Sizing sauger: Jigging, hovering the Illinois River with Mike Hanson

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Sauger are feeding hard, such as this one that hit a jig despite a full gullet, on the Illinois River.
Credit: Dale Bowman

PERU, Ill. — As we met on the Illinois River across from the Red Door in Peru, Mike Hanson handed me a pack of Fish-D-Funk wipes.

That was a first — ‘‘defunkifying’’ my hands with a wipe designed to neutralize odors, not just mask them.

Wednesdaywas a day for transitions, little things and firsts.

Hanson, a plumber/pipefitter with a tournament résumé, will begin guiding in the spring. He invited me for a day of learning.

We hopped spots from the Route 39 bridge to the ‘‘Snag Hole’’ to the Spring Valley bridge to Spring Lake.

As we loaded, I counted four bald eagles. Hanson said: ‘‘Jigging. Water is 36 degrees. That tells me fish will be in transition.’’

Considering the polar weather descending, that transition to the deep holes will move quickly.

As we started upstream, Hanson showed me the value of the FindShip app, a cool technology to see where barges and ships are.

‘‘I suggest it for anybody who fishes navigable waters,’’ Hanson said.

He first navigated us into the 17- to 20-foot first drop of a wintering hole.

‘‘I am seeing them in 15 to 17 feet,’’ he said. ‘‘Whether they bite or not, we will find out.’’

Bite they did, though mostly smaller ones. That holds promise for the next few years.

Mike Hanson holds two of the best sauger caught Wednesday on the Illinois River.<br>Credit: Dale Bowman

Mike Hanson holds two of the best sauger caught Wednesday on the Illinois River.
Credit: Dale Bowman

Hanson primarily uses Quantum rods and reels with PowerPro line in three colors, red, smoke-green or black.

‘‘Fact is, what the fish key in on is not just the bait,’’ Hanson said.

Throughout the day, he switched jigs even more often than he tested what color of line was most effective.

Little things.

Hanson said recognizing changes quickly is vital to adjusting to quickly changing conditions at this time of year.

He introduced me to hovering the jig instead of regular vertical jigging. His hovering technique involves touching the bottom, then lifting 2 to 4 inches, holding the bait there and letting the water and wrist action make subtle movements.

‘‘We found out the traditional straight up and down is not what they are looking for,’’ Hanson said. ‘‘It drives them bananas while it is sitting in front of their faces.’’

Hanson said he came to hovering when he and partner J.J. DeBernardi were fishing below the Starved Rock Dam one day. Hanson reeled in a fish.

‘‘I left the other rod over the side,’’ he said. ‘‘Wham! Had a fish.’’

Something clicked.

‘‘Just started sitting and hovering there over the side of the boat,’’ Hanson said. ‘‘We were doing four or five fish a day. That day, I bet we did 30 in a few hours.’’

Little things.

He figured out I was having trouble feeling the bottom and switched me to a heavier jighead. Once able to feel the bottom, I got the hang of hovering and caught fish regularly.

At the end by Spring Lake, we found sauger as deep as 25 to 30 feet. Hanson also switched me to a Jim Judson hair grub. It produced my best sauger.

We made one last pass by Spring Lake, but it was time.

Near dusk, I enjoyed the ride back on a working river past bridges, barges and shoreline enterprises to the launch across from the Red Door.

We caught 30-plus sauger (eight of them keeper size), one small walleye and one channel catfish.

To contact Hanson and Starved Rock Guide Service, click here to find the Facebook page or go to his developing site,

Follow me on Twitter @BowmanOutside.

An Illinois River scene on Wednesday.<br>Credit: Dale Bowman

An Illinois River scene on Wednesday.
Credit: Dale Bowman

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