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FISHING IN CURRENT

The right lure in the right spot often leads to results like this- a nice bass from the Canoochee River.

    I spent at least half of my first year of river fishing getting skunked. The banks all looked the same, I got hung up every other cast, and I couldn't figure out how to make the current stop when I found a fishy-looking spot. The learning curve that comes with fishing moving water is no steeper than it is with any other activity (I've been fiddling with this web site for close to a year and still don't know what I'm doing!). The purpose of this article is to  provide anglers new to moving water with some general guidelines for catching stream fish and hopefully lessen the initial frustration factor that comes with any new endeavor. For more specific information, check out the list of articles on the Articles page.

    A lot of different variables contribute to a successful fishing trip. Weather, time of year, time of day, water level, water clarity, water temperature and a hundred other things have an effect on stream fish and their eating habits. For most river fishermen, however, three factors generally separate the successful from the unsuccessful. First is the ability to read the water. Experienced river anglers can tell at a glance  whether or not a given stretch of water will hold fish. Once a likely spot is found, the next step is to figure out how to fish it effectively and thoroughly without spooking the fish. Boat control is the most difficult and frustrating aspect of river fishing for most newcomers to the game (especially for reservoir and pond fishermen), but one of the most important. Once you've found the fish and put yourself in the best situation to catch them, getting the fish to eat your lure or bait is the final step. This final step is normally the easiest, because the hard part is over. Now it's just man versus fish.

READING THE WATER

    It's an old saying, but it applies to any type of fishing situation: 90% of the fish live in 10% of the water. Eliminating the places where fish are least likely to be allows the angler to focus his or her efforts on the 10% of the water that their quarry calls home. To novice anglers, however, everything looks pretty much the same. Before we look at specific types of cover, it is important to note a few general rules about how fish behave in current.

Rule # 1: Fish spend most of their time in or near deep water. Deep water provides a sanctuary of sorts for gamefish. The current is normally slower and they feel safer with more water over their heads. Deep water is a fish's den, a place they can kick back and relax between meals in the shallows. "Deep" is also a relative term. For certain species (like redbreast, redeyes, and shoal bass), two feet of water might be considered deep because the surrounding water is less than a foot in depth. For big catfish, fifteen feet of water might be preferable. For most species in Georgia, however, water that is deeper than four feet or so is plenty deep enough.

Rule # 2: If deeper water provides the den where fish spend most of their time, current obstructions provide the La-Z-Boy in which they rest. Step on an escalator sometime and try to maintain your position without expending any energy. To maintain your spot, you must keep moving against the "current". River fish live in a world that constantly wants to sweep them downstream. In order to avoid expending unnecessary energy, fish seek out objects that break the current (a list below details specific examples). If the current break provides overhead cover, so much the better. Most animals (including humans) prefer a roof of some type overhead. 

Rule # 3: Fish tend to face upstream. In order to fight current, fish must face it, because they can't swim backwards. Being opportunistic feeders, facing upstream also allows fish to see the buffet line. In moving water, food (aquatic insects, bugs, minnows, crawfish) normally gets swept downstream to predators and fish soon learn that facing the wrong way can get them skinny real quick. This fact allows anglers to make wise choices on how to approach fish and how to present their offerings.

    If you can find current obstructions in relatively deep water and you know which way the fish are likely to be looking, things get a little easier. Now lets look at some prime fish-holding areas common to Georgia's creeks and rivers.

Wood: Every moving waterway in the state is loaded with downed trees. Not all trees are created equal, however. Fallen trees in deeper, slower water are superior to trees in shallower water for most species. Trees with green leaves still on them are even better than old, dead trees, because they provide more cover for baitfish and gamefish. Bigger trees are normally better than small trees simply because they block more current and provide more cover. Still, the key is to have deeper water available.

Rock: Large boulders, rocks, and riprap are fish magnets also, and are extremely common in waterways north of the fall line. While boulders don't normally provide the overhead cover of downed trees, they are often more effective at blocking the current. Big rocks don't necessarily need to be in deep water to hold fish, just near it. Fish will often hang out in the deeper water and move up behind or just in front of big rocks when it's time to eat. Fish hanging behind boulders are normally ready to eat. Don't pass up bridge pilings either. They are just big rocks with a road on top of them.

Outside Bends: Long, straight sections of river are less productive than curvy sections. River bends are great because they normally hold the deepest water in a given body of water. The inside of these bends are normally shallow while the outsides are deep. Throw in some trees, rocks, or both and you've got a pretty good fishing hole. Outside bends with cover usually hold fish, but they can be tricky to fish because the current is always heaviest here. The swift water eats away at the bank, creating deeper water an an undercut that holds lots of fish which can be tough to get at. Luckily, this undercutting action often topples a tree or two in the bend, providing both cover and a current break.

Eddies: Eddies are places on a stream where the current is either slack or reverses itself in a small area, giving the impression of a small, weak whirlpool. Eddies can be found behind boulders, trees, points that jut into the channel, colliding currents in shoals, or at the mouths of tributaries. Eddies can be big or small, but the reason that eddies hold fish is that they provide a resting place for predators and prey. A deep eddy with cover should hold fish all year long.

