using fluorocarbon line is better in rocky area

River Fishing for Beginners; 101

Rivers offer many opportunities to catch fish. Fish move around in rivers to various habitats. Also, rivers have a changing structure due to flooding and natural processes. As a result, anglers must study the water all the time. A river evolves constantly.

River fishing for beginners 101 covers what to look at to fish rivers with success. A few proven tips will help. Also, having the correct tackle for rivers helps a lot.

Estimated reading time: 21 minutes, 48 seconds. Contains 4360 words

Table of Contents

River Fishing for Beginners; The Current

In fishing rivers, anglers need to learn the currents. Where is the current strong and where is the break to calmer water? This is called a current seam. The fish hang on the edges of the currents. The food travels down the current. As a result, a fish waits for the food to come to them.

This information tells an angler how to work the spot. Use live bait with a lightweight. You can drift and bounce along the current edge. The use of lures is the same. Cast upstream and work the lure along the current edge. The fish will see the lure or bait coming downstream. Working lures cross-current go by quickly past a fish.

Look for points, wing dams, and other obstructions in the current. These structures are ideal ambush points for predators. The fish will hide in the area waiting for smaller fish or prey to come past. The large fish is rested hiding behind the structure. The prey is tired from fighting the current.

These structures will create a feature called an eddy. The water flowing downstream is parallel with an upstream flow. In some cases, a swirl is present. Fish find these highly desirable feeding locations. If you are fishing live bait stationary, find an eddy. The spot is usually highly productive.

The reason current is important in rivers is the oxygen content. Flowing water infuses more oxygen. A fish thrives in a richer oxygenated environment. That is one of the reasons river fish fight harder pound for pound compared to lake fish.

River Fishing for Beginners; Structure and Cover

Understand the structure and cover are different features. The structure is the contour of the land underwater. The structure is streambeds, ledges, and humps forming paths for the fish to use. The cover is the various things sitting on the structure. In other words, the cover is rock piles, weeds, brush, and trees plus more. The cover is what fish use to hide.

Fish use both together for all purposes. The fish rest, feed, and breed in or near these two features.


The structure is the contour of the land in the water. Looking at the shoreline indicates to some degree what is in the water. A shallow sloping shore extends out under the water. A steep slope does the same. Features like points will extend also using these characteristics.

This is called reading the river. Old-timers learned to look at features before electronics became mainstream technology. These anglers knew where to find fish by looking at the shoreline, current, and other features.

The method is a proven strategy. If you do not have electronics learn to use the features of the river. It will take some time and experience but is a valuable skill once you acquire it. This skill is a needed part of river fishing for beginners


The main structure of a river is the channel. The channel is a deeper section with the majority of the flow. Fish will stay near the channel most of the time. It offers deeper stable water in periods of extreme heat or cold. In other words, fish have the temperature they prefer.

River fishing for beginners, channel and rock piles

During summer or winter, the fish will seek protection from temperature extremes in deeper water. In the summer fish will come into the shallows in the evening or night when the water cools down. The early morning is often a good time in the summer. The water has cooled and the light improves visibility.

In some rivers, the channel is a dredged portion of the river. Yet the naturally flowing rivers have a channel also. In an untouched river, the channel can be subtle. The easiest place to find it is by looking at the flow. The channel will move swifter. The outside of the bends tends to have the channel also.

An outside bend is a prime spot on rivers. The current creates deeper water. Plus trees and other materials washed downstream, often will hang up on the outside of a bend creating the cover.

River fishing for beginners, outside bend


The streams and smaller rivers form natural structure points. Where the two channels intersect is an upper and lower point. Fish congregate around points near tributaries. Think of them as a highway on and off-ramps. The fish traffic is high in these spots during the spring and fall periods.

River fishing for beginners, points

In the spring, fish go up streams to spawn in the shallows. During the fall food is plentiful in streams from the spawning cycle. The young fish have reached a good size for fish to put on weight for winter. Mature fish know of the abundance of prey and will seek the bounty of food.

An exception to the spawning cycle is a few species. They spawn in the fall. This is a common occurrence for salmon and some trout. In areas with these species, they are the keystone. There will be few other species. The Great Lakes are an exception. Mainly due to the stocking of salmon.

