How to

How to: Fish Strong Currents

THERE are two mortal enemies for fishos – wind and current. This is especially so if you enjoy using lures to catch fish, as both elements detract from your ability to execute the basics. This includes casting accurately, detecting where your lure is in the water, sensing bites and getting to where the fish are holding. Same goes for the bait brigade. If you’re anchored up and trying to manage half a dozen well laid-out rigs, a swinging boat can cause deep frustrations and mega tangles. Also strong currents necessitate the use of a house brick for a sinker, making the presentation unnatural.

All up, it’s a challenging predicament, but these days it’s difficult to find time to fish without the presence of at least one of these antagonists so it’s been a case of get used to it or go home.

While I am yet to find the solution for strong wind I’ve figured out some interesting facts about fishing current. My local river, Sydney’s Hawkesbury, is notorious for its strong tidal flow and deep scoured out gutters and reefs. For a long time I shied away from going anywhere near it and spent hours prospecting the slower backwaters where it was easier to fish but the fish were harder to find.

Over time I’ve learned the craft and now fishing current is my go-to technique. I’ve come to realise that fish aren’t afraid of water flow. If you know where to look and why, you will not only find fish, but active fish ready to tango.

No run, no fun. It’s an old saying but it still holds true.

Understanding water flow

The key to fishing current lies with understanding basic hydrodynamic theory. This sounds technical but any decent fisho will already have some comprehension of it in one form or another. It’s basically the study of water movement. We all check the tides before we go fishing so we all invest in the theory. However, it goes beyond that. First off, water movement plays a pivotal role in creating the topography of a system. Whether it be due to flood runoff or strong currents, millions of years of erosion has created the diverse river systems snaking through and around our beautiful coastline.

Water movement exposes reefs, scours out drop offs, forms sand bars, isolates islands and opens or closes river mouths or inlets. All these features have a dramatic impact on the flow of water. To make things simpler, let’s employ the terminology used by fly fishos chasing trout in small streams. The same terms are equally applicable in large tidal rivers and the concepts are eerily similar. I’m talking about “pools”, “riffles” and “runs”. A mixture of these elements creates flows and depth changes to form habitats that hold and concentrate fish.

To explain further, pools are essentially deep sections of a stream with slow water, riffles are shallow sections with fast, turbulent water usually formed by running over hard bottom and runs are deeper sections of a stream with fast water but little or no obvious turbulence.

When I wash these descriptions against the areas I currently fish, the same holds true, albeit on a larger and less obvious scale. For instance, some of the areas I fish are shallow reefs in 10-15 feet of water while the surrounding water depth is 30 feet. In the presence of current the volume of water needed to pass this constricted point “riffles” the water through at increased speed as you have half the depth to move the same volume of water. This riffling effect creates pressure waves, upwellings and turbulence, and in some extreme cases on king tides, standing waves. Also areas that have bridges are usually the narrowest part of a system and this constriction will cause a riffle effect. A riffle is pretty easy to find, just look for areas where there is an increase in the speed and flow of water.

Once the water hits the deeper edge of a riffle it settles down and you usually have a “run”. This is still fast flowing water and usually holds large predatory fish. A run can exist without the presence of a riffle, though, and most people would associate them with channels. Channels are used by fish to migrate up and down the system so it stands to reason these areas are worth prospecting.

Around prominent points or bends in a river, you will find deep “pools” where the water runs slower and has less noticeable features. More on pools later.

These three features can be found right through a system and while they make up most of the markers I look for, there is one more I fish with great success – eddies.

Most rivers have obstacles that break the flow of water and these usually create eddies, back eddies, swirls and current lines. Essentially what you’re looking for is a disturbance in the speed and direction of the current, somewhere that a fish may use to ambush prey or get respite out of the full force of mid-tide. Things that can break the flow of water can be obvious structures such as bridge pylons, wharves and islands while less obvious features such as points, bends in the river and water depth have the same sort of impact.

I tend to focus on these less obvious spots but all these areas will hold fish at some point.

