River Fishing/Printable version

River Fishing

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Recreational fishing might be one of the most popular widely intensively studied learning experiences that Americans (and indeed many other nationalities) participate in. According to the American Sportfishing Association nearly 40 million angler generate 45 billion dollars in sales with perhaps an total contribution of 125 billion dollars to the US economy.

A definite portion of this is funneled into guides, magazines, and other learning experiences for the many Americans that seek improvement in the activity of catching a fish on a hook (angling.)

It is then with pleasure that I begin the process of defining one of my most intensive learning effort. I look forward to and hope for collaboration from the many Americans whom have superior knowledge in the recreational activity.

Fishing has so many different forms, waters and specialties. Many I am unfamiliar with. I do though have some knowledge and experience angling for many different kinds of fish in Eastern (US) rivers. Despite the apparent ease of not needing expansive water craft, or the complexities of fly casting and downrigger trolling; river fishing has its own mystique and difficulty. I hope to document some of what I have learned.

If there is any urgent needs for this project, it is definitely for experience in larger waters. Having defined a river, as 'big enough to support a diverse gamefish population', my experiences definitely are with smaller waters than the major rivers of the United States.

Thank you for your curiosity and invite you to ask questions and post comments, questions and content as much as you are able.



A river is a large stream that has sufficient seasonal flow and moderate enough temperature to support a diverse gamefish population. In the Eastern United states this diverse game fish population assumes a hierarchy; with game fish feeding on a wide variety of the invertebrate and vertebrate life of the ecosystem. Therefore when we approach a river we must understand the different habitats that a river supports, understand how bait fish use these habitats and how different fish feed in them. This book will offer practical tips on how to approach a new stream, and techniques that appeal to several different kinds of fishing.

Throughout the entire book, the emphasis is on how to catch many Different kinds of fish and it is not meant as an indepth guide to any one species.

A Plan edit

One of the first steps towards more successful fishing trips is to go with a plan. The fishermen should



Before any plans can be made, you need to understand the basic conditions at the riverside. There is much more change in river conditions than in lakes and both bait fish and game fish will adapt to temporary conditions.

Water level edit

Perhaps the biggest single factor in the River fishing is River water level and the amount of its change. In the United States this information is easily obtained for hundreds of large to midsized rivers. A good source is the usgs.gov website.

Generally rising waters sends fish into the shallows where they will feed on new food at the waters edge. Falling waters create the opposite effect and rapidly falling water can cause difficult conditions. Many fishermen prefer stable conditions where game fish are more easily patterned. However with patience, persistence, and good notes fishermen can improve their catch dramatically by being knowledgeable about what to do in changing fishing.

Water Temperature edit

Water Temperatures in a river do not dramatically change. Rather water temperature should be considered a seasonal effect, with a winter minimum building to a summer maximum. There are two powerful effects to water temperature

  • Springs are nearly 50°F year-round. Thus, smaller waters do not vary nearly as much. A small spring feed trout stream in the North will only vary from perhaps 40°F to 70°F; while a major navigable river might vary from 33°F to 100°F.
  • All waterways follow a seasonal pattern of warmth in the late summer and coldness in the early spring. Rivers in particular are similar in temperature versus depth (except for perhaps in the largest rivers). This obvious fact, creates a very different outlook to temperature than in reservoir or lake fishing. In lakes, water tends to creates layers; that can concentrate fish at a certain depth. Lacking this, we find the fish much more spread out in the water column; Thus we should be much more openminded about varying the depths of our presentation.



We can better understand where to fish by examining the different areas within a river. These areas are created by the current eroding the valley floor. Because these are features are characteristics of the water flow in a river we call these hydrological features.

General hydrological features edit

First we begin with a River that is spreading out onto a shallow section, called a flat. Past floods has created a bed of sand and the rivers spreads widely over the sandy bottom. At some point, the gradient (the fall of the river valley over distance), forces the water to cut into that downstream section of the sand bed. As sand is washed away the river flows through the gravel forming a riffle. The downward motion of the river gives the river greater eroding power and downstream of this current is bent into a focused powerful flow against a group of large boulders, forming a rapid. The river now flows hard into the left bank creating a hole of maximal depth called a pool. Having eroded the left bank, the water has lost much of its energy and will deposit some of the eroded material in a long tail of light current. This is sometimes called a run. Often this progression will repeat itself with the tail of run, spreading out into a shallow flat.

