Bass Fishing in rivers posts a unique set of challenges. But if you master river environments, you can catch bass that most anglers won’t be able to find. River currents are notorious for constantly changing. The constant change of bottom features and rising and falling water levels can make bass fishing rivers difficult.
If you’re a boater, learning the area and being careful not to run aground are key skills to develop before you go flying all round the place.
If you’re on a canoe or kayak, things can be much less complicated. Especially if you can shuttle back upstream.
Fishing In River Current
The main feature of a river is it’s current. Of course this can vary significantly. You can find rivers with current that is barely detectable.
There will be other rivers with currents so strong they become essentially unnavigable.
You most likely are fishing for bass in rivers that have currents somewhere in the middle.
If you’re on a bass boat, whether it’s a large fiberglass boat or an aluminum jonboat, you’ll need to deal with the current.
Some boaters use jet drives to get up and down rivers, and while these can facilitate navigating rivers, you still need to watch out for the intake getting clogged with sediment.
In the shallowest of river areas, some boaters will resort to mud motors in order to get over the extremely shallow water.
Regardless, if you travel downstream a significant distance, you need to make sure that you have enough power and fuel to get back to your ramp.
Remember that when you were going downstream you were being assisted by the current. So, when it’s time to go back upstream, you’ll need more power and fuel to cover the same distance.
Holding Still In River Current
Holding your position in river current is one of the most important aspects of being successful.
If you’re constantly having to motor or paddle back into a good casting spot, you will be inefficient.
You’ll waste most of your time correcting your position instead of fishing.
Yes, if you’re on a very slow river, this won’t be as big of a deal. You’re moving so slowly that you’ll be able to hit a spot with at least 2 good casts.
However, to really break down a good spot, 2 casts won’t be enough.
For example, a tree that has fallen and is laying in the river, breaking the current.
You’ll definitely want to make several casts. You’ll want to hit multiple angles, and depths.
Try coming at it from upstream and downstream.
Even try different lures.
So, to properly dissect a good spot while you’re in current, you need to be able to stop.
But what are the best ways to stop your boat in a river?
Well, if you have a trolling motor with spot lock, you’re set. These motors us GPS to keep your boat on a pinpoint location. Yes, sometimes there may be a few feet of variability, but overall, they do a great job.
Another popular option is a shallow water anchor pole.
Shallow water anchor poles come in many different configurations.
On a bass boat, you’ve probably seen power poles.
These are 2 poles that unfold from the back of the boat and stick themselves to the bottom.
There are also single pole power pole anchors. These are for smaller boats.
The single power pole micro is especially popular with kayak anglers.
Some kayak anglers will mount two powerpole micros on their kayak.
The reason you would want 2 two power poles is because with two anchor points, the current wont spin you around like it can with a single.
This is a huge advantage when fishing current.
Of course, if you only have a single pole, you can park yourself with the bow facing down current.
In such a scenario, a single pole is just fine.
It’s only when you want to orient your vessel upstream or cross stream that you would need two poles.
If you have a small boat like a kayak or jonboat, then you have another low cost alternative.
Just sticking a long pole in the bottom and tying it to the boat will work.
Some anglers have created elaborate setups that use pulleys and cord to raise and lower a pole by hand.
You can easily find plans and youtube videos that show you how to set this up.
There may also be some commercial versions available too.
Fishing Current Breaks
Current breaks are the most basic river fishing spot. Anything that stops or slows the current can be an ambush spot.
The idea is simple. Why would a bass spend energy lying in the current and waiting for food?
Instead wouldn’t it be better to find something that slows the current or stops it, or reverses it even.
In such a spot, a bass can also find cover that provides the concealment necessary for an ambush.
A very common form of current break is a boulder or pile of rocks lying in the river.
In shallow rivers, the blocking of the current can often be seen from the surface.
It may look like a rounded or v shaped riffle in the surface of the water.
If it’s very subtle, it may just look like a slight boil on the surface.
These are signs to look for when searching for current breaks of all types.
Fishing breaks like this usually means casting your lure upstream. Then, you either let it drift or retrieve it downstream right past the side of the break.
If nothing hits, you try the other side of the break and repeat your presentation a few times.
Trying different angles or different lures can help get a strike.
The idea is that you’re trying to get a bass that’s waiting behind the break to ambush your lure.
Fishing Laydowns In Rivers
Laydowns are another classic type of current break. Trees that have fallen into a rive will make that universal angled tree trunk laying in the river.
This gives bass the ability to basically choose their preferred depth. As the log angles down towards the bottom, a bass can sit anywhere along the length of the trunk.
Branches extending from a tree trunk can also add to the camouflage and current disruption.
Fishing Eddies In Rivers
Eddies look like a whirlpool in the water. It’s formed by a current that becomes circular. This is usually a current that is slower than the current that’s creating it. So, they won’t be fast whirlpools that suck everything down. Rather they’re slow swirls that spin lazily.
And when it comes to being lazy, big largemouth bass are champs.
The last thing a big largemouth wants to do is fight current all day.
So, a nice eddy in the water will bring food and cooler temps along with minimal effort.
That’s how bass get big.
A good tactic is to throw a soft plastic just upstream of the eddy. Don’t weigh it down.
If it has a slow sink rate, like a senko(AMZN Link) does, then free lining it is fine in shallow water.
The lure will then be caught in the eddy.
This is when you can get a massive strike from hungry bass.
Try the edges of the eddy too. There may be bass in the periphery as well.
Bass Fishing Cut Banks
The cut bank is another incredibly popular river pattern. Cut banks form when river currents go around a bend.
