Fishing Wing Dams

By Ted Peck - May 1, 2010
Wingdams are one of the biggest fish magnets on the Mississippi River. They are also profound hazards to recreational navigation-and a source of curiosity in those who want to discover more about this magnificent fishery without the painful expense of repairing props, skegs and lower units.

Know this: if you try seriously to reap the bounty found on wingdams damage to equipment is a matter of when - not if. You should never venture out on this water without redundancy in power, navigation and safety equipment. Don't leave the dock without a spare prop for both the big motor and the electric!

Wingdams are rocky fingers extending pretty much out from shore at a 90 degree angle from the shoreline. Their sole purpose is in line with the mission statement of the Corps of Engineers: Maintaining a nine-foot channel for navigation.

Wingdams help funnel the current into the main channel. They are placed outside of channel boundaries at locations throughout every river pool which best serve this purpose. Not all wingdams hold fish. Most productive wingdams for fishing have at least one "sweet spot". Fish location-or lack thereof-is driven by presence of forage base which is in turn driven by current velocity and other flow parameters over the wingdam.

While wingdam size and placement is dictated by engineering decisions these big piles of rocks are not placed with laser precision. Some have small gaps. Others have a pile of rocks which weren't dumped where they were supposed to go. Trees and other debris can get hung up on a wingdam during periods of high water. All of these anomalies are likely "sweet spots" on productive wingdams.

You won't see the sweet spots marked on any chart or map. Changes in river flow and even time of day can make a sweet spot go sour in a heartbeat. Re-positioning the boat may or may not help. The only way to find these special locations is time on the water.

Different fish species have different preferences for their most favorable location. This orientation changes with many variables like forage base movement, current velocity, time of day, river level and color, wind direction---the list goes on.

Walleyes often cruise on the upstream side of a wingdam from the midpoint to the channel end. Bluegills like to hang on top. Flatheads like to sulk in the deep hole off the channel end. Largemouth bass like to tuck in behind a wingdam or wait in ambush near a gap.

These are all just starting points in your presentation. You have to remember: these critters aren't tied up!

The first step is getting your boat into a position where you can get a hook in reasonably close proximity to the fish you are chasing. Go back and read paragraph 2 again. I'll wait for you. Once you accept the fact that property damage will occur here are a couple rules of thumb which make postpone the inevitable:

First, always approach a wingdam at a 90 degree angle from the main channel. Wingdams are usually placed in series of three, four or more. If you think your new favorite fishin' spot is there all alone you will meet kindred structures when approaching the "honey hole" at a 45 degree angle from the main channel.

Second, watch your electronics closely. As a general rule you'll be okay if you keep the boat positioned along the eight foot contour above a wingdam. This should be close enough to reach the sweet spot with a cast-but far enough away from those unforgiving rocks to keep you out of trouble.

The difference between the eight foot contour and the host of emotions experienced when metal meets rocks is about a half-nanosecond. You'll find out. Trust me.

The presence of a wingdam is sometimes revealed by riffles on the water. These riffles are downstream from the rocks.

The best way to see if fish are present is by making a few quick casts with a crankbait while holding along the eight foot contour. If the crankbait gets hung up on the rocks allow slack-lots of slack-to belly your line. The current will free your bait about 60 percent of the time. If it does, be ready for a strike!

Anchoring up is an effective way to fish a wingdam, once you've found fish. Position is everything. It may take several attempts to get the boat oriented in the best possible position. Close is truly no cigar.

When anchoring up livebait is usually the best option. If you decide to go after a snagged $6 crankbait you will seldom-if ever-be able to get the boat back into the optimum position where you found success. Better to break off and re-tie. This is much less painful when using jigs or rigs.

Rigging and presentation can spell the difference between lots of fish and just one or two. These are held close to the vest-just like the checkbook which pays for damaged props, skegs and other sundry disasters caused by tap-dancing around Mississippi River wingdams.
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.