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River Fishing: A guide for the New Angler

by - Lynda Rosencrans

Spring has arrived and anglers across the Northeast are gearing up for another season of chasing those allusive small and large-mouth bass. Tackle bags and boxes are being restocked with everything from crank-baits and spinner-baits - to - creature baits and tubes, and each angler will have their own personal favorite. In this article, we're going to talk about why fishing a river is different from fishing a lake.

It is extremely easy for a new angler to quickly become overwhelmed by the cosmic amount of baits and lures on the market. Watch any outdoors channel or fishing show and in your first hour you can easily be presented with a dozen different baits, line, reels, and rods - each with their own strengths. What the new angler must keep in mind though - is location, location, location! What works in salt water isn't going to work in fresh water. What works in the southern states isn't necessarily going to work in the northern states and by that same logic, what works in lakes won't always work in rivers and what works in clear water isn't going to work in stained or even muddy water. So rule number one for the new angler is to know the waterway that your fishing.

For the purpose of this article, we're going to talk about river fishing, important gear, and why fishing a river is so different from fishing a lake, even when both are geographically near each other. Whereas a lake will generally not change much except for maybe levels and clarity, rivers on the other hand can change day to day and even hour to hour so it is crucial to begin your fishing adventure with a bit of homework. One of the first things you should do is try to locate a river map. Google maps are a fantastic resource for this and if you can track down a hydro-graphic map, all the better. Hydro-graphic maps will not only give you an overall view of where you will be fishing, but will give you depths and bottom contours of the river. When looking over a map of the river, remember to take note of islands, shoals, and especially depths at these areas as that can have a major effect on where you will be able to go. Once armed with your map, your next stop should be the NOAA website where you can find river levels and flow for your area. As I mentioned earlier, a river can change drastically, so this is an important tool to keep on hand and one you should check each time you head out for a day on the water.

Many anglers will stop their research with checking the river level however I have found a few extra pieces of information better the chances for a successful fishing adventure. The next item on my checklist is to check the weather and not just by watching the morning news. Personally, I compare weather predictions from several different sites. Wunderground has been a fantastic resource for me and they tend to be pretty accurate. Then I'll check the National Weather Service, The Weather Channel, and sometimes Accuweather as well. When checking weather don't just look at the forecast and temperature you also want to know the wind direction and speed, the moon phase, the barometric pressure, and what the weather will be over the next 24 to 48 hours because all these factors can and will affect how the fish will be feeding and where you can most likely find them.

Wind direction and speed is more for the angler than the fishing only because higher winds are going to affect how you cast out to target your fish - however that said, winds do go hand-in-hand with barometric pressure which does affect fish behavior. Northern and easterly winds will generally indicate a weather change is approaching and thus a barometric change, whereas southern or westerly winds can indicate a more slower change in the weather. If you remember as a general rule that when the barometric pressure is rising (clear skies) the fish will become more active however you will likely need to fish at deeper depths, use brighter colors, and look for cover such as lay downs. If the barometric pressure is already high, the fish are going to slow way down and go to deeper waters - the key here is to slow down your presentation. If the pressure is dropping, (cloudy skies) you will find the fish the most active. This is when you want to fish the more shallow running lures and even speed up your retrieval. Should the pressure already be low (usually indicated by rain / storm) well first, you probably don't want to go out fishing to begin with however if you are one of those brave souls that do, you going to find the fish to be less active the longer the system sticks around. Going back to fishing at deeper depths as the front subsides is key here but you really shouldn't be out fishing during this type of weather to begin with (graphite rods equal lighting rod).

Utilizing a solunar chart is strictly a matter of personal opinion and preference however we should keep in mind when considering the use of these charts that fishing by the phases of the moon is as old as the sport itself. During the phases of the full and new moon, the gravity pull on the earth is at its strongest and we all know the full moon is what legends and folk tales are made from, so there must be something to it all, right? Actually, according to research there is some truth when it comes to using moon phases for fishing. We all know that the moon affects tides but since we are inland and talking about river fishing, tidal changes really don't affect us however moon phases themselves do. During the phase of a full moon the fish can more easily see shad and bait fish so they will tend to be more actively feeding - and we can think of a new moon in the same regards as an overcast day, it's not bright and hot so the fish will be more likely come up to the shallows and banks to feed. So although the gravitational pull from a full or new moon doesn't really affect river (or lake) fishing, the moon phase itself can.

