11 Effective River Fishing Tips and Techniques
This article on 11 effective river fishing tips and techniques will help anglers catch more fish. Rivers are similar to lakes. However, the current flow and fluctuating water levels do make fishing rivers a bit different. Therefore, rivers require a few different techniques and tactics in order to be successful. This article is mostly geared toward smaller rivers, but the tips apply to larger rivers as well.
Rivers offer anglers some excellent fishing opportunities. River fishing is often a quiet, serene experience. Smaller rivers are often best fished with kayaks and canoes. Shallow water and rocks make outboard motors impractical. Larger rivers are best fished with small aluminum fishing boats. The primary species include trout, largemouth and smallmouth bass, pike, walleye, musky, catfish, salmon, perch, sturgeon, and more!
Many of the same fishing techniques, baits, and lures that produce in lakes and ponds will also do well in rivers. The main difference is understanding the species being sought and the spots where they will hold. Also, river conditions constantly change. Successful anglers adapt to these changes.
11 effective river fishing tips and techniques
Capt Jim Klopfer has been a fishing guide in Sarasota, Florida. He fishes rivers often on his charters. Capt Jim grew up in Maryland, fishing the Potomac and many other tributaries of Chesapeake Bay. He shares his experiences of river fishing for over 50 years.
The 11 effective river fishing tips and techniques are;
Understanding current river conditions is crucial to fishing success
Match the tackle to species and river conditions
Outside bends are prime river fishing spots
River fish prefer edges
Safety first when river fishing
Lures and baits should be worked across the current
Wading anglers should move upstream
Smaller lures are more productive when river fishing
Tailwaters are excellent places to fish
Different species will hold in different locations
Do not overlook small rivers
1) Understanding current river conditions is crucial to river fishing success
River conditions change constantly. A rain shower many miles away may have the river high, dirty, and fast a few days later in another location. These changing conditions will affect fish locations and behavior. There are a few rules that apply to most river fishing situations. Understanding these conditions is first on the list of 11 effective river fishing tips and techniques.
When the water is low and clear, fish will be found in the deeper sections of rivers. These spots will be the coolest while offering safety from predators. Small lures and light lines will usually be needed. Conversely, when the water is high, fast, and dirty, fish will try and find seams out of the main current. This is often a poor, and even dangerous, time to fish. Maybe best to fish elsewhere under these conditions.
2) Match the tackle to species and river conditions
Many anglers make the mistake of fishing with tackle that is too heavy, especially in smaller rivers. River fish are often of modest size. They also live in clear, shallow water. In most cases, light or even ultralight tackle will drastically increase success. A 6′ to 7′ fast action rod with 1000 series reel is a good choice. Capt Jim likes 4 lb monofilament line in most cases.
Click to shop Amazon for KastKing spinning rod and reel combos
“Fishing Lido Key is a participant in the Amazon Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.”
Obviously, anglers fishing large, fast rivers for big fish will need to beef up the tackle. Large catfish in big rivers will need a heavy spinning or medium conventional outfit to handle a large fish in current. The same applies to salmon and other big fish in larger rivers. However, anglers should use the lightest tackle that will get the job done.
3) Outside bends are prime river fishing spots
If there is one consistent in river fishing, it is that outside bends are often the best spots. It is third on the list of 11 effective river fishing tips and techniques. The current will gouge out a deep hole, often creating an undercut bank. Also, these areas often collect debris and other fish-holding cover. This is especially true when water levels are down and fish congregate in the deeper areas.
Anchoring up-current and floating a bait back to the cover is an effective presentation. Anglers who prefer to fish with lures will do well with a jig and soft plastic body. Snags will occur, it is part of the game. Concentrating on these high percentage spots will pay off. Rivers that wind will have more of these spots than rivers with long, straight stretches.
4) River fish prefer edges
River fish will often be found on “edges”. These can be current breaks, rocky ledges, eddies behind rocks and fallen trees, water color changes, and steep drop offs. Since current is the main factor in river fishing, predator fish will hold on these edges as they ambush prey. Any change or piece of structure that offers fish a chance to feed while expending as little energy as possible may hold fish.
