The Lowdown on Catching Wing Dam Walleyes
March 26, 2018
Follow the tips below to become an expert at fishing wing dam walleyes.
Wing dams. To some anglers, they're a mystery. A monster. A snaggy conglomeration of rocks, boulders, and who-knows-what designed specifically, if not exclusively, to devour expensive crankbaits and gobble up jigs. Lots and lots of jigs.
To fans of river walleyes, wing dams can be — and often are — the stuff of which dreams are made. They collect fish, and big fish, too, like my brother, Richard, collects "Star Wars" paraphernalia. And that, dear reader, is a collection unmatched.
Still, not every walleye angler knows how to go about pulling walleyes, especially reluctant 'eyes, from their home turf known as the wing dam. Mark Martin, however, does. Martin's name is synonymous with walleyes, as well it should be. The 1990 Professional Walleye Trail World Champion, Martin has qualified for an astounding 18 world championships, and he has chalked up an incredible 47 Top 10 finishes throughout his professional career.
In 2001, Martin was chosen the Normark/Rapala Angler of the Year, and in 2014, was inducted into the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, a most prestigious group that includes household names such as Glen Lau, Uncle Homer Circle, Ron Lindner, and Curt Gowdy.
On a break from his busy fishing and speaking schedule, Martin was kind enough to sit a spell and school anglers, me very much included, in the art and science of fishing for wing dam walleyes. What he had to say was both technical and, surprisingly, elemental.
WHAT & WHY OF WING DAMS
Wing dams themselves are quite simple. Manmade, they consist of a line of rock, boulders, and riprap stretching out from the shore, be it the shore of an island or of the mainland, toward the center of a river. Water or current flowing around the outermost tip of the wing dam increases in velocity.
This faster water, then, helps keep the river channel, the deep-water "road" used by barges, recreational vessels, and other boat traffic, both at the proper depth and free of potentially dangerous obstacles such as logs or other debris.
Often, wing dams are constructed in an alternating series leading downstream. That is, a dam on one side of the river, and, 200 yards downstream, another on the opposite shore. Then, 200 yards farther and on the original shore, another.
"They (wing dams) absolutely have a purpose," said Martin. "Essentially, they channel water to the middle of the river in order to keep that channel clean."
But why would walleyes key in on something like a wing dam? "Walleyes like them," Martin began, "because they provide a current break, as well as a place for baitfish to congregate or be collected (due to the current).
"As for where on the wing dam itself, you're fishing the front. The upriver side. With the best part usually being the tip or the point farthest out in the river (back to) about halfway to shore. Sometimes, you'll find fish on the backside (downstream side) of the wing dam, especially if the water's high and really moving.
"If the current's heavy, those fish may be tight against the shore. For the most part, though, they're going to be at the front. And you're going to want to fish the dam from the bottom to top."
Martin was quick to add the notation that wing dams on the outside of a turn or bend typically fish better than those on the inside.
"The current pushes everything to the outside," he said. "Everything gets shoved up against that outside bend, baitfish included. If you're unfamiliar with the river, these outside dams are where you're going to want to start looking."
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ELECTRONICS AND BOAT CONTROL
As it is in many types of fishing, the use of quality electronics and precise boat control are essential to wing dam success.
"It's often best," Martin said, "to have a good partner who can help control the boat. And you want your transducer working on the front and the back of the boat. I have a switch, so I can change from my front transducer to the back. This way, I know for sure when I'm backing down on the structure."
As soon as his graph registers the upstream foot of the dam, the slope of the wing dam as it rises from the bottom, Martin sets his boat.
"I want to anchor slightly above the wing dam. Not even with it. Not below it. Just slightly above it. This way, the angler in the bow is fishing the foot of the wing dam up to the midsection. And the angler in the back is fishing the midsection to the top."
Back in the day, all that meant finding the foot of the dam, powering slightly upstream, and dropping the anchor so that the stern was just above the structure. That method, Martin said, still works. However, thanks to technology and a little thing called spot lock, it's gotten much easier.
Known also as an electronic anchor, spot lock uses the trolling motor's integral global positioning system to hold the boat precisely in the exact location as dictated by the user. The spot lock function knows when to speed up or slow down your trolling motor, said Martin.
