Fishing on a River vs a Lake – Kayak and Boat Fishing Guide

Many anglers prefer fishing on a river as it does not require much gear and can be a relaxing experience while they do so from their kayak or boat. Fishing in lakes is also a great way to get a good catch, especially for beginners due to an abundance of fish in lakes and ponds.

What’s the Difference?

When you are fishing in a lake, you need to find a good spot, then cast the bait, fly, or lure into an area that has a better chance to hold fish. And you will eventually get your hands on a good fish. In case of fishing in a river, once you find a place where you can likely get some fish, you will cast upstream. You cannot have the same fishing gear and expectations when you are fishing in a lake or river.

In the case of fishing on a lake, you need a bit more patient if you are used to river fishing. On the other hand, when you are fishing on a river, the water will more likely carry your bait past an expected area. If you are transitioning from lake fishing to river fishing, you must learn how to use the water in your favor. Fish in the river often chases after their meal as it passes by. When you cast upstream of where you want your lure to come to, you can get your hands on the fish. You can most likely find fish in areas where the water slows down, for instance, around a canyon bottleneck or after rapids.


The types of fish you can catch in a river versus that in a lake depend upon many factors including your geographical location. Generally, you will find catfish, trout, bluegills, crappie, perch, largemouth and smallmouth bass, burbot, musky, northern pike, walleye, panfish, carp, and even salmon in freshwater.

Where to Find Fish: Different Terrain

If you live in a flatter part of the world, whether you fish in a river or lake may not matter much as far as terrain is concerned. However, if you live in a mountainous area, you may find that fishing in a lake gives you easy access to water from the bank – although you may have to hike a bit harder to reach there. On the other hand, rivers will offer you steeper banks and hence more dangerous water in case you get wet.

fishing boat on lake

If you are fishing in the river, a wise approach is to think from the perspective of the fish. Where will it take shelter from its predators as well as the current? A good idea is to inspect the areas that have a structure along the bank, for instance, overhanging branches and sunken trees. But these are not the only places where you will find fish – there are lots of areas in the river that will hold fish. Look out for these areas when you are fishing in the river:

  • Eddies: When there is a strong current in the river, fish can move to the much calmer backwater areas. In such scenarios, cash upstream and let your fly or lure slowly flow towards the eddies.
  • The downstream side of islands: Do not forget to look near piles of rocks or sandy islands where the water is much calmer, and the fish are likely to hangout! Although these spots may be small or big, if you cash at the right spot, you will most probably get yourself a fish.
  • Areas around vegetation: The areas that have bushes or tree branches hanging over them are a great spot for fish to feel protected as these areas offer protection from the birds and other predators. Look out in and around such areas and you will find some fish.
  • Areas where the currents slow down: Go for a place that has merging currents or where the current decreases allowing food to be collected. You may likely find your catch of the day there.

If you are going out for lake fishing, look out for the structure of the lake that involves inlets, sunken islands, holes, dams, reeds, weeds, and natural as well as artificial objects that have sunken. Either fish in or around these structures and you would not return home empty-handed. If you think about it, the food chain is pretty simple – shallows are found around structures and these are great locations for plant growth. Baitfish are attracted to these plants. The game fish then comes hunting for the baitfish here. And you get your hands on the game fish!

Look for the following structures in the lake:

  • Partially of Fully Submerged (natural or manmade) objects and Islands: Currents that normally run around islands carry aquatic plants and animals that attract all kinds of fish, including the game one that you are looking for.
  • Around rocks: Rocky surfaces are the best place for fishes to have food, get shelter, and even mate. The rocks that are present on the edge of deep water or are inside deeper water have even better chances of holding the fish.
  • A point with good break lines: If the point, that extends from the shoreline into deep water, does not have a quick drop-off, it is a great place to catch fish. The slope of the point results in a break-line, that attracts the fish to move from deep water into the shallow water to catch a good meal. If you try fishing in the corners as well as the tip of the point, you may have a lot of good luck.
  • Near the weeds: The weed beds are a great place to find game fish as they offer shelter and food to baitfish, which are food for game fish. It is a great idea to look for sunken weed beds present in deep water.
  • Lilly pads: Look around the lily pads that are a great place to find insects that attract smaller fish. Not only that, but lily pads also offer shade to smaller fish which makes the place an excellent home for breeding as well as eating food. To hunt these baitfish, the game fish tries to swim around these lily pads.
  • Steep shore banks: A bank or a cliff that has no defined structure and goes straight down to the deep water does not attract any fish. However, a steep shore bank that has gradual slopes going deep into the water is a great place to look for fish. You may find deep water fish being attracted to underwater rocks or sharp cliffs to hunt for their prey or breed.
  • Breeze on water: On a breezy day, the breeze pushes the surface water which includes food and fish in that water. If you look closely at the drift lines, you will find some nice fish. This is the reason many fishermen like fishing when there are stronger winds. When the wind is strong, you can find a lot of fish closer to the shore. These winds also stir up the water.

