by Jeff Knapp
photos-Jeff Knapp; map graphic-Ted Walke
The Mon River is formed by the convergence of the Tygart River and West Fork River in Fairmont, West Virginia. Flowing north, it enters Pennsylvania near Point Marion and continues a 90-mile northerly venture that leads to Pittsburgh. Along this route, six lock-and-dam systems impound the Mon, elevating it to a depth at which commercial barge traffic is possible.
According to Commission Area 8 Fisheries Manager Rick Lorson, the major turning points for the Mon occurred back in 1972, first with the passage of the federal Clean Water Act, and then at the Tri-State Environmental Symposium held in Pittsburgh. This symposium was attended by involved state and federal resource agencies and private-citizen groups, with the subject of how best to improve the water quality in the Three Rivers area. Over the nearly 30 years that have passed since that symposium, the water quality has greatly improved, thus providing a similar growth in the diversity of the Mon's fish life.
Lorson's Area 8 fisheries management team recently filed a report on the Mon's water quality:
"The improvement in water quality has been the result of sewage treatment facility upgrades, regulation and reduction of industrial activities, increased regulation and reclamation of acid mine discharges, and improvements in other water quality protection techniques. Although dramatic improvements have been accomplished, the Monongahela River remains the most industrialized and degraded of the three rivers near Pittsburgh."
Good news could be on the horizon regarding the Cheat River, which enters the Mon at Point Marion. Extensive work is currently underway in the Cheat River watershed, which lies almost entirely in West Virginia. According to West Virginia Division of Natural Resources Fisheries Biologist Frank Jernejcic, liming in mine acid-influenced tributaries of the Cheat River upriver of Cheat Lake could be having a beneficial effect on the watershed. Jernejcic said that though chemical analyses don't yet show any significant improvement, Cheat Lake's largemouth bass fishery has come on strong in recent years--one of the top in West Virginia. Anything done to improve the quality of the Cheat River drainage has to benefit the Pennsylvania portion of the Mon. Unfortunately, additional sources of acid mine drainage enter the Cheat River below the lake, before its merger with the Mon.
As the Fish and Boat Commission report points out, the Mon lags behind the Allegheny and Ohio rivers in terms of water quality and the overall fishery it provides. But recent Commission surveys indicate that, interestingly enough, the sauger fishery is as good as or better than that of the other two rivers.
"The Monogahela has a very good sauger fishery," reported Lorson. "There are also good numbers of large saugers." The biologist noted that more large saugers have turned up in surveys than in either the Ohio or Allegheny rivers.
Understanding why the Mon shines in terms of sauger production calls for an understanding of the fish itself. Native to the Ohio River drainage, the sauger, like the walleye, is a member of the perch family and has a quite similar look. Distinctions between the two are subtle, but become obvious once you've seen a few of each fish.
Saugers have a more mottled appearance, with bars often extending below the lateral line of the fish. The dark blotch present on the walleye on the rear of the spined dorsal fin does not exist on the sauger. Also, the white tip on the lower fin of the tail, which is distinct on the walleye, is present on the sauger, but much more subtle and usually fringed with an orange or copper color. How vivid the markings of a sauger are depend on the color of the water from which it was caught. During muddy conditions these markings tend to wash out.
It's also worth noting that all of the saugers in the Mon, or any of the three rivers for that matter, are wild fish. The density of the population relies completely on natural reproduction, the success of which varies greatly from year to year. Conditions during and shortly after the spawning period, which normally occurs in early to mid-April, have a strong influence on spawning success. High water and abnormally cold water can spell trouble for a year-class. During springs of warm, stable weather, strong year-classes are usually produced. Saugers grow quickly, and, given a good forage base, (gizzard shad in the case of the Mon River) can quickly grow into the 12-inch size range. Biologists have documented saugers reaching this size range in less than two years, so a strong year-class can quickly translate into excellent fishing. The bad news is that fast-growing fish tend to have a high degree of natural mortality--they die of "old age" quite early. A sauger much over 15 inches would have to be considered a big one in Pennsylvania. Having fished the three rivers during the prime times for about a dozen years, the biggest saugers I have taken have been in the 18-inch range.
Other differences between the walleye and sauger concern the environments each prefers. Walleyes like clearer water. Saugers do better in more turbid conditions, which helps explain why they do well in the Mon.
"With its lower gradient, the Mon has longer, more lake-like pools," explained Lorson. "The water tends to be more turbid, and saugers seem to do better there than walleyes."
