In this post, we’ll move from general information to specifics. This section will teach you practical, step-by-step techniques for taking fish from a variety of fishing spots that you might encounter. Obviously it’s impossible to cover all techniques for all fish. Instead, we’ll look at the best opportunities and simplest techniques. Also, I’ll help you identify prime fishing locations in different types of waters, then tell you how to make them pay off.
Where Fish Live
The first step in catching fish is knowing where to find them. On each outing you must first study your water to determine where fish are located. The concept of structure is the key in determining where fish are holding and where you can catch them. Remember that most fish will tend to gather in predictable places, and these places fall into what anglers call structure. First, you need to figure out where fish are most likely to be found. Then decide which combination of tackle, bait and method will be most effective in catching them. Review this process each time you fish. First, location. Where should the fish be? Then, presentation. What’s the best way to catch them?
How to Fish Ponds and Small Lakes
Farm ponds and small lakes are scattered throughout North America. They are the best and most numerous of all fishing waters. Some ponds are formed naturally but most ponds and small lakes are manmade to provide water for livestock, irrigate fields and prevent erosion. Others were built strictly for recreation.
Analyzing Ponds and Small Lakes
When you get to a pond or small lake, your fishing starts before you wet a line. First you should study the pond to determine its characteristics. Some ponds have flat basins, while others have a shallow end with ditches running into it and a deep end with a dam. Many ponds have brush, weeds, trees, logs or other structure. Take note of all the combinations of depths and structure to determine which combination is holding the fish. Again, consider your target species’ basic nature. Where that fish will be located will vary according to the time of year and water conditions. For instance, bass might be in the shallows in spring and in deeper water in the summer. However, in the hottest months they might still feed in the shallows during night or at dawn and dusk. These are the types of things you must learn before you can make an educated guess about where to find fish.
Techniques for Fishing Ponds and Small Lakes
Most ponds and small lakes support what biologists call warm water fisheries: sunfish, crappie, bass, catfish and bullheads. Some spring-fed ponds hold trout. Let’s take these species one at a time and look specifically at how to catch them.
Sunfish—Bluegill and other sunfish are usually the most plentiful fish in ponds and small lakes, and they always seem willing to bite. In spring, early summer and fall, they stay in shallow to medium-deep water (2-10 feet). In hottest summer and coldest winter, they normally move deeper, though they may still occasionally feed in the shallows. Small sunfish love to hold around brush, logs, weeds, piers and other cover. On cloudy days or in dingy water, these fish often hang around edges of such structure. This is true during the early morning and late afternoon. But during the part of the day when the sun is brightest, sunfish swim into brush or vegetation, under piers or tight to stumps and logs. On sunny days, they like to hide in shady areas. If possible, get out early to fish for sunfish. Take a long panfish pole or light-action spinning or spin-cast rod and reel spooled with 4- or 6-pound test line. Tie a fixed-bobber rig with a long-shank wire hook (#6 or #8), a little split shot and a bobber. Bait with earthworms, crickets or grasshoppers. Thread on a small worm, or use a small piece of nightcrawler. A whole cricket or grasshopper is the best bait for bluegills. Next, adjust the bobber so your bait hangs midway between the surface and the bottom. If you can’t see the bottom and you don’t know how deep the pond is, begin fishing 2-4 feet deep. If you don’t catch fish, experiment with other depths.
If you think sunfish may be holding around weeds close to the bank, drop your bait in next to the weeds. The bobber should float upright. If it’s laying on its side, the bait is probably on the bottom. In this case, shorten the distance between the bobber and hook to suspend the bait.
A fallen tree or log can form an ideal hiding place for bass, sunfish and other species. Be sure to carefully scout a small lake or pond for such underwater structure.
Don’t stand right over the spot you’re fishing. The fish might see you and become spooky. Wear natural-colored clothing and avoid actions that might scare the fish. Sunfish will usually bite with little hesitation so if you don’t get a bite in a couple of minutes, twitch your bait to get the fish’s attention. Keep your bait close to cover, and look for openings where you can drop the bait. If you’re not getting bites, try fishing around another type of structure, or try a deeper area. Remember always to “think structure?’ Don’t drop your bait at some random spot in the middle of the pond. Keep moving until you begin catching fish and work the area slowly and thoroughly. A special opportunity exists during spring when sunfish are spawning. They fan nests in shallow water (2-5 feet deep) around the banks and in the shallows. The nests are about the size of a dinner plate, and appear light against the dark pond bottom. Usually, many nests will be clustered in the same area. Set your bobber shallow and drop your bait right next to the nests, trying not to spook the fish. You’re probably better off casting into the beds rather than sneaking in close with a long pole.
