Reading A River

If the angler is primarily used to fishing still waters, the change to fishing rivers can often be quite daunting.   The first thing to take into consideration is that the water in front of you is moving from left to right or right to left depending on which side of the riverbank you are on.  Running water affects everything it comes into contact with.  No river runs in a straight line but travels from its source to end via a series of bends with straight stretches in between.  “The winding river” is an apt description for almost all rivers.  And because the water has been constantly on the move for millennia travelling around bends and straight stretches river beds have been scoured and sculpted to what we know them as today which is basically of series of pools and glides in between shallows and rapids.  ”Reading a river” is the term we river anglers use for doing just that, reading a river so we can find the areas where the fish lie.  This form of river craft is actually easier for the novice to learn than one might first assume.  The very best tackle and the very best bait will never catch fish if the fish aren’t there in the first place so learning how to read a river is of prime importance.

Moving water produces currents, and these currents vary quite dramatically depending on which part in the river the water is flowing.  Water approaching a bend for instance will be travelling more or less at the same speed but when it goes into the bend the water will quicken as it goes into the outside of the bend whilst the flow will be less on the inside of the bend.  This change in water speed can often create a deep run on the outside of the bend whilst the inside of the bend less so.  The water has eroded the riverbed on the outside of the bend with its faster paced current and in times of flood this scouring action becomes a lot more powerful.  The scouring of the river bed causes deposits to settle further downstream which in turn creates riffles and pools or the narrowing of the river channel.  In severe prolonged flood conditions certain stretches of river bed can be changed completely.

So moving water within rivers causes massive diversity not only in types of riverbed and channel the angler can expect to find but also huge diversity in the different types of habitat for flora and fauna along rivers as well.  The key for successful river angling is by studying this diversity closely especially how it affects the fish you are seeking to catch.   Barbel for instance are more likely to be found in areas where the pace of water is faster running over a river bed that is mostly made up of clean gravel.  Chub are often be found in similar areas but they also frequent the much slower paced areas.  Predators like pike, perch and zander will always be shadowing their food so are likely to be found where their prey species are more abundant.   Of course there are many more species of fish other than those already mentioned here.


Reading a River and the Double and Single Bend.

This shot shows a double bend which is a typical fish holding spot along any river.  The main flow is highlighted by blue arrows whilst the red arrows highlight the “eddies” that are formed just outside the main flow.  It is within the eddy areas that fish congregate out of the main flow.  On the edge of the main flow there will be a visible “crease” where the main current falls away to the slacker eddy area on both sides.  Very often this “crease” will be depicted by a series of  boils and lines appearing on the surface hence the term “crease” used by river anglers.  The main flow will come around the bend fairly fast, a lot faster of course in high water conditions, but no matter what the water level is the crease will be plain to see as the current falls away in the red arrow marked areas.  Fish will use the slacker areas to rest or forage for food items that have fallen out of the main current into the slack or will likely as not hunt along the crease line for food items coming along in the main current.  In normal conditions when the river is running clear the fish will use their binocular vision to spot food coming way before it reaches them.  In coloured water or flood conditions the fish will be closer to the bank within the red arrowed areas waiting for food to be brought to them.  It would be a misconception however to state that river fish merely wait in the current for food to come trundlng towards them.  Very often the fish will go in search of their food in exactly the same way that their still water counterparts often do.

Bends and double bends are holding areas for fish along any river, so I would expect most species of fish to use these areas regularly.  Barbel if present will be out in the main flow in normal conditions but will retreat to the eddy slacks during high water or times of flood.  It is a misconception that barbel will stay amongst the rubbish amid the main flow during flood conditions so the best place to find them once the floods arrive is in the slacker areas.  Good flow with deep runs and good oxygenation during the warmer months make for ideal holding areas not just for fish but the various invertebrates that fish feed upon.  Predators like pike and perch will also be there especially perch because the double bend location also acts as nursery’s for juvenile fish of all species.  Perch are often compared to “wolf packs” simply because they will work together to heard shoals of smaller fish into the shallows where they can pick them off.

The run off coming out of  a bend can also be a productive area to find feeding fish in normal conditions.  The pace of water tends to increase coming around a bend so the river bed below a bend is often scoured making the water slightly deeper than average.  In the summer months I would expect to find plenty of fish directly below bends.  Single bends are just as productive in terms of holding fish because you will mostly find deeper water around the outside of a bend.  If fishing on the outside of a bend a cast made straight into the faster water close to the bank will find barbel if they are present in the river whilst a cast further out into the slower water will find chub and bream.  You can reverse this if you are fishing the “inside” of a bend.  Cast further out to be in the faster current but closer in for the slower current.  Make a study of the fish species themselves to determine what type of current they prefer to be in and you will mostly find them there.



