Researching Water Before You Fish It

Posted on September 19, 2003

Gaining knowledge of the area you intend to fish beforehand will help you catch more and larger fish. It may also make you change your mind on the location you want to fish. Fishery research is a fun way to answer your questions about the water and help you plan for a productive trip. Numerous information sources are available to help you gather information on the targeted area.

Research starts with a map. Deciding on the type of water you want to find is the first step. Are you looking for a small creek to wade, a large piedmont river to float, or something in between? If you are like most outdoor enthusiasts, you are in search of unpressured water where you may not see another angler all day. Maybe you know one section of a river, but want to branch out and learn new sections. Whatever the case, a map gets you started.

DeLorme’s atlases are available for most states. They are a wonderful resource that can tell you where river access points are, the roads to get you there, and to a certain extent the topography that the river passes through. For a closer look at the topography, try searching the internet. and provide maps that can tell you access points, the relative width of the river, locations of natural features such as tributaries, rapids, and spring water influence. also has aerial photography, which can often show you things that the USGS maps on cannot, such as location of gravel bars or amount of vegetation near the river. Accurate river distances can be measured by printing out these maps, using dental floss to trace the float, then using the mileage key at the bottom of the map.

The best source of information is always another angler. Fishing clubs and internet websites with message forums have lots of experience to offer. Some of the websites that have message forums include:,, and www.thissideuponline. Networking within these groups usually provides contact to anglers who have at least some information on the area in question. Not all people who have knowledge on specific areas are willing to provide complete disclosure about their favorite fishing hole. Please respect their right to remain silent. More people are willing to provide information if you let them know that you are a catch and release angler.

Oftentimes, employees of the Department of Natural Resources, or similar state agency are knowledgeable. If they cannot provide information themselves, they usually know someone in their agency who could help you. These agencies are responsible for measuring and taking care of the fisheries. They should be the able to provide some information on the area.

Hiring a guide is a great way to learn patterns from an expert who knows the river. A smart guide will be willing to talk to you about the river, even if you don’t plan on hiring him. He may suggest an area to float, provide pattern information specific to that river, or provide information on water hazards to look out for.

A visit to your local paddling shop can give you more information about water hazards. Many experienced whitewater paddlers have written or contributed to the writing of paddling guide books. The books often provide maps, float distances, hazards, river level guidelines, and general background information on the target area. A copy of Roger Corbett’s Virginia White Water lives in the console of my pickup truck. A white water guide book for your state probably exists.

If you are lucky, someone may have written a guide book on the river with the angler in mind. These types of books go beyond what the whitewater books provide. They are more in depth about patterns, seasons, and types of fish in the river. The float trips are usually broken down to shorter lengths to accommodate the slower moving angler. Ken Penrod’s Fishing the Upper Potomac River was the first such book that I owned. Since then, other outdoor writers such as David Hart and Bruce Ingram have authored fishing guide books. They have already gathered most of the information needed to prepare for a successful trip.

Knowing what river levels are safe for boating may prevent a dangerous situation on unfamiliar water. Checking the National Weather Service’s website prior to leaving home can tell you if the river is dangerously high, or if you need to watch for late afternoon thunderstorms. The name of the closest town in the target area can be typed in, and a detailed seven day forecast pops up on your screen.

Through the NWS website, you can also link to USGS river level gauges for the river you are researching. The gauge charts illustrate the trend of the river. A level that is returning to a normal flow after a flood means that the fish will be hungry. Learning what the gauges mean as far as water clarity takes time and experience. Recording the gauge, and matching it to the water clarity can save you the drive on the next trip, especially if the river is too high and muddy. One watershed may have received heavy precipitation, when the watershed in the next valley only received a sprinkle. Knowing which one will have better water clarity can salvage your day of fishing. At some of the USGS gauges the volume of water flowing is measured in Cubic Feet per Second (CFS). Minimum, mean and maximum CFS are listed below the graph, and can give you a general idea of the size of the river at the gauge location. Again, familiarizing yourself with these numbers takes time, but is worth the effort in the long run.

Canoe liveries and shuttle providers can provide information on access points. They often have private access points that they use to drop you off in unpressured water. The owners of these businesses have most likely been around the area for a while, and can tell you where most of the river traffic is. They are usually the kind of people who like to do float trips in February just for kicks. They live and work on the river, so they can provide answers to many of your questions. Most liveries and shuttle providers advertise on the Internet. Local fishing clubs often maintain lists of liveries and shuttle providers.

The final part of researching the area is to go on a scouting trip. During the winter months, this is a good way to alleviate boredom and cabin fever. Finding out what roads to take and actually laying eyes on the access points make the actual trip go much smoother. Scouting trips may also afford you the chance to ask a land owner permission for access. Many land owners are more receptive when asked ahead of time.

Whether you are researching completely new water, or expanding your home waters, you can utilize many different resources to answer your questions on the targeted river. Thorough research can enhance the productivity of each fishing trip, and make sure you get home safely.

by Jeff “Yakfish” Little
Blue Ridge Kayak Fishing LLC


No comments yet.

Add your response