5) Safety first when river fishing
Safety first is next on the list of 11 river fishing tips. Rivers can be dangerous! Water levels can increase drastically, especially on tailwater rivers where dame can open. The same applies to heavy rains up-river, the water can rise surprisingly quickly. Anglers in boats need to be very careful when running and anchoring in fast current. Wading anglers need to be very careful as well. Wearing a PFD is a good idea in larger rivers.
6) Lures and baits should be worked across the current
Read this article by Capt Jim on spinner fishing in streams and rivers
In most cases, anglers fishing artificial lures (and flies) will do best by casting straight across the river and work it back in as it moves downstream. Takes often occur as the line gets tight and “swings” with the current. This is a very effective presentation. Spinners and spoons are particularly effective taking this approach. A slow, steady retrieve is usually best.
7) Wading anglers should move upstream
Anglers wading in rivers, particularly smaller rivers, should move upstream as they fish. Normal walking in the water will stir up the bottom, causing this churned up water to move downstream. It is better to wade and fish in the cleaner water upstream. Also, most often, fish are facing into the current, especially trout. Wading upstream is not only more stealthy, it results in a better presentation.
8) Smaller lures are better for river fishing
Read more about the best lures for rivers in the article by Capt JIm
In most cases, anglers river fishing will do best with tackle that is on the lighter side. This applies to lures as well. The same lures that produce bass and other species will do fine in rivers, but in scaled-down versions. 1/8 ounce jigs, spoons, and spinners are a good all round size. Plugs around 3” are effective as well. These lighter lures will hang up less often as well.
9) Tailwaters are excellent places to fish
Tailwaters are perhaps the best river fishing spots anywhere! A tailwater in the section of river below a dam. The dam controls the flow and often the temperature of the water. By controlling these factors, the conditions can be kept as optimum as possible. This is especially true for trout, which are fussier when it comes to conditions. Some of the best trout fisheries in the country are tailwaters. However, other species including catfish, striped bass, smallmouth bass, and more will be found in these areas.
10) Different species will hold in different river locations
Another river fishing tip that Capt Jim can share is that different species will hold in different river locations. This is important to understand, depending on the quarry. Trout species will be found in the faster moving water in riffles and at the heads and tails of pools. Smallmouth bass like a little current, but not as much as trout. Catfish will usually prefer the deeper, slower moving pools.
11) Do not overlook small rivers
Anglers often overlook smaller rivers. It is last on the list of 11 effective river fishing tips and techniques. Smaller rivers usually get less fishing pressure, are safer to fish, can be easily accessed, and fish are easier to locate. They fish can be smaller, but the occasional lunker can certainly be found. Light tackle is best. Floating a small river in a canoe or kayak is very relaxing as well.
Fishing Wisconsin and Virginia rivers
Two articles are posted below are on fishing the Wisconsin River and rivers in Virginia. While they are about those particular rivers, the seasons, techniques, tackle, and baits will apply to other mid-west and southern rivers.
Fishing the Wisconsin River
Abby Heistad is our local expert for the Wisconsin River. She is 24 years old, the owner of Heistad Communications, Content Writer and Marketing Consultant. She grew up in the small town of White Lake, Wisconsin located in the Northeastern portion of WI. After graduating high school life’s path lead her to Stevens Point for college where she pursued a degree in interpersonal/organizational communications.
Abby was born and raised in the countryside, enjoying the outdoors with her true passion coming from shooting archery and hunting with it evolving into a huge passion for fishing and water recreation. A large part of her goal as an outdoors woman, is to spread the word of conservation and maintaining the exquisite outdoor environment we are able to enjoy.
Follow Abby on Instagram
“I’ve been living in the Stevens Point, WI area for the past 5 ½ years. The Wisconsin River is about 2 miles down the road from where I reside. I’ve only been a serious freshwater fishing lady for the past 7 years. Before getting into fishing seriously, I wasn’t a fan of catching, cleaning or eating wild caught fish.
