers of invasive Asian carp in recent years is changing the river’s sauger fishery in important ways. Last spring was one of the best spring spawning runs on the river for numbers of fish, but the average size is smaller, they said. Where teams in the MWC tournament once needed to weigh in a two-day limit of 10 fish weighing more than 30 pounds, the average sauger’s weight is less than 3 pounds now.

“We are looking for a reason as to why that is,” Guerrini said. “We aren’t scientists, obviously. But there has to be a reason why we haven’t seen the 3-, 4- or 5-pound sauger that we saw four to five years ago.”

Sandor thinks one reason might be the river seems to have fewer shad, which were once the main menu for sauger and walleye. The shad may be declining because they must now compete for plankton with the Asian carp, which can grow to 50 pounds and more. Judging from fish found in the stomachs of sauger, they seem to be switching from eating shad to eating young Asian carp. But Guerrini said the Asian carp grow fast and soon become too large for sauger to eat.

Gary Lutterbie retired at the end of 2011 as the Illinois Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist in charge of the upper Illinois River. He thinks sauger are smaller on average because the species has had huge spawns in the past couple of years. Large numbers of sauger are competing with each other for available shad and other forage, he said. At this point, after Asian carp have been in the river since the 1990s, scientists are hard pressed to find negative impacts to river species of fish from the presence of Asian carp, he said.

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