My first year on the Fox River was frustrating.
I didn’t have much experience fishing moving water. I didn’t have much experience targeting smallmouth. I didn’t understand where the fish lived. I didn’t understand what happens as the river swings from high to low water. I was clueless.
Learning was slow and painful. I’d pop a few fish now and then but these clues seemed less like pieces of a puzzle and more like disconnected Rorschach images. I couldn’t make connections to what was working and why it was working. Many times nothing worked.
I’ve always been lucky and I’ve always been a fisherman, but that was all I had on my side. I consider myself a competent fisherman. I catch fish when others can’t. I maintain the belief that I could be dropped anywhere in the world on a body of water and at least catch something. Maybe not the biggest fish, but something.
The Fox River was feeding doubt as to whether I’d survive a single season if shit hit the fan. I imagined I’d be eating a lot of carp in a post-apocalyptic St. Charles.
I put together this article as a jump-start for new fisherman on the Fox River. Standard disclaimer: your mileage may vary. This is only the advice I wish I’d taken and the advice I give to new fisherman when they ask.
It’s All About Time
If you want to learn how to do anything you have to put in your time. You have to punch the river clock like it’s a paying job. You have to fish consistently. Fish the whole season. Start when it’s cold and end when it’s cold.
You won’t learn much in fits and starts. This is the most important advice in this article.
Get Some Waders… or Don’t
Either way, get in the water. Figure it out. Don’t fish from shore except at times when the water is high and you can’t wade.
Walking through the river not only provides a better vantage point for casting and access to more areas, it will provide you with context. Where are the deeper holes? What’s at the bottom of that chute? It will help you understand the structure of the river. You’ll discover the places to come back and fish later by walking through them the first time.
Wet wading generally gets a bad rap. I wet wade all summer long. Take a shower afterwards. The water will keep you nice and cool on a hot summer day. If you’re skittish about the water quality, spend some cash on a set of breathable waders.
(Editorial note: In the summer of 2012 I stopped wet wading for the first time. Ever. The water was just too nasty, even for me.)
If you’re going to fish when the water is cold you’ll need a set of neoprene waders as well. If you’re only going to buy one set of waders I suggest neoprene. Wet wade the summer. You’ll learn the most when you fish the whole season.
I grew up fishing lakes and ponds. There’s much less to pay attention to on those types of water. Where should you spend your attention? There are two basic variables that you should consider:
- Water Level – How high or low is the river? What’s the flow? Is it on it’s way up or on it’s way down? A great site to confirm the state of the river is the US Geological Survey’s web site. http://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/uv/?site_no=05551000
- Water Temperature – Again, is it on it’s way up or down? There are no web sites I’m have found where you can pull this data. A cheap digital thermometer will help you answer this question.
Generally, the Fox River is at normal flow from 750 CFS to 1,200 CFS.
Fish the No-Brainer Spots First
You’ll see the no-brainer spots on Google Maps. Or if you drive around you’ll see fisherman in these spots. Disregard what the shore fisherman are doing for the most part. Fish where you see other waders fishing, there’s probably a reason they are there. Don’t crowd the folks already in the water. Come back later.
Once you’ve got a few no-brainer spots under your belt it’s easy to find similar water throughout the river. Branch out from there.
Pay Your Dues – Don’t Ask for Spots
I learned this lesson personally when I first started.
The worst tactic you can take is asking people for spots on a fishing web site. First of all, it’s rude. Others have put in large amounts of time to cultivate their craft. You don’t have the right to get anything for free. Pay your dues.
Secondly, who knows what you’ll get back? Someone could send you on a goose chase just to teach you a lesson in etiquette.
Certainly don’t ask me for spots.
What are the fish eating? Can you see river shiners in the shallows? My rule of thumb is to assume the primary forage is crayfish and insects until I see the shiners in abundance. Even then, assume a good bit of the smallmouth diet is crayfish and water-born insects.
Pick three lures and learn how to fish those first. Put all the rest of your crap in a box for a few months. This is where web sites can help out. People are usually happy to provide a few pointers.
I think it matters less which three you pick, but that limiting yourself is an important exercise. You’ll get more feedback from the fish early on if you remain consistent in your bait selection.
When in doubt – try a 1/16 oz. jig and twister.
Think Like a Fish
I suggest thinking about Basic Needs. For humans these are food, water, shelter and clothing. For smallmouth I propose that Basic Needs are food, safety and oxygen.
Here are some of my thoughts on the subject of finding fish in a few different situations.
When the water is high the fish migrate to spots out of the current. The more they swim, the more calories they need to sustain themselves. Fish will hunt on current edges but hold in slower water.
When the water is warmer and really low, oxygen is at a premium. Dams and riffles are natural aerators – just like an aerator in a fish tank.
At normal pool fish can move around easily and spread out.
Smallmouth relate to current more than any other species I have targeted. I spent too much time targeting dead water that “looked fishy” based on my largemouth upbringing.
Structure is different in a shallow river. A hole holding fish can be as minor as a 6” drop in depth or a small boulder. Walls also provide structure. So do logs, undercut banks and current breaks. I look for what’s different in an area and fish that first.
Think like a fish – if you were going to ambush a meal, where would you sit?
Take Time to Ponder
Don’t walk directly into the river when you arrive. See what’s happening. Think about where you want to fish and where you’ll need to stand to fish those spots. Pay attention – are fish busting bait? Do you see any carp trolling the shallows?
If this is a spot you’ve fished before, what’s changed since your last visit? If nothing else take a few minutes to appreciate the river. It will reward you.
Casting Downsteam vs. Upstream vs. ¾ Upstream, etc.
If you were a fish – would you face upstream or downstream? Would you be more likely to notice a bait headed right at you or one that was coming from behind you?
I started catching better fish once I began casting upstream more often. Many people disagree with me on this topic. Maybe it’s bad advice, but it works for me.
A man once told me, “Nothing swims up-river very fast.” Pace is important. It’s a big clue. I’m not sure if I agree with that man all of the time, but it’s a point to consider.
Stop Reading, Go Fishing
Find out what works for you. The main objective is to cover water and pay attention to what’s working and what’s not. While you can get something from a good read on the Internets, fishing the river is the only way to learn. Get out there.