The Rules of River Navigation / Learning to Fish Rivers & Streams

The Rules of River Navigation

If you drive, you are probably (hopefully?) familiar with the “rules of the road”. But how many of us are familiar with the rules of the river, lake or stream?

Ever had someone pass you too close in a faster boat? Ever have someone throw a huge wake in your direction while you were anchored up fishing?


Let’s make sure we’re not “that guy”… What is the process for passing other boats? How do I pass through a lock? What do all of the buoys, signs and signals mean? What hazards should I watch out for?

If you are unfamiliar with these rules, then this article is as much for you as it is for me. I need to learn more on this topic, and I’m referencing Dick Sternberg’s book: The Freshwater Angler™: Fishing Rivers & Streams again for this section.

Boating Rules for Rivers & Streams

When you are approaching another boat head-on, steer to the right (as if you were on an actual road) to pass each other and avoid a collision. However, if your boats are far enough away from each other on the left, there is no need to alter your course.

When another boat moving the same direction as you attempts to pass you, make sure that you maintain the same direction and speed. If you are the one that is attempting to pass another boat moving in the same direction, make sure you put enough distance between your two vessels so that your wake does not endanger them.

If two boats approach each other at a right angle, the boat on the right has the right-of-way (similar to a stop sign). Canoes, kayaks and other non-motorized boats have the right-of-way over motorized boats. Make sure to pay attention and give these smaller boats enough space.

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.

Always yield right-of-way to any emergency craft displaying red or blue flashing lights.

What Buoys & Markers Mean

Channel Markers: usually large, red, or green – channel markers are used to designate the edges of the channel. When you are heading upstream you will see red on the right, and green on the left. An easy way to remember this is with The Three Rs: Red-Right-Return.

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

Mooring Buoys: usually white with a blue line in the center when the buoy is upright. Mooring buoys are often used by larger vessels.

Mooring Buoy Example
[Additional Info Can Be Found In: : The Freshwater Angler™: Fishing Rivers & Streams]

Mile Markers: these can be found along the navigation channel of major rivers. An example of these would be the mile markers present on the Mississippi River, which give the distance in miles above the mouth of the Ohio River.

Mile Markers on the Mississippi River
[Additional Info Can Be Found In: : The Freshwater Angler™: Fishing Rivers & Streams]

A buoy with a vertical line means you should not pass this area on the side closest to shore.

A buoy with a red or orange diamond means there is a hazard nearby, like a large boulder.

A buoy with a red or orange circle means this is a restricted area, like a no-wake zone.

A buoy with a red or orange square gives boating information or directions.

Different Types of Buoys
[Additional Info Can Be Found In: : The Freshwater Angler™: Fishing Rivers & Streams]

Moving Forward

Now that we know a bit more about how to operate our boat, how to interact with other boats, and what some of the most common signs and markers mean, we’ll take a look into other hazards on the river, and also how to interact with certain locks that are passable (with lock-through procedures).

AJ Hauser Fishing Boat Project
Dad knew the rules. He also knew we needed to wear some sweet orange life jackets!

Safety first, eh? Tight lines!

NEXT SECTION: Hazards & Locks
PREVIOUS SECTION: Threats to Stream Habitat

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

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