How to Go River Fishing: The Complete Guide

Oct 11, 2023 | 10 minute read
Reading Time: 10 minutes

For some, a love of fishing starts on a stream behind their house; for others, it takes place in the crashing surf of Atlantic beaches. Most beginners, however, make their first casts on a river. And it only makes sense, since river fishing is one of the most versatile and accessible ways of learning the ropes of this sport.

Three fishermen standing and fishing from a Bass boat on a river, with forest hills visible behind them

There are many advantages to this type of fishing. The variety of fish species alone is enough to reel you in. Add to that the fact that you don’t need expensive equipment to get started and that you can fish on the river most of the year, and you’ve got a winning combo. If you’re just starting out in the fishing world, we’ll help you sort out the basics – from species you can target to types of lures you can use to catch them.

Where do you fish in a river?

When you come to your river of choice, this is the first question to consider. Different fish prefer different feeding conditions, but there are some commonalities you can follow.

Angler standing on a rocky river bank, fishing in a small stream surrounded by trees

Underwater vegetation and structure are usually a great place to start. Vegetation provides cover from predators while attracting bait fish and insects, which is exactly what fish need. You can cast your line around weed lines, sunken trees, stumps, and branches hanging low over the water. Big rocks, boulders, and rock piles also attract bait fish, and in turn, species that feed on them.

Fishing backwaters and tailwaters is the way to go when you’re on a fast-moving river. Most of the time, fish can’t feed when the water is roiling around them, so the chances of them noticing your offering is slim. Test your luck by casting into calmer waters for the possibility of landing something good.

A change in current and depth is a good indicator that there’s feeding fish nearby. When you see spots where the water swirls or slows down, or you find drop-offs in the river bottom, this is your marker to start fishing. Bait fish congregate around changes in currents, and their predators (aka your catch) usually aren’t too far away. 

How do you fish in a river?

There’s a variety of approaches you can take when it comes to river fishing, and while this can be super fun, it can also be a bit overwhelming for beginners. Thankfully, the basics are fairly simple and with a bit of practice can be very productive.

River Fishing from a Bank

An angler facing away from the camera, sitting on a dock on a river bank and fishing, with some of his gear next to him, as well as green reeds

When someone mentions fishing on a river, the picture of you casting a line from the banks is probably what comes to mind. If you’re just getting the hang of fishing in general, then fishing from a bank is a great place to start.

There are different techniques you can employ to get that fish to bite, but spinning and fly fishing are probably the most popular. To get the most out of riverbank fishing, it’s advisable to move around in search of the bite. If you’re fishing the shallows close to land, remember to stay quiet and blend into your surroundings as much as possible. You’ll need equipment adapted to your fishing conditions along with a fishing west stocked with spare tackle.

Wade Fishing in a River

An elderly fisherman standing waist-deep in a river, holding a fishing pole, with water and trees in the background

Another popular option for river anglers who don’t mind standing in the water all day is wade fishing. The main perk of wading is that you can reach spots that are further out. While wade fishing can be very productive, it’s important to have the right equipment to do it safely.

This type of fishing requires a bit more preparation because you’ll need more gear to make it work. You need to think about adequate wading clothes because standing in cold running water without protection isn’t a good idea. Use your lighter rods and tackle when wading to make things easier for yourself.

Bring a small backpack with all the necessary essentials, so that you don’t have to go back and forth. So much movement could alert the fish of your presence and then you’ll need to find a new spot. Finally, make sure you know how to safely get out of a sticky spot in case the current gets too strong or you slip and fall down.

River Fly Fishing

A fly fisherman standing in a boat, casting a line, with fall foliage surrounding him

Fly fishing is quite different from standard casting and spinning and it does require some practice to get it right. However, if you fall in love with fly fishing, it’s for life. For a lot of fishermen, fly fishing is synonymous with Trout, though a lot of species can be caught on a fly, including Bass, Salmon, Carp, and Pike.

If you plan on fly fishing on a river, you’ll need completely different tackle to get started. From fly rods and special lines to tippets and fly patterns, it’s necessary to equip yourself well. You’ll use flies instead of lures and bait, and those can imitate insects, bait fish, and even small rodents and amphibians. The best thing to do is cast your offering upstream and let it naturally flow downstream so that the fish can spot it and gobble it down.

