In much of the country, a small- to medium-size river offers the last refuge to an angler trying to escape the crowds. Often, it's the kind of place where you have dozens of spots that you, and you alone, fish. It's my favorite scenario.
Rivers are tricky, though, so it pays to have a few tricks of your own. For instance, most river fishermen limit themselves to just a few key holes. What I call key holes are the largest, deepest ones in the river. This approach runs hot and cold.
The key holes are always capable of holding good numbers of resident fish. Most load up with migratory fish during seasonal transitions as well. The problem is, even on relatively "untouched" rivers, the key holes get fished hard.
In most cases, the resident fish get more and more plucked over as the season wears on. Some fish are taken home and eaten. Some die from post-release mortality. Those that are caught and released again and again get smart to the program. The hole gets tougher and tougher until a seasonal movement, or monumental change in water level, reshuffles the deck. And let's face it, most of the time, most of the fish are dispersed throughout the rest of the river system anyway.
A better strategy is to look at larger sections of river, with the thought of fishing greater numbers of smaller pockets and finding ways to access the places that are lightly fished. A good distance-per-day figure, if you're just floating and fishing banks, is about 12 miles per day. That's a lot of casts, but well worth it!
Using a map, I like to find stretches with the most bends, or S-curves, per mile. I also look for the narrowest areas in a given stretch, since they're usually the deepest, which along with sloughs and oxbows, can be very important.
Boiling it down, there are seven basic types of places to fish in a small to medium-size river: outside bends; inside bends; pools/holes/runs; tailouts; tributaries; sloughs and oxbows; and islands. Each type of habitat takes on importance under various water conditions and throughout different seasons.
Outside bends are places where the current flow, or channel, is forced against the bank. These could be rock, sand or clay. They can appear quite flat (especially in low water) but are more likely steep, or even feature a reverse undercut.
Some of my favorites bristle with log piles, roots or other obstructions. Others have rock points or large boulders projecting outward, creating feeding lanes and eddies. Always start at the very top of an outside bend and work it all the way downriver until it begins to get shallow. I prefer to fish outside bends during normal and low water conditions.
In times of high water, I usually avoid all but the very top end, where there can be a small eddy of water, just above where the water begins to get deep, that collects baitfish attempting to find refuge from the increasing current.
Current naturally picks up on outside bends and as a result, most anglers move too quickly past these prime banks. Boat control is critical. The natural effect of the current will be to suck you closer to shore. Compensate for this by using a bow-mount trolling motor, or some other method, to keep the bow oriented upstream and pointed just slightly out from parallel. You want to be moving slower than the current so you can get a cast tight to the bank and next to every piece of cover.
You'll catch more fish by presenting your lure or bait so it travels at a slight downstream angle. I like to use jigs, fast-diving crankbaits, topwater lures and minnow baits in these places.
To fish deep brush piles and avoid getting hung up, you may have to cast above the cover while keeping the boat stationary, then let the current swing the lure or bait in a quartering motion to the cover. Be sure to slow your retrieve to a crawl, or stop it altogether, as the lure begins to swing. Use a long rod to help keep your line off the water.
Minn Kota's Autopilot electric is a great aid to a river fisherman because it keeps the bow oriented properly without having to think much about it. Another good trick is to use a section of old inner tube for a drag anchor off the bow. Just tie one end shut, put a bunch of rocks in it and tie a rope on the other end. It will keep the boat oriented, and by lengthening or shortening the rope, you can control your speed. When you're finished fishing, dump out the rocks, roll it up and store it.
On outside bends, the largest brush piles will usually have the deepest water under them and hold most of the fish. If you can't get fish to chase lures, try anchoring close to the bank, above the brush pile, and use either a slip-sinker rig, jig or jig-and-spinner combo to walk live bait such as 'crawlers or minnows under the cover.
Rocky outside bends are a better bet during high and rising water. Their fishability increases if they have lots of irregularities to break the flow of the current.
Inside bends aren't nearly as consistent a pattern as their outside-bend opposites, but sometimes they do pay off. Silt will often accumulate in these areas, which can create a flat with vegetation on it.
Inside bends that are just off the flow of current are usually better than those with no adjacent flow. In rivers where distinct sandbars form near current on inside bends, your odds are usually better. Fish will sometimes move from the deeper opposite bank to chase baitfish. Some species may even use these areas to spawn. I usually check them when the fish aren't where they're supposed to be. Nineteen times out of 20, however, inside bends will be a waste of time.
Island banks that are oriented so the current runs against them can often be regarded in the same way as outside bends.
The heads of islands (upstream end) often have cover extending well up-stream, sometimes a hundred yards or more. This is especially true of islands that were formed by sand building up on log jams and brush piles. This submerged cover could hold anything. In low, clear water
I've seen giant schools of catfish in places like this. I've also caught hundreds of muskies from this kind of spot, not to mention walleyes and smallmouths.
The downstream point of an island always forms a natural current break. Fish usually hold along the sides, or downstream side, of where it breaks off. Often a patch of vegetation will form here as well.
