River Bass Fishing 101 – How, Where & When (Complete Guide + My TOP Tips)

One of the most exciting places to fish for bass happens to be the most accessible waterway across the country. That’s right, I’m talking about bass river fishing. A river can be challenging, but that’s what makes it fun!

Knowing bass habits on a river will certainly give you a leg up. Looking for tributaries, cover and deep structures is all part of the game. Casting slack pockets and finding nests is non-negotiable.

I’ll go over these, and more, in this article. With some new river bass fishing tips and tricks you’ll know exactly how to catch bass in a river.

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What Type of Bass Will I Find?

Bass are highly adaptable creatures. Largemouth and smallmouth bass can be found in all types of waterways across America.

That being said, largemouth bass prefer larger waterways. If you are on a large, slow-moving river (especially with a sandy bottom) you can count on finding largemouth bass. These type of rivers can be low-visibility, and might require some bright color or even a black and blue option on your largemouth bass lure.

Smallmouth bass prefer a clear river or even a creek. They can be found everywhere, but especially like a gravel bottom. They will generally tolerate more current than largemouth. Remember the clearer the river, the lighter line and more realistic smallmouth lure you should use.

For either species, a fast-moving river is more difficult to live in. A slower flowing river, or slower areas of a fast-moving river, is a perfect spot for bass to live.

largemouth bass caught with spinning lure

Where to Look on a River for Bass

The first thing you need to know for river bass fishing is where to look on the river. In a broad picture, bass still operate in a similar fashion as they do on a lake or reservoir. They use structure and cover to navigate and hunt.

One major difference is that a river changes constantly, so finding and relying on these things can be difficult.

A Word on Structure and Cover

Cover is tall grass, docks, rocks, logs and other objects river bass can use to ambush prey.

Structure refers to changes in the river itself. This could be drop-off points, depth changes, flats, channels and points.

Structure on a River

In general, bass like to live at around 10 ft on a river. Rivers usually have structure called “troughs” or channels of varying lengths at this depth or deeper. You can usually find bass year-round in these holes.

The challenging thing about river bass fishing is that a river can change overnight. A depth finder is a useful piece of equipment for finding structure when hunting bass on a river.

Cover on a River

This is where river fishing for bass gets really challenging (and even more rewarding). Not only are there many cover objects for bass to choose from to hunt and habitat, but they change far more often than a lake or reservoir.

A bass can move from cover to cover and often even the cover itself will change with current. Bass anglers on a river are constantly searching cover for their next bite.

fisherman holding a large mouth bass

Current and Slack Pockets

As a river flows forever downstream, there are areas where the current is disturbed. Whether it is a rock, high point, log or man-made obstruction, the water upstream of it will bounce back and create a water eddy or slack spot.

My best river bass fishing tip is to fish slack pockets. There is usually only room for a couple fish, but they respond well to lures floating with the current as they are typically there waiting for food to float downstream.

How to Fish the Current

One of the most important things to keep in mind while fishing for bass in a river is to fish the current. It’s not just for finding slack pockets, but also for using to make your lure move exactly like prey.

Instead of casting down current, try casting perpendicular or up-river to your vessel and allowing your lure to “swim” with the current. Some movement against the current is desirable, but depending on the lure, a float might be required.

Bass are used to see prey get dragged by heavy current and use this to their advantage as ambush predators.

Cast and Bite Areas

Because of the current, the casting window and bite frame are much smaller. You may only have a foot or two to get a bite, and that’s if you land your lure in just the right spot.

Brighter, faster lures are sometimes a better option when the current is moving.

The bass in this area are used to hitting something immediately, based on movement, and without a lot of inspection.

Weight and Current

I find situating weight on lures in a river to be just as important as choosing a color or lure type.

I always carry some split-shot in case my lure isn’t moving well in the current I’m trying to fish.

Make sure to run the split shot far enough up your line that you’re giving a convincing lure presentation. It may help with movement in current, but if the bass see it you’re just “shotting” yourself in the foot.

Smallmouth Bass in the fisherman's hand

Ideal Temperatures for River Bass

Whether a river is a good temperature for bass to bite depends heavily on the season. There are exceptions to every rule when it come to bass fishing a river.

Generally speaking, though, bass really love to bite when the water is around 70 degrees. Bass will still bite regularly when the water is between 50 and 80 degrees.

These are important numbers for a river, because you can quickly get out of the sweet spot. Tributaries and currents change water temperature rapidly compared to a lake.

Consider a water thermometer in your tackle box to get the most out of river bass fishing.

Time of Day

Dawn and dusk are the best times of day to fish for bass on the river. Bass are on the hunt when prey fish have trouble seeing them. I like to start in the afternoon and paddle until I find a good spot, then wait for things to really heat up at dusk.

Bass will bite all times of the day and night. An overcast day is especially good for bass fishing on a river.

River Rod and Reel Considerations

When you’re picking out your bass river fishing rod and reel, it’s important to consider the most durable option. I like a medium rod between 5 and 7 feet.

I’m on a kayak when I’m on the river and often find myself in tight situation. I also don’t need to cast very far, because I can position my kayak over the cover.

You may have different considerations as a shore or dock fisher. If you’re considering a fishing kayak check out my top list of bass fishing kayaks for this year.

fisherman holding a largemouth bass

Spring on the River

Bass fishing in the spring on a river is all about the spawn. Bass swim up tributaries, creeks and shoals to spawn during this time of year.

