Looking to find a few more favorite fishing spots? Grabbing a kayak and hitting the local river can bring new experiences—and fishing opportunities.

Complete Guide to River Kayak Fishing

Many rivers are known for great smallmouth (and largemouth) bass fishing. But - there's a lot to know before you load up your kayak for river fishing.

Last updated: January 9, 2022

By: Jon Stewart

For someone like myself who doesn’t have regular access to a proper fishing boat, kayak fishing is my main option. Grabbing my gear and a kayak to hit the water is the best way I have to fish somewhere not on a bank.

Where I live, there are more rivers and creeks than big lakes, at least that I have access to. Flowing, small bodies of water provide for really unique fishing opportunities. Knowing how to kayak fish on a river can increase the opportunities you have.

I’ve caught some huge bass while river kayak fishing - but only after a ton of trial and error. Let me help you by sharing all the lessons I’ve learned. 🎣

River fishing from a kayak is a bit different than bass fishing in big lakes and ponds. There is more strategy involved, and a bit more skills to learn. Here is everything you need to know about river kayak fishing!

How to Paddle a Kayak in a River 🚣‍♀️

Paddling a kayak seems pretty basic, but kayaking in a river does change slightly. Safety is a big aspect here, so it’s very important to get the basics down before just jumping into a river with a kayak.

Depending on how fast your river is flowing, your attitude and strategy will change a bit. When fishing, you are probably dealing with slower-moving waters with no rapids. However, getting from spot to spot may require a bit of work in fast-flowing water.

The first important aspect of paddling in a river is your posture. Posture is super important to maximize your performance. Whether it is in slow or fast water, sit up strong and straight when paddling. Not only will this make your stroke stronger, but it makes you more stable and in a spot to react quickly.

You also need to be very aware of your surroundings and know how to point out structures and points of interest under the water. If there is a big rock coming up that causes the water to wrap around and speed up, you need to see that and avoid it. Not doing this can cause some serious issues. Learning to paddle your way through obstacles like this simply requires a bit of experience—the best way to learn is to get out and do it.

When fishing in a river, there is a good chance you will not run through some serious rapids, but that could happen depending on where you are. If you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation, the best tip is to just keep paddling. When you keep pushing through rapids or dodger areas, you will be more stable than just sitting back and taking it.

How to Maneuver a Kayak Without Using a Paddle 🛶

Although your paddle seems like the most obvious tool to guide your kayak, there are other strategies out there for navigating and positioning on the river. For this, your hips and your feet are your focal points. After paddling, shifting weight and applying pressure to certain areas can alter the path of the kayak.

Switching your hips and pushing your feet down on the kayak studs will change the track of your kayak slightly. Mastering this and getting to know how your kayak reacts is super important for fishing as positioning is everything. Plus, if you can navigate a river with the paddle being an afterthought, your hands will be free for fishing.

There will also be situations on the river where using a paddle becomes useless. This usually happens when the river is shallow and you have to walk your kayak through a certain area. When going on a river fishing journey, be ready to get out, walk your kayak through certain areas, and potentially portage to other systems.

Part of this section is also about getting back into the kayak if you flip it. If you are a beginner, you may get wet somewhere along your journey. There are also ways in which you can roll your kayak over without the use of a paddle.

There is also a maneuver known as the hip snap. This is done when right-side-up to correct the position of the kayak or to start a flip over. Mastering this will make you a far better kayaker.

Anchoring a Kayak When River Fishing 💡

Anchoring your kayak when fishing in a river can be crucial for harboring more bites and making the most of your time on the water. In fact, using an anchor is considered one of the best kept secrets when bass fishing from a kayak. This helps you focus on one spot specifically that you may think will hold fish. With an anchor, you will have to fight the current or just fish whatever comes your way on the float.

The key to using an anchor with a kayak is positioning. If you position incorrectly, flipping your kayak due to the current is a very real possibility. Be sure to gauge how quickly the water is moving and make a decision if it is worth anchoring at all.

Firstly, do not use the wrong type of anchor. Many boating anchors have claws or aspects to catch the ground and keep you there. In a river, this is something you should avoid. These anchors are dangerous and can lead to devastating accidents. The best anchor is a simple, 2-3 pound weight that will not grab the ground and simply keeps you in the general area.

