It has been said that there are three kinds of liars: liars, damn liars and fisherman. I would submit that there is a fourth: dam fisherman.
This topic came to mind yesterday at the Ford Indianapolis Boat, Sport and Travel Show when I was talking to someone about the tailwater fishery that will soon be heating up. If you weren’t aware, walleye and sauger, the equally-tasty half-pint cousin of the walleye, start stacking like cordwood against the downstream face of many Hoosier dams during the next few months.
Starting in late February and on into the spawning period around the first week of April, this early-season stretch is prime time for shoreline anglers to catch these tasty fish.
However, for the novice, tailwater fishing isn’t as straightforward as spending a day pitching lures for bass or trolling for salmon. There are certain unwritten rules to follow, common customs to understand and plenty of opportunity for missteps, both of the literal and figurative kind.
Therefore, now that my left leg is healed and the nasty case of lockjaw from last season has finally cleared up, I will share a few lessons on tailwater fishing from a veteran (meaning: permanently disfigured) dam fishing expert.
The most important rule about dam fishing is to have an adequate trash supply. Seasoned dam anglers save all their discarded household items for months ahead of time in order to make sure they have a couple of full sacks of garbage upon arrival at the fishing site.
We’re not sure why this is so important to tailwater fishermen but it obviously is, so make sure you bring plenty of broken bottles, rusty cans, food wrappers and old clothing to spread around the area. It is sometimes sad to see a rookie self-consciously throwing away his bait container, tacklebox and even shoes in order to fit in with the crowd.
Selection of line is important, with bigger being better. If you weren’t aware, every dam in the country has a catfish living in the deep water below the gates that is so big a commercial diver swam into its mouth and the diver vowed never to go near the water again. At least that is what I have been told at every dam I have ever visited across the country, which is why you see many anglers using line that was purchased at a water skiing shop.
If you don’t have heavy line, don’t worry. There is always plenty lying around underfoot and in the river, left there the magic line fairy for the benefit of all anglers. If you can’t find a suitable hank of line just look around for a baby duckling because there is usually one thrashing around that has managed to entangle itself in a tumbleweed-sized ball of monofilament.
Terminal tackle for dam fishing is highly specialized. Forget those expensive store-bought sinkers in their fancy packages because old wheel weights and spark plugs are the hottest gear for weighting hooks at the dam. Having a handful of either will make you appear like an old hand and also demonstrates your commitment to recycling.
Rocks are the source of the biggest annoyance for dam fisherman: chronic compound fractures. Nearly all dams are strewn with large quantities of erosion control riprap that is made from fist-sized limestone rocks that roll when walked upon, eventually resulting in a severely sprained ankle. However the smaller stones and piffling tendon damage aren’t the problem; sometimes you have to deal with The Big Rocks.
Large riprap ranges in size from bowling balls to car engines and each is specially engineered for specific roles. The biggest ones are used to anchor the smaller while the purpose of the basket-sized rocks is to shift slightly when walked upon.
The trick is that the majority of smaller stones are firmly anchored in place. Malevolent civil engineers use this ruse to gain your misplaced trust until the moment when you blithely step on the one small chunk that will spring the trap.
This will cause a spectacular fall that pitches the angler onto the knife edge of one of the huge blocks, resulting in that cheery shout often heard below dams: “Hello traction splint!” You might also receive a nice Get Well card from the American Riprap Manufacturers Association, a subsidiary of the National Orthopedic Surgeon’s Fellowship.
During the landing, try to avoid all that sharp-edged rubbish we mentioned earlier. An up-to-date tetanus shot is a good idea, though most anglers choose to forget.
Actually, we’ll stop here. After writing all this, I’ve now realized that the aggravation, lost tackle and broken kneecaps simply aren’t worth the effort. I thereby publicly resign my tailwater angling commission to take up golf instead.
Note from the editor: Don’t believe that last statement. He is, after all, a dam fisherman.