Wisconsin River fishing tips
“That changed completely when I was introduced to river fishing. The first fish I caught by accident was a sturgeon and then lead onto catching a Muskie, catfish, bass and more. Since first starting, I’ve become accustomed to fishing for bass and Muskie. Fishing for bass can lead to a variety of fish nipping at your line in the river.
“River fishing is unique in the fact that the water levels, temperature and ecosystem are ever-changing. There are many times I am unable to get out due to high or fast-moving water. I push it to the limits with water speed and depth, but I am not overly risky as the river is extremely rocky and easy to lose good footing in.
Water level is crucial to river fishing success
“Water level is crucial when it comes to river fishing. High, fast, and dirty water will push the fish out of the main river and into protected spots where the water is slower and cleaner. Not only can these conditions be dangerous, fishing can be difficult. Conversely, low water will concentrate fish into the deeper stretches of the river.
“Understanding the river level, current, and clarity is very important when fishing rivers, and the Wisconsin River is no exception. Add to that the fact that different species are affected differently, and you can see how dynamic river fishing is! River fishing is both challenging and rewarding, that is why I enjoy it so much!
Click on the title link to read Capt Jim’s E-book Fishing for Crappie, Bluegill, and Panfish
“My experiences on the river have led me to grow a passion for the trial and error experienced day-to-day. With so many variants, I find myself encouraged to embrace trying different lures and techniques. Among the fun of river fishing, I’ve added in fly fishing in the past 2 years to my swatch of skills.
Wisconsin River fishing strategies
“Much of the time spent in the river is from shore and wading but occasionally I can be found in a kayak or boat. The Wisconsin River begins at Lac Vieux Desert at the northern border of Wisconsin, however I’ve only fished the stretch from Merrill all the way down to Nekoosa. The span of roughly 80 miles has allowed me to see various new territory and experience many different sections of the water with a variety of fish.
“Tackle for fishing the Wisconsin River is pretty basic. Light spinning tackle is the best choice and is quite versatile. I like a 7-foot rod, 2500 series Piscifun reel spooled up with 10-pound test braid line for targeting most river species. That outfit is fine for casting light lures for bass and most other species.
“When musky are my quarry, I bump up the tackle significantly. These are big fish that take large lures. A 7-foot medium heavy rod, 7.1:1 baitcasting reel and 30-pound braided line get the job done.
“Artificial lures allow me to cover a lot of water in search of fish. Lures are versatile and a lot of fun to fish. Anglers do need to adapt to the ever-changing conditions. I will run through the seasons as far as lures that I like and conditions throughout the year.”
Fishing the Wisconsin River in spring
Anglers will often find the water high and muddy in spring. Melting snow and spring rains will raise the river high. These are tough conditions and care is required when wading or boating. As the water drops and clears, fishing will improve.
My favorite lures for spring fishing are as follows; Livingston Lures Dive Master Jr in Chartreuse Sunrise Shad and the Rapala Husky Jerk in Helsinki Shad.
The best spots to target river fish in spring are below dams, spillways, and in backwater slews as spawning is taking effect as the temps rise. Finding slack water can be key if the river is moving fast.
Fishing the Wisconsin River in summer
River conditions will be mellow as the spring rush subsides, however, high levels of rainfall effect the water as bad as springtime melt-off, so be aware of the river.
My favorite lures for summer fishing are as follows; YUM Dinger 4” Senko in Green Pumpkin Neon, Bomber Square A in Foxy Shad, and the Live Target Frog Popper.
The best spots to target river fish in summer are variant with water temperature. As the water heats up, moving outward from the banks provides a better shot at landing larger fish. Also, depending on rainfall, if the water is low, it is warmer in shallow areas, not ideal for bass fishing so stick to the deeper parts of the river.
Fishing the Wisconsin River in fall
Fall anglers will find falling water temperatures and lower water levels. The best approach will be to hit the areas of moving water, not slack, more. The fish get aggressive as they are trying to pack on the pounds for the colder months of the year. Utilizing larger lures are key to catching larger fish. I do, however, still catch quite a few large fish on smaller baits.
The best spots to target river fish in fall are in moving areas of water, not so much slack water as mentioned earlier. Pockets behind large boulders, rocks etc. are great for finding fish stacked up on occasion.
