River Fishing for Saltwater Fish
I’m sure you’ve heard the stories of ravenous back country reds turning the water bronze, snook masquerading as bass, and trout doing the river dance back in the tidal rivers, freshwater streams, and salt marshes, and now you’re ready to join in on the action and run for the border. As with any type of fishing, the same basic rules apply no matter if you’re fishing a river in Ohio or Mississippi, an estuary in Florida or Virginia, or the salt marshes of Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Louisiana, etc. Take what you already know, along with the information picked up within this book and you’re sure to be successful.
Before we get into the tails and scales of river fishing, let me pass on a few points of interest. The following section simply cannot cover the vastness of rivers that weave throughout Florida, nor all the species within, nor is it meant too, as that would take an entire book or two, or maybe 10! I have put together some extensive tried and true personal information from many of the rivers that I have fished; both east and west coasts of Florida among those out of state, and all of this will apply to nearly all rivers. I doubt you'll need any further information to be successful, as this is all of the river knowledge I have acquired throughout the years and it works wonder for me.
If you’re like me, I’ll motor my boat anywhere that has water and the potential for action, and then wade my way back to the honey holes if need be. On many occasions I'll break out the kayak and really head into the backcountry. Any fish that can cross a threshold to another world in search of refuge and food certainly gets my attention and sparks the thrill of the hunt in me. Species such as the tarpon, redfish, snook, flounder and trout do whatever it takes to get to the prime feeding grounds and winter harborage, and if that means that a redfish has to belly-flop across shallow water to reach a meaty oyster bar far up a tidal creek, or a trout does the river dance while the mighty snook and flounder swim the salt highway that runs the bottom of most saltwater influenced rivers, well then that just opens up a whole lot of fishing areas and opportunity, something I really enjoy! It's also exceptionally relaxing to get into the back country in your kayak and fish the grounds as our ancestors once it.
There are many rivers in Florida with better than pristine conditions for holding saltwater species. Many of these rivers weed through Florida’s National Parks and eventually come to an oyster riddled mouth that spills into the sea water. Along the river lies many miles of marsh and mangrove-fringed grassy shorelines producing freshwater and saltwater estuaries, creeks, channels, cuts, runoff points, islands, eddies, submerged debris, shell beds and much more, all situated above mud, sand and shell bottom that make up this unique mixture. These areas are a virtual honey hole to any angler that knows how to take advantage of such a wonderful array of opportunity.
While not thought of by the recreational angler as the ideal hunting grounds for saltwater species, except those folks that are in areas only consisting of rivers, they can be found here, often plentiful and large. On average, you’ll find the smaller of the species here more often than not in warmer weather, but don’t be surprised to pull out a large tarpon, a lunker snook, a gator trout or a big red, or even an eye poppin’ flounder, and chances greatly increase in the winter! If the time of the year is right, conditions are optimal and you’ve come with the right knowledge and equipment, it can be as productive as fishing the larger open bay flats.
Please keep in mind that this section was written for those of us that fish primarily saltwater during optimal times, where snook, redfish, trout, and other species are generally out on the flats of the estuaries, as well as the passes and beaches. This section is intended for the angler's that transition to the rivers when conditions force fish to seek refuge from less than favorable saltwater conditions. That is not to say that the structural elements mentioned throughout this section will not apply to those fish that live in the rivers year round, as the end result will be the same, but the transition of the fish may be off.
Most of us that mainly fish saltwater and make the winter transition to the rivers will fish the lower areas around the mouth of the river, and maybe a few miles within, where tides have the greatest influence. However, I find myself launching from inland locations 15 miles into various rivers, as long as the saltwater fish are there! With that being said, understanding how the tides effect these areas are crucial. Within a tidal river system, tidal influence causes major differences in river systems, not only in the species roaming the water, but when, where and how you catch them. The area of land covered by the mixture of salt and fresh water provide a vast array of marine organisms, opening up a smorgasbord of offerings that draw in any fish that can handle the climate. To fish these tidal rivers and marshlands effectively, it helps to understand the basic principles of tide movement and how it affects these systems as we discussed in the beginning of this book.
The winds also play a part by pushing more swell with onshore winds or knocking it back with offshore winds, along with barometric pressure, which when low will raise the tide and when high will lower the tide. As the tide rises it pushes saltwater up coastal rivers and the higher the tide the further up river it pushes. For this reason, it is very important to consider all the aspects that will change the water conditions when you cross the border.
****tide influence section omitted -reserved for book ****
The first thing that you’ll want to do is determine where the fish will be. This isn’t as easy as it may sound and requires some scouting work. You need to know what optimal conditions are for your intended target and what structure is available in the intended area that you wish to fish. Structure is the number one aspect, whether it be a soft mud bottom, a hard shell bottom, a tight bend in the river with deep pockets, or a pile of rubble under a bridge, you’ll always want to hit these areas first. If you aren’t familiar with the area that you are fishing, then my suggestion is to scout the area for a day or two and log down key points within the river system. When you return you’ll know right where to go without spooking the fish.
As an avid inshore angler, I love fishing our waters year-round, and absolutely love the competition that Mother Nature throws at us. In the summer the immense heat pushes many inexperienced anglers off the water and into their air-conditioned homes, and winter months often leave the waterways looking like the Dead Sea. While it has this effect above the surface—a mirror image goes on below as well. The mid-day heat drives the fish into shady nestled coves, holes, deeper water, and swift moving currents—‘almost giving us a herd of cattle!’ During the winter you’ll find fish dashing to warmer harborage up river and into deep water holes, soft mud bottoms, and basking on the shallow banks, flats, and bars during the mid afternoon sun.
