Lake vs River Fishing: Adjusting Tactics and Gear for Success

angler river bass fishing on bank of river

Maybe you’ve just moved, or perhaps you are looking to branch out, but for many the swap from fishing in lakes to fishing in rivers or vice versa can mean a disappointing trip or two if you don’t do a bit of research ahead of time. Even a fairly popular and often predictable fish such as bass (small or largemouth) can require a change of rigging and strategy when making the switch between types of bodies of water.

THE MAIN DIFFERENCE 

This article could be alternatively titled “Still vs. Flowing Water Fishing.” That is the major factor, though some could argue there are additional considerations such as stocking in lakes and migratory fish patterns in many rivers. However, water movement will undoubtedly have the greatest impact on gear and tackle choices as well as technique.

TO STATE THE OBVIOUS…

I’m assuming that if you’re reading this you’ve fished at least once or twice, so I’ll jump to the conclusion that the basics of fishing procedure are not foreign to you. For lake fishing it goes something like this:

Step One: Find Likely Place to Fish

Step Two: Cast lure, fly or bait into an area likely to hold fish.

Step Three: Catch fish

(Oh and don’t forget to factor in water temperature, season, time of day, fish species breeding patterns, fishing regulations, invasive species, fish habits, tackle recommendations, buyer’s guides, the last 17 fishing blogs you read, the opinions of every old man who has ever mentioned fishing to you, and probably the rotation of the earth. You know, the basics)

The only complication is that, for river fishing, step two includes casting UPSTREAM. Horrendously complex, I know. But the assumption that gear and expectations for both fishing locations are interchangeable is surprisingly false, and a change of mindset might be needed for smooth success in alternating from one to the other.

SHIFTING MENTAL GEARS

Now, I may have oversimplified, because realistically, I believe there are five major adjustments you will need to make, both mentally and physically when going between lakes and rivers. First of all, topography and terrain can be drastically different. Secondly, safety considerations might mean you have to be aware of different things in differing areas.

Perhaps most obviously, you could also have to change your gear along with your tactics. Obviously, there has to be a slight change in technique, and lastly, what other fishermen in the area are doing (and how many of them to expect) should be a learning curve if you have never fished a particular type of water.

TERRAIN CHANGES THINGS

Let’s tackle the terrain first, as it’s likely the most straightforward section of our discussion because you can see at a glance if this applies to you. Literally, just look at your new prospective fishing area, and if the bank is highly similar to your old one, go ahead and skip on down to the safety portion. Especially for those of you in the flatter parts of the world, this is likely not as much of an issue. But if the areas are quite disparate or if you haven’t had a chance to scout out your new venture, keep reading.

If, like me, you’re in a more mountainous area, lakes and rivers have some distinct challenges as far as access goes. For me, lake fishing usually means the water is easier to get to from the bank, though the hike to get there may be longer. Rivers, however, can mean steep banks and more dangerous water if I end up getting wetter than I had planned for.

SAFETY FIRST

Following the thoughts from the topic of terrain, lakes and rivers have different safety concerns. If you plan to be in either water type, be it by boat or wader, wear a life jacket. Just do it. But more specifically, even if you do not plan to get wet, take things like dry clothes and a towel.

With lakes, the concern is that the water is of highly variable depth and could contain unseen obstacles, especially if you plan on using waders or a boat. Being aware of the weather when on the open water in a boat is definitely more of a consideration on a lake than a river, as it’s just that much further to shore if something happens.

For river anglers, the movement of the water (including dangerous currents) is a major concern. Slipping off a steep bank into fast-moving water is a real possibility, and prevention is the best cure. High awareness of both footing and water movement is key in keeping safe, especially after recent rain.

FOUR PIECES OF GEAR TO CHANGE OUT

fishing from kayak on lake

1. Your boat (if you have one) – If you are a boat-bound fisherman, it may not translate well from lake to river, or back. If you are in the market for a boat, may I recommend selecting one that could feasibly be used in either moving or still water?

A drift boat or dory is a great river choice that transitions well to lakes. If a motor is something you’re after – and maybe ease of transport – may I also suggest an inflatable raft with a trolling motor. A surprising, but highly versatile choice might be a kayak, especially if you want something reasonable and suitable for one or two people.

2. Your shoes – This isn’t one I had thought of until I asked around about the subject, but after having a chat with some fish-crazed friends, the selection of footwear came up. As I grew up around more rivers than lakes, I hadn’t considered the likelihood of man-made docks and reservoirs sporting some pretty slippery footing.

So, if you’re converting to somewhere with docks, be sure to grab some shoes that have a good gripping rubber sole. Mud boots with neoprene uppers are a popular choice. Now, if you plan of hiking very far or scrabbling around on steep river and stream banks, grab a pair of hiking boots that can give good ankle support and tough tread.

3. Your Lures/Bait – Far be it for me to tell you what baits or lures will always work in a given area, but there are a couple of things to consider. In lakes, finessing your line to create movement of your lure of choice can be a real art form. But in rivers, the movement is already provided for you by the water, so choosing something that moves naturally in current is a big plus.

