Summer fishing on the mighty Mississippi River can be a challenge. It can also be dam good.
From Davenport to the Twin Cities, every pool of the Mississippi features dozens of man-made rock structures designed to manipulate flow and maintain a navigable channel.
These wingdams are loaded with forage and the opportunity to enjoy some outstanding walleye fishing, while they also attract smallmouth bass, catfish, bluegill and drum.
While walleyes can be caught on nearly any wingdam at one time or another, there are some specific features that make some dams better than others. My tournament fishing partner, Neil Hammargren, and I look for dams with deep water in front of them (10 feet or more), flat tops as opposed to those that come to a sharp peak, and dams that aren’t silted over. We want to be able to feel rock as we work a crankbait, jig or live bait rig across the face of the structure.
Current is a key factor. Baitfish like shad — a staple of a Mississippi walleye’s diet — leave the upstream face of the dam when the river is high and the flow is fast. So do the majority of the walleyes. They go where the bait goes. Sometimes, they relocate in the scour holes below the dams, sometimes they move to sections of a dam with less current and sometimes they move to different dams altogether.
Nothing is absolute with river walleyes, but in general rising water moves them to the inside part of wingdams with decent depth close to shore (six feet or more). Falling water levels send them to the ends of the dams where they will hang out until the river stabilizes. Then they’ll go back into roaming mode when schools of fish show up on a dam one day and disappear the next.
One key is to keep moving and fish a lot of dams. Usually you will eventually find some cooperative fish.
We also look for irregularities within a wingdam, whether that’s a finger of rocks that juts out a little more, a gap in the dam or a tip that’s been knocked down by a barge or by ice, resulting in scattered rock.
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Several techniques are effective for wingdam walleyes. In early summer, casting crankbaits produces a lot of quality fish. Position the boat close enough to reach the rock on top of the dam with your cast and slowly work it back to the boat. Walleyes often smoke a crankbait just as it clears the rock. If the fish seem a little finicky, try a stop-and-go retrieve where you reel a few feet, pause the bait, then reel a few more feet.
Snags are a fact of life when fishing cranks in the rocks. Sometimes you can’t really get on top of them to get them free because of the current or the danger of getting your boat hung up on top the dam. Lure retrievers that slide down your line and try to knock the bait loose can help and we’ve also found simply letting out line and allowing the current to pull the bait downstream often sets them free.
Jigs are another good choice for working wingdams. Bucktail jigs, hair jigs and jigs tipped with plastic or live bait all work when flipped into the dead spot in front of the dam and then slowly worked across the face. Jigging spoons have their place, as well, when the walleyes seem to be responding to a more aggressive presentation.
As for live bait rigs, our go-to setup is as simple as it gets. We slide an egg sinker onto the line followed by a colored bead to protect the knot to a barrel swivel. From the swivel, we use a monofilament or fluorocarbon leader in the 30-inch range and a No. 2 or No. 4 bait hook — larger hooks for willow cats and smaller hooks for leeches and crawlers. Cast the rig to the front of the dam and after it settles to the bottom, move it a couple of feet at a time.
Trolling the face of the dams or the tips when the flow is low is an option, too, but it can be tricky to keep your bait in the strike zone without getting constantly snagged up.
Now that summer has heated up, the wingdam bite has slowed. The walleyes still are there, but there is so much available food for them that the windows of opportunity to catch them have narrowed. They don’t have to do much hunting to eat, so anglers have to take advantage of the bites you can get and stay on the move. Offering the walleyes something a little different from the shad that make up the bulk of their diet, like a crawler or willow cat, is a good strategy.
Give the rocks a try. It can be dam good.