Points and Wing Dams

Points, wing dams, and other obstructions that block or shift the flow hold fish. These features serve the same purpose as current seams or eddies. Fish will hide in the areas waiting on food. Look at all manmade or natural obstructions as a potential fish-holding element.

River fishing for beginners, wing dam

The fish do like the current but do not want to fight against the current constantly. They seek an area with less current off the edge of the current. Obstructions provide a spot to charge out and grab a meal. Then the fish will return and wait to ambush again.

If you have noticed finding fish on the river includes food and current. The prey seeks the spots for the same reasons as the predator. The food source and plenty of oxygen are available. Plankton, algae, and other microscopic organisms are swept downstream. These food sources are swept around in the eddies and backwaters.


Understanding the cover is simple. It is what fish hide in or around. Look at rocky shorelines, fallen trees, docks, large rocks, and weeds are the primary cover on rivers. The water does not need to be deep but a deep area close by is required. Fish will come into the cover along the shore in one foot of water.

Look for cover near or on the structure. The two elements work together to hold fish. The structure is needed to hold fish and the cover makes it better. Fish will not be in an area void of structure. Learn where the structural features are located. Then find a suitable cover. These elements are a winning combination for fishermen.

People have a misconception about where the fish are located. Anglers on the bank cast far from shore or cast towards shore from a boat. Then retrieve lures 90 degrees to the shoreline. Fish in the cover along the shore do not chase lures out very far. If fishing from the shore the strike zone is only 10-15 feet. Using the 90-degree cast, fish may not have enough time to catch up with the lure.

Instead, retrieve along the shore. Cast the lure downstream or upstream about 10-20 feet from shore. Then retrieve the lure. The lure is in the strike zone longer. As a result, a fish will chase it longer, or more fish can see the lure. Experienced anglers know this technique but beginners or novice anglers overlook this method. Learning to use the cover is part of river fishing for beginners.

River Fishing for Beginners; Seasons

The seasons affect fish. This is an element of fishing that a few anglers take time to study. They wait until later spring and fish into fall. There is good fishing for most of the year. An angler needs to know the fish’s tendencies during each season.

The weather is a big factor along with water levels. The temperature is key to spawning and influences where fish are located all year. Fish like an optimum temperature, plus have a low and high range. Water outside of the range can be deadly and likely non-productive for fishing.

SpeciesLower TemperatureOptimum TemperatureHigh Temperature
Atlantic Salmon4550-62N/A
Blue CatfishN/A77-82N/A
Brook Trout445870
Brown Trout4456-6675
Channel Catfish5882-8890+
Chinook Salmon445560
Coho Salmon445560
Flathead Catfish808590
Lake Trout4050-5560
Northern Pike556575
Rainbow Trout446175
General Water Temperature for Common Game Fish Of North America

A fish will seek water depths within the optimum or high-to-low range. When the water warms in the spring between the low and optimum range fish begin to spawn. In the summer and winter, water too cold or hot forces fish into deeper water with stable water temperatures.

Throughout the year fish change location and habitat. Their feeding patterns will change at certain times. Understanding the changes allows an angler to find the fish. Plus an angler will know what presentation works better at various times of the year. River fishing for beginners means taking the time to understand a fish’s habitat and needs.


Spring in a river is when everything starts anew. The fish and other life have been in inactive mode through winter. As the water warms life becomes active. All water life begins to find a mate and reproduce. Understanding the reproduction cycle of fish and prey leads to better fishing.


Before the spawn, most species feed to prepare. The fish will gather near spawning areas in the deep or moderate depths. At this time the focus is on feeding and waiting for the ideal temperature to spawn. Look at tributaries and gravel areas as primary spawning areas. Some fish do use sandy bottoms with weeds if present.

Knowing the spawning areas allows you to find the best area to fish. Study the waterway to find the transition area between the spawning area and deep water. This is where the fish will be located pre-spawn. All elements of the spawning cycle are hard-wired into fish. They do not deviate from instinct.


While fish spawn the feeding activity is greatly reduced or non-existent. Fish get what is called lockjaw and do not bite. The sole focus of the fish is reproduction. Fish spend a few days to a little over a week in the spawning grounds. Afterward, they leave to recover.