Bass in a river may actively feed at a water temperature of between 50-60 degrees this time of year. They are trying to bulk up after a slow winter. If you can find warmer water pockets, the fish will be even more active.

Where to Search for Bass in the Spring on a River?

While searching these waterways the same tips and tricks apply. Search for nice, deep channels to cast or cover where they may be interested in feeding.

In addition, keep in mind they are building nests. I like to look in the backwaters where the water current is the slowest. It helps to really know your fishing area (ask around) in the springtime.

What to Throw for Big Bass in the Spring on a River?

The best bass lure for spring depends on whether you’re fishing for a female bass preparing to spawn or looking for males hunting behind cover.

For casting a nest I like send in something slow-moving with some wobble. The females are expending a lot of energy this time of year, and can be enticed by an easy meal.

If you’re casting cover in the spring, the males are aggressively biting. I like use a topwater lure at fairly break-neck speeds looking for hungry bass. After I find them, it may take a crankbait (depending on the depth).

Summer on the River

Once the water in your area warms up, you’ll want to make your way out of the backwaters and back onto the river. The water will be low on a river in the summer and it makes for some great bass fishing.

Bass don’t typically like the water getting too hot, so finding that 70 degree range is ideal this time of year. Taking water temperature is one of my best river bass fishing tips for summer.

You may have to look deep when the water warms up. Try dawn and dusk for ideal water temperatures and feeding bass.

You can also try casting where tributaries dump into the river you’re fishing. Not only is this water cooler, but it contains oxygen, which the bass are really looking for at the end of the season.

Where to Search for Bass in the Summer on a River?

Bass hunt a river by finding a break in the current and letting prey fly right into them. I find them to be much more active in current than in the spring when they need to nest.

A decent current helps in the summer to bring more food across their noses. Check cover and drop offs for slack pockets in faster flowing water to find river bass in the summer.

What to Throw for The Big Bass in the Summer on a River?

You’ll always want a crankbait on hand for hunting river bass in the summer. They’ll go deep the hotter it gets. River bass are usually feeding on minnows this time of year, so consider some flash in whatever lure you choose.

man fishing in the morning fog from boat in calm river

Fall on the River

Arguably the best time of year to fish bass on a river, the water is still low and slow, but the water temperature is beginning to become ideal. In addition, bass are fattening up for the winter and very interested in anything that moves.

There is a good variance in temperature that they will feed in during the fall, even taking bites down into the 40s.

Where to Search for Bass in the Fall on a River?

Finding the bait fish is the highest priority in the fall. Bass are only interested in feeding this time of year and they will follow where the bait fish go.

I like to search shallows until I find them, then look around for a drop-off. A drop-off next to shallow flats is the perfect place to land a huge bass in the fall.

What to Throw for The Big Bass in the Fall on a River?

Lures that cover water are my priority in the fall. I’m searching for where they’re feeding and that requires covering a lot of river.

Because the water can be pretty clear in the fall on a river, natural colors and movements are best. Crankbaits are a great option because they fit both criteria.

Check out my collection of the best bass lures for fall!

Winter on the River

One of the great things about being a bass fisher that prefers a river, is that your fishing season is longer in cold places. Because of their motion, rivers stay warmer than lakes and reservoirs, and they do not freeze as quickly.

The bass are sleepy in the winter, but the good news is there is generally less angler pressure. I love fishing in the winter, and you might too if you throw the right lure.

Where to Search for Bass in the Winter on a River?

The bass will be deep during the winter, but there’s advantage for looking for them in the shallows and it’s what I prefer. The water will be warmer the shallower you look, which means if the bass are there, they will be more likely to be feeding.

Keep in mind that wind will drastically drop water temperature. While you can’t do much about this on a lake, I can usually find somewhere fairly protected from the wind to fish on a river.

What to Throw for The Big Bass in the Winter on a River?

In my eyes, winter is for finesse fishing. Finesse fishing is fishing with the goal of getting an uninterested fish to take a bite.

My favorite finesse technique in the winter is a soft bait worm designed for a NED head. This mushroom-shaped head, combined with the shape of the worm, creates a movement similar to the sleepy prey the fish hunt this time of year.

bass fishing lures and artificial baits

What’s the Best Weather to Get Out on the River?

If possible, fishing immediately before a large storm is the best time.

More specifically, whenever the barometric pressure is dropping rapidly the bass will bite like crazy on a river. There is usually a several-day window where the pressure is dropping drastically enough to encourage bass to bite.

On the other hand, immediately following a large rainstorm (when a high-pressure system moves in) is the worst time to go fishing for bass on a river.

It’s Time to Go Hit the River! River Bass Fishing in a Nutshell

Bass are prolific in many types of waterway in America, but my personal favorite is the river. If you learn the current and the seasons, you can master one of the most challenging and rewarding habitats.

Casting Slack packets behind cover, heading up tributaries in the spring and looking for drop-offs near shallows can all help you reel in a big river bass.

Where did you snag your last bass on the river? Do you have any tips and tricks for dealing with the current? I’d love to hear what your method is when you fish bass in a river over a lake. What are you throwing to catch the big one?

Bob Hoffmann

The author of this post is Bob Hoffmann. Bob has spend most of his childhood fishing with his father and now share all his knowledge with other anglers. Feel free to leave a comment below.

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