The Weir Pools.


The term “weir pool” means the area of white water and run off directly below a weir.  These particular  locations are known for containing huge fish especially during the summer months when fish tend to congregate in the weir pools for the increased oxygen in the water.  Weir pools present their own set of challenges for the river angler not just because of the fast water but for the amount of snags that are usually found there.  However, a few casts around the pool with a light lead normally highlights the clearer areas so that tackle losses can be minimised.    The angler can expect to find most species of coarse fish at weir pools with a few surprises as well.  Fish like sea lamprey will travel up tidal reaches to spawn in the summer months.  On the tidal Trent, this is a yearly spectacle and the lamprey betray their presence with their courtship swirls on the surface which can often look quite violent affairs.  Sea lamprey like to spawn in the deep water below weirs where the water turns to tidal.

Whilst there are all kinds of weir’s, varying in shape and size, they nearly all contain lots of fish during the summer and autumn months.  At first glance with the white water crashing over the top of the weir one might easily assume there would be no fish beneath this maelstrom but you would be quite wrong.  In most cases there is lots of fish beneath this turbulent water simply because down near the river bed the water is far less turbulent than it is on the surface.  BUT;  There are certain aspects one has to learn about weirs in order to be able to fish them effectively.

Many anglers would perhaps be surprised to learn how many different types of weir designs there are.   I have included this link to perhaps what is the most informative document on weir construction that I know.   Whilst its contents deals with methods of weir construction for the purposes of being a good practice guide for civil engineers, it none the less contains useful information for the angler as well.

River Weirs-Good Practice Guide.

Click here for more information in pdf format.

Whilst most weirs in the UK are “broad crested” in cross section design with many variations in shape, there are also other types which include; Sharp crested, Crump, Ogee, Straight Drop (hardly used in the UK), Stepped, Dumped Stone or Rock, Tilting and Gated.  Weir types in plan section include;  Orthogonal, where the weir spans channel at right angles to flow (Most common type on the Trent);  Diagonal, where the weir spans channel at an angle – gives increased length of crest; Curved, where the length of weir crest increased. Visually attractive and also referred to as a Duckbill Weir;  Labyrinth, where length of weir crest increased. Useful for water level regulation in artificial channels not subject to high flood flows;  Side Weir type, used to control water level in navigable waterways, and to divert flood flows.

Basic Components of a Weir Structure.

Attributed to the River Weirs-Good Practice Guide.


This basic weir structure is of the type you will find along the river Trent.

Going over the basic components of the weir structure first,  if you look above the weir this area just before the weir crest is called the “apron”.  Some anglers refer to the apron as being the lower section of the weir but strictly speaking its the top section just before the weir “crest”.  After the crest the slope is called the “Glacis” which basically means “slope”.  Towards the bottom of the Glacis is what is known as the Hydraulic Jump which is the area of the white turbulent water we see below most weirs.  Below this area is the “Silting Basin” and below that is the  ”End Sill” where you would be likely to find a lot of fish.  Then running off below that is the downstream water level where again many fish congregate especially during hot weather in the summer months.

The diagram above however is what a modern weir “should” look like when it is constructed.  The reality however is very different in that most of our weirs are “renovations” of original weirs that were built from the mid to late 1700′s on wards.  Most weir pools are strewn with boulders and stones.  These were probably some of the materials used to construct the original weir but were discarded into the pool when renovations took place.   Other features to be found in weir pools are the ones that are constantly changing   such as sunken branches, sunken timber beams or indeed anything that originally floated which could be carried down river in times of flood to end up being lodged in the weir pool until another flood moves them down river again.  Gravel and sand also tends to build up below weir pools to a point where small islands or shallows start to form.  In the Cromwell weir pool as the river Trent turns into tidal for instance a dredger is periodically used to remove this gravel and sand hump.   The water crashing over a weir crest also forms deeper holes after the silting basin or “undercut” sections below the “glacis” if a modern concrete silting basin has not been built.  Any undercuts around these areas will be refuge for feeding fish as will be the deeper pools.

No two weir pools are the same so its very important that anglers acquaint themselves with each type they are intending to fish.

 p river Trent weir pool in winter.  Captor is Steve Hall.