A simple kettlebell or mushroom anchor on a rope can be a great option. If you find yourself needing something to grab on or be heavier to weigh you down, the water is probably too quick for you to anchor down anyway.

You also want some sort of quick release in case the weight catches and you find yourself in a dangerous situation. This could be a tie release or you using rope thin enough to quickly cut with a knife. You need a backup plan.

There are also certain laws and regulations when it comes to small vessels and anchoring. For example, Illinois requires a certain amount of lighting when a kayak is anchored at night. This is a simple example of what could be required, so research the applicable laws in your area.

Where to Find Bass When River Fishing on a Kayak

Especially with smallmouth, bass love rivers for a couple of key reasons with the main being a constant flow of water. When the river is always flowing, a new food source is always coming. So, bass will sit on the edges of the current and in structure to constantly be feeding.

The key to finding bass in a river is looking for eddies and breaks in current. This is where the bait will gather and bass will sit to feast. These are the points to look for when scouring the water. Although regular kayakers will see eddies as dangerous areas to avoid, anglers want to target these. Bass and other fish love to sit in these slack areas as more and more food is replenished there.

Also, look for structure. This is similar to fishing in any body of water. Bass love to sit in and around structures like trees, stumps, rocks, and anything else you can find. Throwing a jig into the mix will harbor tons of bites as they fit right into natural food sources.

In the fall season when water temperatures drop, bass react differently. In essence, the bass will cling to the structure even more and be more lethargic. This requires a bit of a different approach, as fishing for bass in the fall requires different tactics.

If you are lucky enough to have electronics on your kayak, use the depth finder to see drop-offs and holes. Bass are likely to sit here and wait for their next meal. Throwing in a soft plastic lure like a tube can bring many bites. Big bass are usually known to be found in big lakes, but rivers can also harbor them. If you have the help of electronics, you could be like Matt McWhorter and land the state record Georgia bass with a weight of eight pounds, five ounces.

You should also change your approach based on the subspecies of bass found in that river. A lot of rivers in North America are smallmouth-heavy, but some systems have largemouth too. These two subspecies feed differently, so your lure choices will change slightly. If you’re trying to catch largemouth bass, you’ll need to first be sure that they’re in the river you’re fishing, and then, you’ll need to use the proper techniques for largemouth bass.

Many anglers prefer a proper bass boat when targeting bass no matter the water body. However, rivers can be tricky with bass boats. In my area, a lot of the rivers and creeks are too shallow and unpredictable for large bass boats. There are many differences between kayak and bass boat fishing, and this is just another reason why kayaks offer a unique way to fish in areas that may not be reached otherwise.

Kayak Fishing in a River: FAQs

Can I anchor a kayak when fishing in a river?

Anchoring down your kayak when fishing in a river is a great way to target specific areas for an extended amount of time. Having an anchor in your kayak can be very beneficial to increase your chances of hooking up with a fish due to continuous casts. Ultimately, managing the setup of your kayak for fishing is crucial — and the available space you have will determine whether using an anchor is a best practice.

Is fishing from a kayak in a river dangerous?

Fishing from a kayak in a river can be dangerous if you are not careful or have the right background knowledge. Knowing how to navigate flowing water and seek out obstacles will keep you safe. If you do not plan nor how to point out potential issues, that is when fishing from a kayak in a river can become dangerous.

Can you fish from a kayak in a river?

You can fish from a kayak in a river. River fishing in a kayak can be a challenge to some, but once you understand positioning and how to navigate the waters, you can bring some fishing gear and try your luck. This style of fishing requires a learning curve, but it can get you into areas where bank fishing nor boat fishing is possible.

What is the difference between a river kayak and an ocean kayak?

The general shape is the biggest difference between a river kayak and an ocean kayak. Ocean kayaks are long and skinny to provide for stability and speed when going straight forward. Because river kayaking requires more quick maneuvers, they are shorter and wider while being easy to move around.

Do fishing kayaks work well in rivers?

Fishing kayaks work well in rivers, because they have a similar shape to river kayaks. Depending on the type, many fishing kayaks are easy to maneuver and navigate river attributes. As long as your kayak can turn quickly and handle a bit of pace, it will be good for fishing in a river.