Trout Fishing in Rivers and Streams: 101 Basics and Beyond

Last updated on January 24th, 2022

fly angler trout fishing in river-stream

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Trout fishing in rivers and streams can be a challenge but it is also one of the best ways to catch fish. Consider that streams and rivers are quite different from still water such as lakes, reservoirs, and ponds in terms of temperature and food supply.

Water temperatures are typically cooler in rivers and streams with streams typically being very cold depending on the time of year. The reason for streams being colder is that they are typically fed from higher altitudes such as mountain ranges.

Most moving water is fed by runoff from snowpack in higher altitudes which is why streams and rivers tend to flood for a period every year. This runoff brings with it, nutrients and minerals to the streambed and riverbed that the environment needs.

Try to think of streams in terms of a circulatory system that brings nutrients to lower elevations and think of how that can help you with your angling. In other articles I have written, I discussed timing your angling around the hatch of certain insects and other invertebrates. This is particularly important in stream and river fishing.

Fish health depends on a diet of insects and other invertebrates, insects depend on nutrients found in aquatic plant life, which depend on nutrients from the water, which depend on the transfer of minerals from runoff.

This all sounds very scientific but it is crucial to successfully fish a river or a stream. Learning this ebb and flow can really benefit your fishing by anticipating feeding patterns of all fish species including trout.

Benefits of Fishing Moving Water

catching trout in moving water

Moving water offers many benefits in terms of fishing. We have discussed that the ecosystem of a stream or river is circulatory and that every natural element has its place, but how does that benefit you with a rod in your hand?

Simply put, you can consider a few large factors to consider when deciding what setup to use. Water temperature and clarity are huge factors that can be offset while still coinciding together. Because of this, it can be hard to determine the best way to fish.

Cooler water usually means more activity from fish throughout the day, whereas, lake water heats easier forcing trout to deeper water. Because of this, determining water depth is not as important for topwater fishing streams.

Water clarity is a large factor for stream fishing. Many states close stream fishing in the early spring because of flooding and heavy runoff but if your areas are open during these times, you will likely see murky conditions.

I have found that murky stream and river conditions are perfect for live bait or any sinking lures. Because of water moving more rapidly, fish will tend to go deeper or stay behind rocks to avoid currents.

Fish in streams and rivers tend to sit behind rocks and stones and stay in the “sweet spot” where they do not have to work against the current. While sitting behind these rocks, they typically wait for food to come to them.

When fishing moving water, try a surface lure that you can float downstream a few inches to the left or the right of these rocks. This is a favorite way for fish to eat and can really give you good odds when fishing.

The edibility of river and stream fish is typically better than fish caught in lakes. When I was a kid, money was tight and we kept, within the guidelines, just about every fish we caught. The species we kept were primarily trout because they were easier to catch and more abundant.

I remember me and my friends riding our bikes home with trout on stringers hanging off our handlebars. We had a few streams about a mile up the road from where we lived, and we did our part by bringing home trout for the freezer.

Over years of eating what we caught, I realized that the smaller the fish, the better it tasted. Trout from rivers and streams are the perfect size for keeping and believe me when I tell you, they are good eating. The smaller trout cook faster and can be cooked any way you can imagine.

Another factor to consider when keeping a stream or river caught trout is mercury level. Lake trout and other stagnant water caught fish have higher mercury levels. This is due to the repetitiveness of the water they live in.

Streams offer freshwater at an extremely large volume continuously whereas lake water does not change as much. If mercury levels concern you, then a fish caught from moving water can be a good alternative.

Reclamation efforts offer a great way to get in on some good fishing as well. Streams and rivers are usually found to have good deposits of minerals that humans have mined over the years. Because of this, we have hurt the streambeds and riverbeds in many areas.

Wildlife agencies have been hard at work to reclaim these areas for the environment and they encourage fishing to regulate the fish population. Because of this, planning a fishing trip to these areas between spawns can be very productive for catching fish.

Strategies for Fishing Currents

fly fisherman fishing the stream current

Fishing in waters that have a current can be tricky. You want to ensure that you cover as much area as possible with every cast to be effective. It seems like maybe it is a hard thing to learn but it is simple actually and I will explain how I learned to use currents to my advantage.