We can understand fishing In a river better when we consider what kinds of habitat each of these areas offers.

Flat edit

The flat offers a habitat best suited to invertebrates that flourish in a silty to muddy bottom. With minimal current and a minimum depth, small invertebrates dominate the ecology. These kinds of animals often burrow in the mud, or offer flat profiles as to avoid being swept into deeper water. Occasionally small fish and crawfish will make forays into these areas but exposure to the thin water can be dangerous; birds patrol the shallow flats. Bigger waters offer deeper flats (which encourage greater use by the minnows) but even in these habitats the lack of hiding places limits the population of animals utilizing this habitat. Game fish are rarely successfully targeted on flats. Here there ability to detect the fishermen is greatest. Also there is normally a lack of cover and current that makes it more difficult to target likely places.

Riffle edit

Once the gradient has picked up water velocity and starts to erode the silt and sand. The river falls into a riffle. As both oxygenation and current increase, Vertebrates such as small fish and fry utilize small resting places in the rubble. Getting around can be tough (For a small fish), but frequently food is near a maximum between the nymphs that live in the rubble and others drifting in the current. Fishing is problematic in riffles as well. Many game fish only make short forays into riffles, and the insect life is insufficient calories for the effort a predator would need to hunt in them.

Rapids edit

If gradient is sufficient and the river narrows, the river may fall into bouts of large turbulent flow over boulders and other large sections of bedrock. Rapids offer few homes to small invertebrates. They also usually are a less hospitable home to small minnows, with turbulent deep currents. They do make good homes however for the several large groups of fish. Those fish that feed on drifting insects will take position themselves in front of or behind large boulders to take advantage of the current break while being able to dart in heavy currents around them.

While many game fish only occasionally venture into the turbulent rapids; Bass and Trout are well known to use rapids. Both have a opportunistic diet that adapts well to drift feeding behind large boulders. Fishing in rapids means utilizing the heavy current to sweep an attractive imitation through many possible feeding stations. Mobility can be difficult; with wading approaches being difficult and approaches by a boat impossible.

Pool edit

As the water velocity increases due to rapids and riffles, The river will erode a deep spot. This deep spot is known as a pool. With both depth and water velocity the pool is an attractive place for fish of all kinds. There are four different habitats within a pool and are used differently by forage and game fish.

The upper lip edit

The uppermost riffle or rapid will usually end in an abrupt deepening called an upper lip. The upper lip offers a small area of reduced flow immediately below the current and therefore with the most concentrated amount of drifting invertebrates. Forage fish will often hunt in the area, concealed by air-born predators. At times active game fish will then also roam this area for minnows.

The depths edit

The deepest part of the hole is generally rather poor in nutrients and drift. Often times game fish lie here when Inactive. Rarely do minnows and other fish use this area. Fish also use the area during the winter season.

Deep edges edit

Rarely does a river flow strait. Normally it meanders across the landscape. In the course of this back and forth motion; pools are usually located into elongated patches near one bank. The outside edge of the river often rapidly falls towards the depths. Over Time, erosion has occurred above and below the waterline, uncovering large boulders and toppling trees into the water. With the security of depth and cover the outside bend has abundant forage fish and offers a prime location for game fish.

current seams edit

Once the river current flows to one side of the riverbed, a seam between the faster current and the back current develops. Sometimes large eddies develop funneling water from the tail of the pool towards its head. Current seams and particularly eddies can concentrate drifting food. small forage fish will use the current seam to pick through the drift. if the inside seam is shallow, game fish will only make occasional forays into the inside seam (or use it during night). In other rivers, high water will straiten currents and lead to considerable erosion on the inside seams. Eddying currents and depth can make inside seams prime locations for many game fish.

Runs edit

As the river erodes the depth of a pool, it pushes this material further downstream. The character of this area greatly depends on the gradient and bedrock of the river. Most small rivers offer moderate gradient yet abundant boulders; creating a large field of boulders and basketball sized rocks just downstream of the pools. This area would be considered a run; a relatively shallow but diverse area of boulders. The shallow water encourages insects and minnows, and The boulders create current breaks and turbulence for predatory game fish. These locations are prime, but often fish are more spread than upstream in the hole.