Crappie— Fishing for crappie in ponds and small lakes is similar to fishing for sunfish. The fish stay dose to structure and stay on the move. The main difference is the bait. Crappie prefer minnows and readily attack small jigs and spinners. Long poles are a favorite with crappie fishermen. Many crappie experts quietly scull a small boat from one piece of structure to the next, and use a panfish pole to dangle a float rig with a minnow or jig next to cover. They ease their bait down beside a tree or piece of brush, leave it for a moment, pick it up, set it down on the other side, then move to the next spot. This “hunt-and-peck” method is very effective, particularly in spring when fish will be spawning in shallow cover.
Another good crappie technique is to use a slip-bobber rig with a spinning or spin-cast outfit. Hook a live minnow through the back onto a thin wire hook (#2) or through the lips on a lightweight (1/16 or 1/32 oz.) jig. Then cast this rig next to a weedline, brushpile or log. If you don’t get a bite in 5 minutes, try somewhere else. If you get a bite, don’t yank if the bobber is just twitching. Wait for the bobber to start moving or disappear beneath the surface before setting the hook. Crappie have soft mouths, so don’t set too hard, or youll rip out the hook. If you don’t catch fish shallow, try deeper water, especially during hot summer months or on bright, dear days. Adjust your bobber up the line and drop your bait right in front of the dam or off the end of a pier. Try casting into the middle of the pond and see what happens. With this method of fishing, 6-10 feet is not too deep. To cover a lot of water, cast a 1/16-oz. jig or a small in-line spinner. After casting, count slowly as the bait sinks. After a few seconds, begin your retrieve. Try different counts (depths). If you get a bite, let the bait sink to the same count next time. You may have found the depth where crappie are holding. This technique is called the “countdown” method of fishing with a sinking bait. When retrieving the jig, move it at a slow to moderate pace, and alternate between a straight pull and a rising/falling path back through the water. With the spinner, a slow, straight retrieve is best.
Bass—Bass fishing is more complicated than fishing for sunfish or crappie, partly because of all the different types of bass tadde and lures. Bass are still members of the sunfish family, however, and they share certain behavior characteristics with bluegill and crappie. Anywhere you’re likely to catch these latter fish, you’re apt to find bass. Most experienced anglers go after pond bass with casting or spinning tadde and artificial lures. Casting allows you to reach targets farther away and also to cover more water. Many artificial lures will catch pond bass, but my three favorites are topwaters, spinnerbaits and plastic worms. Try topwaters early in the morning, late in the afternoon or at night (during summer). Use top-waters when the sky is overcast, especially when the surface is calm. In warmer months, I prefer poppers and propeller baits that make a lot of noise and attract bass from a distance. In early spring, I like a quieter floating minnow. Cast topwaters close to weeds, beside logs, along dams or anywhere you think bass might be holding. Cast past a particular object, then work the bait up to where you think the fish are. Allow the bait to rest motionless for several seconds, then twitch it just enough to cause the slightest ripple on the water. This is usually when the strike comes! If a spot looks good, but you don’t get a strike, cast back to it several times. Sometimes when bass are “inactive” (aren’t feeding), you have to arouse their curiosity or agitate them into striking. At times, though, bass just won’t strike a surface lure. If you don’t get any action on a top-water lure in 15 minutes, switch to a spinner-bait and try the same area. Keep your retrieve steady, and try different speeds (fast, medium, slow). You might try “fluttering” the bait – allowing it to sink momentarily after it runs past a log, treetop or other cover. This can trigger a strike from a bass that’s following the lure during a steady retrieve. Don’t be afraid to retrieve a spinnerbait through brush and weeds. If you keep reeling while it’s coming through cover, this lure is virtually weedless.
Big bass and catfish will sometimes lurk in hollows in a pond or river bank formed by erosion beneath fallen trees. Catfish favor these holes during spawning season.
Plastic worms are what I call “last resort baitsf Bass can be coaxed into striking worms when they won’t hit other lures, and plastic worms can be worked slower through thick cover. Plastic worms are good for bass in deep water and are top prospects for mid-day fishing in hot weather. For pond bass, use a 4-7 1/2 inch plastic worm rigged Texas-style with a 1/16 –1/4 oz. sliding sinker. Cast it right into cover or close to it. (Make sure the point of the hook is embedded inside the worm.) Then crawl it slowly through the cover, lifting it with the rod tip, then allowing it to settle back to the bottom. When fishing lily pads, brush or other thick vegetation, cast to openings and pockets. Cast off points, ends of weedbeds and corners of piers. If you don’t get action in the shallows, and suspect the bass are deeper—change tactics. Locate structure by interpreting what you can from the surface. Find a gully feeding into the shallow end of the pond. Then imagine how the gully runs along the pond bottom, and cast your plastic worm along it. A second deep-water strategy is to cast a plastic worm into the deep end or along the dam, then crawl it back up the bank. In all cases, however, it’s very important to allow your plastic worm to sink to the bottom before starting your retrieve. When casting to deep spots, if you catch a fish, cast back to the same spot. Bass often school in deep water. There are other baits you might use in special situations. Many ponds have heavy weedbeds or lily pads. You can fish them with a topwater spoon that wobbles over plants and attracts bass lying underneath. Leadhead jigs tipped with a plastic trailer (grub, crawfish, etc.) can be hopped across bottom when searching deep-water areas. Diving crankbaits are good for random casting into deep spots.
