Bass In The Rivers

Moving waters mystify many lake and reservoir bass anglers. With a little effort to learn the current, you'll catch more and take your show on the road. (June 2007)

If you don't fish rivers and streams for bass, you're missing out on some great fishing!
Photo by David Paul Williams.

When most Pacific Northwest anglers think of bass, they think of large impoundments like California's Lake Shasta, Oregon's Davis Lake or Washington's Potholes Reservoir -- all great places to fish. But if you fish only still waters, you're missing half the fun of bassing. I caught my first largemouth in an Oregon river. My first smallmouth came from a small California stream. To this day, I'll fish moving water every chance I get.

Many still-water fishers, mystified by moving water, stick with their tried and true lakes. With a little effort, you can learn the effects of currents on bass in streams and rivers.

GOT CURRENT?

The major difference between still water and moving water is that simple phenomenon called current. Its speed is a function of:

'¢ River gradient -- that is, the steepness of the riverbed,

'¢ Proximity of obstructions, like dams, and

'¢ River structure, like rocks, weeds and bottom structure.

Water tends to flow faster just below a dam, as well as toward the middle of the waterway and on the outside edge of a bend. Its velocity diminishes along the river bottom, the edges of banks, near structure and the inside edges of bends.

These different speeds, or flows, are a combination of gravity and friction. On a high gradient, gravity pulls the water faster. With rocks, logs, weedbeds and the like to bump up against, friction slows the water.

Current determines where the bass feed, spawn and rest. In short, the more you learn about current, the more you'll know about catching fish.

Bass always orient themselves to the current because it's a conveyor belt that brings them food. Since bass are not stout trout, they tend to avoid swift flows. They may dart into swifter water to snatch a bite, but they'll always return to their slow-water holding spots.

RISING WATER

Bass are also sensitive to changing water levels. During spring run-off, rising water increases the velocity of the current, forcing bass into the shallows where they're more accessible to anglers. But flooding water also exposes tons of food, like insects and earthworms. That draws in forage fish, which in turn draw feeding bass.

When the water's rising, fish in tight to shore. Focus on back eddies where the current curls into soft water. Big bass love to hang in gentle water and eat whatever goodies the current brings them.

WATER DEPTH

Smallmouths in Lake Washington may hold 65 feet deep in winter and move up to 3 feet during the spawn. That difference can make it difficult to locate the action. But most smallmouth rivers and streams are 10 feet deep or less, which makes finding fish on a river much easier.

But relatively shallow water can be both a boon and burden to the bass angler. It helps to predict where the fish can be found, but also lets the fish find you. Shallow rivers dictate a quiet, stealthy approach to catch fish.

PRESENTATION

The current affects your presentation of flies and baits. If you cast directly to the spot where you think a fish is holding, the current will sweep away the lure before it can sink to the depth where the fish is.

For the fly-fisher, this means that weighted flies, short leaders and sinking fly lines are required. For the gear fisher, heavier jigs and smaller diameter line are best. Cast upstream to allow the lure to sink down to the fish's feeding zone.

Think of the riffles as the larder where all the food supplies originate. The pool is the dining room.

Take time to get familiar with the sink rates of your lines and lures. Then you can make minor adjustments on the water to get your bait to the fish before you spook them.

Studies show that lake bass often travel great distances and will "commute" up to seven miles a day. River bass, on the other hand, are homebodies. They often spend their entire life within the same pool, although there are some notable exceptions.

In Washington's Yakima River, smallmouths run 40 miles upstream from the Columbia River to spawn in the warmer tributary water before dropping back to their home water. But they are an exception. More often than not, bass stay close to the spots they hold in.

ANATOMY OF A STREAM

The ideal bass stream would have pools and drops, with a mostly cobble bottom of fist- to football-sized rocks. It will feature some larger in-stream boulders and a minimum of silt and sand.

The pools provide feeding, resting and safety habitat throughout the year. The boulders provide resting and feeding stations. Drops provide riffles that oxygenate the water, allowing aquatic insects to breed, forage fish to feed and crayfish to hide.

Think of the riffles as the larder where all the food supplies originate. The pool is the dining room.

POOLS

Each pool is divided into a head, middle and tail sections.

The head of the pool typically holds the most actively feeding fish because that is where their forage is concentrated. The middle section has the deepest holding water and provides sanctuary for resting fish. The tail-out should be thoroughly covered in morning and evening when flows are at summer levels.

Damian Forsythe, a fly-fishing guide on American River, offers advice on how to fish pools. In early season when the fish are lethargic due to lower water temperatures, he slowly swings small crayfish and baitfish imitations on sinking lines. If the fish don't hit, he slows down his presentation even more.

In the early season, whatever you fish with, be it flies or baits, use small stuff. The natural foods that bass eat are small because they haven't yet had the summer to grow. Save your bigger imitations for the fall feeding frenzy.

In summer when the water warms, Forsythe says tactics are determined by where the fish are located in the pool. If the fish are concentrated at the head, then he'll use topwater imitations. If the fish are hanging in the tail, a slow presentation will work best.

ISLANDS

Islands may be paradise to Jimmy Buffett, but to the bass angler, they are nothing more than big, exposed structure that divides and slows the current along the edges.

Bass will always be oriented towards structure, and out of the main current. The current often forms shoals along the island's sides or on the down-current end. Bass like to hang out on the protected sides of the shoals.

In spring, the upstream cobble bottom will hold bass. When fish are in their summer pattern, look for them on the downstream end where the current reforms into a single flow.

Trout fly-anglers probably have the edge over bass anglers when it comes to matching the hatch. In fertile lakes, bass can present hatch-matching challenges where they key in on one food source to the exclusion of any others.

Not so with river bass. Food in streams is often not as abundant, but a stronger factor is at work. Current is a constant in the life of a river bass, so it must always expend energy to maintain position. That means these bass must always be replenishing the energy they've expended.

In streams, bass are much more likely to exhibit selective opportunism. They'll eat anything that looks like food, regardless of whether it's part of their regular diet. That rapacious approach to dining is part of the attraction of river-fishing for bass.

POST-SPAWN ANGLING

After the spawn, you'll find that lake bass are tough to catch. Females are typically suspended in deeper water, trying to recover from the rigors of dropping thousands of eggs, while the males are guarding nests. Once the eggs have hatched and the fry are dispersed, the males drift off toward their summer holding stations.

The task gets a bit easier in rivers and streams, if only because the fish are easier to find, though you still have to convince them to hit your offering. Don't expect to find any substantial concentrations of post-spawn fish. River fish, unlike lake fish, don't school.

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