Targeting fish while spawning is unproductive and illegal or unethical. The fish usually will not strike to feed. The exception is hitting lures out of the protection of the nest. This is called bed fishing. In some states, it is illegal, while others do allow the practice. It is unethical since it can disrupt the spawning cycle.


After a fish has spawned it will retreat from the spawning area. The exception is the male bass, they stay to protect the bed or nest. Fish go through a week to a ten-day recovery period and feed little. Once a fish has recovered enough, they feed heavily to regain weight and strength.

The areas surrounding the spawning area will have active fish. Look for drop-offs, points, and other structures leading to more forage and deep water. The fish will spend a few weeks searching for food to regain their weight. This is a productive time to be fishing.

The water temperature in the shallows is still in a good range. Adjust fishing times based on sunlight. A lot of sunlight pushes fish into heavy cover or deep water. The morning and evenings are best, but cloudy days can produce all day.

Take into account water flow. Higher water has strong currents. Fish are weakened from spawning and will stay close to shore to avoid the strong current. It is not uncommon for fish to be within 10-15 feet of the shore.

The fish will use any obstruction blocking the flow near feeding areas. Learn where the structure blocking flows are located in higher water conditions. Rivers hold many areas with the structure diverting or blocking the current. Find the spots and learn how to fish the conditions.


In the summer, fish are active. They have spread out also. The majority of the river has suitable temperatures. If enough flow is present the oxygen levels will be good also. This is when the structure and cover combined are the keys to success. Find the channels, points, and drop-offs with some current. Look for areas with good cover including rocky shorelines, weeds, and submerged trees. They will hold the most fish.

The fish will be on the cover during the day. In the evening and morning, the fish will move out for feeding cycles. Fish feed several times a day in the summer. Their metabolism is higher in warmer water. They need to feed more often every day.

Fish will move towards the shore in search of prey. The cover will influence at what depth the prey is found. Weeds extending out from shore will hold a lot of food. In some rivers, weeds will be found. In other rivers, weeds are scarce.

Rocky shorelines hold an abundance of minnows, crayfish, and small fish. These areas will draw many species of fish. The techniques vary in this type of area. An angler should be prepared to work soft plastics, spinners, jerkbaits, and crankbaits. In some instances, anything works, but often one lure outperforms the others.

Note; targeting catfish requires fishing deeper spots with slacker water. Points at tributaries and outside of bends with slower water are good spots to start. You can catch them anywhere but some spots are better.


Fall is a fantastic time of the year for river fishing. The water begins to cool. The fish take advantage and spend more time in the shallows feeding. It is time for fish to prepare for winter. The days getting shorter alert the fish. They know winter is coming.

A fish’s instincts drive them to bulk up for winter. They feed heavily and more often to gain weight. They need extra food and weight to sustain them during the winter’s inactive period. When the water gets cold. A fish’s metabolism slows.

An angler can catch larger fish during this time. The fish have another year of growth and are eating more. As a result, fish get heavy. The fall feeding can last weeks to over a month. Once the water starts to cool, the fish start and go until it is too cold.

Fish early morning and evenings in the early fall season. As the season progresses cloudy days are good for all-day sessions. The angle of the sun and clouds reduce light penetration into the water. The fish do not stay in the cover. Their instincts drive them to feed whenever possible.


Winter is a tougher time to fish. Focus on live bait or slow-moving presentations. Winter will produce fish of larger sizes. The catch rates are lower, but big fish must eat all year. This time of the year certain species will hit more than others. The fish liking cooler water will be more active.

Look for areas with trout, pike, walleye, and perch. These species like the colder water and feed more often in water. Bass and catfish have lower activity and rarely feed. When the temperature gets low they slow down their metabolism.

In the north, these elements are more dramatic. In southern regions, there will be less of an effect. The region you live in will affect winter fishing greatly. If the water is above 40 degrees winter fishing is worth the effort.

River Fishing for Beginners; Fishing Techniques

Fishing a river is different than calm waters in a lake. The current will push around lighter baits. Plus lures need to look natural with the current. Finding the right weight or size is an important factor in river fishing.

Hardbody lures are best if they match the size of naturally occurring baitfish. The same holds for soft plastics. A soft plastic needs to bounce the bottom without hanging up and appear natural. There are times about anything works and other times it has to be the right color, type, and size.

