The Ultimate Guide to River Fishing
Let Fishing Expert Alex Johnson help you get ready for river fishing this season with this comprehensive guide. He covers gear, target species, access, and more!
There's nothing quite like walking along a wooded trail and being greeted by the calm sound of rushing water as you approach your river fishing spot. Often when people think of river fishing, they automatically assume it’s only suited for fly fishing, and while fly fishing is an excellent way to fish in a river, it’s by no means the end-all-be-all method.
Rivers large and small can produce some quality and surprising catches in a unique, beautiful, and challenging environment. It’s not for everybody, as river fishing can be intimidating, and there is a much steeper learning curve compared to stillwater fishing (ponds and lakes), but with a little knowledge and experience, it can be some of the most fun and best quality fishing available.
Some of my fondest memories on the water are from river fishing, even if the trip didn’t result in catching anything. In this guide, I will outline everything you need to know to get started fishing in rivers. Everything from gear, what you can expect to catch, where to fish, access, and river and flood levels will be covered so you can be ready for your next river outing!
What’s a River Anyway?
A river is a long, narrow body of moving water. The moving water, or current, occurs from water moving from a higher elevation to a lower elevation due to gravity. The water that accumulates in rivers mostly comes from things like rainfall and snowmelt runoff.
There are two main types of rivers: Principal and Tributary. Principal rivers flow for hundreds of miles through a landscape and end in the ocean. The Mississippi, Colorado, and Rio Grande rivers are prime examples of principal rivers within the U.S. Tributary rivers branch off from principal rivers and are often smaller in size both by length and width, but not always.
My home river, the Ohio, is technically a tributary of the Mississippi River, but it’s wider in most areas compared to the “Mighty Mississippi.” The same goes for the Missouri River, which is technically also a tributary of the Mississippi, but is in fact the longest river in North America.
The terms “river,” “stream,” and “creek” can more or less be used interchangeably. I think of rivers as anything big enough that you could float a kayak down, and for some reason, I don’t use the word “stream” unless it has trout in it, and I, therefore, refer to it as a “trout stream.” As for creeks, I reserve the term for very small and narrow channels and drainages that branch off from rivers. Creeks are great for finding your own live bait, such as crayfish.
Gear, Tackle, and Bait
Waders and Accessories
Before you head out to the river, you’ll need the proper gear to make the most out of your trip. First and perhaps most importantly, you’ll want proper footwear and clothing. Make sure you have a layering system if fishing in the colder months, and unless it’s summer, you may need a pair of waders if fishing on foot.
If it’s summertime or the water temperature is not too cold, make sure you have some good wading/water shoes or an old pair of sneakers. Because my river spots are usually pretty far from where I park my truck, I always bring a daypack so I can carry my fishing license, water, snacks, tackle, and other necessities. If fishing from a boat or kayak, you may need additional gear, such as safety gear and life jackets, so keep that in mind as well.
Rod and Reel Setup
As for rods and reels, you never know what you’ll encounter in a river, so I always bring two rods. First, I’ll have a lighter setup of a 6’6”-7’ medium-light or medium power spinning rod, 3000-size spinning reel, and 8-10lb fluorocarbon line. This setup is ideal for my favorite river target species, smallmouth bass, but is also well suited for other bass, pike, walleye, trout, pickerel, crappie, panfish, etc.
The other rod and reel setup I always bring on a river trip would be a heavier setup for catfish and carp if I feel inclined to chuck some bait to the bottom and use my lighter rod for bass while I wait for a big bite. I’d recommend a 6’6”-7’6” medium to heavy catfish spinning rod, a 5000-size spinning reel, and 50-65lb braid with the equivalent pound test in fluorocarbon or monofilament for leader material.
As far as tackle goes, I’d start with some basics like split shot sinkers, multi-purpose bait hooks, and swivels. For bottom fishing, no-roll sinkers are a necessity for fishing in areas with swift current, and I’d highly recommend circle hooks because of their ability to set themselves.
As far as which bait to use, there are no baits in particular that I would consider river specific, so using your favorite lake or pond bait can still be productive. Nightcrawlers work well for me, as well as hotdogs and corn (which usually produce a catfish or two and maybe a carp or drum on occasion).
Another thing that’s fun to do while river fishing is to catch your own bait. This is a great way to match exactly what the fish in your particular river prey upon, which is often referred to as “matching the hatch.” It’s predominantly a fly-fishing term, but it fits in this context as well. As far as actually acquiring your own bait on the spot, turning over some rocks in shallow water is a foolproof way to grab a few crayfish, which are excellent bass bait. If you have a cast or dip net, it's generally pretty easy to catch a few creek chubs or minnows.
