River Rats. We wear that title like a badge on our sleeves. A River Rat is an angler who spends their time learning a river’s secrets by smashing through underbrush, climbing rocks, and scaling steep embankments to fish all accessible spots. We find the best areas on the shores of Wisconsin rivers and times of the season to fish them by the simple process of lugging our gear anywhere and everywhere to fish. You can easily spot us in the bait store. We’ll be wearing our official River Rat uniform: seasoned Muck boots, a sweat-stained baseball cap that smells of Deet, and some sort of brush and thorn proof pants that have seen plenty of action.
Don’t let the working class hero outfit fool you, though. River rats know what’s eating on the river, what they’re eating, and where they are. Season long patterning of river fish species from the shore takes time, effort, and a willingness to explore. It’s definitely not dependent on flashy sponsored clothing and expensive boats, but rather a no nonsense approach to gearing up and getting to spots others don’t. In this two-part article series on river fishing from the bank, we’ll focus first on the equipment required for a safe and productive journey.
No spot on the riverbank is inaccessible (unless it’s private land, of course) and no species goes untargeted. A river rat must have dependable gear. That gear has to be efficient and portable. In the interest of helping you avoid a twenty minute bushwhack through spiny blackberries and thick alders only to find you’ve forgotten an essential or a simple malfunction costs fish, the following is an organizational strategy for all your river gear.
Species Specific Kits
Use Plano Prolatch or Gamakatsu G-Box trays to organize your terminal tackle by species you are heading out to target. Spend a little extra to purchase storage trays that won’t break or mix your gear around. I prefer the Gamakatsu for the one-handed opening, but this is a preference call.
Organizing by species is a fairly simple process, but it takes time and experience to get it right. Every time you fish, you should be making mental notes of gear you seldom use, or gear you wish you included. Keep track of those thoughts so you can fine tune the gear you carry on each and every trip. Efficiency is key. Catfish tend to need a lot of weights and larger hooks. Walleye and smallmouth will need a variety of soft-plastics, crankbaits and live bait rigs. You don’t need to carry 30oz of sinkers around if you’re fishing walleyes with slip bobbers. You don’t need to pick through smallmouth tube jigs to find a 1/0 catfish hook. Separate those targeted species out into kits, and only carry what you need.
Once you have decided on which river fish to target on any particular evening, slide the species specific kits into a backpack. Plenty of brands out there make a quality pack, so settle in on one with enough space for your equipment, and enough side storage for release tools, lights, etc. I like the brand Kelty’s price point and durability, but sometimes the pack chooses the angler. This is a comfort and accessibility tool, so decide on what suits you best. Select a pack with two shoulder straps to avoid the load moving around on your body while you navigate the wild. Belly straps, while fairly unattractive, do assist with weight distribution. You might be climbing down and around boulders, heavy brush and any other obstacle mother nature has placed between you and the fishing spot. Make sure your backpack allows for both security of gear and movement.
If I was a carpenter or someone who made a living depending on my tools, I would have a list of brand specific pliers you should carry. In my years, I have never seen fishing pliers not do what they are supposed to, as long you remember to bring them. The worst pliers are the ones you left at home. Buy any pair of needle nose and plunk them in your backpack. You can significantly increase the chances of a live release on your fish if you can get the hooks out quickly with your pliers and get that fish back in the water.
Remarkable advances have been made in the field of skin-friendly bug repellent. You can now buy chemical free eco-pure bug spray made with chamomile and green tea. Don’t do that. Wisconsin rivers are breeding grounds for the meanest, nastiest mosquitos in the world. Buy a bug spray that will keep mosquitoes FAR away from you. A peaceful fishing trip to the great outdoors can turn miserable in a hurry when the bloodsuckers come. High percent Deet spray is available just about anywhere. Use it mostly on your clothes while fishing, and wash any areas of exposed skin when you get home.
The usual kit is a must have. Band-aids, gauze, anti-bacterial, anti-sting etc. I also throw a roll of waterproof first aid tape from 3M in my kit. It’s wonderful stuff, and unlike band-aids, you can use it on the high traffic areas of your wet hands and it will stay put.
Pack enough lights to impress Motley Crue’s roadies. River fish often start the feast at sundown and sometimes continue to eat well after darkness falls. Be ‘lights prepared’ for any eventuality and scenario. My personal kit has a lithium ion lantern, two headlights (with red light settings), a regular flashlight and a standup, directable shop light. Have a small tray loaded with the correct batteries. Of particular note here is the ability to take pictures of any night giants you catch- a good lighting system that is easy to set up in any environment can be the difference between a fuzzy, grainy picture and an excellent trophy picture you can be proud to show off.
Raise your hand if you’ve seen an angler try to hoist a nineteen inch walleye up an embankment. How many times has the line snapped or the hook dislodged? We call it the shoreline shuffle- you hopstep and scramble down after a fish that has come off, grabbing and grasping, hoping you get your hands on that beauty before she flops back in the river. Observational data indicates this approach rarely works. Instead, bring a telescoping handled net, and use a rubber twist tie to help secure the handle while you’re bushwhacking to the spot. Nets are a pain to porter from spot to spot, but well worth it if you luck into a giant.
Time on The Water
With your essential gear packed and ready to roll, you can enjoy peace of mind as you bounce from spot to spot. Experience fishing on the water will lead you down the path of efficiency and that coveted self-inflicted title of proud River Rat. Get out on the river, catch some fish, and fine-tune your approach to the materials you lug around.
Make sure to check out my upcoming article River Rat Bankfishing Vol 2 from Wisconsin Sports Heroics for rod and reel setups and additional bank fishing equipment like rod holders, bank sticks, bait alarms and bait coolers!
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