Where are the fish?

So these are the things I’m looking for but where do you find the fish and why? The simple answer is it’s different areas for different fish. The key here is understanding the characteristics of your quarry and positioning yourself to capitalise on what the fish are evolved to do best.

For instance, the bream is a foraging species and quite adapted to fast running water. Chasing bream in a riffle makes perfect sense as the fish are using the current to feed on crustaceans and molluscs exposed or dislodged by the fast running water. As an ambush predator, a flathead is more at home in a run. As disorientated baitfish get washed through a riffle and over the deeper edge of a run, a well-positioned flathead is placed perfectly to feed. A sedentary daytime jewfish, on the other hand, will station out of the full force of the current in a pool to rest for search missions as the sun goes down. This same jewie could also be in an eddy getting respite out of the current.

As you can see this is not rocket science. It’s about understanding the effect of water speed and movement and thinking a little about how fish could use this to their best advantage. Fact is, fish have been dealing with this stuff for eons and if they only ate when the conditions were perfect to do so, they’d starve. Much like if I only went fishing when the tides were perfect and wind wasn’t blowing I’d never catch fish!

While these examples are not hard and fast rules, this seems to be the trend in my local river. In saying that, fish adapt and therefore behave differently in different waterways so it’s best to use this as a guideline only. My advice is do some detective work and begin to unravel the characteristics of your local fish – patterns will soon emerge.

How do I fish these areas?

This is the interesting part. There are countless presentations and rigs that you could use to fish current. This piece is not meant to persuade you on what to use but more on how I approach fishing an area thoroughly. I use two basic tactics – casting from a stationary boat and casting from a drifting boat. When I say “stationary” I’m referring to using my Minn Kota iPilot – a critical tool I wouldn’t be caught dead without.

With the iPilot in “spot lock” mode, I usually fish in either runs or eddies. The reason is the water flow is suitable for cast and retrieve. There are no groundbreaking discoveries here but my basic technique is cast up current and work lures back to the boat. Usually fish will sit nose into the current and working your lure back down towards the boat will, firstly, have the lure coming in a natural direction the fish are facing, and secondly, allow the lure to get to the bottom easily. You can fish quite light heads with this technique, which is why it’s a favourite of mine when chasing bream in channels. The technique for fishing eddies is pretty much similar to runs. It might mean positioning down current of a pylon or point, casting into the faster flowing water and bringing the lure back into the slower water. This demarcation of water movement usually holds bait and, in turn, predatory fish. The key is to always fish as light as you can. The lighter the lead, whether bait or lure, the more natural the presentation.

The second technique I use to fish current is from a drifting boat. I employ this in both riffles and pools and for two different reasons. As the water in a riffle is usually gushing through, casts up current from a stationary boat will have the lure back to the boat before it’s had a chance to work the bottom. Therefore you need to go to heavier heads and larger profile lures which doesn’t make sense as smaller fish like bream and tailor will usually be found here.

From a drifting boat, a lure moving at the same speed with the current as the boat will get down deep pretty easily so this is the preferred method. The trick here is cast ahead of the boat in the direction of the current so the fish see the lure well before the boat and get spooked, remembering riffles are usually quite shallow.

I also tend to drift fish a pool. As discussed, pools have slower flow and can be large expanses of water, such as long sweeping bends of the river, and my tactic is one of search and destroy. I want to drift through making casts to the shore and working my lure down the embankment into the deeper sections. Once again I use my Minn Kota to dictate the rate of drift but essentially what I want to do is place a cast every 5-10m along the shore. I tend not to have as much success in the middle of a pool but more so the edges and drop-offs.

There you have it, fishing currents 101. This is really the bare basics but knowing how to fish an area and keeping your presentation in the strike zone for a long as possible is the challenge. If you can master this you are going to catch fish consistently.

So don’t be afraid of current. Just remember the terms trout fishos use – riffles, runs and pools.

Learn to find these elements in your river and you will find the fish.

Kevin Savvas

This article was published in the January 2014 issue of Fishing World

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