For artificial lures, you can catch just about anything with a 3” twister tail grub and/or a Rapala husky jerk in colors suited to the water clarity you’ll be fishing in (dark or bright colors for muddy or stained water, natural colors for clear water). Some lures I’ve had great results with for river smallmouth that work well with other species are ned rigs, drop shot, tubes, swimbaits, flukes, and soft plastic worms. Small crayfish pattern crankbaits work well, too, and in-line spinners, such as rooster tails or mepps are exceptionally effective, especially for trout if present where you’ll be fishing. Topwater lures work well in rivers too, especially during the summer and late fall. A Whopper Plopper or hollow-body frog are great topwater lure choices.
As a general rule, the most important thing you can do when choosing artificial lures for river fishing is to downsize your lures. Whatever lures you like to use in stillwater, go down a couple of sizes, and I guarantee you will get more bites. I’m not entirely sure why this is true, but it has always been the case for me and is a fundamental rule among experienced river anglers.
As with lake fishing, the season will dictate which lures work best at certain times of the year. This is one of the many reasons why it’s important to get to know your fishing spots intimately. Trying different lures at different times of the year will allow you to be more effective on the water and help you catch more fish!
The next aspect of river fishing, and perhaps the most critical, is access. “Access” is the term outdoors folks use to define how they are able to legally access areas for fishing and other outdoor activities. Access is typically through private land via landowner permission, or public land through city or county parks, state land, or federal lands such as national forests and national parks.
Because rivers are miles-long, narrow bodies of water, they typically meander through public and private land. When picking your spots or your float plan, it’s important to understand where you’ll be accessing your spots in a legal manner. It may seem enticing to sneak on private land to fish a secluded hole, but no fish is worth getting arrested for trespassing.
If you’re fishing on foot, you may be limited to public-access points unless you acquire private-land permission. Depending on where you are, a public-access site could give you a large area of the river to explore or a very small one.
From my experience, for the most part, public-access fishing spots on rivers are fairly decent, especially if there is enough space to hike far from parking areas where fewer people will care to venture, but the fishing pressure can be high at times and limit your opportunity. Do some research and familiarize yourself with all the public-access possibilities on the river you want to fish. Search within an area you are willing to drive, and go to each one to figure out which spots are the most productive.
A great tool to give yourself more access and more river to explore is to float the river, be it on small boats, canoes, or kayaks. By floating a river you can cover a lot more water and it will give you access to stretches of a river you would otherwise have to get private landowner permission to fish on foot.
This is because in most states in the U.S., it’s perfectly legal to float on a navigable body of water that goes through private property. Some states, like Montana, are very generous with stream access where you can travel anywhere, including on foot, along a river in the state as long as you are within the high-water mark. On the other hand, in my home state of Ohio, you can float through private property, but if you get out to wade, set foot on land, or even anchor, you are effectively trespassing.
Make sure you know your state's stream-access laws, and more importantly, if you choose to float a river, be safe and always have a life jacket. Falling out of a boat or kayak on a still body of water is usually harmless, but on a river in swift current, it could get life-threatening very quickly.
Species to Target
One of my favorite aspects about river fishing is you never know what you might catch. Rivers can span hundreds of miles and host a myriad of different habitats and a variety of fish, and because of this, you never really know for sure what’s going to be at the other end of your line, which I think is really exciting.
I’ve gone out targeting smallmouth only to catch just about everything else, including a nearly ten-pound smallmouth buffalo sucker that for a moment I thought was a state-record smallmouth bass only to end in disappointment. Also, there are some species that will be more plentiful in rivers because they prefer river habitats, such as my favorite: the smallmouth bass. Other fish like brown trout, rainbow trout, salmon, and steelhead need a current to spawn, so at certain times of the year, you can be sure they will be roaming in a river.
What's more, certain fish, such as the cutthroat trout, are only present in a select number or rivers in the Rocky Mountain West. Another species that is naturally present in most rivers is a flathead, or shovelhead, catfish. These catfish are massive apex predators and thrive in river habitats. If you want to go after some really big river fish, flatheads are the way to go, just hold on tight!
Where to Fish
I think the hardest part about fishing rivers is figuring out where exactly to fish and focus your efforts, which is why I believe people are intimidated by it. If you’re used to fishing stillwater, factoring in current and how fish interact with it can be daunting. Ironically, once you have some experience and start figuring out good habitat to look for on a river, it makes river fishing less complicated than stillwater fishing, in my opinion.
The more confined areas of a river allow you to read water in a way you wouldn't be able to do on a lake unless you are experienced with using high-tech electronics. Reading water is something that I think every angler should always strive to get better at, and you can’t buy it; it simply comes with experience. It’s an intuitive process that is difficult to teach or explain, but the best way I can is to be the fish. I know it sounds silly and corny, but it’s the best way I can explain it.
