Hazards & Locks / Learning to Fish Rivers & Streams

Common River Hazards

Any river you fish can have hazards that you would be wise to look out for. On every body of water there are certain things we need to be mindful of, or avoid – rivers of course have the added element of moving water. Current is no joke, and all sorts of goodies can be carried along into areas that were previously clear of obstructions.

A Quick Note on Safety

Before we talk about any hazards – allow me to take a moment to suggest you get some sort of personal flotation device. Life jackets are very important (especially if you are alone) so let’s start there. If you are in a boat there are some other safety items you’ll want to grab: extra rope, possibly other flotation devices like cushions, maybe some sort of flare gun, lights… but for now – let’s just start with a nice PFD:

Personal Flotation Devices - PFDs
Personal Flotation Devices – PFDs

Submerged Deadheads

One of the most common (and dangerous) river hazards is a submerged deadhead. These water-soaked logs can float just beneath the surface, or poke out just a bit. If you hit a deadhead at a high speed, you will damage your boat, rip off your lower unit – you could even capsize.

Submerged Deadhead in a River
[Additional Info Can Be Found In: The Freshwater Angler™: Fishing Rivers & Streams]

Deadheads are most common when the water is rising. As the river swells up, logs and other objects are lifted away from the shoreline and the current can carry them downstream. Under higher-water conditions, boaters should be careful, reduce their speed and watch the water ahead for any sort of surface disturbance.

Wing Dams

Submerged wing dams are bad news for boaters that are brave enough to venture out of the main channel. Wing dams are usually made up of chunk rock (think boulders, busted concrete, rip-rap…), and the rocky structures can live just a foot or so below the surface. This makes them just about perfect for propeller or lower unit damage.

Wing Dams Viewed from Above
A series of wing dams viewed from above.

To spot wing dams, look for lines of ripples that extend out from the shore at a right angle to the direction of the current or flow.


Barges are just like trains in the fact that they can’t come to a complete stop quickly. Fortunately for us… they’re not hard to see.

Always be on the lookout for the wake of a barge or other large vessels, like houseboats, cruisers, etc. Instead of crashing through the wake in a small boat, slow down and ride it out like a bobber. If you hit a large wake at high speed, the bow could dip into the water. Pay attention to your surroundings when fishing – especially on windy days when these larger boats can creep up on you without the sound of their motors reaching your ears before it’s too late.

Large Barge in the River
An example of a large barge in the river… not exactly small…

When crossing paths with a barge or a much larger ship, circle behind or wait for it to pass. There is always a chance that if you cross in front of the barge your motor could stall, and the large vessel will not be able to stop – or… they might not even see you. There’s no swimming away from one of these… be careful.


This one is simple – stay back. Boaters that approach a dam run the risk of getting sucked into the heavy current, especially if the water is high. Strong eddies below the dam create turbulence that can trap a boat or suck it under completely.

A boater too close to a dam.
A boater too close to a dam.

Stay away from the fast moving water below dams.

Proper Anchoring

Anchoring in fast current is not the best idea. That said, if you must anchor, attach your rope to the bow eye up front:

Bow eye in front of a boat
Bow eye in front of a boat

Do not attach your rope to the gunwale (side) or stern (back) of the boat:

Gunwale and stern anchor tie location examples.
Gunwale and stern anchor tie location examples

If you anchor sideways, the current could flip your boat. If you anchor from the stern, the current could push water up and over the transom.

Lock-Through Procedures

If you have locks that are able passable on your river, you may want to keep these tips in mind.

Start by looking for directions or instructions that are posted for boaters before you enter a lock. Check them – then, while approaching a lock, look for a pull rope about 1,000 feet from the lockmaster. The rope typically rings a bell that lets them know you would like to lock through.

Boaters waiting to "Lock-Through"
Boaters waiting to “Lock Through”

Usually a red signal light will flash when the lock is being prepared for entry. This light should turn green when they are ready for you to move ahead. Proceed to slowly motor into the lock.

When you are inside the lock, the gate will close and the water will rise or fall, depending on which direction you are heading. There may be ropes (one may be tossed to you) or some other method to hold your boat in place and avoid drifting – but do not tie anything to your boat! When the water drops the rope could tighten, keeping you in place and causing damage to you or the vessel – or flipping you over.

When they are ready for you to leave, the red signal should again turn green, meaning you can slowly motor or paddle out.

Moving Forward

As you can see, it’s very important to be mindful and pay attention when you are on the water. Many of these rules and hazards apply to lakes as well – but in rivers the addition of a current makes things a bit more complex. Next, we’ll talk a bit more about the International Scale of River Difficulty – a rating system that tells us how easy or difficult a stretch of rapids will be to navigate.

Less Than Ideal Fishing Conditions...
Pretty nice PFD you got there, dear…

Keep ‘yer wits about you. Tight lines!

NEXT SECTION: The International Scale of River Difficulty
PREVIOUS SECTION: The Rules of River Navigation

[ Back to the Index Page for Learn How To Fish Rivers & Streams ]

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