How to Kayak Fish on a River with Garrett Reid
Whether you are completely new to kayak fishing or have some experience, river fishing can be intimidating. Unlike bigger water like lakes and open ocean, rivers can present more challenges like rapids, sudden shallows, strong currents, and obstacles from above like hanging trees.
Eco Fishing Shop Pro Staff member, Garrett Reid, spends a lot of his time river fishing. Years of experience kayak fishing on rivers has shaped the gear he uses and his strategy. We sat down with Garrett to share some of his most important tips and favorite gear for traversing rivers in a fishing kayak.
"I have been river fishing since I was able to hold a fishing rod," says Garrett. "I have spent thousands of hours on rivers and lakes chasing bass and other species."
For many kayak anglers, logging that first hour on a river is the hardest and most intimidating. Taking that first step when you aren't quite sure how to best navigate the river is often what holds many back.
"I know how overwhelming the entire process can be getting into it for the first time or even fine-tuning things once you have done it a while," Garrett says.
Garrett's Kayak River Fishing Checklist
Using all of his years of experience, Garrett shares his 10 most important things to remember and think about when kayaking on a river. Let's look at his top 10 list and then dive deeper in to some of them:
- ALWAYS have your PFD (personal flotation divice) on
- Buy the lightest, nicest paddle you can afford
- Plan your route – choose an appropriate distance
- Walk your kayak through shoals (riffles/shallows)
- Learn how to backstroke, side stroke, and push-polling
- Always float with a partner when possible
- Don't chance it if rivers are high. Ever.
- Pack light as if you will flip (less gear loss)
- Rear mounted anchor or power pole if you can afford it
- Work the current to keep proper boat position
3. Plan Your Route – Choose Appropriate Distance
Traversing a river isn't as simple as launching from a particular spot, parking your car, and returning to the same boat launch when you are done. Unless you are setting out on a large river with slower moving water, currents will make launching and retunring to that same launch far more difficult. There are a few different options to think about when planning your route:
Launch and Work Upriver
Garrett says research the river you plan to kayak on. Find all of the launches. If possible, scout ahead in-person to find both the calmest and biggest stretch of the river that you can. Once you have determined the best location to launch from you will start by working your way upriver by either paddling or walking your kayak upriver.
Once you have made it upriver as far as you are comfortable with, you simply work your way back to your starting point. This route takes more effort but can be accomplished when you are kayaking alone.
Shuttling With a Partner
Garrett says working with a partner or having two vehicles opens up more of the river to you. Like the above strategy, you need to plan your route ahead of time and pick two boat launches. This is where it is immportant to guage the RIVER distance you will travel between the two launches.
When shuttling, you work with two vehicles. Determine your end point downriver and leave a vehicle there. Then, launch your kayaks upriver and work downriver until you reach your vehicle. It may take some trial and error to find what works best for you as far as what vehicles to leave and where to park when shuttling with two vehicles.
Optional – Use Map Apps to Get Details
Garrett recommends using any map that has contour lines and has measuring ability. "I use OnX maps. It allows me to measure the distance of floats, check for obstructions and marked public ramps." Picking the right length of float is essential to tournament success – too short and you won't have enough ground to cover, too long and you won't have time to submit your fish.
"I prefer to pick apart smaller floats (3-8 miles of water depending on river speed) while others cover much more water (6-13 or even more miles of water and fish faster)," Garrett says. "Picking too long of a float and ending up paddling in the dark is a sure fire way to end up in danger. It is never a good idea to try to maneuver a river in the dark."
Most state DNR websites also have water access maps. While many are not interactive, they can still be helpful when mapping your route.
4. Walk Your Kayak Through Riffles/Shallows
While this may seem obvious, it takes some looking ahead while you are preoccupied fishing. Garrett says keeping your eye downriver and knowing what is ahead is an essential way to both stay safe on the river and to keep your kayak from severe damage.
"Walking your kayak through shoals helps keep your boat from getting sratched or punctured," Garrett says. "It is also safer than navigating them properly if you are new to river fishing in a kayak."
Garrett also says having a good pair of polarized sunglasses is extremely helpful in determining how shallow riffles are ahead of time. Keeping an eye downriver, knowing proper paddling techniques, and practice are all important steps to navigating riffles long-term.
5. Learn Backstroke, Side Stroke, and 'Push Poling'
Rivers can move fast, moving your kayak in unexpected ways without warning. Currents can be difficult to navigate and can often place you in spots you need to tightly maneuvre. Garrett says learning more intricate maneuvers with your paddle is a key to your safety and enjoyment on a river.
"Everyone knows how to paddle forward in some manner," Garrett says. "However, learning how to backstroke is key. It allows you to slow down and is more efficient at steering than forward paddling in current. It allows more time for maneuvering your kayak in current and looking for paths to travel through shoals and for other obstructions to keep from flipping or damaging your kayak."
