Top 5 Baits for Streams & Rivers / Learning to Fish Rivers & Streams

Top 5 Baits for Rivers & Streams

Over the past two weeks we’ve pulled together a plethora of information to explain the makeup of rivers & streams; how they change, how fish in these systems position themselves, where the food comes from – and all of this came from the note-gathering process as we prepare to explore new streams and rivers this coming year.

A nice little winding stream - let's fish.
The possibilities in this winding stream are endless…

As those exploration videos are posted, we’ll be able to see what holds true, and today we’re going to discuss the Top 5 Baits for Streams and Rivers based on the information we’ve gathered so far.

What fish are you hunting?

It would be impossible to select 5 baits that would always be the top 5 options in every situation for every species of fish. Different fish respond to different presentations based on the local forage, weather conditions, even the time of year.

We also explained how different species of fish express a different level of tolerance when it comes to current and water temperature. Check back to Section 2: What is Current in a Body of Water for a refresher, and take another peek at Section 5: Preferred Temperature Ranges of Warmwater Gamefish for a table that shows where your target species will likely hang out.

I’ll be looking for largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, and aggressive panfish.

Keep it Simple

The last thing we want to do is take way too much stuff with us. That can cause us to overthink, and if the stuff is heavy it can lead to early exhaustion as we hike upstream. We’re going to do whatever we can to keep things minimal and as light and straightforward as possible.

A quick note on live bait: live bait is always, always, always an option. Red wigglers on a split-shot rig, minnows under a bobber, crayfish on the bottom – but this list assumes we are focused on exploring new areas, and that means we want to focus on the exploration portion, not keeping live bait… well… alive.

1. A Small Searchbait

The first thing we will want to do is cover as much water as possible. As much as I love throwing jig worms and wacky rigs, those finesse presentations are best suited for slowly working an area over after you have found some fish and picked off the aggressive biters.

Start with a small to mid-size crankbait if you are fishing an stream or river that is not loaded with timber.

Rebel 4 Pack of Lures

This Rebel 4-Pack is a great option for most of us, and it even includes a topwater popper if you feel like testing the upper edge. These smaller-sized baits will appeal to a wide range of gamefish, and imitate bugs, crayfish & minnows.

2. A Larger Searchbait

If timber and weeds are a concern, look to a searchbait that is much more weedless. One of my absolute favorites is the Strike King Tour Grade Swim Jig. This bait can be paired with all sorts of trailers, comes in multiple weights and sizes, and it is an effective way to work many depths in the water column quickly to help you find active biters.

Strike King Tour Grade Swim Jig
Bluegill Pattern: Strike King Tour Grade Swim Jig

If you have more confidence in a spinnerbait – go for it. I use spinnerbaits in many of the same areas that I would throw a swim jig if it’s overcast, or if I’m looking for a bit more flash or a faster vibration.

3. A Mid-Size Stickbait

Stickbaits are extremely versatile, and Senko has become a household name – for good reason. I like to use a slightly smaller 4″ or 5″ Strike King Ocho in my area (because of local forage). There are many colors to choose from. A good rule of thumb if you’re not sure what color to use is to select one that is close to the color of the bottom.

I like to pair these with VMC Weedless Wacky Hooks.

VMC "Ike Approved" Weedless Wacky Hook
VMC “Ike Approved” Weedless Wacky Hook + Strike King Ocho

This is a good way to work over a likely spot, or to slow down after you have found fish with one of your faster moving searchbaits. If you rig your stickbait weightless you can slow-sink it right in the face of a hesitant fish, or cast upstream so the current brings the bait tumbling back like a minnow in distress.

4. A Ned Rig Combo

Smaller jigs account for a lot of fish in streams and rivers. If the stickbait doesn’t work, tie on something that will allow you to make contact with the bottom. Ned Rig jigheads come in many different styles and sizes – select one that will help you touch the bottom, and pair it with one of the many Elaztech trailers out there.

Green Pumpkin Hula Stick Ned Rig
Green Pumpkin Hula Stick + Ned Rig “Power Finesse” Jighead

Popular options include the Z-Man TRD or the Z-Man Hula StickZ, and both can be used to imitate smaller forage like baitfish or insects rooting around for food on the bottom.

They get bit. Period.

5. Test The Nikko Hellgramite

One of the YouTube channels that I have been enjoying this winter is Creek Fishing Adventures (this actually played a large role in my increased desire to explore some new creeks and rivers). One of John’s favorite baits is the Nikko Hellgrammite – and many, many fish are taken on this lure. It can be rigged on a jig, weightless Texas style, on a Carolina rig – you name it.

Nikko Hellgrammite
Watermelon w/ Red Flake Pattern – Nikko Hellgrammite

While this is similar to the presentation above, it deserves to be mentioned and tested – because there is a chance that this bait will “match the hatch” better than a simple jig-worm.

Try it out!

Moving Forward

These recommendations are what I’ll be using while I search for new fish in new locations this year. Again, live bait is always an option – but personally, when it comes time to explore I want to be able to focus 100% on that aspect of my trip, and pay very close attention to my surroundings – not be worried about my bait getting too hot and dying.

If you have any suggestions or adjustments, feel free to share.

2020 Fishing (Resized for Gallery)
Poked this little fatty with a wacky-rigged Ocho

Time to fish – tight lines!

PREVIOUS SECTION: International Scale of River Difficulty

NEXT SECTION: Creek Fishing Adventures

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