Lakes fluctuate seasonally, but real change comes slowly. Find bass in a reservoir one day and anglers can usually catch them for weeks. On a river, though, a strong thunderstorm 100 miles away can transform a lazy stream into a muddy torrent almost overnight. Constantly building up, tearing down and reconfiguring, rivers change course, cut new channels and fill in others.
Facing ever-changing conditions and battling currents, river bass struggle just to survive. While some reservoirs consistently produce double-digit bass, few river bass reach that size, but they more than compensate in increased pugnacity and viciousness. While river bass might never weigh as much as some reservoir cousins, they usually stuff themselves with an incredible smorgasbord of bait found in rich, fertile systems.
“River bass are mean,” quipped Mark Rose, professional bass angler. “They’ll eat anything.”
The fighting qualities of river fish and the unpredictable nature of their environment endear them to “river rats.” When conditions turn right, anglers who know how to fish these systems can put many feisty fighters in the boat quickly.
To understand how to fish a river, anglers must first understand current. Many bass anglers try to avoid current, but that flow could help concentrate fish, making bass easier to find and catch.
“Current fishing is the easiest fishing in the world because current dictates where a fish goes,” claimed Denny Brauer, former Bassmaster Classic champion. “In current, fish don’t have much choice where they can go. They are going to be in the seams, eddies and pockets. Let the current wash the bait to the fish.”
Just like rainbow trout in swift streams, bass lurk behind rocks, fallen trees, stumps and other objects that break the current. They face upstream to ambush anything that washes toward them. When they spot something they like, they rush out and grab it; then, they return to their eddies to wait for the next morsel. Facing into the current also gives bass more oxygen as water rushes through their gills, providing an energy boost.
Like rivers, current takes many forms. Pouring out of mountains, some streams flow swiftly over rocky shoals. Silt-laden streams sluggishly meander through upland forests, cypress swamps and marshy deltas as they slowly make their way to the sea. In coastal rivers, tides create current that changes direction every few hours. During an incoming tide, bass might position themselves on one side of an object. As the tide falls, they could switch to the other side.
Snags can create obvious eddies where bass seek to escape current. However, underwater objects can also generate eddies that attract bass. For instance, a submerged stump can form a pocket that most anglers would never know exists.
“An experienced angler can look at a spot and consider cover, shade, current, depth and other factors to figure out where a bass should be,” detailed Kevin VanDam, four-time Bassmaster Classic champion. “Sometimes when fish aren’t feeding aggressively, we have to throw numerous times to one spot that looks like it should hold a bass. Sometimes it takes multiple casts to really work a bait intensely before a fish bites.”
Most river anglers know to fish on the downstream side of current breaks, but eddies can also form on the upstream side. Water smashing against an object creates a “mushroom” effect like a bullet hitting steel. Water briefly bounces backward, which can form a tiny bass lair that few people would think to fish.
“Often, current hitting an object creates a back eddy,” Brauer emphasized. “From above, it looks like water is washing one way, but below it’s really washing another way. Anytime I can find a back-eddy situation, I usually find multiple fish in that spot.” Therefore, always fish completely around any snags or current break whenever possible. Putting baits as tight to the snag as possible, thoroughly probe the cover with jigs, Texas-rigged worms, tubes or other snag-less baits. Use just enough weight to reach the bottom. Not wanting to move from their lair, bass may slurp a convenient easy enticement, but not chase it.
“If I could only bring one bait to fish rivers, it would be a 1/2-ounce jig, but a Texas-rigged tube is another good choice,” recommended Alton Jones, former Bassmaster Classic champion. “A bass likes to sit just out of the current but keep its nose right against it. Current hits the upstream side of an obstruction and goes straight down. Underwater, it switches directions. A fish near the bottom may face upstream but be looking toward the stump or rock.”
Islands, peninsulas and sandbars also break current. Sandbars typically form on the inside bends where flow weakens and silt falls to the bottom. On the backside of bends, weeds sometimes grow in placid flats, making good places to toss frogs. Around the islands and sandbars, throw topwaters or spinnerbaits early and late. During the day, run crankbaits to tempt suspended fish.
On the other side of the bend, water must travel farther in the same amount of time, so it goes faster. Powerful currents usually scour deeper holes. Logs and other debris fall into these holes, adding more bass cover. Probe holes with Texas-rigged worms, jigs or deep-running crankbaits. Also, try throwing a Carolina rig shallow and work it out to the deepest water.
On major rivers, rock or concrete wing dams periodically redirect current to keep channels swept clean of silt. These structures attract baitfish and other creatures, making excellent bass hunting grounds. Like at river bends, current washing around the ends of wing dams also scour holes that attract bass. Wing dams also create secondary cover, like logs or dense grass mats that become trapped by the current.
In commercial rivers, ships or tugboats pushing heavily laden barges can temporarily alter current. A large vessel in motion pushes a bulge of water ahead of it, creating a brief “high tide” situation. As it passes, it sucks water from the banks, creating a “low tide” situation until the water returns to normal. In addition, when a large vessel passes through locks, the gates opening can disrupt natural flow and dislodge bait from hiding places, kicking off a feeding frenzy.
In the fall, rivers typically drop to the lowest and clearest levels all year. As water and temperature fall, bass action frequently rises. Low water pulls bass and baitfish out from backwaters into main channels. In the fall, watch for baitfish schools and throw shad-colored crankbaits or spinnerbaits.
Don’t expect to land many bucketmouth giants from streams, but anglers who go with the flow can still enjoy outstanding action during some of the most beautiful days of the year when fishing rivers in the fall.
Too frequently, people smash boats into trees, rocks or other objects, or worse, collide with other boats. Most accidents come down to a few reasons or perhaps a combination of them: not paying attention; breaking safety rules; traveling too fast for the conditions; or driving impaired.
Lakes usually offer boaters wide spaces with good visibility. Not so on narrow, winding rivers, particularly in thick fog. When rounding a blind curve too fast, one never knows what’s on the other side, particularly in a river lined by wooded shorelines that limit visibility. In addition, many tributaries flow into rivers. Boaters might not see another vessel exiting from a tributary into a main channel until the last minute. Just like driving a car, watch for emerging side traffic and look both ways before pulling out into a major thoroughfare.
When running a river, also watch for floating objects, particularly after high water conditions. Sometimes, river currents carry entire uprooted trees after a bad flood. Many professional bass anglers now equip their boats with radar. Radar can give a lot of information but can’t spot something floating at or submerged just beneath the surface.