Also, lake fishing can mean you have time to attract your potential target from out of their hiding place, but rivers force either the fish or your bait past one another somewhat more quickly. Finally, water visibility is generally more in flux in rivers because of runoff, so the best lures for river fishing tend to be bright, flashy ones – you’ll find they’re more than likely to get the job done.

4. Fishing Regulations – This is a big one, but regulations between lakes and rivers can be vastly different, especially based on species. Regulations can even differ between specific bodies of water and whenever you explore the idea of changing from a familiar area, you should check your local regs for any major differences in limits or species.

ANGLING TECHNIQUE

Now, for the piece de résistance – the difference in how you fish lakes and rivers. So, you’ve made all your other adjustments, consulted the regs, swapped out some gear, and are raring to go.

For fishing lakes, if you’re used to fishing rivers, it can be a matter of learning to be a tad bit more patient. Usually, reeling should only be to take up obvious slack or to simulate a specific movement with your bait or lure. The constant steady movement of fishing on a river can be a hard habit to break of still water.

Conversely, where on a river, the water would simply carry your bait past a likely area, lake fish might need more active enticing. You may have to alter your position to reel in such a way as to tug your bait past that undercut bank or submerged log.

If you’re going from lakes to rivers, you will need to learn to use the water in your favor. River fish can often set themselves up to catch a meal as it goes by, and you can take advantage of that. By casting upstream of where you want your lure to end up, you can easily simulate a lively snack to a waiting predator. Fish can be found in eddies or other areas where water slows down, such as directly after rapids or a canyon bottleneck. In some ways, the space constraint of a river corridor can be helpful.

CONSIDER YOUR FELLOW FISHERMEN

I will hardly rehash the usual unwritten rules of fishing, they are after all, unwritten for a reason. However, I think we can all agree that the most important one is just don’t be one of several three- and four-letter words not suitable for mixed company. That should cover the basics.

But the biggest issue I have heard others comment on regarding lakes and rivers is proximity. This is perhaps a larger concern in the western states, but encroaching, especially on rivers is kind of a no-no. Accidentally crossing lines with a stranger is awkward, unfortunate and totally preventable. Please be self-aware.

As to the numbers of fishermen, as a general rule, unless it is a specialized season, rivers are less crowded than lakes. Often this may be a simple function of shore space – rivers have exponentially more by nature of their configuration.

Additionally, accessibility affects human traffic in an area. If the river is next to a road, which is common, it will simply get more anglers. Similarly, if a mountain lake has a single foot trail as access and is a two-day hike from the nearest road, there are definitely fewer people.

NOTE: Is anything more annoying than heading to a remote spot and finding someone already there? Yes, being the ones already there and having some yahoos encroach unnecessarily.

BUT WHAT DO I NOT NEED TO CHANGE?

fly fisherman fishing in river

Well, good news! For starters, most rods and reels transfer, as well as the majority of “old standbys.” I can’t speak overmuch to fly fishermen, as my casting technique for fly rods has been described by someone who does it professionally as “graceless flailing.” The only other personal recommendation I will make is that in the rivers I fish, I have often wished for a net with a longer reach, but that may just be due to my short stature (I’m 5’3, so do the math).

NOW, ABOUT THOSE OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

While water movement (and how it affects your tackle) is the largest difference between still and flowing water fishing, there are a few other factors worth noting.

For lake fishing, something that might affect your area is whether your local lakes get stocked. Depending on which species get stocked and what the schedule is, this can be a good way to predict success and even the flavor of your catch if you aren’t releasing them. Have I ever timed my family fish fry invites based on the lake stocking schedule? Maybe…

I have also freely given up most of my pride when it comes to what I call my “fair-chase shopping list.” I don’t have much in the way of wall mounts or trophies, but I eat better. The bottom line is that learning more about the stock in your local lake can lead to better timing for your fishing trips.

Because even if you aren’t eating your fish, transport of fish can alter how hard certain species fight and where they are in a given body of water. The curious can usually get this info from your local state park, or other management agency’s employees.

For river anglers, seasons can change what you fish for drastically. Bass fishing in lakes can be nearly year-round in some areas, but river flow and other species’ spawning schedules can change enormously over the year. This results in the need to be a bit more savvy about your local regulations and learning a bit about fish behavior for a variety of species. Essentially, diversify your portfolio of both gear and knowledge.

IN CONCLUSION

Wherever you find yourself casting a line, be safe, have fun and be courteous. A few simple shifts in your mentality can make all the difference when trying out something new. If you find yourself with the opportunity to diversify your fishing habits, it can be a rewarding adventure!

NOTE: If you’ve stumbled onto this corner of the web by accident and/or simply want more info on fishing in general, check out these other articles on the site by some of our other stellar contributors.

Bass fishing for beginners, Buying a boat, choosing fishing line, gear to use for bass fishing, etc.

Feel free to look around in the blog archives, as there’s an article for just about everything. If you do find yourself wanting info we haven’t covered yet, drop us a line (yep, that was a terrible pun) and we’ll see if we can’t hook you up with some expert advice.

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