Rolling Down The River

Current wisdom on where to find fish in running water and how to catch them.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Despite the fact that the United States is blessed with more than 3 million miles of rivers and streams, a surprising number of anglers rarely take advantage of this tremendous fishing resource. And that means they're missing out on exceptional fishing opportunities. Most rivers offer an extraordinary diversity of fish that are present in bountiful numbers.

For anglers who spend most of their time on lakes, the thought of fishing in flowing water is intimidating. They don't have a clue as to where to find the fish, and even if they happen to stumble onto a few, the fish often turn up their noses at the usual lake-fishing methods.

Let's face it-river fishing can be tough. Just when you think you have the fish located, a heavy downpour muddies up the water and raises the level a foot or two. Not only do the fish move to different spots, but they mayrefuse to bite until the water starts to clear.

Another complication: Rivers and streams change constantly. Over time, siltation can convert your favorite hole into a shallow, fishless flat. And erosion can scour out an even deeper hole in a different spot. In some cases a severe flood can alter the river dramatically, perhaps creating a new channel radically different than the old one.

While such seasonal annoyances may cause problems for anglers, they're a godsend to the fish. Environmental alterations not only reduce fishing pressure, but afford fish populations a level of protection they would not have in lakes, where comparatively stable conditions make it easier for anglers to establish reliable fishing patterns.

Yet for many fishermen, the unpredictable nature of rivers holds a near-magical appeal that is unmatched by still waters. A river constantly presents new challenges and opportunities. It's not unusual for a good river fisherman to land a dozen species in a day -- a feat that would be nearly impossible in a lake.

More good reasons to try river fishing: When a cold front slows the action in nearby lakes, river fish generally continue to bite. And rivers are also among the best places to fish in the heat of summer, when high water temperatures and sagging oxygen levels in lakes put the fish off their feed. River current prevents stagnation, keeping the fish in a stream more active. On the pages that follow, you'll learn the strategies used by veteran river rats to find and catch the most common kinds of river game fish.

Walleyes
Versatility is the key to catching river walleyes. In spring, you might find spawners tightly concentrated in water only two or three feet deep. In summer, the fish are more likely to be scattered at depths of 8 to 15 feet, and in late fall, they may retreat to depths of 30 feet or more. For consistent success, an angler should master the following techniques so he can meet the presentation demands the fish place on him.

Pitching: River walleyes spend a lot of their time in shallow water, particularly around spawning time or in summer and fall, when they're feeding along riprap banks and on wing dams. These shallow-water fish spook easily, but by keeping your boat at the edge of casting range and pitching jigs and crankbaits into the fish zone, you can minimize the disturbance.

To work a riprap bank, use an electric motor to troll parallel to the bank, into the wind (if possible) and within easy casting distance. Angle your casts slightly ahead of the boat to avoid putting a big bow in the fishing line.

Use the same method to fish the upstream lip of a wing dam (the prime feeding spot), but it may be advisable to toss out an anchor so you can work specific places along the wing dam more thoroughly. Practically every wing dam has a "sweet spot" where the bottom configuration and current speed is just right. If you can find this location, it's possible to catch a bunch of walleyes in hurry.

Vertical Jigging: When walleyes go deep in late fall and winter, the most productive method is vertical jigging. As the boat drifts downstream with the current, simply lower a jig (1á4- to 3á8-ounce) tipped with a minnow to the bottom and hop it along, keeping the fishing line as vertical as possible to detect light strikes. Vary the action of the jig until you find what the walleyes want on a given day. Sometimes they respond best to hard twitches, but more often they prefer gentle twitches or no twitches at all.

Other good lures for vertical jigging include metal blade baits such as the Heddon Sonar and jigging spoons like Northland's Fire-Eye Minnow. Jigging spoons are usually tipped with a minnow or a minnow head.

For most anglers, the biggest problems in vertical jigging are detecting strikes and setting the hook. Although there are times when walleyes literally slam the jig, usually they just bump it or hold onto it, so all you feel is a little extra resistance. To detect these subtle strikes, you'll need a super-sensitive spinning or bait-casting rod.

When the fish are in an uncooperative mood and are taking the bait tentatively, they'll often grab the rear end of the minnow. When the hook is set, the minnow pulls off or comes back with a mangled tail. That's your signal to add a stinger hook. Northland Fireball jigs have an extra eye on the bottom of the head for that purpose.

If you're having trouble keeping the line vertical, use the trolling motor to compensate for the wind or conflicting currents. For example, a downstream wind may push the boat so fast that the line trails upstream and you completely lose contact with the bottom. The solution is to slow down the boat's drift by running the trolling motor upstream until the line gets back to vertical and more or less stays there.

**Trolling: **When walleyes are scattered along the main channel or in any other habitat with relatively uniform depth, try trolling with crankbaits, minnow baits or rattle baits. Trolling enables you to cover a lot of water quickly and pinpoint walleye concentrations. Then you can switch to a more deliberate method such as jigging or live-bait fishing to work the area more thoroughly.

River walleyes almost always hug the bottom tightly, so it's important to maintain bottom contact as you troll. Some anglers use ordinary spinning or bait-casting gear and select their lures based on water depth and current speed. But most veteran river fishermen prefer to troll with a three-way rig or lead-core line. This way, they can reach deeper water if necessary and get shallow-running lures such as floating minnow baits down to the desired depth where the fish are holding.

The most important rule in river trolling is to motor upstream very slowly so the current will keep the plug working. When you turn and troll downstream, you'll have to go considerably faster than the current to get any action out of a plug.