River Fishing from a Boat

A silhouette of a fisherman fishing on a river from his boat, with a dog on board, at sunset

River fishing from a boat opens up a lot of opportunities because you can cover more ground and change techniques. Boat anglers have better access to the deep pools in the middle of the river, where big fish hide.

The tackle you use will be similar to what you’d use when fishing from land. It’s important to take into consideration the speed of the river and whether you can navigate the boat safely. Whether you fish from the bank or from a boat is mostly a thing of preference and possibility. If you’re out on a big body of water like the Mississippi River, having an experienced guide take you out on his boat could make all the difference in how productive you are. Then, when you learn the lay of the river, you can try it yourself.

What fish species can you catch in a river?

What you can catch when river fishing depends on where you’re fishing and the temperature of the water. There’s plenty of game fish you can go after, and most of them make for delicious table fare, so you get a win-win combination.

An elderly fisherman in a cap holding a Rainbow Trout, with a river in fog in the background

Trout of all varieties, as well as Salmon, prefer cold, less-oxygenated water (42–60ºF), and they’re on the to-catch list of most river anglers. They fight hard and smart, aren’t easy to trick into biting, and are absolutely delicious. River fishing for Trout, especially during their spring runs, is a near-religious event for many passionate fishermen.

Walleye are maybe the most popular cool water game fish, thriving in water temperatures of up to 70ºF. Northern Pike and Muskellunge follow close behind, but they can be much bigger, while Yellow Perch are just about everywhere, but rarely go over a few pounds.

The prime target of warm water species must be Bass, namely Largemouth, Smallmouth, and Striped. Naturally, there are many more varieties to consider, but these two are the most popular. Sunfish, Carp, Bluegill, Crappie, and Catfish are also more active in warm waters (70–80ºF) and are a delight to catch.

Of course, there are hundreds of river species you could find at the end of your line when fishing on a river. These are just some of the most loved and frequently caught species you can look forward to landing.

River Fishing Tackle

Most importantly, river fishing equipment is versatile. We already mentioned that, as a beginner, you don’t need a lot of gear to get started and be successful. Here’s what you’ll need.

River fishing rods and tackle on a boat, with a sunset in the background
  • Rods: The first rule of river fishing rods is that they should be light and flexible. A general rule of thumb is to pick rods in the 7–10 foot range. You’ll use shorter poles for lure fishing, while longer ones (up to 13 feet) will work best for fishing the bottom. Either fiberglass or graphite spinning rods are a go-to choice for both beginners and seasoned anglers. 
  • Lines: Your choice of fishing line should depend on the clarity of the water and the size of your prey. The monofilament nylon line is always a good choice for river fishermen, and the weight can vary from 4–12 lb. If you’re fishing clear waters, you can also try using fluorocarbon line, which can be especially useful when fly fishing.
  • Reels: Spinning reels are the way to go for beginners, and the sizes vary depending on the size of the rod. In general, you can’t go wrong with the size ranging between 1,000–2,500, preferably with a front drag, for easier handling.
  • Leaders: If you’re spinning and casting, then leaders aren’t necessary, but they’re very important when fly fishing. Leaders are can make it harder for fish to spot your line and take your bait/lure quicker. On the regular tackle, your leader should be up to 4 foot long. For fly fishing, doubling that length is advisable, and a fly fishing leader can go up to 12 feet.
  • Sinkers: These little weights will help you present your bait in the section of the water column where fish feed. The lower you want your setup to be, the heavier the sinker. The sizes can vary from ¼ oz to a couple of pounds, so it’s always a good idea to bring a good choice of sinkers with you.

River Fishing Lures

Using lures for your river fishing escapades is a very popular and foolproof method to get a bite. The sheer number of types, sizes, and colors can be overwhelming, but we recommend you start simple and build your way up. Here are some of the most common and productive lures to use.


A close-up of a popper lure

This is the lure to go for when you’re topwater fishing. Poppers are meant to tempt surface feeders like Trout to bite. They make a lot of noise as they hit the water, and attract the attention of nearby predators.

Jigheads & Other Lures

An assortment of jigheads spread out in a star shape

One of the most engaging ways of lure fishing is jigging, and jigheads are an indispensable part of the equation. You can pair them with a variety of soft plastics or imitations of fish and crustaceans that will excite the fish with their constant movement. 