Look at the current, where it flows, where the water gets darker signifying deeper water, where it’s clearer or muddier, and how the water flows around rocks and other structures. Note where aquatic vegetation is and where the water is really fast but suddenly slows down, and note where you see smaller fish and where you see insects landing on the water. Now, imagine you are a fish. Where would you hide from your predators? (There’s always a bigger fish!) Where would you ambush your prey? Where would you go to get shade? Where would you go to get a break from the strong current?
My soon-to-be father-in-law told me that the old-timer trout anglers where he grew up in Pennsylvania would always stop to eat a sandwich when they got to their spot before they started fishing. They would do this to give the fish a chance to come back if the angler’s shadow or the sound of their footsteps had spooked the fish, but also to read the water and plan out and ponder where to place their first and most critical cast on the small stream.
These are all things to think about when trying to figure out where to fish in a river, and taking a slow and calculated approach is often the best method. Now that we have covered some metaphysical thoughts on how to catch fish, let's go over some more concrete ways to find quality river fishing habitats. First, for the most part, you’ll want to be in an area that has some sort of current. If you’re in an area of a river that is very calm with little current, fish will be few and far between. The only fish I’ve found in these areas are catfish and carp, but only sparingly.
Fish crave habitat diversity and transition areas. The best areas to guarantee this are whitewater/high current areas such as rapids, other creek or river confluences, and spillway dams, which will also create a high oxygen environment where smaller fish will congregate and as a result attract bigger fish. These whitewater areas will also create slower moving areas adjacent to fast-moving water called eddies. Eddies are excellent spots to start because there are almost always fish hanging out in the slow water to get a break from the current and ambush their prey.
“Foam is home” is a common saying to find river fish because where you see foam accumulating (due to the excess oxygen created by fast-moving water) will be where you’ll find fish. Other productive river spots are dams because they create a diversity of water flow and high oxygen, and also serve as an abrupt stopping point for fish traveling along a river. This is especially true for migratory fish, such as salmon and steelhead, which you can almost guarantee will be in high numbers at a dam along their spawning route during certain times of the year.
Dams take many forms depending on where you are and how big the river is. Some will be small spillways, or even remnants of old washed-out dams that create slackwater, while others will be massive structures with complicated locks and discharge systems. In addition to dams, much like stillwater fishing, any structure you can find will hold a fish or two. Rocky areas and cut banks, downed trees and log jams, and aquatic vegetation are areas you will encounter on most rivers and where you will want to do your due diligence.
River Flood Stages
Along with finding the right spot, it’s important to understand how precipitation affects rivers and their flood stages. Some rivers are less affected by precipitation because they have dams that control their flood stage, while others that have few or no dams will very much be affected by precipitation. Depending on the flood stage, fishing will be more or less fruitful, and it depends on the particular river and species you’re targeting.
If there is a dry spell and a river is very low and clear, it can be difficult to get close enough to cast without spooking fish, while also making it difficult to float without frequent portaging. On the other hand, during a rainy season such as the early spring, rivers that are at a very high and muddy flood stage can be near impossible to catch anything in because the fish are too spread out and the water is too turbid. This is often referred to as a river being “blown out,” which usually means it’s best to go to a lake or simply stay home because a river trip would guarantee coming home empty-handed.
The best way to figure out the best times and flood stages is by astute observation on how good the fishing was depending on the river level. For me, as long as my local rivers are relatively calm and clear, the smallmouth fishing is great, but as soon as some rain comes through and muds things up, the bite more or less turns off. However, the opposite is true for catfish and I find they bite better when the river level is slightly higher and muddy, but not blown out.
Besides actually visiting a river, the best way to know a river’s flood stage is through the United States Geological Survey’s website. The USGS provides flood-stage data for most rivers in the U.S. so you can save a trip and know if it’s worthwhile and safe to head out to the river. However, at first, you’ll have to compare the data with real in-person observation of the river level, otherwise, the graphs and numbers will have no meaning to you. Once you have some experience with what the river level data translates to your local rivers, you’ll be able to know what the river looks like without having to leave the couch, saving you a drive, or knowing how to coordinate your weekend plans.
I hope this guide to river fishing will give you the tools you need and encourage you to head out to your local river and be successful! Fishing in rivers will provide you with unique challenges, opportunities, and beautiful scenery, not to mention you can catch some pretty awesome fish. I started out fishing rivers as a young angler and it’s made me into the angler I am today. River fishing is where I started fishing on my own without the help of adults and is likely what I will end up doing as a much older man even after owning a boat, kayaks, and traveling all over the country fishing in all types of places.
Don’t wait to start your adventure, and if you have any questions or want gear advice, reach out to a Fishing Expert here on Curated for free, personalized advice and recommendations.