"You won't be one foot out of place. It just stays right where you put it. Once you've 'anchored' with the spot lock, you can cast quartering the wing dam upstream, and use the current to work your presentation. A long cast to start, then a shorter one and a shorter one until you're casting right in front of the boat, with the jig or crankbait coming back alongside the gunwale. This way, you're covering the entire dam from the bottom to the top."
TACKLING TACKLE AND TECHNIQUE
Wing dams are made of rock, and rocks — big, small, or otherwise — are tough on tackle. That means not only that part of the walleye equation designed to fool the fish, the bait and/or artificial, but the handheld gear as well. The rod, reel, and perhaps especially, the line.
"You need equipment," Martin said decisively, "that's up to the task of getting you out of the bottom, when it happens, and back to fishing." Typically, the pro chooses a medium-heavy action baitcasting rod mated to a quality level-wind reel for much of his wing dam fishing.
"I use a 7-foot Fenwick Techna AV rod with an Abu Garcia level-wind," he said. "I like a lightweight reel; something I can hold onto all day. Something I can put in the palm of my hand and work it, and not feel like I've been to the gym all day long."
As for line, Martin is a fan of braid.
"I'm not afraid to run 10-pound FireLine directly to my jig," he said. "If I'm running a three-way jig rig, I'll run a 2-foot fluorocarbon leader from the three-way. But I want that 10-pound FireLine direct, so I can pull my jig or my crankbait out of the rocks. Often, it's just a matter of bending the hook back, sharpening it, rebaiting, and going back to fishing."
If it's traditional jigging he's doing, his line choice changes slightly.
"If I'm jigging, then I'm using 6-pound FireLine. I want to be able to get the lightest jig possible down, but also maintain good bottom contact. And Flame Green FireLine works for that.
"It's visible, and you want to see the hit before you feel it. Given the current, your line's going to have a slight bow in it. You'll see that line 'jump' when you have a hit. You can see the Flame Green, but it's not going to be a deterrent, even if you have it tied directly to the jig."
Martin's technical arsenal for wing dam walleyes is essentially as simple as are the structures themselves. First and foremost, crankbaits.
"Crankbaits are one of the fastest ways of fishing a wing dam," he said. "You can spot lock in front, with the back of the boat over the foot of the dam. Once you've determined how deep you're going to be working, then you can cast something like a Shad Rap or Flicker Shad toward shore.
"You want to 'climb' the incline of the dam, occasionally bouncing — 'thunking' — it off the bottom. It's going to attract attention. Work it thoroughly, then move toward shore, spot lock, and work the next area. You're working the dam in sections from the tip in, and from bottom to top."
Jigs and walleyes, like Martin and walleyes, have been synonymous terms for a long, long time. The pro uses two techniques when choosing jigs. The first, a traditional mainline-to-jig style, and the second, what he calls a jig rig. With the jig rig, the main line is secured to a three-way swivel. Twelve inches below that goes a traditional leadhead.
"You can use a GULP! or Power Bait plastic on the bottom jig," Martin said. "Weight? As light as the water depth and current will allow, but heavy enough to maintain contact with the bottom."
To the three-way swivel, then, is tied a 2-foot fluorocarbon leader. "This," Martin said, "finishes with your Tru-Turn hook or a floating jighead tipped with a crawler, minnow, leech, or willow cat."
The trick there, said the pro, lies in the retrieve.
"Cast, and hold that rod at the 10 o'clock position. Let it 'thunk' the bottom, pick up the rod, 'thunk' again, pick it up. In a lake situation, you'd be reeling instead of simply raising the rod.
"Here, you're letting the current do the reeling for you. A long cast first. Then shorter. Then shorter, with your final cast upstream from the bow of the boat, and then work the jig rig vertically alongside."
Seems simple enough, doesn't it? The truth of the matter is that walleyes, be they over wing dams in a small river or suspended in 22 feet of water in a huge lake, can be as simple to catch as farm pond bluegills. Some days, that is. Others, you would swear there's not a walleye within a million miles, when in fact they're just playing hard to get. And that's one of the many reasons anglers throughout country have fallen in love with these fish. You just never know what mood they're in until that rod doubles over and that reel begins screaming.