Everything you need to know about river channels

If you’ve ever read anything about fishing on the internet, you’ve certainly come across someone talking about a river channel. “The channel” is a critically important thing to understand in bass fishing.

What is a river channel?

This part isn’t complicated. A river channel is where the old river or creek used to run prior to your reservoir getting flooded. It almost always represents the deepest point in the lake and typically winds through the main body with extensions running through the lake’s fingers like capillaries off an artery. The banks of the channel usually form a steep grade on either side, which can usually be seen on a topographical map. How deep the channel runs, and how deep it is relative to the water around it, will vary by lake and part of lake, making it more important in some places than others.

Why is a river channel important?

The river or creek channel might be the most important piece of structure in a lake for a number of reasons, the first being that it provides sort of a “home base,” if you will, for a bass. When they seek to move around, they need some sort of marker to follow, these are often referred to as “highways,” and a creek channel is the most commonly used one.

Structure is any piece of bottom topography that a bass can relate to. Points, humps, channel ledges, and ditches are all examples of structure.

This is especially pertinent in the spring when bass are leaving the deepest water they’ll be in all year to go to the shallowest water they’ll be in all year (read: Temperature or Day Length? What Makes Bass Spawn?). They’ll often follow the path of a secondary channel into a creek arm, stopping at resting points along the way. So finding the channel means finding the path a bass takes during the spring migration, then it’s just a matter of figuring out where they are along that path.

A channel also provides a bass with an ideal piece of offshore structure for them to live on in the months where they prefer deeper water. They find comfort in the deep water it provides, but they prefer to feed in the shallower water where it’s easier to capture prey. A large drop-off formed by a channel edge will provide these two types of areas right next to each other, which is primo bass habitat.

How do I find a river channel?

You start with your Navionics, Lakemaster, or other topographical map. In many instances, the channel, especially the main channel in the main lake, will be visible on a topo map with plenty sufficient precision. This is even more true when a channel is very defined, meaning it’s deep and has very steep edges.

Where you start to lose some reliability with your mapping program of choice is when your channel becomes less defined. Channels can get silted in over time, making them shallower with more gradual drop-offs, and in flatter, shallower lakes, they can naturally not be very deep to begin with.

The good news is that it doesn’t take a great deal of depth for a bass to find use in a channel. A very minor depth change is really all they need. Finding these subtler areas requires some use of your fish finder. Searching should still start with a topo map, which you use to identify the deepest water in an area. You might not see a defined channel on your map, but if you found the deepest water in an area, whether it be a full lake or just one finger of a lake, you’ve found the general area where the channel will reside. Now you just need to drive over it with a fish finder and identify the path it takes. Mark it using waypoints and you can begin to ID areas where bass may live.

How do I fish a river channel?

Most of the time, you’re not actually fishing in a channel. Whether it’s early spring or the heat of summer, the most catchable fish are the ones sitting up on top of the ledge created by the channel or some other piece of structure that is immediately adjacent to it.

In the spring, migrating fish that are following the channel to spawning grounds will stop and rest on these pieces of structure, where they’ll feed and can definitely be caught. Stopping places can range from a large, obvious point that intersects the channel to just a little bit of rock that you’d never know was there unless you found it on your fishfinder. One particular place you should pay attention to is anywhere the channel makes a hard turn or cut. Finding these areas is the key to finding migrating bass in the spring, and then you fish them with whatever bait and presentation the body of water and current conditions demand.

The approach is somewhat similar in the summertime (read: learning offshore bass article) although you’re not targeting migrating fish anymore. You’re looking for big groups of bass that are just hanging out in their summertime holes. In many lakes, the main river channel and the tops of the ledges are too deep for fish to use as a primary summertime home, but on lakes where it isn’t, it’s the number one place to look.

High spots, or areas of shallower than average water, that formed right on top of the channel ledge are popular places for active summertime bass to gather and feed. It’s simply easier for them to corral baitfish when there’s less water, so they prefer to feed in these areas. Thus, if you find fish in these areas, they’re likely actively feeding (read: Types of Bites) and relatively easy to catch.

Step one to understanding how to catch fish off of any type of structure means understanding how and why bass use that structure. Armed with that knowledge, you can really start to crack down on hard-to-locate bass.

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