The current on the outside or longest part of the bank will make a cut in the bank.
This can look like an undercut where you have an overhang from the bank that is cut further in the deeper you go.
You will find that the cut bank side of a river channel is almost always significantly deeper than the inside.
The inside of a river bend will often have a very shallow flat on that side.
Fallen trees are common around cut banks. This makes them even more likely to hold fish.
A cut bank with logs in it will have both deep water and a current break.
These are two things that bass will seek out.
The deeper waters of the cut bank will often provide the lower light conditions that are perfect for ambushes.
Rocks and boulders can also pile up at the bottom of a cut bank for be on the lookout for these additional current breaks.
Bass Fishing River Flats
River flats are often not large and also extremely shallow. But what’s interesting about them is that baitfish will pile up on them.
This means that predators will not be far behind. You will often find them hanging right off the flats where there is a drop off.
They’ll occasionally swim up to the edge of the flats and attack any baitfish that wander to close to the edge.
At night this can turn into raid that venture into the shallows themselves.
Of course if the water is deep enough or the bass feel aggressive enough, then these raids can happen at any time.
River flats with weed growth can hold bass all day. Swimming a lure past shallow river flat grass beds is a good bet.
Bass Fishing Wing Dams
Wing dams are a feature usually found on larger rivers. They’re basically a wall that extends out into the current from the bank.
They’re often roughly constructed. For example, a wing dam may be a rock pile as opposed to a concrete structure.
Oftentimes wingdams are angled downstream.
They don’t extend all the way across the river. They just extend out anywhere from 10 to 50 feet off from the bank.
The purpose of a wing dam is to direct current towards the center river channel. They reduce sediment accumulation as well.
This keeps the river moving along the center channel. It prevents the river from meandering off to one side and forming a branch.
They’re usually meant to help keep the channel navigable by directing the water towards the middle channel.
But as you can imagine, this is not all they do. They also hold bass. They make excellent current breaks of course.
You’ll often fine bass stacked up behind or even in front of a wing dam.
They use them to ambush prey by hiding behind the wall and waiting for something to pass overhead.
The upcurrent side of a wing dam can get piled up with logs and rocks.
This is also a good fishing spot.
As the water approaches the dam it will get diverted to the center of the river. So, bass can position themselves on the up-current side and face towards the bank.
In this position, they can wait for deeper prey that gets blocked off by the dam and has to head towards the middle.
As they move in that direction, a bass hiding behind a log or boulder can smash them.
You can find lots of wing dams in the Mississippi river. They are very popular with anglers there. If you don’t have a map of wing dam locations, you may need to use sonar to find them. However, use caution. Wing dams can sit just below the surface and cause damage to your boat.
Bass Fishing Oxbows, Bayous, Sloughs
Oxbows, Bayous and Sloughs are sometimes hard to tell apart. It almost seems as if which one you use depends on what part of the river you’re on.
But here is a rough guide.
What Is An Oxbow?
Oxbows are a U shaped bend in a river. In some definitions the U shaped bend needs to be cut off from the river to form a lake.
This lake is the oxbow.
Interestingly, the world record largemouth bass caught by George Perry was caught on an oxbow lake.
Lake Montgomery is an oxbow lake near the Ocmulgee River in southern Georgia.
In some places, an oxbow does not need to be cut off from the river. A significant U shaped bend can get called an oxbow too.
One main feature of oxbows is that river current usually gets slowed down significantly if the river is still connected.
If it is very shallow, it can become stagnant and clogged with weeds.
What Is A Bayou?
Bayous are also an ambiguous term. It will normally refer to a low lying swampy area.
It can be a very slow moving river or creek. Or be a marsh or wetland with no defined channel at all.
Sometimes, it can be an area that is influenced by tides.
Regardless, these can be very bassy areas and are popular with bass anglers.
What Is A Slough?
A slough can also be a fairly ambiguous term. It can refer to a side-channel from or feeding a river. It can also be a backwater that extends off from a river and creates an area with little to no current.
Sloughs can have deep holes that will hold large populations of fish. Or they can be swampy and shallow. Either way, a slough can be very similar to oxbows and bayous.
How To Fish Oxbows, Bayous And Sloughs
The key characteristics to look for will be pretty similar to what you will look for in other lakes and rivers.
Current, depth, water temperature, vegetation can all influence a body of water differently.
In an oxbow that is completely blocked off from the river that created it, you may have shallow stagnant water. This can be a place that’s not very productive for bass anglers.
However, if there are deep holes that allow for a greater variety of structure, then you may find some good fish populations.
If there is current present, then you have many more options. Current will bring in nutrients, and prey. It can also help maintain a healthy amount of vegetation.
Indeed, having current present can really make a difference.
These backwater type areas are often great for fishing frogs. In fact many tournaments on Mississippi River backwaters have been won on frogs.
Vegetation such as duckweed, and lilypads can be abundant in these riverine ecosystems. This will usually lead to healthy populations of frogs and toads. So, have a topwater frog handy when fishing these areas.
Fish rivers long enough and you’ll learn that smallmouth bass love rivers.
You’ll also learn that largemouth bass are more they type to find quieter water with little to no current.
Largemouth are usually more tuned to vegetation and smallmouth more to rock formations.
Regardless of what species you prefer, rivers are a great fishing destination for many reasons.
Even if the fishing isn’t great, the natural beauty of rivers in the wild can be worth the trip.
Letting yourself drift down river and just enjoying the ride is something you’ll want to share with loved ones.