Islands are significant most of the time, but take on a special importance during periods of high water, especially if the water isn't too dirty. Always add a few island stops to your route when tributary hopping during high-water periods.
Although tributaries are always important, they take on a special significance during the spawn (particularly for walleyes) and during very high water. Plus, if they are colder than the main river, they can be very important during the hot summer months. Use the same tactics you'd use other places, and again, anchor position is critical.
Start on the main river, above the mouth of the trib, then continue to move down at small increments. You may want to make two passes; the first from anchor positions well to the outside, the second closer in. Pay special attention to current seams where the waters meet.
Tributaries are especially important during high water. If large amounts of rain falls in the upper stem of the river, but not in the drainages of a given tributary, the current from the main river might actually act as a dam of sorts and back water up into the mouth of the tributary. In this case, the tributary will usually be clearer than the main river and fish will hold back up inside it (sometimes a mile or more) and where the clearer water line makes its exit. In cases of extreme contrast, this clear water tail might hold fish for a great distance downstream from the tributary.
If the main rainfall hit the drainage of the tributary, and the main stem of the river has less rain or none at all, a different effect takes place. The tributary might flow so hard it backs up water from the main river, creating a pool above where it enters. Depending on configuration, there may be an eddy below it, too, which should always be checked, but odds are the water color will be bad.
I've had some of my best fishing after near flashflood conditions by running many, many miles of water and focusing exclusively on tributaries both large and small. We're talking 50-fish days catching smallmouths on topwater flies.
Often it takes a few days for fish to get oriented after the water takes a big jump. In extreme conditions, where water stays very high for a long period, you may even want to run the entire fishable length of the larger tribs. Focus your efforts on where the water clarity is best. Also, don't forget to check tributaries of tributaries.
Pools And Runs
Depending on depth and current flow, these areas will usually hold fish during all water conditions. In super-low water, the fish may concentrate where it's deepest or where the most cover exists. In high water, they might be jammed in an eddy or tucked behind big boulders.
Depending on the river (or section you're in), a deep pool might be only four or five feet deep, or it might be 15 feet deep. Depth is relative. The biggest and deepest have the best odds for catfish. They'll also hold sturgeon, muskies and the largest specimens of other species.
I like to carefully define the edges (inside, outside, top, bottom), visualize a grid over the surface, then position and reposition the boat with an anchor so I can swing my lures through every quadrant of the hole. Experiment by changing presentation angles. Some spots will produce best if you fish them from inside out; others, outside in.
Usually you won't find fish spread all over. They will be in very specific, consistent spots relating to cover in the form of boulders, ledges or wood. Once you pop a few fish and they slow down, try radically changing your lure color. Usually you'll get an extra fish or two.
If lures don't produce, try Texas rigging a live 'crawler or fish a large minnow on a short snell with as light an egg sinker as you can get away with. Fish it almost like you would a lure. Cast it, let it settle to the bottom, then slowly swing it through the area. This method is faster and usually much more productive than just tossing a bait out and hoping a fish finds it. Once you've located a pod of fish by casting, you may want to reposition directly above it in order to reduce your likelihood of snagging.
In super-low water conditions, I like to fish the fastest water at the top ends of pools, holes and runs. It's even better if there are sharp ledges and rock breaks for the fish to tuck under. You might have to anchor in dicey water or pull your boat up on a rock to stay in position. You may also have to make very short casts, or drop your bait just upstream from your target. Fish (especially walleyes) are sometimes very spooky in these areas when the water is low and clear.
If I know a pool holds fish, I'll often park my boat above it and sneak down quietly on foot.
Not all pools are obvious, especially those found in long, relatively shallow stretches. The faster and more broken the surface water, the less depth it takes for a fish to feel secure. Look carefully for pockets and pools hidden between riffles in long, shallow stretches. They hold smallmouths and walleyes most of the summer.
Tailout is the term used to describe the tapering, shallower lip that occurs downstream from a deeper hole. Tailouts are always key areas for feeding fish. They have the potential to hold any species. I like to position so I can make long casts and swing my offering from one edge to the other. Spinners and crankbaits are great for this.
Topwaters are a good choice, too, depending on the species you're after. If you're looking for cats, you'll want to be soaking bait in the tailouts of all the deeper pools. Most tailouts have one or more funnels where the main flow of water is directed. The edges and center of the funnel are usually the best spots.
Sloughs And Oxbows
The mouths of sloughs and oxbows are always important places, especially if they are adjacent to other holding water. They have the same significance as tributaries during high-water periods.
Depending on their depth and configuration, sloughs and oxbows may operate like small, independent lakes and be significant much of the season. In almost every case, they are important spawning sites for some species. They are also important in the fall when cooler temperatures force the resident baitfish out into the main stem of the river.
Small and mid-size rivers offer peace, solitude and great fishing. You won't be able to locate fish by using your binoculars to spot the flashing and splashing aluminum nets. Most likely you won't even have access to a hydro map. But once you've defined the various sections, you'll be able to select the stretches that offer your best odds.
They're intimate places that require time and careful observation. It's truly a discovery process, a process in which you may discover as much about yourself as you do about the river.