Once you have armed yourself with all this baseline data your ready to get out on the river right? No, not so much. Here's where knowing your river conditions comes into play. You've probably seen anglers with eight or ten different rods on their boat and tackle lockers filled with many different types of lures. Step onto just about any anglers boat and your likely to find a collection of buzz baits, spinner baits, crank baits, and a plethora of tubes, worms, creature baits, jigs, craws, spoons, and swim baits not to mention an array of hooks. So why so many different types of lures for one day out on the water? Here's where all your research comes full circle and you'll add a bit more information to your knowledge bin.

After your initial safety check of your boat which should include; is the plug in? are there PFD's for everyone in the boat? is there a fire extinguisher aboard? do you have both starboard and bow navigation lights in the boat and do they work? is there a throwable rescue pillow onboard? is there a basic first aid kit? a basic tool kit? and at least one flashlight onboard? are all electronics working to include your livewell's? and does everyone have their current fishing license? the next thing to check out is water temperature and water color. If the water temperature is too warm, the fish will slow down and be sluggish and this goes to your livewell as well. It is always wise to carry a live well additive, peroxide, or non-iodized salt on your boat, any of which will help to de-stress your fish and even help heal wounds and dislodged scales. When using non-iodized salt, you should use no more than 2 tablespoons per 10 gallons of water. If you know it's going to be a very warm or hot day, freeze a bottle of water the night before so you can put it in the livewell. Remember, if the water temperature in your livewell is warmer than 76 degrees your fish will stress out so make sure you keep your livewell circulated, aerated and cooled.  As a side note here, when running through your safety checklist - keep in mind the weather conditions. Having rain gear and even sun block onboard is always a smart bet!

Water color and clarity is also very important as these factors will determine which baits will work and which won't. If the water is very muddy chances are a watermelon or green pumpkin color isn't going to work, these colors will disappear and get lost. The colors you'll want to use are those colors that contrast and show a silhouette in the water. If the water is just stained, you can try just about any color and if the water is clear pull out your brighter colored baits. It is also important to know what the fish in your waters generally feeds on - for example, if your river doesn't have lily pads, your likely not going to have success with frog baits. Your bait should reflect the ecology of the waters your fishing because those fish know if something doesn't belong there. To take this a step further, if you know that crayfish are a bass staple don't forget that crayfish change colors throughout the season so you'll want to mimic that change as closely as possible and if you come across an area where bait fish are jumping then you know it's time to pull out the swim baits. One of the most frustrating times for a new angler is when you know the fish are there because you can see them stacked up like cord wood on the graph but no matter what you do, you just can't seem to get them to take your bait. This is when you need to change up your presentation and do something to fire up the group. A good way to do this is by drop shotting and spooning but the rub here is this will only work if the water is clear enough that the fish can see it. The one key and important thing for a new angler to remember when it comes to selecting lures is, never fall prey to the "OH isn't that a pretty bait" syndrome! Just because you may think it's a neat or pretty bait doesn't mean the fish will. Select your baits by what the fish in your waters will eat, what would naturally be found in your waters. This unfortunately is something each angler will learn by trial and error so be careful in over-buying until you familiarize yourself with what works for your specific area.

The next tool in your tackle box is your rod and reel and your choice in this area is as individual as you are. I do not recommend starting out with a cheap rod and reel because you aren't going to be able to really hone your technique with those and when you do upgrade you're going to tend to get a bit overwhelmed because of the difference in weight and casting with the better quality. If you're serious about fishing, then like with any other sport - take the plunge and get yourself some quality gear. When I started competitive fishing six years ago, my first rod was a mid-grade rod from a local sporting goods store. When I joined the pro-staff team of Denali Rods, I noticed an immediate difference. The weight was different (less casting fatigue), the sensitivity was much higher, and the better quality guides increased casting distance. The box store rod was so different than the specialty rod that it took several attempts with my new rods in order to stop fumbling with every cast.