What is a fishery? A fishery is a population of a species of fish. Fishermen need to go to the river with an approach that is suited for the fish that they are trying to catch. Normally there is considerable diversity in the different species of fish. Some fish however are commonly targeted and they are called game fish. These fish are normally edible, widespread, and are exciting to catch. In the Eastern United states common game fish include Musky, Northern Pike, Walleye, Sauger, Smallmouth Bass, Brown Trout, Flathead and Channel Catfish.

Ecological Niche edit

While a good angler can correctly identify and knows the general preferences of the kind of fish he is pursuing; a good angler uses an approach best suited for this type of fish. This approach is not based on species (kind) so much on the ecological niche that the fish occupies.

Sometimes one kind of fish might occupy more than one ecological niche. For example, small to medium trout are normally drift eaters that eat insects. However, Large trout overtime switch to a diet of minnows and small fish and utilize different water features to maximize caloric intake. An angler whom is targeting large trophy trout fish different waters, use different bait(lures), and approach a waterway completely different.

It is also normal for an angler to catch different species whom occupy the same ecological niche. For example, Northern Pike and Muskies are both top level predators in many rivers through the Northeast. It is very possible while fishing for them to catch a northern pike and one cast and a musky on another.

Generally you could summarize most game fish as belonging to the following ecological niches:

  • Top level predator. Large predatory fish that attack large minnows and other game fish. They are generally not particularly wary but sometimes are picky; only striking at the most vulnerable target. Northern Pike, Musky and flathead catfish.
  • Mid level predator. Predatory fish that get get most of there food in the form of minnows and other living creatures. However, Its smaller size makes it more wary. Smaller Pike, Large trout, bass and walleye.
  • Small Food eaters. The last group of predatory fish eats primarily invertebrates (insects) or heavily feed upon fry, small minnows and/or crustaceans. Many immature game fish are in this category but generally only the trout focuses on insects through much of its life. Some kinds of panfish such as crappies are heavily targeted by anglers and are in this category.
  • Diverse Eaters. This category is a catch all for those fish that don't easily fall into one of the other category. Fishing for these fish requires a specific focus on the fish and its feeding habits. Feeding habits can be very diverse; examples include channel catfish (that scavenge for dead organisms), fish that might have strong vegetarian tendencies (common carp) or fish that are in a waterway mainly to spawn that might strike a lure out of reflex (steelhead or river-run salmon).

Important common characteristics edit

When we target a fish, we first seek a broad understanding of its ecological niche. Many approaches target an entire ecological niche and we may need no more specific understanding to be effective. Its important to keep in mind common characteristics of the fish in a given ecological niche. Generally, its feeding behavior is the most important common characteristic to keep in mind; as it helps us understand the location, and gives us insight into effective approaches. Anglers might want to even more specifically target a species. Each species in a given ecological niche will have minor differences. Being aware of these differences and tailoring out approach to them, can allow one to be a little more successful.

Specialization or Generalization edit

Thus one might think this advice is at odds. Should an angler carefully target a given species, even perhaps with a given technique, or should he be more general? Of course part of this depends on whether you are seeking a trophy, an experience or a meal... but I think the answer is that an angler should have a broad knowledge, experience with many techniques, and constantly experiment as he fishes. A fishermen will learn in time, what works and what doesn't. Common characteristics merely provide the beginning of his education. Once he starts catching fish we can vary his approach noticing what he is catching; given slightly different approaches, locations, and time. As he slowly builds his skills he can alter his approach for conditions and minimize fishless hours. This perspective, it seems is the best for those (such as myself) that value the experience, more than just fish in the freezer or just trophies on the wall.



Fishing techniques demand a clear plan as to how to approach the fish. As such there are two general strategies (whether in moving water or not)

  • carefully move through the waterway seeking active fish.
  • position yourself in one place and alter approach until you catch fish.

Whether one plan is better than another will depend on quite a few factors. General good advice is to adopt the first approach until one gains a good understanding of effective strategies. We need to keep in mind what tools, we have available. Fishing boats for example, can definitely increase our effectiveness. They are however expansive and sometimes can not be used in certain waters. Fishermen should consider alternatives such as waders. Sometimes this increase in mobility can help considerably.



Targeting Top level predators edit

There is nothing quite as spectacular as catching a large predator from a riverine environment. There power and size intrigues and excites us. These large fish challenge our strength, stamina, and Tackle! Compared to there lake-bound friends, riverine predators tend to be sleek, trim and strong. They spend their life relating to currents and seeking the best compromise between food, current, and the few land animals big enough to threaten them. As they grow bigger they seem to lose much of there fear of predators both from the sky or the shore. They are uniquely less skiddish by tackle and approach than many other fish. This coupled with their extraordinary size creates an insatiable fascination of them from many anglers skilled enough to consistently catch them...