Creek Mouths: Any tributary that enters a larger river or stream normally holds fish either at the mouth or just downstream. There are a number of reasons why. First, creek mouths often contain eddies at the mouth or just downstream. Tributaries also offer a plentiful food source, washing meals into the river. Another reason creek mouths tend to hold fish is because they often vary in clarity and temperature from the waterway they enter. These areas are called "breaklines" and fish tend to hang out in the place where stained water meets clear water and where cool and warm water collide.

Pools: Many rivers and streams, particularly above the fall line, run in a riffle-run-pool pattern. This pattern repeats itself over and over and explains why most rivers have shallow and deep sections, one after the other. In a nutshell, pools are the deep, slower sections where fish spend most of their time but are normally less active. Eventually, the pool becomes shallow (the riffle) before constricting between rocks or the bank into a run. The run excavates another pool and the pattern repeats itself. Feeding fish tend to move from the pool upstream to the riffles and runs when they feed, and fish that are in these shallower sections are more aggressive and easier to catch. Pools often have a "lip" at the lower end that fishermen often overlook. The lip is simply the tail end of the pool that leads into the riffle. Find a pool with some of the features mentioned above and it should hold fish.

Other prime areas: While the aforementioned areas are major fish attractors, a few others are worthy of mention also. Islands serve the same function as boulders on a larger scale. Fish tend to locate primarily on the downstream tips but also just upstream in areas where the current slows. Dams are also fish magnets. Upstream areas tend to run slow and deep, and are prime areas for gamefish that prefer slower water (largemouth bass, crappie, bluegill, catfish). Dam tailwaters also concentrate fish, particularly in the springtime, but these areas can be difficult to fish because they tend to have stronger current. In South Georgia, oxbow lakes are prime hangouts, and serve as spawning areas during the spring and a refuge from the current when the water is high. Weedbeds serve as a moderate current break and provide overhead cover.

This feisty spot came out of the woody cover behind the angler in about five feet of water.

BOAT CONTROL

    The majority of my fishing is undertaken from a boat, but nobody ever believes me when I tell them that controlling the boat is the hardest part of fishing (in moving water, anyway). I enjoy bank fishing and wading, but to reach the really dumb fish, I like to get away from public access points, and the best way to accomplish this is by boat. For those without access to a canoe, there are articles on this site or upcoming that will deal with the particulars of wading and bank fishing (check out the left margin at the top of this page).

    For inexperienced fishermen, figuring out where the fish will hold in a given stream is the hard part. For inexperienced river fishermen, dealing with the current and boat positioning is the biggest challenge, particularly for those used to ponds and reservoirs. The object here is to get close enough to effectively fish and maintain position without spooking the fish. Now I need to preface this section by saying that reading this article will not make you adept at handling a boat in current. Only hours spent on the water trying the different methods mentioned here will make you better. After a few trips, most anglers find a system that works best for them and boat control eventually becomes second nature.

    In clear water situations, it is best to keep the boat a little farther away from the fish. In stained or muddy water, it is possible and often preferable to get closer, often as close as six feet away. Most of us are better casters from 10 feet away than from 50, so it is best to get as close to the fish as possible. Fishing with bait or bottom-bumping lures from a moving boat is hard enough without making long casts. In bigger waters, it is necessary to pick one side of the river to concentrate on, since many rivers are too wide to cast to both banks. Mid-size rivers and streams enable anglers to work both banks from midstream. Smaller creeks and streams are trickier. The best tactic on smaller waters is to float closest to the bank opposite of where you intend to fish to avoid spooking the fish in the best holes.

    The most common (and best all-around) craft for rivers and streams is the canoe. Canoes are easiest to control in current when manned by two people. On slow-moving waterways, both fishermen (front and back) will have ample opportunities to make casts as the canoe lazes along past likely spots. In quicker water, the angler in the stern (back) of the canoe must often forgo fishing in order to keep the canoe positioned near likely fish-holding areas. This is normally achieved with reverse sculling strokes. In some situations, it is most effective to face the canoe into the current and have the bow (front) paddler stroke directly into the current while the stern angler fishes. This technique makes it easier to hold in swift current and keep the point of the canoe facing upstream. 

    An anchor can also be a big help, but throwing out and hauling in an anchor 100 times in a day can be exhausting, so many anglers anchor rarely and only in the best-looking spots. The process of anchoring really slows down the progress of a float trip, but is sometimes the best option, particularly when bait fishing. Remember to avoid anchoring in really swift water as the anchor might catch on bottom and pull the boat under. It is also best to anchor from either the bow or stern so the current doesn't hit the broad side of the boat and make it unstable.

    Rather than continuously dropping anchor, I like to take advantage of breaks in the current. Large eddies occur often in most streams, and every body of water contains slack water areas. If possible, move the canoe into these areas before attempting to fish. This allows both anglers to focus on fishing rather than boat control. In addition to an anchor, I like to keep a length of rope in my boat that I use to tie up to woody cover close to where I plan to fish. Always keep in mind that your success will be much greater if you thoroughly fish the prime water rather than casting haphazardly at everything.