Besides the slower drop to the river, some of the dams on the Mon are gated, instead of fixed-crest. A gated dam provides a deeper impoundment of the river, which adds to the lake-like effect. Less current is also present. These physical factors tie in to how the river is best fished.
"These factors all come into play on the Mon," said Lorson. "When compared to the other two rivers, there is less habitat, and that means there is less opportunity. The tailrace areas, which are well-oxygenated, provide the best sauger habitat on the river."
There are six lock-and-dam systems on the Mon River between the West Virginia line and Pittsburgh. Starting in Pittsburgh and moving upriver, dams are located in Braddock (Locks & Dam 2), Elizabeth (Locks & Dam 3), Charleroi (Locks & Dam 4), upriver of Brownsville (Maxwell Locks & Dam), Grays Landing (Gray's Landing Locks & Dam), and at Point Marion (Point Marion Lock & Dam).
Other spots worth checking out are the mouths of tributaries. Such places often provide habitat by washing sand or gravel bars out into the river during periods of high water. It's possible that cooler and better oxygenated water is located in some of these spots as well.
Catching Mon River saugers isn't a complicated affair. The trick is finding them. From late fall into early spring, when the season closes in mid-March, saugers usually school in specific areas. As has been previously mentioned, the better habitat on the Mon lies near the tailrace areas in the upper third or so of the pool. For the boat angler, the immediate tailrace area can be fished only from a point below the downstream end of the approach wall of the lockage. During the warm-weather months, the restricted zone is well-marked with buoys. But at this time of year it's unlikely any buoys will be present. So draw an imaginary line across the river from the lower end of the lock wall, and keep your boat downriver of it.
It's been my experience that saugers like to stack up in the slack water areas located just downriver of the lock chambers. On the Mon River, several of the dams have double lock chambers, which create an even more significant current break. Saugers are often visible on the sonar unit in huge schools that can easily be seen on the electronics. When fishing these areas from a boat, however, keep an eye out for oncoming river traffic. The Mon still has a lot of commercial barge use, and you'll want to keep out of the way of these vessels.
Sand and gravel bars washed out into the river from tributary streams create not only a current break, but structure as well. The main basin of the Mon River is quite featureless, and the cover provided by these bars is often that "something different" that attracts and holds fish.
Accurate boat control
When fishing from a boat, the ability to control accurately is a huge benefit. As stated earlier, finding the saugers is the first step, and this means dragging an appropriate presentation through the high-percentage areas outlined. Even though generally not considered a fast "search lure," a jig-n-minnow, when fished from a drifting boat, is an effective bait for searching out fish. The key is to use the boat to make the presentation.
Consider the slack water situation described below a lock chamber. This area can be efficiently searched by lowering a quarter-ounce minnow-tipped jig directly over the side of the boat until it hits the bottom. Drop the trolling motor and ever so slowly begin working downstream. You'll need to let out additional line to compensate for the boat movement. You should be able to keep the angle of the line entering the water at about 45 degrees. Let out just enough line almost to touch the bottom. This can be determined by quickly dropping the rod tip back. If the bait is in the correct position, slack line will form as the jig hits the bottom. With a sensitive rod, and in depths of 15 feet or less, you may be able to feel the jig hit bottom. You don't want to be dragging the lure along with excess line out. Snags will be frequent, and you'll have a tough time distinguishing a sauger hit from a snag.
Once you have a hit or catch a sauger, it's wise to throw out a buoy to mark the spot. By hovering around the buoy, you may be able to catch fish all day long. On all three of the major western Pennsylvania rivers, I've sat on such spots and pulled in saugers, one after another.
This basic downstream drift can be used to search all kinds of slack-water pools. You'll need to make adjustments to allow for the conditions of the day. Just remember that the objective is to present a slowly-moving bait downstream, keeping it just inches off the bottom.
Shore anglers will find it best to concentrate on the mouths of feeder streams, and to fish during the twilight period, when aggressive saugers move shallow to feed.
With favorable river conditions, excellent sauger fishing should be available on the Mon River until the season closes in mid-March. The favorable conditions include steady flows and lack of ice jams. This spring should also be good because of a good minnow population from last summer. This tends to turn on feeding binges in pre-spawn saugers in February and March. The action often holds for the month on May, when the season reopens. After that the fish seem to scatter, and are difficult to locate until the following fall.
Monongahela River Access
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January/February 2000 Angler & Boater
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