Fly Fishing On Rivers: A Guide To River Fishing

This is a complete guide to fly fishing on a rivers written by an expert angler who spends the majority of time river fishing.

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In this fly fishing guide, I’ll share with you valuable tips and techniques on how to get started on river fishing. It’s an extensive topic, but I narrowed it down to the basics. Follow my advice, and I’m sure that you’ll start seeing the results on your next day out on a river.

I’ve been fly fishing for over 20 years, most of which have been on a river. I’ve targeted our indigenous largemouth and smallmouth yellowfish, brown and rainbow trout, salmon, and bass. The techniques in this guide will allow you to approach a river in the right way.

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What Makes Fly Fishing on a River Different?

As almost all things in life are relative, so also is the term a river. According to the Collins dictionary site, a river is a large amount of freshwater flowing continuously. Now, what is the difference between a river and a small stream, as discussed in my previous article? The single word “large.”

Although many techniques are shared between small streams and rivers, each is adapted in a particular manner. For instance, if you want to tight line nymph a small stream, you’re probably going to use flies with beads in size 2 – 3mm range. However, in rivers, you’ll be using flies weighted with 3 – 4.5mm beads. The reason for this is the depth and current.

A fisherman fly fishing on a river

All the techniques, the way you approach the stretch of water, and even the fish you might catch look pretty similar to small stream fishing. But there are essential adaptations that need to be made to ensure you are safe and successful on the water.

How To Fly Fish on a River?

This section will discuss some tricks of the trade that I’ve learned over 20 years of fly fishing rivers. In a way, this will help you increase your learning curve. The primary purpose is to reduce the frustrations heading your way and to keep you safe.

Think Safety First

As mentioned above, a river is a large body of moving water. If you’re wading, this term means that you’ll be working against a current the whole day. Wear shoes or boots that provide ample traction, especially when you wear waders. A wader full of icy water could not only bring forth hypothermia, but it can also drown you.

Speaking about waders, always wear waders when you’re fishing in cold rivers. They keep you dry and warm so that you can focus on fishing.

If you’re fishing a strong river, always fish with a fellow angler, and don’t feel ashamed of using a wading stick.

Protect Your Valuables

No, not those valuables. I’m talking about sensitive electronic equipment like cameras, cellphones, and car keys. Stow these items in a proper waterproof pouch either in your backpack or wader’s chest pocket.

Even better, if you’re fishing large rivers frequently, I recommend you invest in a high-quality submersible backpack, hip pack, or sling bag. These bags will not only keep valuables safe but also prevent other items like jackets and food from getting wet.

Split The River Up

Arriving on a large river and devising an approach plan is quite daunting. The best way, I’ve found, is to break the river up into smaller sections. Look for structure, current differences, and small pools and work each section at a time. This method allows you to work methodically, which will catch you more fish.

Work the Structure

Much like people, trout are lazy beings. They use the cover of structure to preserve energy and just come out into the current to pick something to eat. Structure may be found in the form of a rock or boulder, bank, and a fallen tree stump.

But perhaps some of the most overlooked structure is the bottom formation. You see, the bottom of a river or stream isn’t uniform in depth. Trout hold in slight indentations and depressions in the riverbed.

What makes this type of structure so effective is that the current that flows over them also hides them as the riverbed is distorted. Always fish slightly deeper and darker sections of a river. Although you won’t see the trout, chances are they’re just sitting on the bottom.

Dry Fly Fishing on a River

It’s hard to give you a complete crash course on dry fly fishing a river in a single section. To cover the topic in detail would take numerous full-length pages. Apart from fly selection, entomology, and matching the hatch, I would like to briefly discuss the most critical aspect of all – controlling the drift.

It doesn’t matter if you strapped Keira Knightley’s hair to the hook; trout won’t eat your fly consistently if the drift is incorrect. What do I mean by this? Well, a spent mayfly comes trickling down the river at the same rate as the surface’s flow rate. This means that a fly you’re presenting to a fish should do the same.

