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When to Fish Up River

The hardest and most crucial component in being a consistent angler is knowing where and when to fish. No matter what body of water you’re fishing, the conditions are constantly changing. This means staying on top of the fish can be a fairly daunting task. On the majority of lakes in my neck of the woods, they’re separated into main lake, mid lake and up river. Understanding when to fish each section sounds like a difficult task, however it’s fairly simple once you break it down. This feature highlights when to fish up river based on the spawn, fish population and current fishing conditions.

underwater largemouth bass


Understanding fish population is key to knowing when to fish what section of your preferred lake. On nearly every lake in the country, the biggest fish live closest to the dam. While this section of the lake has the largest fish, they are often extremely educated and hard to catch. Furthermore, they are mixed in with a variety of small to large sized bass, with true giants being few and far between. This means every fish you catch in this section isn’t guaranteed to be big. While the fishing isn’t always productive in this section of the lake, it has the most potential for catching a giant limit of bass. This is due to the top end size of fish that reside in this portion of the lake.

The river however is typically home to a moderately sized class of fish. While there are still small and large bass in this area, they don’t generally vary in size as much as down the lake. This means that getting a bite often yields a decent keeper, however there’s a lesser chance of catching five true giants. While both areas are home to trophy sized fish, understanding when to target each section is crucial to finding success. One of the main factors I pay attention to when choosing an area to fish is where the fish are in relation to the spawn.


Where fish are in relation to the spawn is one of the biggest factors I consider in choosing when to go up river. The closer fish are to spawning, the better the fishing typically is. This means in the peak of the spring weights are typically at their highest, so I’ll often fish the main lake since it has the most potential for a giant bag. This isn’t to say that big bags aren’t caught up the river, however you have a higher chance at catching a true giant down lake. Especially while they are moving shallow in search of making beds.

I’ll fish up river during the fall, winter and early pre-spawn. These times of year can be fairly inconsistent down the lake as the majority of fish haven’t moved shallow. The water is also clearest down the lake, often leading to the coldest water temperatures on that body of water. The river however tends to have stained or dirty water. This mud traps heat causing the water temperature to rise faster than other parts of the lake. This is when I really like to target this section of the lake. Fishing up river this time of year is far more consistent due to the high-water temperatures and resident fish that reside on the bank. Another important factor to consider when going up river is current.

channel catfish river


Current is something you always have to pay attention to when deciding to go up river. One of the best ways to stay up to date on this is by checking your local generation schedules. Most lakes and rivers have a website that will tell you how much water they’re moving and when. Another factor that affects the current is rainfall. If there have been a lot of rain over the last several days, there’s a good chance the river is flowing and the fish are biting. 

Having good current is essential for having a successful day of fishing up river. This current positions bass on cover and makes catching them fairly predictable. Fish will often position themselves down river of cover and wait for there current to push baitfish and other types of forage by. This makes catching these bass fairly easy once you get a bait in front of their face. Targeting locations such as current breaks, laydowns and bluff walls are all great locations to fish when the current is rolling. While current is a good thing, too much current can make things difficult. This can blow out the river and make fishing nearly impossible. This is when I like to scrap the river and head down lake.


Water level is another important factor in choosing when to fish up river. Unlike down lake, fish don’t typically position themselves offshore up the river. This means that fishing visible cover is often your best bet on this section of the lake. Water level directly dictates how much of this cover is in the water. Low water levels can quickly rid the bank of cover, making bass fishing fairly difficult. Low water level typically means little current, because of this I generally fish down the lake in these conditions. 

High water level however is typically great for fishing up river. This puts an excess amount of cover in the water perfect for shallow fishing techniques. Furthermore, fish tend to flood the bank when water levels rise due to an increase in forage. Bass will feed on insects and other types of bait that become available with the rising water level. This is one of my favorite times to fish up river as it typically leads to plentiful fish catches. While all of these factors are important in choosing when to go up river, fishing conditions still play a major roll. 


Just like every other section of the lake, weather conditions play a big role in deciding when to fish up river. I prefer to go up river during low light conditions or heavy wind. When fishing down lake you have the ability to target a much deeper class of fish. These fish are far less affected by the conditions, allowing you to target them even on blue bird days. While low light conditions undoubtably help down lake, you can still have a successful day when the sun is high and the wind is low. Wind is another major factor I take into account when deciding where to fish.


Wind can have a detrimental effect on the main lake, creating giant waves that makes fishing almost unbearable. I’ve had numerous tournaments where I planned to fish down lake, but was met with 3-foot rollers upon my arrival. This is when I really like to go up river. This smaller section of the lake is far less affected by wind allowing you to effectively cast without being tossed around by waves. Furthermore, this water displacement can help coax fish into biting traditional moving baits such as a vibrating jig or spinnerbait. While you can fish any section of the lake during any conditions, these are the most favorable conditions I’ve found for fishing up river.

Those are all of the factors I take into consideration when choosing where to fish on my preferred body of water. River fishing is not only a fun way to fish, but it’s a productive way to catch a quality limit of bass. While deciding when to go up river may seem daunting, it’s fairly simple once you break it down into a few basic categories. Once you understand the spawn, fish population and the current weather conditions, you have all the tools necessary to have a successful day of river fishing.