Catfish and Bullheads—Catfish and bull-heads spend the most time on or near the bottom of small ponds and lakes. While they prefer deep water, however, they may move up and feed in the shallows from time to time. In either location, fish directly on bottom without a float or just above bottom with a float.
Fishing for catfish and bullheads calls for a pick-one-spot-and-wait method. Cats find their food mostly by smell and you have to leave your bait in one place long enough for the scent to spread and for the fish to home in on it. It’s possible to fish for these species with long poles, but I prefer spin-cast or spinning outfits so I can fish farther off the bank. I take at least two rods. I pick a spot on the bank dose to deep water. Then I cut a forked stick for each rod and push it into the ground next to the pond’s edge. I cast out my lines, prop my rods in the forked sticks, and wait for something to happen. When using two rods, I tie a bottom rig on one and a slip-bobber rig on the other. This gives the catfish or bullheads a choice of a bait laying on bottom or hanging just above. Catfish grow much larger than bullheads, so if catfish are your main target, you need larger hooks. I recommend a #1 or 1/0 sproat or bait-holder hook. If you’re fishing for bullheads, select a smaller #6 hook. If you’re trying for both species, use something in between—a #2 or #4. Catfish and bullheads will eat the same baits. Earthworms or nightcrawlers are two favorites. Chicken liver, live or dead minnows, grasshoppers, and a wide variety of commercially-made baits also work well. With all these baits, load your hooks. The more bait on them, the more scent you have in the water, and the more likely you are to attract fish.
Cast your baited lines into deep water. With the bottom rig, wait until the sinker is on bottom, then gently reel in line until all the slack is out. With a slip-bobber rig, set the bobber so the bait is suspended just above bottom. When a fish takes the bottom-rig bait, the rod tip will jump. When there’s a bite on the slip-bobber bait, the bobber will dance nervously on the surface. If you get a bite, don’t set the hook until the fish starts swimming away. Pick up the rod and get ready to set the hook, but don’t exert any pull until the line starts moving steadily off or the bobber goes under and stays. Then strike back hard and begin playing your fish. If you’re not getting bites, stay in one place as long as you can stand it. At a minimum, you should fish in one spot at least 20 minutes before moving somewhere else.
How to Fish Large Lakes and Reservoirs
Large lakes and reservoirs are some of the most popular and accessible fishing locations. Most are public waters with boat ramps, piers and other facilities to accommodate fishermen and usually have large, diverse fish populations. Natural lakes are plentiful in the northern United States and Canada, in Florida, along major river systems (oxbows) and in the Western mountains. Some have rounded, shallow basins with soft bottoms while others are deep with irregular shapes and bottoms that include reefs, islands and other structure. In many natural lakes, vegetation grows abundantly in shallow areas.
Reservoirs are impoundments formed by daming a river and backing up the floodwaters. In most cases, the bottoms of reservoirs were once farmland or forest and water covers old fields, woodlands, creeks, roads and other features that, when submerged, became structure. There are two categories of reservoirs: upland and lowland (or mainstream). Upland reservoirs are built in highlands or canyons. They are typically deep and wind through steep terrain. Their coves and creek arms are irregular in shape. In contrast, lowland reservoirs course through broad, flat valleys. They are wider and shallower than upland reservoirs and typically have a long, trunk with numerous smaller tributary bays.
Analyzing Large Lakes and Reservoirs
You can’t fish an entire large lake or reservoir. So choose one small part of it and use the same tactics as you would in ponds or small lakes. Fish react the same to similar conditions in their environment and the same tactics work in large waters and small. Since they aren’t confined, however, fish migrate from one area to another depending on the season, food supply and other factors. How do you pick the right small part of a big lake? Ask a local tackle store owner where the fish are biting. Watch where other anglers are fishing. Find out if the fish are shallow or deep. Learn the depth where they’re biting. Use your information to form an overall picture then key in on a location. All anglers should learn to use a topographic map. A “topo” map shows water depth and contour changes on the lake bottom. You can use it to find drop-offs, reefs, flats, creek channels and other types of structure. You can use the map to find these areas where fish are likely to hang out.