Reels and bait casters like rods - are a personal preference but again, quality is going to make a big difference.  Spool size is going to determine how much line you can spool up and gear ratio's are going to retrieve your line at different rates. A reel with a gear ratio of 5.1:1 means that the reel will spin 5.1 times with every turn of the handle while a reel with a gear ratio of 7.1:1 is going to spin 7.1 times with every turn of the handle. This can also tell you how much line your are pulling in or retrieving with every turn (this is what's called the IPT or inches per turn). For example, a Pflueger Presidential series reel that has a gear ratio of 6.4:1 will retrieve 25" of line depending on the line you are using. When fun fishing, these probably don't matter that much, but these little items can be crucial when competitive fishing.

Line, more specifically line type - believe it or not - is another important part of your tackle bag. First rule of thumb is to steer clear of cheap line especially if it holds a lot of memory. The last thing you want to happen is, after that first cast and retrieve - to have a spool full of curly line because all that's going to do is get looped and tangled on the spool. Line with too much stretch is also the cause of many an anglers stresses because with too much stretch, it's easier to lose fish and break line not to mention the above mentioned loops and tangles. Generally speaking, with river fishing you aren't going to need anything more than a ten pound mono-filament line on a spinning reel or a fifteen pound mono-filament line on a bait caster. Whenever you retrieve your bait to either fix it or change it, it's always good to run your fingers down the line and feel for rough spots in the line.

When fishing a river, you are more than likely dragging across debris, rocks, and wood which will break down the line and cause it to break - more times than not, that will be when you have that huge fish hooked up and now you are on the deck of the boat crying while that winning fish is swimming away. When you feel this, just cut off that bit of line and re-tie. Speaking of re-tying knots, the quickest and easiest know for the new angler to learn is the "Palomar Knot". There are plenty of pictures and videos online about all the knots you will want to learn, but in a nutshell to tie the Palomar Knot, double your line so you have about 3-4 inches doubled at the end of your line. Now slide the loop end through the eye of your hook, and tie an overhand knot. Take the loop end and slide it over your hook - then grab the other end of the line and pull it until the knot tightens over the hook.  Finally snip off the excess line and double check that the knot is tight then bait your hook - unless - you are throwing tubes! If you are throwing tubes, you are going to want to put the tube on the hook before you tie it on your line because with tubes, you must insert your jig hook into the tube before tying..

At this point you are probably thinking, okay - I'm ready to go catch fish - not quite yet, there are still a few more important key items you are going to need. So let's take a moment and talk about baits and hooks. Two pretty important items to make sure you have in your tackle box. Choosing baits really isn't as difficult as it may seem given the hundreds of types and colors that are on any given box store shelf. This is where knowing and understanding your fishery is paramount. Remember what I said earlier that small and large mouth bass are going to go after what is normally in their waters and the easiest way to know this is simply to take notice of what is in and around the waters that you are fishing. If the bass are feeding on crayfish and they are all dark brown - then that tells you to throw colors that look similar - but if the water is stained you may have more luck with a green pumpkin color. If you see a lot of green / yellow green foliage on the banks then you might try something like a watermelon or even again, the green pumpkin or something with gold flake. Coming into the fall, a bait that has red / orange flakes or some red or orange coloring may just be the ticket especially if you find that the crayfish have molted and their claws have turned red. Also watch for where the water fowl are feeding as where they feed can be a real indicator. Also, as your fishing - take note of the size of your bait(s). Sometimes - especially when the water is cooler, a smaller bait whether it is a tube, crank bait, or even spinner bait may be more of an attractant than a larger sized bait.  Sometimes on those tough days, a little change up in color is all that is needed.  The easiest way to find out what those finicky bronze-backs want is to tie on a color and throw it out a few times. If you aren't even getting a sniff, then you need to be changing baits and/or colors. Also a few casts with a bait that has reflective flakes (blue, red, gold, green, etc) may be just enough to fire up suspended fish and let you know what they are after. The key here is look for sizes, colors, and shapes that resemble what is naturally found in your waters. The exception to this rule is when you are throwing swim baits - these should resemble bait fish not crayfish.