A river angler needs to carry an assortment of lures. Each area will have a different depth and amount of current. This affects how a lure performs. You need lures for shallow and deep water. Size plays a factor with smaller lures generally more productive. There are times, however, an 1/2 ounce spinner bait or 6-8 inch Rapala is the best bait.

The weights will vary on current and depth. This applies to soft plastic rigs and live bait. Deepwater with a moderate current will drag a one-ounce sinker easily. An angler needs an assortment of weights ranging from split shot up to 2 ounces or more. A large river with deep water may require sinkers of 3-6 ounces.

Live Bait

There are fish lures that do not work. The time of year is another influence on bait choice. In other words, live bait is needed in certain situations. To make it simple, live bait is considered anything not a lure for this article. Chicken liver, dough balls, and other bait are not live but fished in the same manner.

The choice of bait is often species-dependent. Going after crappies a minnow is better than many other baits. Catfish may use chicken livers, cut bait, or a bait mix. You need to learn the preference in baits for the species.

SpeciesBest BaitGood BaitPoor Bait
Panfishredwormsmaggots, mealworms, small minnows, jigsdough baits,
Bassnightcrawlers, minnowsluresdoughball, corn
Carpdough ballcorn, bread, nightcrawlersminnows
Catfishchicken liver, cut baitminnows, nightcrawlers, mixed baitlures
Walleyeminnowsnightcrawlers, leeches, luresdead bait
A few general suggestions for bait by species

The chart covers a few species. Choose bait for other species by checking their behavior and habitat needs. The USFW site has information on most species. Anglers should learn about each species targeted. Knowledge about each species leads to better success.


As previously mentioned, lure size affects success. I have thrown 3-inch jerkbaits and not caught a fish. Then I put on a 5-6 inch jerkbait and the fish hit the lure consistently. An angler needs to consider having several sizes of certain baits.

Lure color is influenced by region, water conditions, depth, and a few other factors. It is best to have at least three colors. A bright, dark, and natural baitfish pattern for jerkbaits and crankbaits. Spinners look at black, chartreuse, and either blue or green. White is a good option for turbid water, churning water below dams.

Soft plastics are inexpensive so buy 4-5 colors covering dark to light. In general, black, blue, green chartreuse, and white colors work in most regions. These colors come in variations, lures may use two or three of the colors. Some colors are better than others based on where you live.

Water clarity and depth affect lure color also. As a lure goes deeper some colors fade out to black or grey. In stained water, certain colors have limited visibility. Learning color selection will take time and experience. Try several colors in the conditions to see which is more effective.

Keep a logbook on what color works in different water clarities and depths. It will help you learn better color selection with lures. Pros keep logbooks of what is successful in each situation.

Specific Lure Tips

There are times certain lures are effective. This is seasonal and species-related. Lures have different qualities based on how they are presented. Some lures go fast and others are slow. They can be topwater, shallow, or deep diving. Knowing what lure to use in a situation leads to success.

Soft Plastics

Soft plastics are effective lures in rivers. In the early spring and during cold fronts use these baits. They work on pressured fish also. Instead of the Texas rig, use the Ned rig, or wacky rig. Plus, tube jigs and jigs with grub tails are very good choices in rivers.

The smaller rigs are easier for smallmouth and walleye to inhale while striking. The Texas rig is a little large for these species unless using 5-6 inch long worms. The jig-type setups offer more control in the current also. Remember size is important with river fishing. Smaller is the better option with soft plastics.


Spinnerbaits are good for covering water fast. Use these in late spring, summer, and fall. A spinnerbait is productive for smallmouth, walleye, and pike. Consider having both Colorado and Willow leaf blades. Colorado spins farther from the shaft. Fish sees coming towards them. A willow leaf hugs close to the shaft. It offers a side view for fish to target.

Also, each produces a different vibration. Colorado is more of a thump while willow leaf blades are a humming vibration. Using a lure with both offers more vibration and visual attraction. Blades’ colors may affect the success rate also. Choose colors of the skirts and blades based on water clarity.

Anglers need to choose a few sizes. The lighter baits are the choice for shallower water. The 1/4 and 3/8 ounces work well in shallow to moderate depths. Colorado blades have more lift also. These blades work well for shallower retrieves.