Most weir pools contain snags so the angler needs to spend time casting around the weir pool to find out where the worst snags are before fishing.  Time spent doing this is well worth the effort.  For this work I always use the tri-lobe leads in 2.82 ounces.  Lighter than  this can get swept away from the mark and heavier tends to get lodged in between rocks easier but 2.82 ounce is about right.  I cast my own leads because it works out far cheaper than buying the ready made ones.  This particular mould is made by Anglingmoulds.

Click here for more information on this great lead mould company.

I start by casting at the weir in the vicinity of the “hydraulic jump” first.  This is he area of white water at the foot of the “glacis” .  Hold your rod high to begin with and let the lead settle.  Begin to draw the lead back towards you to see if there are any snags in the form of rocks or boulders.  Continue to do this all the way across the weir in the vicinity of the white water at the foot of the glacis.  This will give you a good idea of what the bottom is like in this area.  Repeat this but by casting a bit further away from the foot of the glacis.  The moment your lead hits the water trap the line against the spool with your finger and with the line taught between your rod tip and lead, count how long it takes before  you feel the lead hit bottom.  If you repeat this process right throughout the weir pool you will get a mental picture of where all the snags are and where the deepest parts in the pool are.  If you find a deep pool close to snags but clear its a good bet there will be a lot of fish there.  Deeper water means the turbulence on the bottom will be far less than the water on the surface plus a lot of food items will be getting washed into these deep pools by the current.  Fishing in the clearer areas means you will loose far less tackle so if you can find these clearer areas and they happen to be in the deeper pools as well you will be on the fish.

One has to be very careful when introducing free offerings or ground bait into weirs simply because the fast current in the surface will wash it down stream well away from the area you intend to fish.  This is where blockend swim feeders, PVA mesh bags and stringers come into play as they are highly effective methods of getting some bait down on the bottom near your hook bait when fishing in weir pools.  I like to keep my rigs very simple when fishing in weirs and avoid long hook lengths.  The closer you have items like leads or feeders nearest the fish once it is hooked the less likely the chances of getting these items snagged up in rocks etc.  All shoal fish are greedy when faced with competition for food so it is likely that a feeder full of maggots or PVA mesh bag of pellets will get attacked first.  Having your hook bait very close to this food source means it has a very good chance of being picked up quickly.  Always make yourself aware of any snaggy areas in between you and the area you intend to fish within the weir pool.  If there are any snags present in this area set  your rod tip high so your line is kept high up in the water off the snags.  Once a fish is hooked play it up into the surface layers quickly to keep it up away from the snags.

In the UK a lot of anglers fish weir pools by wading into the water until they are waist deep.  This practice obviously involves the use of chest waders.  In the year 2012 there were 30 angling related deaths through drowning so it is worth considering the dangers of wading in weir pools and rivers.  Weir pools have lots of rocks in them and most of these rocks, even the flat variety, pose a great danger because they are often coated with algae which makes them extremely slippery.  In the event of falling over in a weir pool whilst wearing chest waders, be aware this could put the angler in trouble once the waders fill up with water.  Therefore always think about your personal safety whilst wading.  Angling is never worth risking your life over.  If I fish weir pools in this manner I always survey the weir pool before I attempt to fish it.  This involves first finding out about what snags there are and where the deeper pools are as I have already described.  Then using a “wading stick”, (mine was hand made for me by my friend Paul Salters who fashioned it from Hazel with a lead ferrule at the bottom) I will carefully wade out towards the point in the pool I want to fish from using the stick to feel for obstacles and general depth as I go.  For wader fishing I would go for a pair of waders with studs fitted in the soles or adapt an existing pair by using a pair of “shoe chains” which are easy to put on and easy to remove but will stop you from slipping on the rocks.  Once you have established a safe route in and out of the weir pool you can fish safely.

The River Glides.

A river glide is the passage of a river in between bends, rapids and weirs also known as “straights”.  These could either be shallow runs in between deeper pools or be deep run stretches themselves.  Fast shallow glides are more suited to trout and barbel but all fish will use these shallower glides for passage from deeper pools.  The deeper glides will be home to all species of fish so expect to catch most species there.  A prolonged deep river glide could be several miles long on a big river like the Trent with an average depth of seven feet so will contain fish all the way along its course.  On smaller rivers these glides will be shorter perhaps containing  several deeper pools along their length.  The glides along these smaller rivers often present the opportunity for stalking fish due to their shallow depth and clarity when the sport can be heart stopping.

