How to Check the Local Water Level in a Creek or River

checking water levels in illinois rivers & streams

“Well… I suppose we can try to head upstream, but it’s going to be one heck of a workout…”

You mumble to yourself, trying to convince the rational part of your brain to go along with what is clearly a bad idea.

“It’s not flowing that fast…”

You lie. Again.

Slowly. Deliberately. Painfully. You enter the cold rushing water and begin pulling your kayak upstream. Paddling just isn’t an option, which is a shame – because the water level is currently about 3 feet higher than normal, which would make it easy to cover ground quickly and avoid the shallow riffles you would walk on a normal day – but with the current moving at this speed, there is no way you’ll be able to keep up.

If you catch any fish today… you will have earned them!

Why Check the Water Level before Fishing a Creek?

Creek Fishing in Illinois: Hunting Smallmouth Bass
Creek Fishing in Illinois: A Beautiful Smallmouth Bass

The situation above is not hypothetical. Recently I went out to fish a creek that has been blessing me with smallmouth bass all season, only to find that the late October rain we had received here in Northern Illinois had caused the water level to rise significantly. This in turn increased the overall current, which completely washed out the shoreline on both sides and pushed all of the giant log piles and cover down to the bridge.

Areas that were previously cluttered with logs and difficult to pass were now clean, but again, the current made traveling upstream both impossible – and dangerous. I made it about a mile up the creek, but when I entered an area known to have very large jagged boulders along both sides – now covered in low-grade rapids – I had to admit defeat and turn back.

rocky creek shoreline low water illinois
A week ago these jagged rocks and holes were easy to walk across, but…
washed out creek illinois fishing
… when I came back, everything was covered with rushing water!

When I return, we’re going to be fishing a clean slate.

Literally.

This waste of time could have been prevented. I should have done my homework before leaving for the day, only to waste some of the very limited “free time” available for fishing.

What steps would have avoided this?

1. Check the Current River Level & Streamflow Conditions in Illinois

The first thing you will want to do is start to get acquainted with the United States Geological Survey. The water section of their website can be found here:

https://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/rt

At the time of writing, after you open the link you can click into your state and start to drill down into the available water data.

Daily Streamflow Conditions

I find it useful to click on one of the dots on my state to view both the discharge in cubic feet per second, and the current gage level (height) at one of the closest rivers.

Try to find and monitor a gage or discharge location that is upstream from where you plan to fish!

If you look at this default view, you can see that the day I was “flooded out” – October 27th – seems to be a high-water day, but not unreasonable…

USGS Discharge & Gage
USGS Discharge & Gage: Recent Illinois History

… not unreasonable, until you take a look at a longer period of time. Look how this relates to earlier in the month when the water was low and calm. Select a start and end date beyond the immediate and click “Go” to do the same. The day I went fishing is marked for reference:

USGS Discharge Level 2 months gage
USGS Discharge & Gage: Extended Illinois History

It’s pretty obvious why I ran into trouble, and I should have known things would be bad when I noticed all the flooded yards on my way to the creek.

2. Check the Recent Rainfall in Northern Illinois

Another extremely useful tool I found on the USGS website displays the Illinois Cumulative Rainfall Map with National Weather Service Radar Overlay. I’ll be honest – I have no idea how I found this tool – so I’ll just provide the direct link here:

https://il.water.usgs.gov/gmaps/precip/

Illinois Cumulative Rainfall Map with gage overlay
Illinois Cumulative Rainfall Map with Gage Overlay

This tool will show you active water gages and a table off to the right where you can look at recent rainfall in Illinois. Take a look and see if the recent rainfall corresponds with the discharge and height gage mentioned above.

You can also take a look at https://www.weather.gov/ for more info. Click on your state, then select Rivers and Lakes from the available options.

(It’s pretty hard to find actually, so here is a visual.)

Weather.gov Rivers & Lakes

This will give you additional flood and gage information.

3. Check Personal Weather Stations

Finally, look for even closer, localized water information by visiting a site like Ambient Weather. This site will allow you to view personal weather stations – but take it with a grain of salt, because there is no guarantee that all sensors are working properly.

Ambient Weather Dashboard
Ambient Weather Dashboard – Providing Even More Illinois Weather Information

Grab Some Tools & Be Safe Out There!

Let’s be honest. Most of us are checking the weather information to see if we will be able to access certain fishing areas – but keep safety in mind as well. Had I been in unfamiliar territory last week when I went out and the water was extremely high, injury (or worse) would have been very likely.

It’s just not worth it.

Check the sites listed here to make sure you stay safe and avoid wasting limited fishing time.

Grab an inexpensive tool to monitor Barometric Pressure in your area as well. Pressure readings have been said to correspond to likely rainfall and incoming weather, as well as fish activity – but that topic is beyond the scope of this article. I keep this hanging on my wall in the garage:

trac barometer barometric pressure gage

Up Next:

Before you go, make sure to grab a few of these extremely effective creek and river baits so you can catch more fish, and if you’d like to learn how to fish rivers & streams I have put together a guide on that topic.

Be safe and tight lines!

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