Techniques for Fishing Large Lakes and Reservoirs
Again, large lakes and reservoirs support many different fish species. Some have only warm-water fish, some only cold-water fish, and others a mix of the two. When you go fishing, single out which species you’d like to catch, then tailor your efforts to it.
Sunfish—In spring, sunfish migrate into shallow areas to spawn, so look for them in bays and pockets along wind-protected shorelines. Before spawning, sunfish hold around brush, stumps, weeds, rocks or other structure in 2-8 feet of water. Then, as the water temperature climbs into the mid-60°F range, sunfish will move up into 1-4 feet of water and spawn in areas that have firm bottoms. Long poles or light-action spinning or spin-cast tackle will take these fish. Use fixed or slip-bobber rigs with wiggler worms, crickets or a small hair jig tipped with a maggot for bait. Around cover, keep your bait dose in. When fishing a spawning area, drop the bait right into the beds. (In a visible spawning bed, try the outer edge first, then work your way to the center. This keeps fish that are hooked and struggling from spooking other fish.) After spawning, sunfish head back to deeper water. Many fish will still hold around visible cover, but they prefer to be near deep water. Two classic examples are a weedline on the edge of a drop-off and a steep rocky bank. Besides a bobber rig, another good way to take sunfish is “jump-jigging:’ This involves casting a 1116-oz. tube jig around weeds or rocks. Use a very light spinning outfit. Slowly reel the tube jig away from the cover and let the jig sink along the edge. Set the hook when you feel a bump or tug. This technique requires a boat, since you have to be over deep, open water casting into the weeds. Docks, piers and bridges are good places to catch post-spawn sunfish. Usually the fish will be up near the surface, holding under or dose to structures. Don’t cast far out into the water. The fish are likely to be under your feet! Set your bobber so your bait hangs deeper than you can see, then keep your bait close to the structure.
Crappie—These fish follow the same seasonal patterns as sunfish, except slightly earlier. When spring breaks, crappie head into bays and quiet coves to get ready to spawn. When the water warms into the low-60°F range, they fan out into the shallows. They spawn in or around brush, reeds, stumps, logs, roots, submerged timber, artificial fish attractors or other cover. Crappie spawning depth depends on water color. In dingy water, they may spawn only a foot or two deep. But in clear water, they’ll spawn deeper, as far down as 12 feet. A good depth to try is 1 to 2 feet below the depth at which your bait sinks out of sight. Minnows or small plastic jigs are good baits. Drop them next to or into potential spawning cover. Lower the bait, wait 30 seconds, then move the bait to another spot. When fishing a brush pile or reed patch, try moving the bait around in the cover. After crappie spawn, they head back toward deeper water and collect along underwater ledges, creek channel banks and other sharp bottom contour breaks. Locate these areas and look for brush, logs or other visible cover. Fish these spots with minnows or jigs. Or, if there is no visible cover, cast jigs randomly from shore. Wait until the jig sinks to the bottom before starting your retrieve. Then use a slow, steady retrieve to work the bait back up the bank. Set the hook when you feel any slight “thump” or when your line twitches. Fall may be the second best time to catch crappie in large lakes and reservoirs. When the water starts cooling, they move back into shallow areas, holding around cover. Troll slowly through bays, casting jigs or dropping minnows into likely spots.
Bass—Spring, early summer and fall are the three best times for beginning anglers to try for bass. This is when the fish are aggressive and shallow. During these seasons, bass spend most of their time in or near cover like brush, weeds, lily pads, logs, docks, stumps, rocks, riprap, and bridge pilings. In spring, bass spawn in shallow, wind-sheltered coves and shorelines, especially the ones with hard bottoms of sand, gravel or clay. During the spawning season, try topwater minnows, spinner-baits and plastic lizards in these areas. Bass love to locate their nests next to features that offer protection from egg-eating sunfish. After spawning, bass may stay shallow for several weeks. This is a good time to fish points— ridges of land that run off into the water. Stand on the tip of a point and fan-cast crankbaits, plastic worms or splashy topwater lures (poppers, prop baits) around the point. Pay special attention to any structure—brush, stumps, rocks, or weeds. If you don’t get a strike the first time, cast back to it. Sometimes you have to goad bass into striking. Despite warm water temperatures in summer, good bass fishing can still be found. ‘fry fishing early and late in the day. Some bass will feed in the shallows during these low-light periods, then retreat to deeper water during mid-day. Others will hold along deeper areas or on the edges of shallow flats bordering deeper water. Work your way along reefs, weedlines, channel drop-offs, sunken roadbeds or around boat docks. Also, cast to any isolated cover, such as a log or rock pile. Crankbaits and spinnerbaits are good lures for hot-weather bass, since you can fish them fast and cover a lot of water. If you go through a likely area without getting a bite, work back through it with a Texas-rigged plastic worm. Move around and try to find where fish are concentrated. In the warm months, this will typically be where a food supply, usually minnows, is available. In fall, concentrate on shorelines and shallows in coves. Water temperature cools off in these areas first, and this cool-down draws in both baitfish and bass. Use the same tactics and baits you did in spring. Pay special attention to cover spots and the presence of minnows. If you see schools of minnows and bigger fish working around them, cast these areas with a lipless crankbait in shad color.