There is absolutely no better method to find fish than a serious day of scouting out potential target zones. Many anglers skip this step and head out to sight fish or just plain guess the best spots. This may be fine if you already know the river and where the fish are, but I’ll guarantee that those anglers that know where the spots are have already done their scouting, or received grapevine information, and most likely know the river system.
I know many anglers complain that they aren’t catching fish like the rest of us during the rough times and even wonder if we (those writing the articles and books) are actually catching fish as we so tell. I can tell you that most of us are catching fish year-round, and if you do what I am about to tell you, then you too will be right there with us! Do we catch keeper fish on every trip? Hell no! I wish I did, but it just isn’t that easy inshore! We all have days that are less-than-perfect, but my success rate still hovers with the best of em'!
Begin your day by leaving behind “any and all fishing gear” and only take a notepad, pen, digital thermometer, and your GPS / depth finder. By leaving your fishing tackle on land, you’ll be forced to do what you came to do, search for pristine bottom, optimal water temperatures, and concentrated fish. This is probably the hardest thing you’ll ever do when it comes to fishing, and more than likely you’ll probably end up taking a may pay off for that one time visit, but mark my words, you will find yourself one of those frustrated anglers sooner than later. But, a good day of quality scouting and becoming one with the river will have you grateful for having had the will power on the first scout trip to focus on scouting only.
Key Scouting Points
1. Scout the interior river mouth, main river channel, banks, cuts, creeks, mangrove shores, marsh, and any place that has water access.
2. Spook the hell out of the fish once you reach a spot that looks good! Yes, this is the only time you’ll want to be noisy. Seeing a school of fish spooked from an area guarantees a future spot on your map. Be sure to approach the intended area rather stealthy before you lay down the noise, so that you are near the fish and can see them spook. Personally, I like to sit for a stretch and just observe before I get noisy. I never get noisy until I am ready to leave a location, as I'd rather observe and see what the fish are doing once I find them. I'm not saying to break out the fireworks and marching band, as just a simple tapping on the deck will do it. You're not looking to spook them into complete hiding, but rather just enough to get some head wakes, tail flip's, or some other indicators to let you know they are there. Also, if there are others fishing in the area I'd recommend not making noise intentionally or that tapping may be the sound of knuckles on your forehead! More than likely you may not see any fish in the deeper water, but you’re really more concerned with structure and bait presence anyway.
3. When scouting sections off the main river, scout the deeper water during the lowest tide to get a better view of the bottom, and the shallower water during high tide to gain further access back into the creeks.
4. Look for deeper holes, underwater structure, color changes in the bottom, oyster bars and flats closest to deeper water. You're looking for areas that look different. Areas were abrupt changes occur are areas that you certainly want to pay close attention too.
5. Check the river bends and look for the deeper pockets on the outside bend (preferably 10+ feet), and the shallow sediment accumulated on the inside bends. Rocky or shell points nearing the river bend near deeper holes make for even a better area.
6. Look for areas of irregularity such as a shallow channel merging into a deeper channel, smaller to larger, changes in current flow and grass points that extend into water slightly deeper than that found along the adjacent bank. Keep an eye on the shoreline and look for any areas that seems to have more shell or debris of any kind grouped together. This is usually a wash out zone of irregular current and will hold fish at flood tide. You'll end up fishing these areas of biggest change on a falling tide as the bait and predators move out, or the low end of a rising tide as the bait and predators are moving in.
****Remainder of Scouting section omitted -reserved for book ****
UPPER RIVER WET SEASON:
This is one of the more difficult situations to fish, and one that usually means fishing is poor for saltwater species, as the fishing zones cover a larger area due to higher water levels. If the fall season has been excessively wet there will be more freshwater runoff into the rivers and a lowering of salinity levels so look for saltwater species to be more concentrated in the lower river areas for extended periods of time. Since many fish are starting to make their way to the river mouths as the temperatures drop in the winter, the lower salinity will hold them closer to the mouth. However, a Marine biology friend once told me that excessive rainfall and runoff creates an oxidation of rock and sediment, which produces more salt within the runoff, thereby actually raising the salinity levels further up river. ****Further details omitted - reserved for book**** includes lower river wet season, and upper and lower river dry season, as well as winter fall, spring, and summer details.
Run with the tides. Be sure to factor in the time of the year. Fish will stage in deeper water and move up river with the incoming tide until they reach their zone, whether an oyster bar down a shallow creek or a bridge in the middle of the channel, be there first! At slack tide, move down the river and look for deeper creeks and set up at the mouth of those creeks and wait for the tide to drop. Scouting should have shown you which creeks will be ideal for outgoing tidal flush. As the tide turns the fish will move back out of the shallow creeks and down river.
There are several approaches to take when working your way out with the bait. You can become part of the bait movement and drift along with them, or you can set up in advance and catch them being flushed out. Most anglers choose to drift along with the bait and this is perfectly fine, so as the tide continues to drop, work your way down river hitting areas of interest, while keeping a close eye on the bait so as to never be left behind the bait. If you see lots of bait around you, then you’re in the zone. If your rigged bait seems to be the last standing soldier, then you’ve been left behind! MOVE! You want to be on that leading edge of the bait school, with the majority of surface action taking place up current from you. If you find yourself out-drifting the bait, then you'll need to take measures to slow your drift such as dropping an anchor or your power pole and waiting for the bait.
**** Further details omitted - reserved for book*** includes techniques for effectively fishing the tide movement, judging the tide drop and rise down to the minute, key areas of interest at various tide levels, cycle fishing technique, structures such as spillways, feeder creeks, etc, an in-depth section on the "Touted Three" Snook, Redfish, and Trout within the river systems, and a very detailed trip into the salt marsh and mud flats.