One thing I really enjoy about casting these lures for bass is that just about every species in the river can be taken on these versatile lures. That is the main reason that I do not go too large when it comes to lure selection.
While I prefer lures, live bait can be very productive. Anglers who prefer a more relaxed approach will do well drifting live baits in the river. The best all-round bait is the nightcrawler. They are readily available at most tackle shops. They catch just about every fish that swims. Leeches are also effective baits.
Wisconsin River species
Anglers fishing the Wisconsin River can target several species of fish. Largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, musky, northern pike, walleye, catfish, and other species can be taken. Wisconsin fishing regulations can be found HERE.
Small Mouth bass
Aggressive fish with incredible colors ranging from deep browns to vibrant greens with incredible stripe/spotted markings and ruby red eyes. My ALL-TIME favorite fish to go after on the river as they take great finesse in landing with their ability dart and throw a good fight in the water.
Largemouth bass are not as plentiful in the Wisconsin River as it is in local lakes. They do not like the current as much as smallies do. They are found in the more sluggish back-waters and will take a variety of lures and baits.
This species is fished for a ton in the Wisconsin River because of their high quality flakey white flesh when cooked. One of my least favorite to catch, but I catch a ton of, I find them to not throw as much of a fight as other fish in the river. Sometimes coming across as feeling like you’ve snagged a stick or line in the water.
When they get aggressive in the summer months, catfish will go after any type of lure and put up a big fight! I’ve caught many channel cats and they are feisty. Not my favorite eater, but they are delicious deep fried!
My second favorite fish to land! Impressive, toothy, fighters, the muskie is known for their length, overall size and elusiveness. Many say they are the fish of 10,000 casts, but if targeted at the right times of the year, they can easier to land. River muskies are built and respond differently to techniques used for lake fishing making it a bit tougher.
Similar to the muskie, pike are known for their aggressiveness. I find the pike to be a fun fish to fight also as they don’t give up easily. Finesse is needed in landing both pike and muskie due to their sharp teeth and power to snap lines.”
Virginia River Fishing tips and techniques
Virginia is blessed with several large rivers and countless smaller ones. The James River, Rappahanock River, and Potomac River all flow northwest to southeast, eventually flowing into Chesapeake Bay. All are diverse fisheries that start off as streams offering good freshwater fishing for smallmouth bass and other species. They slow and widen, becoming excellent catfish spots. Finally, they become brackish and salty as the dump into Chesapeake Bay and have good fishing for Striped bass.
These larger rivers are very similar and have three distinct sections. The upper rivers are really streams, even having trout in the very upper reaches of them. However, smallmouth bass are the most targeted species in the upper stretches. Anglers use light spinning tackle to cast small lures and live bait. Top artificial lures include spinners, jigs, plugs, spoons, and soft plastics.
Virginia river fishing tips
Anglers Virginia river fishing will find the middle portions of these rivers slowing down and widening. Catfish and largemouth bass are the prime targets. Large catfish including flathead and blue catfish are now prominent in Virginia rivers. This is a controversial subject, but it looks like they are there to stay. Anglers use heavier tackle for large catfish and usually choose fresh, cut bait. Carp are often caught as well.
Largemouth bass and striped bass are plentiful in these stretches as well. Medium spinning and baitcasting tackle is most often used. Top lures include soft plastic baits, shad tails on jig heads, and plugs. Channel edges, flats, points, and bridges are all good spots to try for all of the species targeted in the middle portions of Virginia rivers.
The final third of these rivers become open waters that hold more saltwater fish. The striped bass is king, but white perch, flounder, bluefish, catfish, and other species will be caught as well. This is “big water” and anglers need to put safety first. Trolling is an excellent method to use to locate fish in these larger areas.
Most anglers opt for light spinning tackle when fishing the up-river sections of these rivers where smallmouth bass are the main targets. A 6′ spinning rod with matching reel and 6 lb monofilament line is a good combination. Anglers fishing down river for larger species such as catfish, largemouth and stripers will bump the tackle up to a 7′ rod, 3000 series reel, and 12 pound monofilament or 20 lb braided line.