Smallmouth Bass
Stream smallmouths are a different breed of cat than their lake-dwelling relatives. Not only are they considerably more aggressive, but they hang out in different types of habitat.

Don't think of the current as your enemy, however; if you know how to "read the water," finding smallmouths is really quite simple. Once you learn how to recognize the right current speed and identify current patterns that reveal underwater structure such as boulders, gravel bars and wing dams, you'll be catching plenty of fish.

The biggest challenge to anglers who target stream smallmouths is fluctuating water levels. Rising water generally draws the fish into shallower water, while falling water pushes them deeper. When the water gets very low, smallmouths crowd into the deepest holes, where they're easy to find -- and hungry. To keep track of these changes, be sure to establish a reference point along the bank to monitor the daily water level.

To catch smallmouths in moving water on a consistent basis, you'll need a combination of artificial-lure and live-bait methods.

Proven lures for stream smallmouths include jig-grub combinations, in-line spinners such as Mepps, floating minnow baits such as Rapalas, topwater lures such as Pop-Rs and a variety of fly-rod popping bugs and streamers.

When the fish refuse artificials, natural baits such as crayfish may be the only game in town. It may be possible to turn over rocks along the riverbank and find crayfish. Hook the craw through the tail or the bony "horn" on the head and use only a split shot for weight. Let it tumble down-current.

If you suspect that bass are holding around a particular piece of cover in the river, remember to cast the lure or bait far enough upstream so that it will be at the popular depth when it's worked along the cover.

To fish a current seam alongside a riffle (a prime feeding station for bronzebacks), stand or position the boat downstream and cast a spinner or small minnow bait to the upper end of the seam and retrieve the lure at a moderate speed.

White bass and stripers
Whether they live in big rivers or man-made lakes, white bass and stripers (striped bass) are known for their here-today-gone-tomorrow habits. But there's one time of year when you know exactly where to find them -- during their spawning seasons.

In spring, when water temperatures rise into the upper 50s, huge schools of white bass and stripers begin their upriver migration, usually congregating in the tailwaters of a dam that blocks their upstream movement. Finding them at this time is easy; you'll see them "blowing up" on schools of shad or other baitfish, usually in an eddy alongside the swift current.

When you find one of these spawning concentrations, catching the fish is not much of a challenge. In fact, it's hard to find a lure they won't hit. The main rule to follow in lure selection is to use something about the same size as their natural food. Small spoons, white or yellow jigs in 1/8- or 1/4-ounce sizes, or in-line spinners such as 1/4- or 3/8-ounce Rooster Tails will draw quick attention from white bass, which seldom exceed three pounds apiece and average a pound or less.

Stripers, which may weigh up to 50 pounds apiece, require a more substantial offering. Heavy spoons, long crankbaits and jerkbaits, muskie-size topwater plugs and even the biggest spinnerbaits and buzzbaits you can find aren't too much of a mouthful for them. Just be sure to match the heavier lures with the appropriate tackle.

Although stripers and white bass are at opposite ends of the size spectrum, the behavior of the two species and the methods for catching them are much alike. Both are higheference point along the bank to monitor the daily water level.

To catch smallmouths in moving water on a consistent basis, you'll need a combination of artificial-lure and live-bait methods.

Proven lures for stream smallmouths include jig-grub combinations, in-line spinners such as Mepps, floating minnow baits such as Rapalas, topwater lures such as Pop-Rs and a variety of fly-rod popping bugs and streamers.

When the fish refuse artificials, natural baits such as crayfish may be the only game in town. It may be possible to turn over rocks along the riverbank and find crayfish. Hook the craw through the tail or the bony "horn" on the head and use only a split shot for weight. Let it tumble down-current.

If you suspect that bass are holding around a particular piece of cover in the river, remember to cast the lure or bait far enough upstream so that it will be at the popular depth when it's worked along the cover.

To fish a current seam alongside a riffle (a prime feeding station for bronzebacks), stand or position the boat downstream and cast a spinner or small minnow bait to the upper end of the seam and retrieve the lure at a moderate speed.

White bass and stripers
Whether they live in big rivers or man-made lakes, white bass and stripers (striped bass) are known for their here-today-gone-tomorrow habits. But there's one time of year when you know exactly where to find them -- during their spawning seasons.

In spring, when water temperatures rise into the upper 50s, huge schools of white bass and stripers begin their upriver migration, usually congregating in the tailwaters of a dam that blocks their upstream movement. Finding them at this time is easy; you'll see them "blowing up" on schools of shad or other baitfish, usually in an eddy alongside the swift current.

When you find one of these spawning concentrations, catching the fish is not much of a challenge. In fact, it's hard to find a lure they won't hit. The main rule to follow in lure selection is to use something about the same size as their natural food. Small spoons, white or yellow jigs in 1/8- or 1/4-ounce sizes, or in-line spinners such as 1/4- or 3/8-ounce Rooster Tails will draw quick attention from white bass, which seldom exceed three pounds apiece and average a pound or less.

Stripers, which may weigh up to 50 pounds apiece, require a more substantial offering. Heavy spoons, long crankbaits and jerkbaits, muskie-size topwater plugs and even the biggest spinnerbaits and buzzbaits you can find aren't too much of a mouthful for them. Just be sure to match the heavier lures with the appropriate tackle.

Although stripers and white bass are at opposite ends of the size spectrum, the behavior of the two species and the methods for catching them are much alike. Both are high