Learn How to Read a River to Find More Fish

river fishing tips

Gallatin River, Montana

Outdoor enthusiasts and reading don’t always go hand-in-hand. Most of their reading is research for the next adventure. Beyond that, it’s precious time wasted where they could be outside. For some activities, like fishing, reading isn’t saved only for the fishing reports and weather. Experienced anglers understand the importance of reading the water and the benefits that come from doing it correctly.

Reading a river is no easy task. From one angle, you may see a large pool that should hold fish. From the opposite bank, you could look at the same section and not see any fishable water. Every river is going to be different, but there are a few truths and concepts that can be applied to all moving water. The most successful river fishermen use the following tips to catch loads of fish on every outing. Let’s take a look at them.

Approaching the River

When approaching the river, be careful. Depending on its depth and clarity, you could ruin a hole because you approached too quickly and spooked the fish. Fish are sensitive to shadows. If they see a large shadow across the water, they immediately dive for cover and don’t come out until they see it’s gone.

When you first get to the river, stand 10 or 15 feet away from the bank and analyze. See the pace it’s flowing and look at the water clarity. Next, see if any fish are rising. Finally, look at the layout of the river. Are there eddies (bends in the river), deep pools, cut banks, pockets, etc?

If you’re next to the river and see your shadow stretching across the water, try and maneuver yourself in a way that keeps all evidence of your presence unknown. You want your bait to be the only thing the fish see.

When you’re done analyzing one side, see if you can get to the opposite bank and look at it again. You’ll see different options. If there is no easy place to cross, be sure to choose the side with the easiest casting lanes.

 Where Do Fish Sit in Rivers?

The main thing to remember when fishing a river is that fish don’t want to always be fighting the current. They want to save their energy for finding food and avoiding predators. Therefore, look for places in the water where the flow lessens. It could be a small pocket behind a large rock, a deep pool after a shallow section of riffles or deep under a cut bank.

This doesn’t mean that fish won’t hang out in the faster-moving water. If it’s feeding time, they’ll be wherever the food is. Every river is going to have a white foam line flowing down a portion of it. This white foam is where the food is. Cast so your bait drifts into the foam line and you’ll likely find fish.

Reading and Fishing Pocket Water

Pocket water is the water directly behind a large obstruction in the river. It could be a boulder sitting in the middle of a riffle or a tree that has fallen and created a large pool behind it. These pockets can be intimidating for anglers. Since they’re likely in the midst of faster-moving water, many anglers avoid them because they don’t look as appealing as a deep pool and require more skill to fish. Don’t skip the pockets, there are fish in them.

When reading a pocket, be sure to look at the currents on both sides of the obstruction. Are they moving faster than the rest of the current in the river? Are they funneling into the pocket?

When you’re ready to fish the pocket, there are a few ways to attack it. Your first option is to stand down river and cast directly into the pocket. Try and hit the back of the pocket to maximize your drift. This method is going to give you the most time in the pocket, but you’ll be at risk of spooking the fish into not feeding. They’re reactionary when sitting in the pockets. Food is moving at a fast pace so whenever they see something flow into the pocket, they strike.

The second option is to stand on the side of the pocket, cast into the current and let your bait drift into the pocket. This is going to be your most successful method. The bait will get sucked deep into the pocket and give the fish time to strike.

TIP: Don’t stand too far away from a pocket. You only need 10 or 15 feet of line out at most. You want a believable drift. If your line is getting pulled three different directions from the current due to your lengthy cast, you’ll have a tougher time catching fish.

 Reading and Fishing Pools

where to cast in a river to catch fish

Metolius River, Oregon

Yes, pools are amazing and almost always hold a lot of fish, but it’s surprisingly easy to mess it all up for yourself.

The first step is to analyze the pool. How long is it? Can you see the bottom? What is the flow like on the front edge of the pool? How does the water flow coming out of the pool? Are there any mini-currents or swirls in the pool? Is the pool up against the shore? If so, is it a big rock formation or a cut bank?

When you’re done asking these questions, it’s time to pick a place to cast. A natural-looking bait is still necessary for a pool. Don’t feel like you have to fish the entire pool with one cast. Break it up into two or three sections.

Hit the front edge first. Cast into the current and let it drift into the front of the pool. Fish are likely sitting here waiting for an easy target. Once you hit that front edge, start reeling. Fish hate to see bait getaway. They’ll come from the bank and smack your bait.

Next, hit the front and middle. Cast into the current, let your bait dead drift through the pool and start reeling when you’re about halfway through it. If the fish don’t like the dead drift, you can be a bit more aggressive with your retrieve.

The final technique is to hit the backside of the pool. Stand downriver of the pool and cast up into the middle. Let it drift until it gets towards the faster moving current then start reeling a bit faster.

The beauty of pools is that you can fish them for a while with numerous techniques. As soon as your bait looks natural, you’ll get strikes. If a slow retrieve isn’t working, try a faster one. Even if you blow up one pool with your different techniques, it’s good practice. You’ll eventually find what the fish want and those techniques will likely work in the rest of the river.

 Reading and Fishing Riffles

Riffles are another intimidating part of a river to fish. The water is likely only a foot or so deep and moving fast. The first step is to identify the foam line. Next, look at the banks. Are they cut? Is the water flowing slowly under them?

When you’re done analyzing both the foam line and the bank, you’re ready to fish. Fish are sitting in the fast water and going a few feet in each direction snatching food. The best option for fishing riffles is to dead drift. Let your bait float down the river and wait for a strike.

Also, try to minimize your drag. If your line is leading your bait down the river, you won’t catch fish. You need the bait to do the work. For some rigs, this means you have to hold your rod tip higher to keep the line out of the current. For others, you aren’t able to have as much line out because your bait is light and the line is going to lead the charge.

Fish in riffles strike hard. You’ll know when you’ve been hit.

 Reading and Fishing Cut Banks

Whenever you see a cut bank, fish it. Cut banks are some of the most fun parts of a river to fish. The water has eroded the shore and it almost looks like the river is flowing under the earth. The water under these banks is likely deep and holding a ton of fish. They’re perfect places for fish to hide and analyze the rest of the river. They see food flowing down and have the chance to grab it and get back before any predators see them.

When fishing a cut bank, you’ll need to be accurate with your casts. You don’t necessarily have to get your bait all the way under the bank, but you want it close. As a result, you’ll likely hit the bank with your bait and have it bounce back into the middle of the river or get it snagged.

If you’re using a spin or baitcasting setup, go ahead and skip the bait under the bank. Fly anglers will have a tougher time, but do your best to land that fly under the bank. Once it’s there, let it drift. Fish will strike it without any retrieve. Maximize your length of drift, reel back and try again.

 Finding What the Fish Are Eating

finding the best baits for river fishing

Finding what the fish are eating isn’t always easy. The quickest way to learn is to look at a fishing report online or ask a local angler. This isn’t always possible. If it’s trout you’re after, wander the bank and look at the spider webs. What types of flies are caught in the webs? Also, try and be at the river at sunrise or sunset for the hatches. You’ll see the flies swimming on the water. Scoop one up and compare them to the flies in your box.

If you’re after bass or other predators, see if you can find bait swimming along the shore. Are there tadpoles or minnows hanging out in the sun in the shallows? If you don’t know, throw on a search bait and hit some of the spots mentioned above. As soon as you get a follow or a hit, you know you have something appealing tied on.

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