Dry Fly Fishing with a buzzer set-up

It’s all about eliminating the drag so that the fly looks as natural as possible. There are exceptions to the rule. An excellent example of this is skating caddis adults that almost dance on the water’s surface. In this scenario, twitching or skating the fly over the water’s surface is ideal.

But even this twitch or skating action needs to be done under control. To gain control, I always recommend beginner anglers to fish at shorter distances. A short cast with a controlled drift is much more effective than a long cast with tons of drag.

Also, wondering how to fish and where to use a dry dropper rig, here are the three ways to do it.

Nymphing on a River

The three most essential aspects of nymphing in fast water are to be able to see your leader, to get the flies down to where the fish are, and to control drag. From there on, the fish will take care of the rest.

If you can’t see your leader and don’t have any means to gauge how deep your flies run, your success rate will be relatively low. Build a two-tone monofilament section into your leader. This indicator section will allow you to spot your leader and detect takes quickly.

In general, a river’s currents are quite strong. If the fish are holding deep, it’s going to be hard to get lightweight nymphs down to them. This is where large tungsten beads and thin diameter fluorocarbon tippets come in.

Tie your nymphs with as little bulk as possible and in varying weights with tungsten beads ranging from 3 – 4.5mm. A thin diameter tippet cuts through the water quickly, reducing drag on the flies, which allows them to sink faster.

Once again, as important as controlling the drag is for dry fly fishing, it’s of the utmost importance when fishing with nymphs. It’s a fine line when nymphing between setting up a drag-free drift yet keeping in contact to detect takes.

Streamer Fishing a River

There are multiple ways to fish with a streamer on a river; it all depends on the scenario and its structure.

In slower pools, it’s possible to cast upstream and bring the fly back towards you at a frantic pace. One of my favorite methods is to work structure. As mentioned earlier, trout hold around structure, so casting a stream into fish-holding spots and giving the fly some life will induce great takes.

streamer fishing a river

Another very effective method to fish with a streamer is to cast across at a 45-degree downstream angler and allow the fly to swing. Then the fly is stripped back to you. After a couple of casts, the angler takes a couple of steps downstream and repeats the process.

Species For Fly Fly Fishing On Rivers

Let’s have a look at some of the most popular fish species you’ll come across on rivers and how to catch them.

Rainbow Trout

Rainbow trout are widespread and take flies readily. They’re honest fish. If the conditions are fair and the area isn’t overfished, rainbow trout will take a well-presented fly.

Rainbow Trout Species for Fly Fishing

They hold to structure and readily eat nymphs, dry flies, and streamers.

Brown Trout

Brown trout are probably the most beautiful creatures on the planet, except for an indo-pacific permit.   They also take dry flies and nymphs well, but perhaps the most rewarding manner to target brown trout is using huge streamers.

Smallmouth Bass

Smallmouth bass are aggressive predators. They can be targeted with streamers ranging from poppers on the surface to large articulated flies. Bass may be found in warmer water, which makes them ideal for targeting during warm summer months.

Smallmouth Bass Mouth Closeup Vertical

If you can’t see the bass, work structures such as fallen trees, rock faces, and weed beds.

Time to Go Fly Fishing On a River!

I hope that you learned something in this guide. The primary purpose is to introduce you to some basic principles that are fundamental to river fishing. I am confident that if you apply these techniques, as set out above, it will make you a more accomplished angler who not only catches more fish but understands fish behavior.

Please share this guide with your fellow anglers and friends and leave any comments, questions, or criticism at the bottom of the page.

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Pierre is a fly fishing guide and professional photographer who has guided and hosted trips for top fly fishing outfitters. Since being introduced to fly fishing over 21 years ago, he has travelled, fished and guided across the globe. He has extensive knowledge on specific gear and tackle selection for various salt- and freshwater species. Some of his writing work includes blogposts for Alphonse Fishing Company and African Waters.

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