Catfish/Bullheads—Big lakes can hold big cat-fish, and the best time to catch them is in late spring during the spawn. These fish move to the banks and look for holes and protected areas to lay their eggs. Look for banks with big rock bluffs, riprap, etc. Fish around these areas with fixed or slip-bobber rigs baited with gobs of wiggler worms or night crawlers. Set your float so the bait hangs just above the rocks. Use medium strength line (10-20 pound test) and a steel hook (#1-3/0), since the possibility of hooking a big fish is good. After they spawn, catfish head back to deep-water flats and channels. Normally they spend daylight hours deep, and move up at night to feed in nearby shallows. Find a point or other spot where the bank slopes off into deep water, and fish here from late afternoon well into the night. Use a bottom rig, baited with worms, cut bait, liver, commercial stink bait, or other popular catfish baits.
Walleye—are traditionally deep-water, bottom-hugging fish, but they will frequently feed in the shallows. The determining factor seems to be light penetration into the water.
Walleye don’t like bright sunlight. But on overcast days, at night, when shallow areas are dingy, or when heavy weed growth provides shade, they may hold and feed in water no deeper than a couple of feet. Walleye may be the ultimate structure fish. In deep areas, they hold along underwater humps, reefs and drop-offs on hard, clean bottoms, especially those with rock or sand. They prefer water with good circulation and rarely concentrate in dead-water areas like sheltered bays or coves. Walleye spawn when water temperature climbs into the mid-40°F range. Look for shallows or shoal areas with gravel or rock bottoms that are exposed to the wind. Sloping points, reefs and rock piles dose to shore are high-percentage spots. Fish them during low-light periods. Try a slip-bobber rig baited with a night crawler, leech or live minnow in these areas. Adjust the bobber so the bait is suspended just above bottom. Illy casting shallow areas with jigs tipped with live minnows or shallow-running crankbaits. In early summer, walleye can be caught along weedlines and mid-lake structure, both requiring a boat to properly fish them. When fishing weeds, cast a small jig (1/16 or 1/8 oz.) tipped with a minnow right into the edge of the weeds, then swim it back out. Work slowly along the weedline. Pay special attention to sharp bends in the weedline or areas where the weeds thin out. Fishing deep structure can be a needle in a haystack situation, so it’s best to stay on the move until you locate fish. A bite will feel like a light tap or bump. Release line immediately and allow the fish to swim with the bait. After about 20 seconds, reel up slack, feel for the fish and set the hook There are other good methods. Bottom-bouncing rigs trailing night crawlers or minnows can be productive along deep structure or submerged points. This is the same principle as using the slip-sinker rig. Drop your line to the bottom, engage the reel, then drag the rig behind you as you drift or troll. A slip-bobber rig drifted across this structure is also a good bet.
Northern Pike—Pike fishing is best in spring, early summer and fall, when these fish are in quiet, weedy waters. Look for pike in bays, sloughs, flats and coves with submerged weedbeds, logs or other structure. Pike like fairly shallow water-3-10 feet. Pike can get big, and even small ones are tough fighters, so use fairly heavy tackle. (Use 12-20 pound line.) Their sharp teeth can easily cut monofilament, so always rig with a short steel leader ahead of your lure or bait. Find access to likely cover and cast a large, brightly-colored spoon next to or over it. If you have a boat, motor to the upwind side of a shallow bay and drift slowly downwind, casting to dumps of weeds and weed edges. Retrieve the spoon steadily, but if pike don’t seem interested, pump the spoon up and down or jerk it erratically to get their attention. Other good lures for pike are large spinnerbaits, in-line spinners, large floating minnows and wide-wobbling crankbaits. Live-bait fishing is extremely effective. Use a large minnow suspended under a fixed-bobber rig. Clip a 1/0 or 2/0 hook to the end of a wire leader. Add a couple of split shot above the leader and add a large round bobber at a depth that holds the minnow up off the bottom. Cast this rig to weedlines, points or other structure. When the bobber goes under, give the fish slack as it makes its first run with the bait. When the pike stops, reel in slack line, feel for the fish and set the hook hard!