Virginia river fishing tips and techniques from local expert Brandy
Brandy Brisson is our Fishing Ladies Virginia river fishing expert. She has a true passion for Virginia river fishing and is sharing some tips with other anglers.
“My name is Brandy Brisson and I was born and raised in a royal area in Central Virginia. As a child instead of spending free time in front of a screen my parents encouraged me to spend time Outdoors. My dad and I would fish local ponds and rivers bringing home most of what we caught for dinner. I was taught it’s important to care for yourself and to use any natural resource possible.
“As I Grew Older and got my first job at Bass Pro Shops, I was able to buy my first kayak! It was a rickety piece of junk I picked up for a hundred bucks,but it floated! Ever since then I’ve been hooked on kayak fishing. I have four kayaks now and have fished almost every Virginia River.
Virginia river fishing in kayaks
“Kayaking gives you a huge advantage when river fishing. Getting in to areas were boats can’t and being super stealthy always helps. I had to build up my skill level to get through Rapids and narrow passageways to even get to the fish. Most Virginia rivers have excellent public put in and take out access points. It’s important for me to map out exactly where I’ll be floating and be aware of any obstructions. I’ll also check the weather frequently while out there. Better safe than sorry!
“Heavy rainfall and other weather conditions can really affect river fishing. Using more natural color baits in clear water and brighter bolder baits in murky is key. Also fishing in tighter structure when water levels are high helps. My favorite go-to bait for any situation is a Senko, you can work it at any speed or depth year round with results. Smallmouth love them!
“The James River is an excellent diverse Fishery with a lot to offer. It’s one of my favorite places to catfish and for very good reason; flathead catfish! Anglers come from all over to fish the Rapids and catch these huge beasts! They love to lay in only a few feet of water and search for live bait during the summer. Finding a good rock in the middle of the river and floating Bait fish in and out of eddies is sure to get em!
Virginia river fishing options
“Citation small and Largemouth are caught in this area too. Surely summertime brings many exciting opportunities to kayak anglers, but what do we do during winter? Winter kayak fishing is almost a completely different sport. Fishing slow and following migratory species is what I do. Striped bass begin to come up River in November and can be caught in brackish water up until early January. Dressing in warm light waterproof gear, having personal flotation devices on board and packing gear right is very important.
“The Potomac is one of my favorite fall places for stripers. Finding the channel and jigging pilings with bright colored buck tails works! When I paddle out into Open Water I’m sure to check the wind and tides. A super choppy day with high wind gust can make for an exhausting day.
“Early spring also brings in a saltwater migratory species we know as shad! They spawn in April and travel from the ocean all the way above the fall line just to lay their eggs and die. American and Hickory shad both put up a tremendous fight on light tackle and can be caught by jigging small spoons or grubs. Every year I get excited about their arrival knowing I can catch fish in cold weather and have catfish bait!”
Top 3 Virginia Rivers
The Potomac River marks the Virginia border from Harper’s Ferry (where the Shenandoah River meets the Potomac) down to Chesapeake Bay. The area around Washington D.C. Offers excellent fishing for largemouth bass and channel catfish. The river turns pretty much salt at the Potomac River Bridge near Colonial Beach.
The Rappahannock River is roughly 180 miles ling and mirrors the Potomac river in direction. It changes in character in Fredericksburg, changing from swift flowing stream to slower moving river. The Route 1 Bridge is the “fall line”, where the river becomes tidally influenced. Like most rivers, smallies are king in the upper section, while bass and catfish dominate below.
Many Virginia anglers consider the James River to offer the best fishing in the state. This 350 mile long river is extremely diverse, holding an incredible variety of freshwater and saltwater species. The James River changes in personality at Richmond. The upper James River offers excellent smallmouth bass fishing. HERE is a great link with information on the Upper and Middle James River.
The tidal river from Richmond to Norfolk offers excellent fishing for blue catfish, striped bass, and largemouth bass. The open area near the mouth has saltwater species such as croaker, flounder, bluefish, and more.
In conclusion, this article on 11 effective fishing tips and techniques should help anglers be more successful when fishing rivers and streams.