Whether fishing in a large river or a small stream, learning to read the currents of the water will help you catch more fish. It is a skill that requires practice but it is well worth the effort.
The easiest way to find more, and bigger, fish in rivers is to understand their living requirements. Like any animal, fish need food and shelter. They also need to conserve as much energy as possible. Put it all together and you will soon notice that the majority of fish will be concentrated in areas that meet all these needs. Places like eddies, pools, current seams and undercut banks will hold fish.
The rest of this article, will discuss all the best hiding spots and techniques to fish them.
River eddies occur where fast moving water is forced around an obstruction that protrudes into the water from shore. A sand bar, large boulder or a fallen tree can cause eddies. These obstructions cause a vortex of water to flow back upstream as the water is forced around the object.
Eddies are easy to recognize once you know what to look for. Often, bubbles on the surface of the water will give away their location, as they get caught in the characteristic swirling flow.
Bubbles are not the only thing to get caught in eddies. Insects and other prey that fish feed on regularly get swept into these spots, which is why fish like to hang out here. The current is also gentler than the nearby rapids, so fish can work less and wait for food to float to them.
Smaller eddies can even be found in the middle of a stream behind large boulders. As fish work their way up or down the river in search of new area, they often use these spots to rest and feed.
How to fish a river eddy
Whether it is on a big river or small stream, the technique required to effectively fish an eddy is the same. You should utilize the current that powers the eddy to push your bait, lure or fly naturally into it.
The best spot for a fish to sit is where the most food gets pushed. They are not going to work any harder than necessary. By letting the current guide your gear into the eddy, you increase the odds that your lure ends up in front of a hungry fish.
If you are using a spinner, such as a rooster tail, it will be particularly difficult to maintain proper lure action in the swirling vortex of an eddy. Positioning yourself correctly requires some practice. Here are some pointers.
While standing perpendicular to the main current, cast slightly upstream into the rapid closest to the eddy. Allow the lure to rest with slack line for a few moments. With a slight jerk, begin to retrieve slowly through the spot. Repeat this same method but begin your retrieve at various spots along the eddy.
With bait or a sinking fly, such as a nymph with a strike indicator, eddies are conducive to using what is called a dead drift. Again, cast into the adjacent current and allow your bait to drift naturally into the eddy without imparting too much movement. Cast into different portions of the eddy to try locating fish.
Pools are created whenever there is a sudden change of water depth. Typically, pools form at the tail end of a section of rapids with more rapids flowing out of the pool. The slower moving water in a deep pool allows fish to escape the fast currents that flow into it.
Like eddies, insect prey also tends to get caught in pools and is easier for fish to catch them while expending little energy.
Deep water also holds fish throughout the fishing season. Pools offer cool water during hot summers yet remain warmer than shallow rapids in the winter.
How to fish in river pools
Fishing the pools of a river is very similar to fishing eddies. Using the currents to guide your lure into the sweet spots where fish concentrate will be the key to success.
Depending on the size and depth, the entering rapids may not stretch the whole length of the pool. Fishing the calm lower portion of the pool may require more finesse. During insect hatches, calm pools can be productive for fly fishing with a dry fly.
With conventional spinning gear, try bait or a small spinner. Cast across the pool and allow the lure to sink for a bit and gently reel it back. Jigs may also work well in pools for certain species of fish.
Any place where fast current borders calm water, you will likely find a current seam. Often you find these seams where a stream flows into a river or in eddies and pools that have swift water nearby.
Seams can also be found where small inlet streams flow into larger bodies of water such as lakes. Fish will school around these locations, waiting for a steady delivery of food while they stay in calm water.
How to fish current seams
Current seams occur in many conditions. Where a current seam enters a pool, eddy or lake, use the techniques previously described.
However, in places where one current is intersected by another, seams will likely produce smaller, isolated pockets of calmer water that hold one or two fish. It will be harder to present a lure or fly to these spots since they generally have more current surrounding them.
Take your time in these places and cast well upstream, allowing extra space to guide your gear into the targeted destination.
An often overlooked place to cast your line is undercut banks. These spots provide shade from the sun on shallow stretches of the river, and protection from aerial predators. They can dart out to grab food but quickly return to cover.
Undercut banks have different appearances so make sure you don’t overlook an excellent spot unknowingly. First, look for slower stretches of water where over hanging vegetation along the shore creates a canopy over the edge.
In forested sections of rivers, tree roots hold together the surface layer of soil while the river current slowly digs away at the loose ground below. Fish absolutely love these spots. In addition to aquatic insects that float down, soil insects add to the feast from above. I have pulled many nice fish from such spots.
How to fish undercut banks
When an undercut bank has vegetation at its edge, casting a fly or lure under the foliage may be challenging, especially if the branches hang into the water. Try using the current to your advantage in these situations. Cast as close as possible and let the water push your lure or fly under the edge.
Moving slightly downstream from the undercut and casting back up to the edge will make it easier for the current to place your lure in the right spot.
Undercut banks are often adjacent to fast moving water, which makes it hard for fish to get a hold of your lure, so don’t be afraid to cast multiple times in the same place.
What about muddy or really big rivers
Most of the same principles we just discussed apply to muddy or huge rivers as well. The difficulty comes from being able to visualize the currents and actually seeing changes in depth.
Muddy rivers follow the same rules of fluid dynamics as clear ones. Focus on fishing bends and current seams. The swirling water of eddies will still be visible and large eddies with tail-outs from rapids are good indicators of pools, even if you cannot actually see a change in depth.
The biggest of rivers pose another issue. Again, places where changes in current and depth are still important to find, but it becomes more difficult due to access. Fish will be more spread out in the massive eddies and a boat may be required to access the best spots.
Some of the largest rivers likely have one or more dams along their length. Good places to fish include water discharge areas at the base of a dam (if legal to do so) or man-made jetties that create protected pockets of water for fish to escape the current.
How to fish in muddy rivers
Muddy rivers present a new challenge. Typical spinners, spoons and flies will be harder for fish to see. Your presentation will need to be almost on top of the fish’s head before it can see it. It may simply require cast after cast to make that happen.
Scent becomes more important in these conditions. Either apply artificial attractant to your lures (if legal to do so) or use bait and let it drift with the current.
How to fish large rivers
Large rivers will likely have more species of fish to choose from. Your gear choice and subsequent fishing techniques will depend on the species you are targeting.
For the largest rivers, a boat equipped with a down rigger and fish finder may be needed to successfully locate and catch fish.
The course a river takes depends on the topography of the land. Rivers that wind and bend offer exceptional opportunities to find fish holding spots.
The outside portion of a river bend will be traveling faster than the inside, which erodes the river bottom unevenly, creating eddies, pools and current seams.
When scouting new locations around your local rivers, make use of Google maps. You can save a lot of leg work by getting a bird’s eye view to find where winding spots of the river will make for excellent fishing.
Be sneaky and practice
After you put in all the work to learn how to find fish in rivers, it is good to practice some ninja stealth.
This is especially true for smaller, clear streams. Fish can see very well through the water to what is going on above the surface. You may find a perfect eddy or seam, but if you simply walk up and stand visible over the spot, the fish will be spooked. Cast from a distance or crouch low to the ground when approaching. Read our popular article to learn more about catching big trout in small streams.
The only thing left to do is put all this information into practice. Every river and stream offers a unique experience but once you learn to recognize the places fish prefer to be, you are well on your way to catching more fish.