When most people picture the modern angler, they probably envision a large lake and a fancy bass boat, but river fishing is still a hugely popular sport. In many ways, there’s nothing else quite like fishing a beautiful river. River fishing often gives an angler the chance to get off by themselves in a manner that’s just not possible on a lake.

Nevertheless, river fishing also makes an angler feel pleasantly old-school, with the bare minimum of gear, a creel, and a floppy hat full of flies, typically both real and synthetic. River fishing is where you can truly find your zen, so here’s a how-to guide to get you started on this ancient and still preferable practice.

Materials Needed for River Fishing

a fly angler in a river

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  • Fishing tackle, either fly or cast
  • Waders or old jeans
  • A creel or other container to hold caught fish
  • Live bait, either purchased or collected
  • A drift boat, for those completely committed
  • A big can of bug spray

Step One: Find a River

Choosing the correct river to visit is usually the determining factor when it comes to the amount of enjoyment you’ll get out of river fishing. Obviously, you want to pick a spot that offers some fish, but there are other items to consider as well. Make certain you can legally gain access to the river before trudging over to it.

Some rivers require special permits for fishing, and some are surrounded by private land. Ask permission, so you don’t have to beg forgiveness. You also need to make certain that bank fishing or boating in the river is a safe proposition. Falling into a big river wearing waders, and clinging to fishing gear, is a test for even the best swimmers. White water rafting in a drift boat is not for the faint of heart.

Step Two: Find Some Slow Water

a creek in winter

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Fish don’t like to work all day any more than anyone else. They spend most of their time in the slower-moving water. Bends in the river or the water in front of obstructions like dams or diversions are typically a pretty good bet. As your ability to judge conditions improves, you can move on to trying riffles or spots under banks in fast water, but initially, it’s best to stick with the easier options.

Step Three: Approach Carefully

Walking up to the edge of a river might seem like a simple proposition, but things can get complicated fast. Make sure you don’t wander in anywhere you can’t get back out. River banks, cliffs, or even muddy shores can pose a problem, especially clad in waders or shorts. Take it slow and get a feel for your capabilities. Remember, swimming is best when it’s a planned activity.

Step Four: Find the Right Bait

There is an almost limitless supply of baits on the market these days, but the old tricks are usually the best when it comes to river fishing. Whatever kind of little creepy crawlies are around the river will probably serve as good bait. If handling creepy crawlies isn’t to your liking, try a synthetic bait that closely mimics what’s on hand. This isn’t rocket science, and you’ll most likely get the hang of it in short order.

sunset on a river

Image credits: Larisa Koshkina via Pixabay

There is an almost limitless supply of baits on the market these days, but the old tricks are often the best when it comes to river fishing. Whatever kind of little creepy crawlies are around the river will probably serve as good bait. If handling creepy crawlies isn’t to your liking, try a synthetic bait that closely mimics what’s on hand. This isn’t rocket science, and you’ll most likely get the hang of it in short order.

Step Five: Find Your Happy Place

As mentioned above, there are different levels of commitment to river fishing. The majority of anglers find river fishing relaxing and keep their gear to a minimum. High-ticket investments like guided trips or drift boats never get purchased, but they’re a possibility. As you spend more time river fishing, you can make your own determinations about how heavily you want to get invested. There’s always a fun-to-expense trade-off with any hobby, so judge for yourself.

Where’s Your River?

person standing on gray stone fragment

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As a final thought, it’s well worth mentioning that nothing brings you closer to nature than river fishing, quite literally. The edges of rivers draw all manner of critters, especially during the majority of the fishing season. You can run into anything from snakes to grizzly bears fishing on some rivers. More than a few river anglers have met skunks in unfortunate locations. It behooves the river fisher to plan ahead by carrying something like bear spray or possibly even a firearm. Bug spray should be a constant companion. Give whichever river you intend to fish a thorough review before visiting, and watch out for wildlife. Stay vigilant, use caution, and don’t get complacent.