An assortment of spoon lures for river fishing on a tree stump

Similar to other lures, the purpose of metal spoons is to imitate the favorite food of your targeted species. Most of the time, their color and movement remind or bait fish, and you can use them on various rigs. Be sure to match the size and shape of your spoon to the bait fish from the river you’re fishing.


An assortment of crankbait lures arranged in a diagonal row

These are made from the same materials (mostly wood or plastic) but have a different function. You’ll use topwater plugs (which look like bait fish) to fish the surface, while crankbaits are also called “diving plugs” and are designed for fishing under the surface.

River Fishing Bait

If you prefer using live bait for your fishing endeavors, there’s no shortage of options. The most important thing to check is what kind of bait will work on the watershed you’ve chosen. Also, remember to check if it’s allowed to use live bait before you start fishing. Some bodies of water have special restrictions to avoid the overpopulation of non-game fish.

A close-up of an angler hooking live bait

Minnows are probably the most popular and versatile live bait. They can be used in a variety of techniques and game fish can’t resist them. They work well in a variety of scenarios, be it trolling or bottom fishing. The same thing goes for nightcrawlers.  

Insects are another good choice, especially crickets, beetles, caterpillars, and grasshoppers. Bass and Trout are particularly responsive to insects, and Trout also love larvae of various flies. Using insects as your bait can be very affordable because you can gather them yourself before you go fishing.

Cut bait will get you the attention of more “bloodthirsty” fish like Catfish and Carp. If you’re going after the likes of Walleye and other toothy fellas like Pike and Musky, try using leeches, just make sure you don’t move them around too much. Worms are the go-to if you’re targeting different Sunfish, and Trout won’t say no to them either.

Best River Fishing Destinations

Anglers riding on a boat on the Kenai River at sunset

With over 250,000 rivers all over the country, choosing the best ones near-impossible. Still, we’ll try to name some of the most productive rivers in the US where you should cast your line.

  • Kenai River: Alaska in itself is a smorgasbord of fishing opportunities, but Kenai River steals the spotlight. With its fantastic runs of Rainbow Trout, Steelhead, and Salmon, fishing here is a dream come true.
  • Mississippi River: Probably the most famous of all the US rivers, the mighty Mississippi stretches over 10 states and boasts dozens of species you can catch. Bass, Walleye, Catfish, Pike, and Crappie are only a few of the many.
  • Sacramento River: One of California’s star fisheries, the Sacramento River offers a not-to-be-missed angling experience. Be it massive Stripers, hard-fighting Chinook Salmon, feisty Trout, prehistoric Sturgeon, or tasty Sunfish, the Nile of the West will not disappoint.
  • Yellowstone River: Almost 700 miles long, Yellowstone River has got a bit of something for everyone. In its upper reaches, you’ll be treated to excellent Trout action, and Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout is the belle of the ball. On the lower half, you can fish for Walleye and Catfish.
  • Colorado River: If you want to fish on the Colorado River, simply pick a spot in one of the seven states through which it flows. Among almost 50 species you can get there, Trout are the most sought-after species – Brown, Brook, Rainbow, and Cutthroat are all on the menu.

River Fishing – A Freshwater Angler’s Delight

An angler in sunglasses and a beanie holding a Salmon halfway in the water over the edge of his boat

River fishing is an endless source of fun and new adventures. Rivers, no matter how big or small, are great training grounds for novices and always a thrilling challenge for experienced fishers. You don’t need a lot of tackle – all you need is patience, time, and willingness to learn new things every time you cast a line.

Do you have a favorite river fishing tip you’d like to share? Is there something we missed? Which river would you recommend for a productive fishing day? Let us know in the comments.

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Andriana has been in love with nature since before she could walk, and she lives to explore the great outdoors whenever she has the chance. Be it traveling to far-off lands, hiking, or mountain climbing, Andriana loves discovering new places and writing about them. The first time she went fishing with her dad she insisted on returning all the catch into the water. Dad was not pleased. Her curiosity about fishing only grew from there, and she’s been writing and learning about it for years. Andriana’s favorite fish to catch is Mahi Mahi.

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