How to Fish Small Streams
Streams can be divided into two classifications: warm- and cold-water. Warm-water streams harbor typical warm-water species: bass, sunfish, cat-fish and white bass. They range in character from dear, fast-moving, whitewater-and-rock streams to muddy, slow, deep streams. Cold-water streams are normally found at higher altitudes or in valleys that drain highlands. Their primary gamefish are various trout species. Cold-water streams are usually clean and fairly shallow, and they have a medium-to-fast current. Their bottoms are typically rock, gravel or sand. You can fish small streams by any of three methods: bank-fishing, wading or floating.
When wade-fishing, you should work upstream, since you’ll continually stir up silt and debris. By fishing upcurrent, sediment drifts behind you instead of in front of you, so the fish aren’t alerted to your presence. Floating takes more planning and effort than wading, but it may also offer greater rewards. On many streams, floating can take you into semi-virgin fishing territory. I prefer a canoe when float-fishing, but johnboats and inflatables also work .
Analyzing Small Streams
Current is the primary influence in the life of a stream. Current determines where fish will find food and cover and is why stream fishermen must always be aware how it affects fish location. Fish react to current in one of three ways. They may be out in fast water chasing food; they might position themselves in an eddy at the edge of current where they can watch for food without using much energy; and they will locate in quiet pools where current is slow. The typical stream is made up of a series of shallow riffles where current is swift, deep pools where current is slow and medium-depth runs where current is intermediate. Riffles normally empty into deep pools. Runs usually drain the downstream ends of pools, and these runs lead to successive riffles. In addition, rocks, logs, stumps and weeds form attractive stream cover. Many stream fish like to hide under or close to cover and dart out to grab a crawfish or minnow. Analyzing a stream is a matter of studying the current, depth and cover. Remember that stream fish are consistent in the types of places where they hold. Catch one fish from behind a log, and chances are others will be hiding behind other logs.
Techniques for Fishing Small Streams
Stream fish are more confined than lake or reservoir fish. In big waters, fish have a lot of room to move around, but in streams, they have to be somewhere along one narrow waterway.
Bass—Smallmouth bass hold in eddies behind or under cover adjacent to fast current. Typical spots would be behind a rock or a root wad that splits the current, beneath an undercut bank that lies beside a fast run, along edges (and especially ends) of weedbeds, or under a lip or rocky bar at the head of a pool where a riffle empties into it. I always pay special attention to holes gouged out where a stream makes a turn.
Smallmouth bass prefer shade to bright sunshine. Any place that offers quiet water and concealment with access to fast water is a potential smallmouth hot spot. Depth of such locations can vary. To fish these places, I recommend spinning or spin-cast tackle and 4- to 8-pound test line. You’ll need something fairly light, because most stream smallmouth baits are small. These fish feed mostly on crawfish, minnows, worms, mature insects and insect larvae. The best artificial baits imitate these natural foods. Small crawfish crankbaits are deadly. So are floating minnows, in-line spinners, small jigs (hair or rubber skirt) and 4-inch plastic worms (like the Slider). But my favorite lure for stream smallmouth is a brown tube lure rigged on a small jighead. The key with all these baits is to work them close to cover. Cast your lure across or up the current, and work it right through the spot where you think bass might be holding. I like to swim a tube lure parallel to a log or deep-cut bank. I also like to crawl a crawfish crankbait or float a minnow lure over logs, rocks or stumps. I’ll cast a jig into the head of a pool, allow it to sink, then hop it across bottom back through the heart of the pool. At times, stream smallmouth will show a preference for one type of bait. In early spring, floating minnows or in-line spinners seem to work best. Later on, tube lures, small crankbaits and jigs are better. One of the secrets of catching stream small-mouth on artificial lures is accurate casting. When stream-fishing, wear camouflage or natural colors that won’t spook fish. Ease in from a downstream or cross-stream position of where the fish should be. Use the current and your rod tip to steer the bait into the strike zone. Smallmouth can be taken on several live baits, but crawfish and spring lizards are best. Use a slip-sinker rig (#1 hook) to work through high-percentage spots. Ease baits slowly along bottom, and set the hook at the first hint of a pickup. Many slower, deeper streams will hold large-mouth instead of smallmouth. Fish for largemouth just like you would for smallmouth.
Catfish—Channel and flathead catfish are common in warm-water streams. They usually stay in deep, quiet holes. When feeding, they move into current areas and watch for food washing by. Fish pools, heads of pools or around cover in runs with moderate current. Use a bottom rig or a fixed-bobber rig and live bait. The weight of these rigs depends on the water depth and current. Bait with worms, crawfish, fish guts, live minnows, cut bait or grasshoppers. Cast into the target zone, let the bait settle and wait for a bite. Early and late in the day (or at night), concentrate on the heads of pools. During mid-day, work the deeper pools and mid-depth runs. Be patient.