"Side strokes are typically done in a 'figure 8' motion," Garrett says. "It allows for your kayak to be moved slightly left and right without having to paddle back and forth. This paddling technique saves strokes and helps prevent more fatigue at end of the day."
"Push poling is simply using your paddle to dig into the bottom," Garrett says. "It can be used to push off and maneuver through shallows where paddle strokes wont work. It can also act as an emergency brake and steering when water is swiftly pushing you towards an obstruction and it is too shallow to use your paddle blade efficiently with a paddle stroke."
8. Pack Light
Rigging your kayak is a constant game of addition and subtraction. It is vastly different than a boat and requires better organization and trial & error through many trips. Outfitting your kayak with the correct gear for fishing on a river is an even more deliberate process.
Specifically, Garrett recommends packing as light as you safely can. "You will frequently drag more and damage your hull and slow your trip the heavier your kayak is. A lighter kayak paddles better, is easier to pack, and will drag far less. And setup your kayak as if you would flip. Tying down bags, boxes, rods, and materials. If you are prepared to flip, if and when you flip, you will lose little to nothing." Garrett says he has tipped one time in his 20 years of fishing on the river, and it was due to not having the proper kayak on the river. Because he had everything tied down, he didn't lose anything despite the kayak going completely upside down!
9. Rear Mounted Anchor or Power Pole
If fishing is your goal when working your kayak on a river, having a way to anchor yourself down in a good spot is essential. Unlike bigger or open water, the current is constantly pushing you one way. Without an anchor system you'd only have one or two casts at each spot.
Garrett admits he is new to using anchors and poles, but has found them to be a game changer. "They allow you to slow down or stop in whatever area you want to fish and allow you to pick apart whatever looks good to you," he says. "Whether it be a power pole, Dabomb anchor, claw anchor, or drag chains all ran to an Anchor Wizard. They all have their place in kayaks and are immensely beneficial in efficiently fishing rivers."
Garrett prefers using a rear-mounted anchor or a power pole. The Mirco Power Pole includes a 15' spike and can be mounted to multiple fishing kayaks in many different ways. Whether it is a power pole or a traditional anchor, having a way to park in a fishing spot is a must when kayak fishing on a river.
10. Work the Current to Keep Proper Kayak Positioning
"Finally, and maybe most importantly is boat position," Garrett says. "You can have two guys throw the same baits in the same day, casting to the same structure, and the guy with proper kayak position will be much more successful."
"Using current seams is huge. When floating down, look for slack spots behind rocks, logs, or brush. These spots are where many fish sit to ambush their next meal. These slack spots with little to no current allow for you to not wear yourself out or even have to anchor," Garrett adds. "Having an eye for current seams relating to structure may take a while, but finding these areas allows you to stay off the paddle and make presentations to fish that may haven't seen as many lures because people think it is too swift to be able to sit in and fish. Finding slack spots or changes in current are huge in reducing fatigue and increasing your opportunities to fish less pressured spots than the easier to reach spots."
Have More Questions for Garrett? Meet Him on the Kayak Anglers Resource
Beyond his love of kayak fishing, Garrett is eager to share what he has learned through trial and error with anyone with questions. He is an active member on our forum, the Kayak Anglers Resource.
If you want to ask him questions about kayak fishing on a river, he started a discussion dedicated entirely to this topic. The best way to learn is to not be afraid to ask questions of those who have experience and are willing to share. Don't be shy, join the discussion and expand your kayak fishing range with Garrett.
Garrett's Top Gear
Jackson Coosa HD
Length:12'6" | Width: 34" | Weight: 83lbs | Capacity: 425lbs
This heavy duty fishing craft boasts amped-up specs/features and is slightly longer and wider than the original Coosa. It is stable and a good fit for all sizes of anglers and those looking to stand up.
The Jackson Coosa HD hull is river friendly and will track true on lakes and inshore saltwater as well. The Coosa HD is ready for any type of fish on almost any type of water.
NRS Chinook Fishing Life Jacket
With all the organization and attachment points needed for your fishing gear, the NRS Chinook Fishing PFD is the best-selling life jacket for kayak anglers. The Chinook Life Jacket is a Type III, medium profile jacket with 16lbs of flatation.
NRS knows an angler's needs – It has two large zippered pockets sized for tackle boxes with internal organization, plus two smaller accessory pockets.
Base: 5.5" x 4.25" | Works in Fresh & Salt Water Cranks up to 10lbs
This is the original kayak anchor wizards little brother; made of light weight plastic and strong bearings the Low profile Kayak Anchor Wizard makes a great accessories to any Kayak. Windy days, or strong current the kayak anchor wizard will hold strong.
Da Bomb Anchor
The Da Bomb kayak anchor was designed by a kayak fisherman for kayak fisherman. They have a weight of 6.4 pounds and a diameter of 3.5 inches. They have a snag free design, lead free and fit perfectly in most cup holders. Da Bomb anchors pair well with Anchor Wizard products and are powder coated for durability.