What is a top level predator? edit

To catch them first we must get an idea what we are fishing for and there general habits. while several different families fish COULD be considered a top level predator (and this might heavily depend on the individual ecology of the waterway), generally we are referring to members of the family [1]. While only one might consider only ONE species to be the "top level predator" we see generally in the entire family a marked similarity in diet, habitat and behavior.

Diet edit

Fish in the genus Esox primarily feed on fish. They are quite aggressive towards other fish and occasionally canabalistic. They will gorge on baitfish that are nearly their own size. A small part of the diet consist on other animals in the riverine environment. Attacks upon animals (even Humans) have happened although this behavior is very rare.

Habitat edit

Esox are a relatively low population component of a riverine environment. Large individuals particularly often stalk food far bigger than most fishermen use; up to 20 inches in size. This means that a great percentage of the time, esox espacially lunkers are not actively seeking prey. These resting fish seek water with low current that approaches there desired temperature. Resting Esox are difficult to catch. Actively feeding esox will commonly slow patrol an area for prey. There are not easy general rules about WHERE an essox[check spelling] goes because there are not general guideline where there prey will be. Keeping in mind that potential prey are often bigger than most anglers realize you might be tempted to fish a little deeper than some anglers. Often the shoreline produces plenty of minnows but lacks 12-20" gamefish, that are themselves trying to stay safe from birds and land based threats. Rather than concentrate So much about depth, an angler ought to pay very close attention, instead, on currents. Given a choice between a place with 20" gamefish in heavy current and one in slight current; it will always be a better deal to be in the slack currents. In rivers the 'slack currents' are usually connected to eddies and often at confluences and the heads of river pools.

Behavior edit

From a fishing point of view it is important to keep in mind that Esox are often ambush predators lying in the wait for suitable prey and they quickly attacking it at impressive speeds. Like all fish eating predators; Esox like to attack fish that are weaker and easier to catch; maximizing calories for the amount of energy used to catch the prey. This means that fish generally look for the exaggerated motions of dying fish. An acoustic wobble of an erratic swimming patterns, Frequent flashing of light from a wounded fish struggling to stay upright, as well scents; like blood. These patterns interest the predators and they will position themselves to look closer at the prey.

Individual species are important at this point. Large Muskies (which are some of the biggest predators in North American waters commonly slowly approach the bait to better determine if it is worth the attack) while Northern Pike are known as one of the most willing biters in the fish world and sometimes unequivocally attack a bait or lure that simulates these patterns.

Targeting Individual species edit

To maximize our chance at catching a given species, it is customize our approach to the water and to the fish. While altering our approach for the river is difficult, we Can learn more about the fish and adopt approaches that have proven useful to other people. While one could break down Esox to quite a wide variety of predators. Given a practical approach in Eastern North America we see three different clear divisions;



Mid Level Predators edit

Perhaps no other fish generates more fishing interest in North American waters than the Mid-Level Predators. These are fish that are both strong, opportunistic, yet skiddish. At times regressive yet often subtle. Fish big enough to challenge one's equipment and savvy enough to challenge one's skills. Fish that can be challenged with a dizzying array or approaches and selective enough to evade them all (sometimes).

What is a Mid Level predator? edit

A mid level predator is an aggressive predator that eats fish and other organisms yet still lacks the size (even when mature) to be a dominant predator in the environmental. Due to its vulnerability in its environment it is both aggressive in the presence of prey yet remain skiddish and wary.

In North America, During the early part of the 20th century, Fishing progressed from an activity to supply supplemental food to a sport to outwit the savvy of fish by means of altering a hook to look like or act like prey. In this new sport, certain fish better met the desired characteristics and were called gamefish. Most of these original gamefish are midlevel predators. Increasing interest by fishermen led to stocking these fish throughout most of North America. There common characteristics need understood by anybody whom hopes to target them.