Trout —are found in cold-water streams throughout much of the United States and Canada. To catch these elusive fish, stay back from feeding zones, remain quiet, wear drab-colored clothes and cast beyond where you think the fish are located. Trout prefer eddies adjacent to swift water where they can hide and dart out to grab passing food. During insect hatches, trout also feed in open runs with moderate current. Since most trout streams are clear, rig with 4- to 6-pound test line. Then tie on a small inline spinner, spoon, floating minnow or crawfish crankbait. Cast these lures around rocks, logs and other likely structure bordering swift water. The heads of pools can be especially good early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Natural baits are effective on stream trout. Night crawlers, salmon eggs, grasshoppers, and minnows are good bets. Canned corn or small marshmallows will tempt bites, especially from hatchery-raised trout. Also, various commercial “trout nibbles” are very effective. All these baits should be fished on the bottom with a very small hook (#12) and a split shot clamped 10-12 inches up the line.
How to Fish Large Rivers
Big rivers are just little streams that have grown up. They are more complex, however, and contain a much broader range of fishing conditions. They contain a wide variety of fishing locations: eddies, bluffs, dropoffs, shallow flats, feeder streams, backwater sloughs, tailwaters, deep and shallow areas, and swift-flowing and calm water. As with small streams, large rivers are also divided into two types: warm and cold water. Most rivers in North America are the warm, deep variety, supporting sunfish, bass, catfish, walleye, etc. In contrast, cold-water rivers are typically shallow and swift, flow through mountainous areas and usually hold various trout species. Large rivers are most often fished from boats, though you can fish successfully from the bank, especially below dams or in backwaters and oxbows.
Analyzing Large Rivers
As in small streams, current determines fish locations in large rivers. Understanding current and being able to read rivers is essential to fishing them. Current in large rivers may be more difficult to figure out. In small streams you can see the riffles and swift runs, but in large rivers the current may appear equal from bank to bank. Look closer, though, and you’ll see signs of current breaks. Points of islands, jetties, dam tailwaters, river bars, and mouths of tributaries are all areas where current is altered, and are prime spots to catch fish. Most fish in large rivers hang in eddies or slack water. Sometimes they prefer still water bordering strong current where they can ambush bait-fish. Besides current, three other variables in large rivers are water level, color and cover.
Water Level-Rivers continuously rise and fall, depending on the amount of rainfall upstream. The level of the river is referred to as its “stage” and this can have a direct bearing on fish locations. Many times, when a river is rising and its waters are flooding surrounding lowlands, fish move into these freshly-flooded areas to take advantage of a banquet of worms, crawfish and other food.
Color—Large rivers vary greatly in water clarity. While the main channel area may be muddy, backwaters can be dear and more attractive to fish. Or, entire river systems may be muddy or dear, depending on recent rains. Most fish species feed better in dear rather than muddy water.
Cover-Fish react to cover in rivers the same way they do in other bodies of water. Bass, crappie and sunfish usually hold close to cover. Structure provides hiding places and a shield from current.
Techniques for Fishing Large Rivers
The key to catching fish in rivers is first in finding them and then applying the fundamentals of tackle, bait and fishing methods.
Sunfish-Sunfish tend to like quiet water, not current, so look for them in eddies, backwater sloughs, feeder creeks and other still areas. Remember that these fish won’t linger in strong current very long, so find quiet, deep pools that have some structure. Fish for them just like you would anywhere else. Use light tackle and small bobber rigs. Bait with worms, crickets or tiny tube jigs. Toss the bait right beside or into the cover, and wait for a bite.
Crappie-Crappie also prefer quiet water. The best places to find river crappie are sloughs and slow-moving tributaries. Sometimes crappie hold in brush and other cover along river banks where the current is slow to moderate in speed. The best times to catch river crappie are spring and fall, and the easiest method is to move from one piece of cover to the next. Use a long panfish pole and a fixed-bobber rig to drop a minnow or small crappie jig around brush or vegetation. A good time for crappie is when a river is rising to flood adjacent sloughs and creeks. As the river rises, crappie move into cover in these areas.
Bass-In spring, look for river bass in quiet waters where current won’t disturb their spawning beds. Cast to cover: brush, fallen trees, riprap banks, bridge pilings, etc. Spinnerbaits, buzzbaits, crankbaits, floating minnows, and jigs are good lure choices.
