Rivers bring to mind nature at its fullest: the soothing sound of water meandering and flowing; birds dipping to take water or insects; fish surfacing for the latter.
For an angler, especially beginners, a river brings a lot more to the mind, mostly due to its current. In virtually all cases, a river’s current dictates a fish’s behavior, more so than any lake or pond.
Here, we will examine the influence of current on fish, how best to read the current in order to catch fish and what the current tells us about baits or lures.
Where to Find Fish in a River or Stream
Put Yourself in the Shoes—er, Fins—of a Fish!
Given that current envelopes a river fish, imagine what it must be like to constantly be swimming amidst a current, threatening to turn you around if you wish to head upstream and constantly moving micro-organisms (including some food) if not debris toward your face.
Then think of where you might most likely want to be in a river full of current. Like we humans, fish need rest from time to time.
They need to therefore dodge the current somehow. They also, like us, need food to give them strength in their literal stream of life.
What is the best way to make the current work in your stomach’s favor?
Depending on the size and water volume of a river, most of them consist of rapids or at least riffles—runs of water affected by boulders and stones just beneath the surface. These rapids and riffles feature tail-outs—the end of a swift run—and heads—the beginning of the rapid or riffle.
Rivers also feature drifts, usually a run of water that is relatively deep but definitely moving along. A pool is relatively deep as well, but almost still. The current in pools moves ever so slightly.
Some rivers feature waterfalls. These bring another dimension to fish behavior and your approach to fishing.
Let’s tackle each of these features in terms of fishing in them or around them.
Usually, rapids pose so many obstacles to a line, sinker and hook—not to mention fish themselves—that you best fish at the head or tail of a rapid.
Obviously, a rapid stirs up a lot of river bottom and jettisons small fish through it quite quickly. It also poses a formidable foe to fish traveling upstream.
Because it brings small food fish or other organisms that feed fish through it so quickly, the tail of a rapid can be a very strategic location for anglers tossing a minnow (if legal in your particular state’s regulations), a minnow imitation (spinners, spoons, or streamer flies) or even bait (e.g., grasshoppers, worms, eggs, grubs).
Fish at the head of a rapid, especially a long one, usually store up their energy and eat as much as they can before tackling their long, against-the-grain sojourn to their ultimate destination.
This also poses a strategic location for an angler because they are in a lair and likely still filling their bellies for the arduous stretch of river.
The one exception to avoiding the rapid itself when fishing revolves around protective harbors within the rapid, such as very large boulders or rocks that provide a pocket just in front of the obstacle.
Steelhead and salmon, especially, love to find these spots for rest because their journey upriver is a lot longer than most other fish and they just returned from the strong tides and related currents of the ocean. Look for these pockets of protection if you can actually access the rapid.
Riffles are more like wavy parts of the current. Think of the old commercial slogan, “Ruffles have ridges,” when trying to envision a riffle. Riffles occur in shallow stretches of a stream.
Like rapids, they move a fish’s feast along quite quickly, whether it be minnow or insect. The tail of a riffle therefore poses as a cafeteria for gamefish seeking a flush of food. If the tail forms a pool, you will often find a number of fish waiting in line for their grub.
A drift consists of moving water with depth. Fish facing upstream often look for depressions or a bottom boulder in a drift while it waits for food coming downstream.
Such structure near the bottom relieves the fish of the current. It saves its energy until food drifts along. It then pursues its food and returns to its lair.
For this reason, it is best to present your bait or lure along the bottom of the drift, unless you are dry-fly fishing.
Fish can move through drifts fairly freely, which allows them to move around for bait. If your are seeking migratory fish—i.e., salmon or steelhead—fish the edge of slots, a channel in the drift that acts as a trail or the most direct path upstream for anadromous fish.
More often than not, a hungry migratory fish will rest just at the edge of a slot to be close to any food fish or creatures that drift past. The gamefish can feast while staying close to its freeway upstream.
A pool situated just before or after a riffle or rapid usually offers better fishing than a pool with slow-running water at each end. Food is more likely to flow into a pool when current sends it into the deep, nearly still piece of water.
A pool allows the angler to bait fish more so than a swift section of water. Lighter line and gear is often required because of high visibility in a pool—glacial-fed streams being the exception.
Because fish can see better, the angler must also keep a low profile. Don’t cast shadows and try to blend with the background along the bank.
Keep in mind that the higher the sun rises, the more wary fish become in a pool. They try to move to more cover: drifts, riffles, depressions and bottom structure.
Smaller gamefish seeking surface-dwelling insects in a pool also pose easy pickings for raptors and similar birds when the sun illuminates the pool.
Natural waterfalls act as the end of the trail for fish traveling upstream. Upstream fish will often stack up below the falls because they can go no further. Waterfalls can also churn up or drop a lot of food that gamefish covet.
Therefore, fishing below a falls can often keep an angler’s rod busy. Minnows and small baitfish in general often stack up at the foot of a falls just like their bigger predators do.
River Fishing Tips
Current and bottom structure pose great risk to an angler’s gear. Always try to use tackle and weight that serve a path of least resistance.
In other words, if you need to fish the bottom, use a setup with just enough weight to bounce along the bottom rather than anchor in it. Some rigs, such as a pencil led pinched inside a rubber tube, will leave the lead in the snag—whether rock or sunken log—when tugged hard enough by the angler.
This way, you save your swivel, hook or lure and leader. You therefore spend more time fishing than re-rigging.
Also, some sinkers are shaped to avoid snags. Long, oval designs help, such as the ones that come with a rubber insert that keeps the line pinched inside the sinker’s slot.
Some bass lures include hook guards, a thick nylon or flexible plastic strip from the hook eye to the barb of the hook.
The Right Rig Saves Precious Angling Time
Because a river constantly moves, its inhabitants do the same. Any tricks you can pull out of your bag to keep you from continuously tying on new leaders, hooks or weights because of snags or stress, the more likely you will enjoy the natural splendor inherent to river fishing. Not the least being that part of nature that thrives and swims inside the river.