River Kayak Fishing…an Introduction

It wasn’t until last season that I got bit by the river fishing bug.  Up until that point, bank fishing was my only way of gaining access to small stretches of my local rivers in search of our elusive Illinois smallmouth population.  I was fortunate to have some success that I built upon over the last several years…but it was time to finally get my kayak out on the water now that I had a few buddies that were willing to venture out with me.  With that, I figured this would be as good of a time as any to give you some tips on how to get started and what resources I use to ensure that I have a safe trip out on the water.

In most cases, fishing from a kayak will require you to float downstream. Unless the current is manageable, and you are feeling confident to paddle upstream…you will almost always be “going with the flow”.  This is the biggest hurdle for kayak river fisherman…if I float down river how do I get back to my car?  Here are a couple of options for making your float trip easier…

  • Go with a buddy and take two vehicles with at least one capable of hauling two kayaks at once. We meet at our starting point to get our kayaks ready and leave them next to shore.  Then we drive both vehicles down to our finish point and leave the vehicle that can handle two kayaks at once.  We drive back together in the other vehicle and then start at our starting point.
  • Bring a bicycle with you or even take a quick jog if you are by yourself. Leave your kayak at the starting point and leave your vehicle down at the finish point and ride your bike back or jog back to the starting point.

Once you have a set plan on how to get to and from your vehicle, you need to develop a float plan.  A float plan to me is knowing the stretch of river I am planning to fish by determining how many miles of water I will be covering, what obstacles I am potentially going to face, and  the recognizable features I need to make a mental note of during the float to know where I am at.

So, did I look at Google maps to review the stretch of river I plan on fishing?  Did I use Google maps to roughly gauge how many miles I plan on covering?

Are there any dams, bridges, islands, log jams in the river, etc. that could cause hazards during my trip? If there are hazards, is there any way to avoid them or portage on land to get around them easily?  If not, you may want to rethink how soon you will end your trip or pick a different stretch of river to fish.

Have you spoken to anyone that has already fished that same stretch of river recently? Google and Facebook are great resources…use them.

Have you given yourself enough time in the day to float the stretch of river that you are wanting to fish…will you be back before dark?   A 5 to 7 mile stretch of river for me can take most of the day.

Who are you letting know where you will be, and are you giving them a good estimate of when you will be off the water?

All good things to run through obviously, however the most important thing you need to keep an eye on is the river flow rate and the river level.  If it rains heavily a few days before you plan on going out, you can expect the flow rate to increase and the river level to increase.  Higher flow equals faster current…sometimes fast enough where aggressive paddling will not allow you to maintain control of your kayak.  When you are not able to maintain control and get out of harms way easily, you are putting yourself at risk especially if you are by yourself.

As an example, if I know I am fishing the Fox River in Montgomery, Illinois I will go to google and type in “Fox river flow rates Montgomery, Illinois”.  What pops up is a USGS link that will show a flow measurement at the Montgomery dam. The discharge rate is the flow rate which is what I am concerned about…and you will see several values in the flow table they provide.


flow rate

Min (Minimum)….or the slowest flow rate ever recorded for that section of the river

25th percentile….or the 25th percent point on a bell curve of all river readings.  25th percentile or less is considered below average for the river.

Median (50th percentile)….or the middle or peak of the bell curve out of all of the river flow measurements taken.  50th percentile is considered average for the river.

Mean…or the average of all flow readings for that river.

75th percentile….or the 75th percent point on a bell curve of all river readings.  75th percentile or greater is considered above average for the river.

Maximum….or the maximum flow rate ever recorded for that section of the river

The safest flow rate in my opinion is the median flow rate or anything less than that.  Take precaution if you hit the mean (total average) for the river…and I don’t recommend floating on anything above that value.  In this higher current flow range you have much less control over your kayak…which limits your ability to correct your heading when trying to avoid hazards.  It definitely can make for a dangerous situation.

The other portion to this is the river level or the gage height.   If the current is high you can almost expect the gage height to be high and vice versa.  I am usually only concerned when the river is super low.  Low water level will mean more exposed hazards in the water like boulders, tree limbs, etc.  Also, more places where the kayak cannot easily float through which requires you to get out of my kayak to get back to floatable water.   Low water also means slower current in some cases.  All of that can equate to a longer trip than you expected to take.

To summarize, the information above will provide you with a great starting point to attempt your first river float.  I suggest starting out with a buddy on a short familiar stretch of river and building from there.  I cannot stress enough though how much you should pay attention while on the river.   Watch for your rods snagging on low hanging tree limbs, your kayak hitting underwater boulders, floating backwards accidentally into other obstructions, landing fish without keeping an eye of your surroundings, etc.  Be safe, have fun, and hopefully this season you will lock into a trophy river fish this season!

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