By early summer, most river bass move out to the main channel where the biggest concentrations of baitfish are found. Bass in current breaks can dart out and nail minnows in the flow. A variety of spots will hold river bass in summer and fall. These include mouths of feeder creeks, eddies on the sides and downstream ends of islands, rock piles, ends and sides of jetties that extend into the channel, riprap causeways, trees or logs washed up on a flat and wing walls in tailwaters. As in small streams, cast wherever the current is deflected by some object or feature in the river. An increase in current can be a key to catching river bass. Many rivers have power dams and when the dams begin generating, the current increases suddenly. Bass that have been inactive will move to ambush stations and start feeding. Lure choices for fishing rivers run the gamut. Minnow-imitating crankbaits (diving and lipless) and buzz baits are good in eddy pools, sand and mud bars, rock piles and rock jetties. Spinnerbaits are a top choice for working logs, treetops, brush and weeds. Jigs tipped with a pork or plastic trailer will snare bass from tight spots close to cover. Select lures for rivers as you would in lakes. When a river floods adjacent lowlands, bass move into this fresh habitat to feed. Look for areas where the water is fairly dear and current is slack. Fish them with spinnerbaits, topwaters, shallow crankbaits or plastic worms. When the water starts dropping, bass will abandon these areas and move back to deeper water. Always be conscious of river bass “patterns?’ If you find fish at the mouth of a feeder creek, chances are the next creek will also hold bass. The same is true of jetties, islands, rocks, etc.
Catfish and Bullheads—Both catfish and bull-heads are plentiful in most large warm-water rivers. In the daytime, catfish stay in deep holes and channel edges, while bullheads prefer shallower backwaters. The best time to try for these fish is just after sundown. Fish for catfish along bluffs, tributary mouths, flats bordering the channel or the downstream side of rock jetties. For catfish, use stout tackle and a bottom rig. Sinkers should be heavy enough to keep the bait anchored in current (1-3 oz.). Hooks should be large and stout (1/0-3/0 steel). Live minnows, worms or any traditional catfish bait will work Cast the rig and allow it to sink to the bottom. Prop up the rod and wait for a bite. A rock bank out of direct current will offer redhot catfishing during spawning time. Fish these spots with a fixed or slip-bobber rig, adjusting the float so the bait hangs just above the rocks. River catfishing can be phenomenal in dam tail-waters. Tailwaters contain baitfish, current, oxygenated water, and bottom structure where fish can hold and feed. The best way to fish a tailwater is to work eddies close to the water that pours through the dam. If you’re bank fishing, use a bottom rig and cast into quiet waters behind wing walls, pilings or the dam face. If the bottom is rough and you keep hanging up, switch to a slip-float rig adjusted so the bait hangs close to bottom.
A better way to fish tailwaters is from a boat, floating along current breaks while bumping a two-hook panfish rig off the bottom. Use enough weight so your line hangs almost straight under the boat. Make long downstream drifts before motoring back for another float. Just after a hard rain, look for gulleys and drains where fresh water rushes into the river. Catfish often move below these inflows and feed furiously. In this case, use a fixed or slip-bobber rig and dangle a bait only 2-3 feet under the surface in the immediate vicinity of the inflow.
Walleye—River walleye collect in fairly predictable places. They prefer to stay out of current, so look for them around islands, jetties, eddies below dams, etc. They usually hold near the edge of an eddy where they can watch for food. The best river condition for catching walleye is when the water is low, stable and relatively dear. Walleye continue feeding when a river rises, but they may change locations. When the river gets too muddy, or when the water starts dropping, walleye generally become inactive. Tailwaters below dams are among the best places to catch river walleye. Some fish stay in tailwaters all year long, but the biggest concentrations occur during winter and early spring. Walleye may hold dose to dam faces or behind wingwalls. They also hang along rock ledges, gravel bars or other structure. But again, the key is reduced flow. Boat-fishing is best for catching river walleye. Use a jig tipped with a live minnow, matching your jig weight to the amount of current. In slack water, a 1/8-oz. jig is heavy enough to work most tailwater areas. Float or troll through likely walleye spots, jigging vertically off the bottom. Or anchor and cast into eddies, holes and current breaks. Let the jig sink to the bottom, and work it back with a lift/drop retrieve. Always, work the bait slowly. When bank fishing in early spring, cast crankbaits or jigs tipped with minnows along riprap banks. In summer and fall, look for walleye downstream, along riprap banks, jetties, gravel bars and creek mouths. Cast jigs or troll live-bait through deeper areas, or cast crankbaits along rocky shallows.
Northern Pike—Use the same tactics, tackle and baits for pike in large rivers that you would use in large lakes and reservoirs. The best places to look for river pike are in backwaters. They often hold in sloughs, marshes and tributaries away from the main channel. Cast to logs, brush or other shallow cover. As in lakes and reservoirs, river pike are most active in spring, early summer and fall. A bonus time to fish for pike is whenever a river is rising and flooding adjacent lowlands.