Going deeper use a 1/2 ounce spinnerbait. Adjusting the retrieve rate will help with depth control. The size affects what species are likely to strike. Large spinnerbaits tend to work better for pike and larger walleye. Smallmouth will hit 14 and 3/8 ounces more often.


A jerkbait can be used year-round. These lures are pulled to depth. Then repeated jerks are used with pauses. A fish tends to strike on the pause. These lures are very effective in spring and fall. When fish are more active a jerkbait appears like an easy meal. When fish are inactive the pause gives time for the fish to strike.

Learn several cadences to the jerk and pause motion. A fast hard jerk with a shorter pause is for summer. Use short jerks with long pauses for cool water or tough bite conditions. Mastering a jerkbait is a skill many anglers pass over. I recommend for river fishing you need to learn this lure. It is very effective in rivers.

As with most lures, a bright, dark, and baitfish pattern is suggested. Also, have a few sizes from 3-6 inches long. Having 7-8 jerkbaits gives an angler a lot of options. Also, the lures come in floating, suspending, and sinking models.

Floating and suspending are the two best types of jerkbaits. A floating jerkbait slowly rises on the pause causing a fish to strike. Use this model in the summer. In the spring or fall, go with a suspending model. When paused the lure hangs in place making it an easy target.


There are three versions of crankbaits. Anglers have a choice from fat body, thin body, and lipless crankbaits. Each model has its time to shine. The weather, water conditions, and the fish’s activity level influence the choice.

The fat bodies have a wobble action when retrieved. A skinny body tends to wiggle with a tighter action. Lipless crankbaits have a tight action and rattle for sound. Each lure has attributes to enhance success in various situations.

In stained or murky waters, a fat body or lipless works best. The sound or wider action creates more vibrations. Fish use vibrations to hunt their prey in low vision conditions. The skinny body is for clearer water, where too much action may spook fish. These are basic general guidelines for crankbaits.

Using crankbaits works well for bass and walleye. The lure does catch other fish also. Fish use deeper water during higher light levels and temperature changes. A crankbait allows you to get deeper where the fish are located. A few of the lures will allow you to fish more of the water column (the different water depths).

The colors of crankbaits that work best are the bright or natural baitfish patterns. In other words, two colors are often enough for a body of water. Look at bright yellows or chartreuse and bluegill or crayfish for most waters. I use Fire Tiger and bluegill color schemes with very good success.

Use crankbaits from late spring into the fall. Start with skinny bodies in the spring. Then go to all during the summer. In the fall, the lipless works the best. The actions of each suit the season and conditions.


Topwater lures add excitement to fishing. Using the lures at the right time has the fish explode out of the water for a thrilling strike. These are summer and early fall lures. The fish are at the peak of activity and feed in the entire water column. Fish will suspend in the early morning or evening and look for aquatic life on the surface.

Areas with minnow or insect activity on the surface attract bass and pike. These species are curious and check out sounds and vibrations. If you see surface activity, try a topwater for a few casts in the area. In the shallower water, topwater works best. Around weeds and fallen timber fish hide waiting for food. A topwater lure gives an easy view and a target for fish.

Common topwater lures for rivers include the Jitterbug, Whopper plopper, and poppers. Walk-the-dog lures are good in slack water areas but tend to be tough to work in the current. Choose lures by the current flow of rivers.

The colors should contrast the sky for a good silhouette. Using black is common in many areas. A lighter color works on dark or overcast days. The top-water lures only need one or two color choices. The sounds and actions produce the strike. The color makes a solid silhouette for the fish to target.

River Fishing for Beginners; Summary

Fishing rivers for beginners take some time to learn. Learning about the species in the river is essential also. Step one is to study the river to find its structure and cover. This requires constant observation since the river changes due to flooding. The features will change over time.

Learn the species and what conditions are preferred. Find the habitat for each species. Know what the seasonal changes are for each species. Does the fish go deep or inhabit the shallows?

Have a modest selection of lures to start. Try a few of each you have experience with using. A slow and fast option to start. You can add more options as you go buying a few every few weeks or months. Consider the season, water depth, and fish activity when choosing a lure. In early spring and winter, fast lures do not work.

Putting everything together will take time and experience. An angler needs to be patient and learn. In a short time, you will see results. You can grow on success.

John McIntyre