Kayak Fishing Tips: Understand River Flow

5-minute read

If you want to kayak fish on moving water, you need to understand river flow and how it affects both paddling and fishing.

 drone shot of a kayak angler fishing on a river

(Photo courtesy of @scottbeutjerfishing)

A few of our ProStaff and Ambassador team members offer their tips about river flow here. We suggest you look for fishing clubs, Facebook groups and other angler groups in your area that can offer advice for your specific local rivers, too.

Paddling Safely on Rivers

Moving water offers a few safety concerns you don’t face on flatwater. Current, of course, is one of them. Be sure the water levels of whatever river you plan to fish are within the safe zones—neither too high and fast or too low.

Most rivers wind and twist, making it hard to know what’s around the next bend. Fallen trees and other obstructions are common hazards.

“It’s very important to understand the layout of the stretch of river you plan on fishing,” says Rob Wright, a member of our National ProStaff team. “If things go bad while out there, you’ll need to adapt quickly to them.”

Another ProStaff team member, Courtney Bennett, says, “I absolutely love to kayak fish in moving water! When my husband and I first started kayak fishing in 2014, we cut our proverbial paddling teeth on the moving waters of the Barren Fork River in McMinnville, Tennessee.

“The Barren Fork is a shallow river with several Class 1 and 2 rapids, rocky shoals and stretches of flat water. I’ll be the first to admit I was scared the first time I tackled a rapid! I had no idea of what to do, and honestly, I had not really trained myself on how to read the water.

“I've always been athletic, so initially, I relied on my paddling skills to make sure I didn’t flip my kayak or position myself incorrectly and get ‘high centered’ on a rock shoal. After a few trips down the Barren Fork, I started watching videos on YouTube of people who were way more advanced than I was in reading a river.

“I learned how to look for the Vs in the river and how to position my kayak where I would not be putting myself at risk for flipping. I learned that I should lean into a rock if I were to get caught on one, rather than lean away from it. I also learned how to eddy out of a current. This skill comes in handy when I want to pause and fish in the riffles!”

man prepping his kayak to take out fishing on the river 

(Photo courtesy of Brandon Mayes)

Robert Brown is one of our Regional Ambassadors. He says, “The surface of the water can provide clues to submerged hazards. Items such as rocks or logs just under the surface will cause the water to become smooth. I avoid these areas, or at minimum I’m prepared for contact with the bottom of my kayak. For shoals and rapids, I look for runs that make a V shape. These tend to be the deeper channels and I have less chance of running aground and becoming stuck.”

Consider learning how to kayak on moving water before you attempt to kayak fish there. Get comfortable with the various challenges of paddling first, then bring your fishing gear along and combine the two skills.

You can learn from YouTube videos like Courtney did, or look for a local kayaking course or club. There may be folks in your area with experience who would be happy to introduce you to river paddling.

Regional Ambassador Brad Hicks recommends buying a kayak that can handle river currents well. “A big, wide and long kayak won’t be the kayak you want to use on a river because it will be harder to maneuver. You want to choose something that has a little rocker design to the hull. I think a 12-foot kayak is the sweet spot for river kayaks,” he says.

How Understanding River Flow Helps You Catch More Fish

Reading river flow is your key to paddling safely…and it’s your key to catching the most fish.

“Knowing current break areas can help you land more fish and help figure out how the fish position themselves,” says Rob Wright.

Current breaks are any pocket of slow water that’s surrounded by faster current, like the water directly behind a boulder. Fish like to sit in current breaks as they wait for food to float by.

A current seam is where two currents of different speeds meet, like where a tributary enters the main river. Or where a land point sticks out into the river. An eddy is the current in a circular motion, also formed by some kind of obstruction of the main current.

 kayak angler paddling his kayak down a small rapids

(Photo courtesy of Chris Funk)

“When I fish in faster water, I focus more on the current seams and eddies,” says Robert. “Fish generally position themselves in eddies or the slack water just outside the current seam. The fish use the moving water as a conveyor that brings them food. By staying in the slower water, the fish can conserve energy while still being able to dart out and grab a passing food item or lure.

“Eddies also provide the angler a place to position the kayak and fish current seams while not having to fight the current. This works if you’re fishing tidal creeks, too.”

The more you kayak and fish on rivers, the better you’ll get at reading the flow for safe paddling and understanding how it affects fish behavior below the surface.

Do you have paddle questions our friendly Customer Service Team can help you with today? Contact them: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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