Casting and Technique

Here are some simple techniques when doing freshwater fishing in rivers. Once you master these techniques, you can always learn and try more.

  • Casting Upstream Using In-Line Spinners: This is a great way to catch rainbow trout or brown trout. Since the natural food sources for the fish will drift downstream, it is a great idea to go for upstream casting using an in-line spinner. This gives the fish impression of a natural appearance of the food sources.
  • Bottom Bouncing a Live Bait: This is one of the most widely used river fishing technique that uses Carolina Rig to bottom bounce a bait such as a minnow or a crawfish. You can use this technique around drop-offs and ledges that are near deep cuts or channels.
  • Using River Jigs: If you ask a seasoned river angler, you will be told that jigs are one of the most ideal lures when fishing in an area that has slow currents or near the mouth of the river. If you do river jigging near shorelines, you have a high probability of catching a walleye. You can use from one-quarter to 1/8-ounce jigs in most fishing situations. In rivers that have a stronger current flow, you can increase it to one ounce.

Vehicle (if any)

You do not need a boat to catch good fish. However, if you are used to fishing in a boat, you may not find the transition from lake to river or vice versa very smooth. If you are planning to buy a boat, go for one that could easily be used in still as well as moving water.

Many anglers who have a drift boat or dory find it super helpful to fish in the river and are even happier when they transition to the lake fishing. Having a kayak is also a great choice if you are into water activities and love to fish. Though they are not ideal for a group to share, if you are one or a maximum of two people, you can always go for a kayak and enjoy fishing. You can also go for an inflatable raft with a trolling motor in case you fancy a motor-powered vehicle.


The movement of water will have a huge impact on your fishing gear and the choice of your tackle – not to mention your technique. There are several adjustments that you need to make when transitioning from the lake to the river or the other way round as you will get different species in different terrain. It is a great way to monitor what other fishermen in that area are doing, what equipment and tactics they are relying on. It will give you great guidance especially if that terrain is new to you. For this reason, when we talk about changing your gears, we also mean changing your mental gears.

Different lures and baits work in different terrain. If you are fishing in lakes, make sure your finesse your line to create movement in your choice of lure. This is a bit harder to achieve than in rivers, where the water is already moving so this movement comes in quite naturally. You need to choose a lure or a bait that moves with the current.

The water is more visible in rivers due to the runoff, so the ideal lures when you are fishing here would be the attention-seeking and eye-catching ones as they will end up attracting your catch. In the case of lake fishing, you will have ample time to attract the game fish from out of the places they are hiding in, whereas, in river fishing, the game fish or your bait are pushed more quickly due to the force of water.

The most underrated gear can be your shoes especially if you are used to fishing in rivers more than in lakes. The artificially made docks and reservoirs can sometimes get quite slippery. If your new fishing spot has a dock, you must get your feet some gripping shoes that have nice rubber soles, for instance, mud boots that have neoprene uppers. If your fishing spot requires you to go across steep rivers and stream banks, a pair of hiking shoes with sturdy ankle support would be great for the rugged terrain.

Fishing Regulations

The rules and regulations for fishing may vary from one geographical location to the other and maybe different for rivers and lakes. If you plan to move from river fishing to lake fishing, or vice versa, make sure you check the local rules that have some limitations regarding your fishing limit or species.

If you have done fishing before, you may know that not all rules are in written form. There are some unwritten rules that you need to consider and be courteous about.

Generally, rivers are less crowded than lakes unless it is a certain season. It is important to respect the personal space of your fellow anglers. If your fishing spot is closer to a road or a bridge, you may find many people already there fishing. You can always head to a remote area, such as a trail that has a long hike before reaching the water. Chances are it will be less crowded. But if you find some anglers already there, respect their space and find your own.

Moving on Rivers vs on Lakes

When you are fishing on a lake, you have the choice of going to larger lakes that have rough water, or the smaller sized lakes that are relatively calmer and give you a better environment to fish. If you have transitioned from river fishing to lake fishing, or are generally new to lake fishing, here are some important tips for you.