Fishing the Current in Rivers

River fishing is a great way to get on the fish and cover huge areas while still being onshore. In a previous article, I discussed the benefits of trolling over shore fishing because of the area you can cover. Trout fishing in rivers can offer the area coverage without the boat and here is how.

I was taught two different types of river fishing and it all depends on what you are using. Diving lures and spinners are best used “against the current”. These lures need to have a current to fight against to perform their action.

To fish against the current, look directly across the river and pick out a rock. That rock is 0 degrees for reference. You want to cast at about 20 degrees, which is technically upstream to the right of your reference rock.

The reason for this is that your lure is going to travel with the current. When your lure is at about 340 degrees from your reference rock, close your bail and reel.

As you reel, your lure will be pulled in a large sweep towards you and it will cover the maximum area of the river. While doing this, the action of your lure will work the entire cast and be more effective.

With the current casting is useful for fly fishing both wet and dry flies and is much simpler than the previous method. When fly fishing, consider what speed you want your fly to float and cast it into an area that works best.

Cast very sharply upstream and try to get out on the water as far as you can. Slowly retrieve your line as the fly floats downstream and repeat. These are the cornerstones of current fishing that I was taught as a child and I still use them today.

Fishing the Current in Streams and Creeks

Typically, you will use a fly when fishing a stream or creek to match the insects that inhabit the area, but because of the small area, you do not have to use a fly rod and reel. To determine the fly to use, catch a few mayflies or whatever is hatched in your area and duplicate that insect the next time you buy flies.

As I stated above, trout love to sit behind rocks and let their food come to them. Simply use the same principle discussed for river fishing when trout fishing in streams and compensate for the current to drag your fly right across these areas.

Even though stream and creek water will always be cooler through spring, fish will still find shady areas when the heat really hits. Trout in lakes go deeper and trout in streams go shadier is a good rule of thumb to remember when chasing trout.

Despite being a different environment, river fishing and stream fishing are remarkably similar as far as casting. The only difference is fish behavior, temperature, and food supply. Once you learn the factors in these two different environments, you can fish both effectively.

Flies, Lures and Live Bait – Using What Works

caddis dry fly fishing for trout in river

As we discussed above, use flies and artificial lures that match the local food supply to better your chances. Consider trying a few different flies that vary in size but do not be shy about using small flies.

Sometimes people shy away from small flies because they think that they will not work, and this could not be further from the truth.

Trout have excellent perception when looking for food and they will see the fly if the water is clear, no matter how small the fly is. Some of my best fishing has been with small flies and I recommend that you give them a shot.

Murky water streams occur in the early spring usually and despite being difficult to see through, they can still be fished. Try some live bait for trout dangling in the current about 3 or 4 feet behind some rocks.

Trout love to hide behind rocks, as stated before, and when the water is murky, you can use this behavior to know where to fish. Try this tactic all summer and not just in the early spring to be successful.

Rivers are a little different as far as what lure to use is concerned. Crankbaits, spoons, and spinners are great for relatively clear rivers but a poor choice for murky rivers. Try live bait or artificial scent for murky rivers where fish need their nose more than their eyes.

I have honestly had the best luck running a nightcrawler across a murky river than anything else. Try a nightcrawler on a heavy jig head to help get your bait across the river easily.

Let Nature Work for You (Different from Lake Fishing)

If you lake fish, you are used to perhaps a simpler way of fishing. Fishing for trout in streams and rivers offers a challenge that differs from lake fishing and a relatively different tactic that is needed. You must consider more environmental factors than you do when lake fishing.

I remember when I was a kid, my grandfather and a few friends from the tribe took me and my brothers to the Stillaguamish River in Washington to fish for salmon. We learned to not just cast into the water as you would with lake fishing, but rather use the current to your advantage.

Letting the current work for you rather than against you, I feel like that is the most important aspect to grasp when fishing this way. It sounds very odd, but if you learn how to do it, nature will almost fish for you.

It’s About Getting Outdoors and Having Fun

Trout fishing rivers and streams can be extremely rewarding and fun for the whole family. Because lakes tend to freeze in the winter here, I enjoy river fishing all year which makes it a great go-to for fishing in a pinch.

Once learned, fishing for trout in rivers and streams will easily become a favorite way to fish for you and the entire family. It is an interesting and engaging way to enjoy the outdoors for the whole family and I strongly encourage you to gas the truck up and get out there.

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