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Freshwater Fishing in Rivers vs. Lakes

Freshwater Fishing in Rivers vs. Lakes
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As anglers, we know that no two fishing experiences are alike and fishing changes depending on where you’re doing it. When it comes to freshwater fishing in rivers or lakes, you’re going to find that where you’re casting your line certainly changes a few things - but don’t worry, not too much. The biggest thing to keep in mind is water movement, and what this means for your bait and casting techniques. After a few other considerations, the difference really boils down to just one thing: where you like to fish more.

Key Differences Between River and Lake Fishing

Every angler has their preference, so you’ll find some prefer the calm, stillness of the open lake while others prefer the flowing waters of the river. Before you decide which waters you prefer, it’s good to know a few things about the fishing environments. Here are some quick highlights to think about before you start packing and head out for a day on the water:

  1. Water movement
  2. Topography and terrain
  3. Safety
  4. Stocking in lakes
  5. Migratory fish patterns in the rivers

Water Movement

man fishing in a lake

This is the first and most important thing to know when it comes to the differences between lake and river fishing – how the water moves. Lakes tend to be calmer than rivers, especially if they are on the smaller side (perfect for using a fishing platform), but keep in mind that larger lakes may have some rough waters (you may want to have a leaning post or grab bar for extra support). Rivers, on the other hand, are always going to be a bit more of a challenge because the water is constantly moving. This doesn’t change things too much, but it does mean you need to think a little bit more about what bait you use and how you are casting your line. When you’re fishing in a lake you can generally find weed beds, toss in your line, and wait, but river fishing is another story. When you’re on flowing waters, you want to cast upstream and let your (live) bait bounce along with the current so it looks natural and enticing to fish.

Topography and Terrain

How accessible is the water, and how safe is it once you’re on it? These are two very important questions you definitely want to know the answers to before you decide to fish on any lake or river. Be aware of topography and terrain such as mountainous areas and steep banks. Also do some research into rivers before you launch your boat or kayak, as you need to be aware of dangers such as currents, rapids, and obstructions.


There are two major safety tips to keep in mind whether you are on a lake or river:

  • Always know your waters before you navigate them.
  • Wear a life jacket, any time you are on, in or around the water.

These safety precautions will never change, but there are some things that you need to note depending on what waters you’re fishing. Rivers are almost always going to pose more of a safety risk than lakes, but even though lakes may be safer, that doesn’t mean they are completely safe. Rivers have current, steep banks, and constant flowing waters that require more focus on where you are and where you are going. Lakes, on the other hand, generally make it a bit easier to relax while fishing, but you still want to keep watch on the depth of the water and any obstacles there may be underneath the surface.

Stocking in Lakes

Whether it’s a local lake or you are planning a trip to one, check to see if you can find information from the state park or local agency about how (or if) it gets stocked. Having access to what species gets stocked and when is a great way to plan your fishing trip so you can have a more successful time on the water. Not only will you have a better idea of which fish may bite, but you’ll know when and where they might.

fish jumping out of a river

Migratory Fish Patterns in the Rivers

While lake stocking may affect fishing, river fishing may change depending on migratory fish patterns in the rivers. Different types of fish migrate on different time scales, which may range from daily to annually. Check into these patterns before you make plans to fish any river so you know what the fish are going to be doing – this influences your bait choices.

Check Local Regulations

As anglers, we are responsible for checking with local authorities so we know the rules of the water before we fish them, and lakes and rivers are no exception. There can be major differences between regulations of lakes and rivers, so be sure to research the specific area, lake, river and even species you are fishing before you finalize plans so you are familiar with the local regulations. This will also help you understand a bit more about the behavior of the fish you may be going for, so it’s a win-win. Once you know the regulations and you’ve done your research for topography, terrain and safety, you’ll be ready to go find your new favorite fishing spot – which means it’s time to outfit your boat.

How to Outfit Your Boat

If you’re fishing a smaller lake, then you’ll get to experience a slower, calmer and more relaxed experience. On these lakes, you want to consider having rod holders to keep rods stored securely and ready for use at a moment’s notice, a fishing platform for better visibility and a t-top for shade to keep you cool and protected from the sun. For larger lakes that might have rougher waters and moving rivers, consider a leaning post or grab bar for something to hold on to and keep you stable. An electronics box might also be a worthwhile investment if you’re going to be anywhere that the water might splash to keep your more expensive electronics tucked safely away from harm. No matter where you are fishing, always be sure to outfit your boat with all necessary safety equipment, items and devices! Check local regulations if you aren’t sure what you need.

boat outfitted with fishmaster t-top and accessories

Where to Fish?

Now that you’re in the know and ready to head out for a freshwater fishing trip, the next decision you’ll need to make is where to go. If you’re in need of a recommendation be sure to visit our Where to Fish Map to explore the best fishing spots in your area and across the country!

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