Glides also present the opportunity for float fishing and on rivers where the water is constantly on the move the method presents its own set of challenges.  There are pages in the Methods and Tactics section that deals with float fishing on rivers.  Roach favour living in glides if they are deep enough and there are many methods for taking river roach such as trotting with hemp and tares or maggots and casters.  Ledgered bread flake and open ended feeder with bread mash often produces good results as well.  

The River Pools in Big Rivers.

Most of the big rivers like the Severn, Thames and Trent  (these are the longest rivers in the UK) do not afford the angler with unlimited access from bank to bank therefore most access to fish and fishing comes from the river banks and the distance that the angler can reasonably fish from them.  Therefore this section on big river fishing deals with bank fishing.

River pools are the deeper stretches in between shallow areas like shallow glides for instance.  Very often these are created naturally by riffles being situated above and below the pool often referred to as a “meandering planform” or a combination of bars along glides which form pools known as “braided planform”.  Sometimes a combination of the two appear and these pools are known as “braided-meander planform”.    Riffles along many small rivers are often man made being built within river stretches by conservation minded angling clubs to increase suitable habitat for fish.  On larger rivers like the Trent these riffles will be a lot bigger and formed naturally but where ever they are found along rivers they always contain  lots of fish so are places that river anglers often target.   The term “pools” probably comes from the helicon days of the English salmon angler seeing as many traditional salmon rivers have famously known pools along their courses.  Those days are slowly returning as the Atlantic Salmon is once again coming back up English rivers to spawn in ever increasing numbers.

There is no doubt that river pools provide superb places for the angler to catch fish.  Whether it is upon a small or large river, spending time looking for where the pools are always pays huge dividends.  On smaller rivers the pools are often easier to find simply because one can see into the fairly shallow water to determine where the deeper areas are.  It is also possible to see the fish as well.  On larger rivers such as the Severn, Trent or Thames the situation changes because there are often very few clues to indicate where the deeper areas are so some form of plumbing needs to be done.  Match anglers will plumb the stretch they have been drawn to fish by simply running a float through the swim.  Whilst this will no doubt inform the match angler what the depth is out in front of them, its not a very good method for finding out depths and features over a lot longer distance.  A far quicker method is to use the count down method with a lead and line first to get a rough idea.

Once again the lead is cast out and the moment the lead hits the water the line is trapped against the spool with your finger.  This will create a tight line instantly so you will feel a slight “thud” through this tight line as the lead hits the bottom.  Obviously the longer it takes the lead to hit the bottom the deeper the water is.  The aim here is to try and find the deeper areas because these are the pools that fish tend to use a lot.  A river pool is just a depression or trough that has been formed over thousands of years by the hydraulic scouring of the water.  These depressions form a natural habitat for the creatures that fish eat whilst also offering a degree of sanctuary for the fish as well because fish will lie in them whilst the main current goes over their heads above.  Salmon leave the sea and come up river to spawn in the upper reaches travelling in a series of “runs” .  Salmon do not make the journey in one go but undertake the journey in stages stopping to rest along the way in “pools” of deeper water.  It is in these pools that the salmon angler will try and catch them.  The coarse angler does exactly the same thing but for fish that are permanently resident and using the deeper pools for their everyday lives.

The next step once you have found these deeper pools is to ascertain exactly where in these pools the fish will be lying.  Again this will involve plumbing  but this time instead of just using a lead and tight line feeling for the lead hitting the bottom, you need to find out if any of the pools you have found possess a steep drop off  leading into them.  Basically what you are looking for is a glide where the water is pretty much an even depth, say six or seven feet on a big river, but suddenly drops off into say ten feet of water or perhaps more.  Find these areas and you will experience the sport of Kings because fish of most species will congregate around the foot of these inclines.  

It is essential that this work is carried out during the summer months because you will need the river in its lowest summer condition with slow to moderate flows for this to work effectively.  You will already know where the deeper areas are as you have found them with the lead and tight line method.  Now switch to a sliding float and lead.  The float I use is  Zeppler crystal pike float by Drennan which is perfect for this task.  Simply slide the line through the float until it comes out the bottom, wrap the line around the small stem at the bottom then pass the line through the small hole in it.  Then slide a float rubber up the line and onto the small stem to effectively trap the line but not enough so the float won’t slide up and down the line.  Then tie a lead onto the end of the line which is heavy enough to pull the float under.  Working from the head of the pool where the water is shallower at say six feet set the float so it is slightly over depth by a couple of feet.  Cast the rig in and hold the float back until it cocks under a tight line.  A bit like you would for stret pegging but holding the rod tip high.  Using the rod tip lift up the rig so it travels down stream in three foot intervals until the float goes under obviously showing that the river is starting to get deeper.  The moment the float starts to go under stay in the same place but adjust the floats depth to ascertain how deep it has gone in a three foot interval.  This will give you a good idea how steep the drop off is.  Repeat this in three foot intervals going down stream until you have adjusted the float finishing up in the deeper water where it remains fairly deep with an average depth for the rest of the pool.  The distance from the shallower water to where it is regularly deeper gives you a mental picture of how quickly the bottom drops off.  The quicker it drops off the steeper the incline is and the steeper it is the more shelter it offers the fish so more fish will congregate at the foot of this incline.