Another little item for your mental tackle-box is once your selected your baits, learning how to use them. This may sound silly because don't you just throw out the bait and wait for the fish to take it?  No, not necessarily - especially when fish are sluggish, suspended, or even post-spawn. Bass see profiles and sense movement and vibrations in the water. Teaching yourself how to mimic their prey's movements is going to greatly increase your chances of landing a fish.  The easiest way to teach yourself this is to go to an area where there is crystal clear water, a swimming pool, backyard pond, or even your bath-tub and practice. Drop a tube on a jig head into the water and allow it to land on the bottom. Now gently jerk the tip of your rod and watch closely what the bait does. If you are practicing with a tube, pay close attention to what the tails do and how the head of the bait (where the weight is) reacts in the water. Do this a few times then change up the technique. Try three quick jerks in a row and watch how the bait swims and moves and maybe even bring it up towards the surface and watch how it reacts as it slowly falls back to the bottom. If you commit these movements to memory, when you are out on the water where you likely won't be able to watch your bait - you will know your bait is doing pretty much the same thing as when you practiced. 

The weight on your tube or jig hook is also important especially on the river. A river in comparison to a lake, is going to have a lot of debris, lay-downs, and large rocks. The heavier the weight, the easier it is to get snagged thereby loosing baits and breaking line. The exception to this rule is if your fishing deep and your wanting to get to the bottom quicker (i.e. drop shotting) - then you are going to want a bit of a heavier weighted hook. Hooks come in various styles, sizes, shapes, and weights depending on the type of bait you are throwing. Generally, you are going to want to use a 1/0, 2/0, or 3/0 hook with a tube jig or ball head, weighted in the 1/8th to 3/8th ounce range. Of course I am giving you a base-line to work from - you are going to want to experiment to see what works for you and the technique you are using. For the ladies reading this, I personally have found that a thinner wire hook rigged weedless with an 1/8 ounce weight works very well for me. Not only does the lighter weight work well in shallower waters but the lighter weight also allows me to control better where I want the bait to go while the thinner wire (yet strong and sharp) hook offers a much easier hook-set.

I have mentioned technique a few times so to give you a very quick and highlighted overview of what it meant by this, it basically is how you are using your rod to cast out the bait. There is casting over your head, casting from the side, underhanded, skipping, flipping, pitching and simply dropping. Skipping, flipping, and pitching are techniques used to get in and around wood, docks, etc. and to get your bait into a targeted location quietly. Let's take a quick look at flipping and pitching. To flip your bait, you want to open the bail and let the bait fall into the water. Now close the bail and then grab the line between the reel and first eye and pull towards the side of your body that is holding the line (you should be making a triangle shape with the line and the rod). Next, drop your rod tip - and as you bring it back up, swing out slightly and release the line. Pitching is a little trickier. First open the reel to let out enough line so that it is equal to the length of your rod. With your free hand take hold of the bait. With the rod tip pointing up - and the butt of your rod about shoulder height, tip your rod down towards the water then swing up while releasing the bait. This one may take some practice, but when you get used to it, it's a valuable technique to have in your arsenal. If you are interested in honing your skills on any of these techniques, I would recommend looking online for how-to videos. Many of the Pro's have video's out there to help with just about every aspect of fishing. Once you've watched those, the easiest way to practice pitching, skipping, and flipping is to tie a sinker to your line and practice in your yard or driveway. Once you are more comfortable with the technique, set out a target like an empty soup can or coffee can and work on targeting. Adding just these two to your arsenal will increase your odds of putting fish in your live-well.