Common yet skiddish edit

Probably the biggest reason for many fishermen failing to catch gamefish is to be too careless in ones approach and technique. Many of these gamefish will pursue feeding activities in shallow water in loose to dense schools (or groups) of fish. This can be some of the most exciting non-step action an angler can experience. It will quickly change however if an angler betrays his position by vibrations, motions, or sudden splashes. Furthermore It is very careful that an angler both approaches the fish, carefully and uses tackle that doesn't betray his purpose.

Diverse in technique yet selective edit

Gamefish are nearly by definition opportunistic. Usually they are too common to survive merely on baitfish and will feed on crustaceans, amphibians, and insects to make up for the heavy demands of fighting the rivers current. Thus many different lures and baits might create a feeding response. Gamefish are most likely to be tempted by an approach that imitates its dominant food. The feeding style can change drastically over the season. For example, when large stoneflies begin to stir on a rivers bottom. Large imitation nymphs can catch even large predators like big walleyes and bass; however later in the year, such an approach might be fruitless. Gamefish often go on feeding binges where they will unselectively attack many different lures, if the lure is worked at the right place and at the right depth. Sometimes the differences between an effective approach and an uneffective one defy understanding; but often an experienced angler has widely experimented with his technique and has a set of techniques and lures that are successful under many different conditions. The idea that experimentation and technique might catch gamefish that evade most other fishermen's approaches has created the sport of competitive fishing.

Keeping up with the crowd edit

The reality of this new emphasis on sports fishing, is that especially in certain places, gamefish are repeatably caught and released. This is a favorable force upon fish density, allowing many anglers to share a resource that is lightly stocked (if not entirely self reproducing). The other side of this ,though, is that fish populations tend become a lot more wary. After the first few catches; fish adapt to the human threat as they do for other formidable predators. Often these fish become highly selective and become resistant to common approaches. Lures become markedly less effective and experienced fishermen often have to experiment widely with new technique to catch fish. In extreme cases these fish can not be regularly caught with lures

Catch and release rates (versus harvest) have gotten so high that midsized individuals dominate ecology and overpopulate. In some waters, it would be an ecological kindness to harvest a few midsized individuals. Nearly all gamefish are delicious and anglers should be conscientious in deciding their policy about keeping gamefish (and of course, follow all applicable state laws regarding that).

Small Food


What are a small food eaters? edit

These are fish that consume small organisms in the ecology. As a group these fish are very common and often form large schools or groups. There can be surprisingly aggressive and often will feed on a great variety of food. They are preyed upon heavily and usually adapt to predators by staying in shallow water, utilizing cover (such as rocks and downed trees), and staying in schools. While there is a great diversity of fish that exist in this ecological niche...


What is an approach? edit

Angling or Fishing overs a dizzying array of possible baits, tools and equipment to catch ones fish. A basic approach is the general technique and equipment one uses. How does on master a given technique or peice of equipment. By seeking other people's advice, gaining experience with it and experimenting with it, noting what works and what doesn't. Probably the biggest single reason fishermen don't progress is that they fail to keep track of what works, when and what they are doing. They have an approach, but they aren't keeping track of is working and what isn't. Thus a basic fishing log is an important first step to gaining more mastery at fishing.

Three fundamental approaches edit

When It comes to fishing, we find (irrespective of species) three major means of fishing using a rod and a hook. There are;

  • Bait fishing; fishing utilizing live or dead baits on a hook.
  • Lure fishing; fishing utilizing hook(s) molded into a small device or lure.
  • Fly fishing; fishing utilizing hook(s) camouflaged by lightweight materials or fly.

Seasonal Rivers


In the northeast united states, smaller streams spend much of the year around 50°F. They lack the powerful currents needed to gauge deep pools in the bedrock. Most of the year these smaller waters are optimal for trout during the fall-spring seasons. Trout populations are often heavily stocked. However, once the summer begins, temperatures rise. Abundant insect life, from its many shallow reaches, offer good minnow populations and warm-water fish cautiously push upstream. By early summer a considerable diversity of game fish can lie in a smaller stream that had nothing but trout in early spring. This water can be considered a 'seasonal' river since it hosts similar fisheries than a much larger river. Care must also be taken to gauge temperature in these waters. Game fish and trout in particular are harmed and stressed more easily in the presence of heat. Naturally being a smaller body of water temperatures rise quicker.

Differences with Rivers edit

There are some similarities in fishing seasonal rivers. Fisheries have similar needs and preferences on all waters and often react similar ways to current and food. However, Fishing these smaller waters does call for a similar yet different approach. Listed in some dominant differences.