Armed with this information, especially if it covers a long stretch containing a lot of pools with steep inclines, you are ready to catch fish!  The art of catching fish consistently from any river relies on knowing where in the river the fish are likely to be.

This beautiful image was shot at dawn on the river Trent and shows a pool on the middle river.  The wooded area on the left of the picture grows right up to the waters edge for a couple of miles and is home to otters.  The otters have been seen around dusk but I have never seen them myself whilst I was fishing there,  however I did find their tracks and spraints (droppings) along the waters edge a few yards from where I took this photograph.  There is more about the otters in the “Wild Ways” section of my website.

Reading Smaller Rivers.

The same basic principles lie in reading a small river akin to their larger counterparts but with the smaller river the angler often as the advantage of being able to “see” whats going off simply because the water is not so deep.  Even so the smaller river presents certain challenges that the larger river does not.  The small river angler often relies on stealth when approaching the fish and small river fish will often bolt from large introductions of bait especially during daylight hours.  Rods are often much smaller and I rarely go above an 11 foot Avon type rod for fishing smaller rivers and the Avon type can be used for either float fishing or ledgering making it an ideal all round rod for fishing smaller rivers.  Basically everything is scaled down when fishing smaller rivers.  One important aspect to remember when fishing smaller rivers is the vital aspect that a fish capture can often kill the sport in a particular swim for an hour or so so a mobile approach often pays dividends.  

Weir fishing is no different on smaller rivers to that experienced on larger rivers just that most small river weirs are obviously not as big and have fewer fish in them.  Even so, fishing these more intimate weir pools can be very enjoyable.  There is always deeper sections in most weir pools so it pays to throw a lead around to ascertain the snags and deeper areas first.   I never bait up heavily on smaller rivers unless I am going to fish through the night so the order of the day is always fish for bites and only introduce a small amount of free offerings.  For all my small river fishing I only ever use one rod with bite detection coming from a float set up, light quiver tip or touch ledgering.

Pools and Glides.

Pools along smaller rivers are easier to locate because small rivers tend to be fairly shallow, especially during the summer months when water levels are low.  In the smaller rivers near my home the pools are simply the deeper areas in between shallower stretches, in fact, exactly the same as any river.  On  smaller rivers you can sometimes actually see the river bed within these pools as they are only a few feet deep.  This means you can also see the fish which is always a bonus especially if one is stalking the fish going from pool to pool.  This is the method I most adopt for summer fishing along smaller rivers.

If the angler finds there is no one else along a particular stretch it is often a good ploy to trickle in a little bit of bait into each pool before starting to fish then fish each pool in rotation.  I will fish a particular pool until I catch fish then move to the next pre-baited pool once the catches stop.  Sometimes the angler will only catch one or two fish then nothing else so it is always worth moving.  I always trickle a little bit more bait into the pool I am vacating because I will return after I have fished all the other pools.

Travelling Light.

I always employ a mobile approach when fishing smaller rivers because although its easily possible to catch several fish from one area, the sport can quickly die once a hard fighting fish has been run through the swim.  When I’m travelling light I tend to carry all of my sundry fishing items in the pockets of my fishing waistcoat then anything else I might require goes in a small tackle bag.  A lightweight chair, rod, landing net with perhaps one bank stick completes my “roving” kit.  I might add a lightweight umbrella especially if I’m planning more static fishing on the day if the weather looks like becoming wet.  Otherwise I take my ex army “poncho” along which is perfect for roving in wet weather.



Click here for a list of rivers in England.

Click here for a list of rivers in Scotland.

Click here for a list of rivers in Wales.

Click here for a list of rivers in Northern Ireland.

Click here for a list of rivers in Ireland.

Click here for a list of the longest rivers in the United Kingdom.

Click here to read about Londons lost rivers.