  • The right bait: Choose your bait according to the fish you plan on catching. It is important to research the fish that are available in the water first, so you know what your options are. In lakes, fishing jigs are quite reliable.
  • The right spot: Examine the spots that have a big weed population. You are likely to find bass or northern pike in weedy places as they tend to hide and wait for their prey there. It is also a good idea to use the outlets and inlets in your favor as these areas are cooler and hence attract a large number and different varieties of fish.
  • The temperature: The fish try to escape the heat when the temperature gets hot and they tend to move deep towards the cooler parts of the lake. If you plan to fish at a cooler time of the day, like dusk or dawn, you may find some really good catch close to the shallow water.

You will find a large number of anglers who prefer the relaxing fishing experience that the river offers. To add to this, you do not need too much gear and can get your hands on your catch from a kayak or canoe.

The majority of fishing kayaks that are encouraged for river fishing have a length of 12’ to 14’ or even longer. The more the length is, the more space you will get for storing your fish. Also, a good length will enable your boat to glide easily on flat water, and you need a beam that is wide enough to make your boat balance well.

Fishing in a river is somewhat similar to that of fishing in a lake – somewhat being the main word here! If you have done fishing in the river, you may find the lake experience relaxing as well. The only difference is the movement of water where water is constantly flowing in the river. This can sometimes cause danger for anglers who are fishing on the water. The good news is that a majority of rivers have dams or water locks that control the water flow, and this offers plenty of fishing spots making this activity a pleasant experience. Here are some of the things to consider when fishing:

  • Using live bait is a good idea: When a game fish sees a live bouncing bait, it is automatically drawn towards it.
  • Using the backwater to your advantage: Try moving away from the main channel and heading to the backwaters for fishing. You can find largemouth bass in bays and side channels. You can also use your kayak when fishing like this.

Against the Current

When you are fishing in the current, you should always cast up-current so that your bait flows naturally. This works well in shallow waters, and everywhere in saltwater as the prey and predator both do not prefer swimming against the tide. The current is what brings food to all kinds of fish in the river, so the fish species set their faces towards the current to get their meals. For this reason, you must cast upstream and then get your bait with the current. If you are fishing against the current, there are very fewer chances of you getting fish because the bait will pass by the fish.

If you are fishing in the lake, you may experience a varying depth of water at different places, and you are also no sure what obstacles lie in the water when you are on your boat or kayak. In such instances, you must be aware of the weather forecast and keep an eye on the changing weather. This is even more important when you are in your kayak in open water in a lake as compared to when you are fishing in a river (in circumstances when you quickly need to access the shoreline).

If you are fishing in the river, you need to keep a check on the water movement and look out for dangerous currents. If there is any rain, you can slip into the fast-flowing water from a steep bank. Make sure you are fully aware of yourself and the surroundings, that include your balance as well as the water movement.

Kayaks are very versatile vehicles and are used for different reasons these days. Fishing is one of them. In order to make your fishing more fun, you can go for kayaks with built-in motors. These motorized kayaks are a step up from a normal kayak that does not require any machine power to operate and solely rely on your force and momentum. The motorized kayaks, depending upon their design, use electricity or diesel to get going. Some even have batteries that last for many hours.

The kayaks that have built-in motors let you sail or propel on the water, making your fishing experience much easier. These kayaks are manufactured using polyester, canvas, carbon fiber, polyethylene, wood, neoprene rubberized fabric, and Kevlar when constructing the fins, sports rudders, eyelets, seats, bulkheads, cargo hatches, and foot braces, etc. Depending upon the design, these kayaks may have room for one to three anglers.

Common Fishes in Rivers

In rivers, you can find salmon and trout in abundance no matter which part of the world you are out fishing. These fish species may either occur naturally or they may be artificially introduced by humans. The same goes for catfish. Some species of catfish can grow big – around 220 pounds (100 kg) and reach a length of 8 feet, which is almost 2.5 meters.

Carps can also be found in abundance in a lot of places, and even causing problems in some due to their high reproduction. Carp can also threaten the ecosystem by changing the quality of water due to their feeding methods. For this reason, the population of carp is controlled in many rivers and streams. Many times, these attempts are of no good as carps love to breed and increase their community.


If you are looking to try a new territory and want to transition from lake fishing to river fishing, or vice versa, it’s a good idea to know what to expect. Even a predictable and fairly common fish like smallmouth or largemouth bass can require you to change your strategies in case you are moving from river to lakes or lakes to river. The most important thing is to research your fishing trip, have fun, and be kind to other anglers. Diversifying your fishing experience and exploring both lakes and rivers is challenging yet rewarding.