Ted Peck

Outdoors talk with certified Merchant Marine Captain Ted Peck.

Ted Peck: Wing dams and walleyes

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Ted Peck
August 9, 2015

Mississippi River wing dams 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.

Wing dams have been part of the big picture on the river for more than 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 wing dams were built of willow mats and “one-man rocks,” weighing about 100 pounds—all a man could carry from a nearby barge placed for wing dam construction.

Wing dams are still critical components for maintaining a navigable channel between the 33 massive lock-and-dam systems built in the 1930s between St. Paul and St. Louis.

In the 21st century, wing dams 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.

Nate Rogers, owner of Badger State Maintenance in Milton, hired me late last week with these dual goals in mind. His companion, Dani Ludwig, joined us, joking that she planned on giving Rogers a fishing lesson.

We fished that 20-mile run of river between Genoa and Lynxville known as Pool 9. There are 77 wing dams 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. Wing dams 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 that consistently produce walleyes when the flow coming down the river is conducive to luring baitfish into relating to the wing dam rocks.

The most important key to fishing success is understanding the predator/prey relationship. Those 15 wing dams and closing dams that 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 which wing dams are likely to hold walleyes. Even those wing dams 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 wing dam. 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 wing dam 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 wing dam. When the electronics say there is at least six 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 including time of day, weeds, other dunnage coming down the river and the exact presentation chosen to tempt fish also drive success, even when a wing dam is holding a considerable amount of forage.

On this particular outing the fish wanted a crankbait painted up with certain colors not available right out of the box. Retrieve speed and cadence was also critical.

Rogers might have been overwhelmed with all the variables. Ludwig might have just been fortunate with her casts and dragged her lures right in front of the fish.

A wise guide simply offers encouragement and nets the fish. From the quotable Yogi Berra: “If you can do it, you ain't braggin'!” Rogers was quick to offer his congratulations when I slipped the net under Ludwig's 25-inch walleye, noting he once caught a 30-incher out of Lake Erie.

“This isn't Erie, Nate, “ Ludwig coyly noted. And the great river flowed on.

Ted Peck, a certified Merchant Marine captain, is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at [email protected].

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