Walleyes on the Wings

By Ted Peck - September 18, 2015
Mississippi River wingdams have a moth and candle fascination for those who would fish there. These rocky fingers just outside the channel markers have a well deserved reputation for holding walleyes. They are also known as the great destroyer of props, skegs and outboard motor lower units.

Wingdams have been part of the big picture on Old Man River for over a century, placed to maintain a navigable channel as mandated by the U. S. Congress on this 19th century version of an interstate highway.

The first wingdams were built of willow mats and "one man rocks", weighing about 100 pounds-all a man could carry from a nearby barge placed for wingdam construction. Wingdams are still critical components for maintaining a navigable channel between the 33 massive lock & dam systems built in the 1930's between St. Paul and St. Louis.

In the 21st century wingdams are placed by huge cranes, with river levels maintained within 0.4 feet with information downloaded from satellites every 6 hours. Fishers could care less about the sophisticated engineering involved in maintaining this artery of commerce. They just want to catch walleyes-and avoid a trip to the prop shop.

I primarily guide that 20 mile run of river between Genoa and Lynxville known as Pool 9. There are 77 wingdams and similar structures called closing dams on this pool.

The difference between these rocky structures is that closing dams close off the river's flow into side channels when the Mississippi reaches a certain pool level. Wingdams are placed at a 90 degree angle to the main channel in sets of three, five or seven stony fingers to coax the current out between the red and green buoys which mark the main river channel.

There are perhaps 15 of these 77 structures which consistently produce walleyes when the flow coming down the river is conducive to luring baitfish into relating to the wingdam rocks.

The most important key to fishing success is understanding the predator/prey relationship. Those 15 wingdams and closing dams which consistently hold fish typically have some kind of anomaly like a low spot or rock pile which is askew from the general design of this channelizing tool.

Time on the water is the only way to determine wingdams which are likely to hold walleyes. Even those wingdams which are consistently productive challenge anglers with an infinite number of variables involved in having a walleye find your hook.

One of the most critical is boat orientation to the wingdam. Holding the boat along the eight foot contour on the upstream side of the rocks enables an angler to put the hook in front of fish while still being far enough away to avoid immediate damage from the rocks.

Experience teaches the wisdom of 'going with the flow' if contact with the wingdam is imminent. When this inevitable situation arises the first order of business is staying calm and ensuring the outboard motor is in neutral.

Damage will be minimal if the motor is not in gear. Simply allow the boat to bump and bang over the rocks until falling off into deeper water below the wingdam. When the electronics say there is at least 6 feet of water under the boat, put the motor in gear and head straight out to the channel before repositioning the boat to try again.

Factors like time of day, weeds and other dunnage coming down the river and the exact presentation chosen to tempt fish also drive success, even when a wingdam is holding a considerable amount of forage.

With the Mississippi running at low summer pool levels, most active walleyes tend to hold from the mid-point to the channel end of wingdams. I like to start attacking a wingdam by deploying the trolling motor about 50 yards above the structure and easing downstream toward the mid-point stern first. The I-pilot on my MinnKota enables me to run the troller from any point in the boat. I usually send clients to the stern where they can make long parallel casts-staying in the fish zone longer.

Riffles are always down current from the rocks. Throwing a lure into riffles then trying to bring it back upstream is a good way to get hung up. Should this happen, put the reel in free spool and allow belly in the line to pull the bait downstream. Often this is enough to free the lure. Hold the rod high to complete the retrieve-but be ready! Often a fish will intercept a bait when it wiggles up out of the rocks.

I usually start probing for active fish with crankbaits. If the structure appears to hold a lot of fish, switching over to a livebait presentation can put a few more 'eyes in the boat.

Sometimes productive wingdams aren't productive. This can be a matter of timing. When flow levels are "just right" to draw baitfish and walleyes to certain structures, working a wingdam more than once in a full day on the water can produce amazing results.

Hundreds of days on the Mississippi have winnowed my wingdam lure selection to just a handful of consistently productive baits. Several of these aren't available in my favorite color, a problem which is quickly solved with cheap nail polish.

Ten minutes is enough time to establish both the presence and activity level of walleyes on the wings. After 10 minutes there will be some serious head shaking on one end of the line.

Author Ted Peck
Ted Peck
Cap'n Ted Peck has over 30 yrs. guiding experience, specializing in multi-species fishing on Pool 9-10 of the Mississippi from Genoa, Wi. to Prairie du Chien. Cap'n Ted is a pro staffer for Lund, Northland Tackle, MinnKota, Bill Lewis Lures, Evinrude, Uncle Josh, HT Enterprises and Custom Jigs & Spins. When not guiding Cap'n Ted communicates the outdoors experience via newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and through seminars. This work has taken him all over the midwest, Canada and beyond... but he always returns to the upper Mississippi which he considers the most diverse fishery in North America. Click here for more info on Ted's guide service. Cap'n Ted's new book Mississippi Musings with the Old Guide is a personal account of his long career as a professional fishing guide on Old Man River.