    Fishing solo from a canoe or kayak can be extremely frustrating. We simply don't have enough hands to control the boat properly and fish at the same time. When fishing alone, I like to bring two rods: one with a faster moving lure (to fish while drifting) and another with a worm or jig (to use when anchored or stopped). When fishing alone, anchor or tie up often or simply get out and wade when possible. Some anglers use a drag chain, which is simply a length of chain used to slow down a boat's drift. Floating a river solo generally means stopping more frequently, so pick shorter trips than you would otherwise.

    Many anglers use jon boats, especially in larger rivers. Jon boats are fine when the current is light, but can be a beast to control with paddles in swift water. One option is the use of a trolling motor. Trolling motors are a godsend on larger, deeper waters but can be a hassle when the water gets shallow. Special canoe mounts allow canoe-bound anglers the use of a trolling motor, which can be a big help when fishing alone. Be careful, though, because rivers seem to suck the life out of a battery pretty quick, and it's always a good idea to bring along a paddle. Some anglers swear by oars. I haven't used them much, but I would imagine they allow one person to hold in the current easily while the other angler fishes. A quick mathematical calculation leads me to believe that oars are not the answer for the solo river angler (oars require both hands).

    Whatever you fish from, slowing the boat down long enough to fish effectively is as important as knowing where the fish are and tougher to accomplish. Remember that you can't catch fish that you can't reach. While it can be frustrating and labor-intensive, learning how to deal with current is more important than any lure in your tackle box.

RINGING THE DINNER BELL

    Once you've learned to find fish and control the boat, catching fish is the easy part, and the aspect of river fishing most similar to lake fishing. Any lure that works in a reservoir will work on a stream, so the most important thing is to fish with lures and baits in which you have confidence. More so than lake fish, river fish are opportunistic feeders and their environment doesn't allow them the opportunity to sit around and debate whether or not it's time to eat. Still, some lures and techniques are more effective than others, and these tips should make your time on the water more productive.

    Before we get into specifics, there are a few general rules anglers should follow when choosing lures or bait. Live bait fishing, whether using a bobber or fishing on bottom, is next to impossible from a moving boat. Anchor at promising holes when bait fishing, and try and position the boat upstream from the area you plan to fish. When fishing a river that is higher than normal, fish tend to gather in slack water areas right on the bank, and will hold in very shallow water to escape the current. In these situations, the water is often stained or muddy, so it is necessary to fish lures that the fish can find easily. In stained water, use large, bright lures that emit lots of flash, noise and vibration. In low or clear conditions use smaller, more natural-looking lures (browns, greens, and blacks) or lures that closely resemble baitfish or other forage. When the water is downright muddy, black lures are easiest for fish to see.

    The ability to cast accurately and tight to cover cannot be overstated. Many anglers prefer baitcasting outfits because of their precise control and superior drag systems. I prefer spinning gear because it allows me to skip lures under trees, but whatever you cast best is what you should use. Heavy line is also a good idea, since downed trees always seem to be near the area of your hooked fish. Fireline by Berkely is my personal choice because it is so strong, thin, and sensitive.

    Downed trees are the most prevalent type of cover encountered on Georgia streams, and every species of fish uses them. If you are going to make a habit out of fishing in southern rivers, however, you should use two types of lures: weedless lures and cheap lures (cheap weedless lures are the best!). Any lure that has treble hooks and normally runs deeper than four feet or so will simply not remain in your possession for very long. Topwater plugs and shallow-running minnows work well around wood because they can be maneuvered around obstructions and when they do hang up, they are easily unsnagged. Lures with spinners also work well. Spinnerbaits rarely hang up and in-line spinners are relatively inexpensive. Weedless jigs and Texas-rigged plastic worms are good choices for deep presentations because they are relatively weedless and cheap to replace if you lose them. Crappie jigs hang up all the time, but are very cheap and the gold hooks will straighten out most of the time.

    When fishing woody cover, remember that fish will either be under it or on the downstream side. If possible, make a cast or two to the upstream side as well. The current will push subsurface lures underneath the cover where the fish are likely to be holding. I like to cast topwater plugs a few feet upstream of logjams and allow them to drift into the cover before working the lure back. When fishing weedless lures, cast as deep into the cover as common sense permits and always try and bump your lure into the wood. Fish seem to love this!

    When fishing rocky cover, weedlessness is not quite as important. Crankbaits are more effective in rocky areas than in wood because they hang up less and can be worked rapidly. Cast crankbaits across the current and try to make them run just behind current obstructions. When fishing jigs, plastic worms, or any other lure that will be bumped along the bottom, try and make upstream casts and crawl them along with the current. It is easier to maintain contact with the lure and you can sense strikes better this way. Whatever type of lure you use, remember to vary the way you retrieve it until the fish tell you how they want it. Some days, faster is better, but on most days, the answer is usually to slow down a bit.

FINAL THOUGHTS

    For beginners, fishing current can be a humbling experience. Hopefully, these tips and guidelines will make the learning experience a little easier. If you can simply learn where the fish live, put yourself in the proper position to catch them, and put your favorite lure in the right spot, the fish will tell you just how much you've learned. 

 

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