Up until this point we've discussed the basic boating checklist, rods, reels, line, baits, and hooks but what about the aquatic species you are trying to catch? For the purposes of this article, we're going to limit this to two kinds of fish from Centrarchidae or Sunfish Family. This particular family of fish includes 17 different species in Pennsylvania but we're going to focus on the Smallmouth and Largemouth Bass since most tournaments will focus on one or both of these species. The Smallmouth Bass is the predominant species and known for ambushing and traveling several miles to locate food or spawn since they aren't residents to any specific areas. They can be quickly identified by the darker stripes which run vertical along the sides of the body, their bellies are a cream color or white and they are a brown to bronze color. Their dorsal fins are separated by a very shallow notch. Smallmouth will tend to be around edges of moving water, rocky areas, outcrops, downed timber, wood, etc. Smallmouth's will spawn in May or June when water temperatures reach 60 to 70 degrees F.

Largemouth Bass are so named for a good reason. They can grow much larger than a small mouth and be easily identified by their larger mouth giving them the nick-name, bucketmouth. A Largemouth's head will be an olive green to bright green with the sides being a little lighter and the belly a white or a pale yellow color. Along the sides - from head to tail - the Largemouth has a dark horizontal stripe which can be solid or broken. They prefer warmer waters and tend to stay around grassy / weedy areas and will feed not only on crayfish and bait fish, but have known to go after small mammals like frogs and even ducklings. Unlike Smallmouth, you won't find the Largemouth around rocks or in depths more than 20 feet. Also unlike Smallmouth's, Largemouth's will not swim distances to seek out food. They tend to take up residence in a specific area and even when moved from that area (such as in a tournament), will return to it. In a lake, if you're looking to target Largemouth Bass, watch your electronics (fish finders) for water temperature changes. Largemouth will tend to migrate to the warmer water such as in cases where seasonal changes either increase or decrease water temperatures.

So what's the difference between river and lake fishing? It actually comes down to one key factor;  the water! which in turn, affects the fish.  In a river the water is moving - there is current and likely eddy's, so the smallmouth have to be more aggressive or miss a meal. They are going to be looking for undercuts, dead-pools, outcrops, lay-downs, rock piles, and even bridge piers to hide behind - areas just outside rapidly flowing water where they can wait for food to swim by without fighting the current. Also, pretty much any river angler will tell you figuring out their pattern by starting your fishing season early is also important because smallmouth (as I mentioned earlier) are not resident fish, they will move around and that 'honey hole' you found last weekend is likely to be an empty hole by tournament time.

In a lake, there's very little current so the fish can sit under docks, boats, on the edge of weed / grass beds, etc. and wait for food to come to them. This allows lake fish to be a bit more picky about what they go after - so matching the natural habitat in a lake is much more crucial than in a river.  Also in lakes you're going to find both smallmouth and largemouth so it is important to know where these resident fish call 'home'. Where smallmouth may be stacking above the grass bed or around rocks, the largemouth are going to be holding below the grass bed and on the edges of drops. Learning how to read and understand your electronics and paying attention to contour changes will increase your odds of having a successful day (or evening) on the water.

An entire article could easily be dedicated to any of these topics which have been presented here. This is only meant as a brief introduction to some of the essentials that a competitive or tournament angler likely finds important to their success. The focus here is towards the new angler in the hopes that the information provided will help you get a solid start in this fun and challenging sport. If your still sitting on the fence wondering if speeding across the water in a boat at speeds that range from 40 mph all the way up to 60 mph then trying to find (and land) a species that can out-swim you is something you really want to do - then remember this. Besides just simple enjoyment, fishing offers many other benefits;  exercise (it's a great physical and cardio workout), relaxation, stress relief, we can escape from everyday pressures and give ourselves a mental vacation while at the same time commune with nature, and it is an activity that has no age (and only very few physical) limitations - and if that's not enough to convince you, fishing even in a tournament setting offers us quality time with loved ones whether it is with our children or spending that all important quality - alone time with a loved one.  The most enjoyable tournaments that my husband and I fish are the night tournaments where it is quiet and it's just me and him, the night sky and those allusive fish.

Team Rosencrans
Rob & Lynda Rosencrans
Ph: 570-655-6927
Fax: 570-299-7069