When does a river become a lake?

Fishing wild waters often means fishing in wild, natural rivers. However, the debate about where the river ends and the lake begins is always a heated one. This debate could rage on until the end of time, but through the years of running the season-long online and in-person River Bassin’ Tournaments, we were forced to make a clean and clear definition of when a river technically changes from its normal, natural state, and becomes the lake. First of all, allow me to debunk some of the most common myths.

Well, it has current, so it has to be a river, right? 

This one is easy to help people understand why this isn’t necessarily true. Have you ever been in a river where there is no current at all? Or, better yet where the wind is actually blowing upstream and you’re moving upstream and not down. Clearly, if rivers can have pools such as this and are, of course, not considered lakes then people can understand how the adverse is true. You see, a lake actually is a wide, slow river, the same way the FL Everglades are actually, technically, a river as well. In these lakes you have areas that are very narrow. Maybe it is because of a bridge, maybe it is due to the lake being more of a canyon, or narrow riverine looking lake. Water still has to flow, and therefore (especially when they are discharging at the dam) you will see current. Current is not the be all, end all, answer to “is it a river?”

I crossed the bridge and it said XXXX River, so its the river, right? 

Not so fast. Actually, every state uses different signage. On bridge signs some continue to call the “lake” by the name of the watershed (river) that has formed it. I remember the first time I drove over the middle of Lake Lanier, in GA, and the sign said “Chattahoochee River” and I was a little perplexed. Eventually it did makes sense that they often just use the name of the river system instead of the lake. After all, both are correct for them, and they aren’t trying to denote river vs lake for kayak fishing tournaments sake like we are. In fact, in this photo you can see they used both the river and the lake name for the Chattahoochee and Lake Eufaula.

Google Maps calls it a river so it must be, right?


I don’t think so. I mean, half the time you can’t even find the river name on Google maps, and you have to keep zooming in, switching from satellite to standard map, working your way upstream, trying to find the exact spot where Google finally tells you what river or creek it is. What a pain. Anyway, back to the question at hand, Google, like the state signs, is not an authority on river vs lake because they really aren’t focusing on that. Just like the states they have areas that are clearly wide lake sections that are listed as the river. One example is in this photo of the Colorado River in TX (Lake Travis). Google maps is still useful for determining where the river becomes a lake, however, but we just have to use our own River Bassin’ criteria to determine it, which we’ll do right now.

By now you may be saying, “So, you’re telling me that it has current, the sign on the bridge says XXXX River, and Google Maps has it listed as “XXXX River” at that spot, but it still may not be a true “river?” Yes, glad you’ve been following along and comprehending. “So, then please explain, when does a “river” become a lake?”

Well, to us the question is rather easy…well, most of the time it is, because there are exceptions to the rules but for now lets stick to the rule that can be applied to 95% of the situations out there. A river has its natural and defined banks (well, most rivers do at least so lets focus on them first). A lake, at some point, at the head of the lake (where the river feeds it) the river obviously floods over its God-given natural banks. Would this have happened if there were no lake (dam) downstream? Of course not, it would have stayed in its same river channel, flowing at approximately the same rate and width, until it merged with another creek or river and eventually flowed out into the ocean. At that point of merging with another river or creek, its average width would increase and then it would stay at about that width until the next big merger. So, the moment it floods over (when the lake is at normal pool), or changes its average depth significantly, is when it truly has become the lake. The reason we mention the depth is because in some areas the river channel is essentially in a canyon, be it big or small, so the river technically is still in its river channel/banks because the banks are tens or hundreds of feet high. It still flows, it’s still basically its same width, but it would not be that deep if not for the dam downstream.

I think everyone should be following pretty well at this point, so now let’s get into how we universally can all look at a the same satellite imagery and determine the same point the river has turned into lake. What I do is find that point where it has overflowed its banks for the first time. I usually look for a cove or take note of the deeper water color and no more rapids (if it had rapids) in addition to the widening of the river banks well beyond what they have been for the past several miles of free flowing river. At this point, its obvious it is now lake. So, then, what you have to do for River Bassin’ Tournament’s sake, is look around for a distinct landmark that everyone can clearly see and use as your cutoff marker for the river officially becoming a lake. These landmarks are never perfectly placed where the river truly becomes a lake, but you want to find the closest one, be it upstream back into the river, or even downstream into what is technically the lake can work. The best landmarks to distinguish the cutoff is one of the following – a road bridge, a boat ramp, railroad bridge, island, confluence of a creek (must be large enough to notice when on the water), or any other very obvious and distinguishable feature.

Based on this map, where do you think the river/creek ends and the lake begins? Don’t scroll down to see what I think, go ahead and determine the point for yourself and then define the landmark for the anglers to not go beyond, if you were holding a tournament on this lake or river and the rules were that is was purely a river or purely a lake tournament.

Which landmark did you pick? Did you choose the old railroad bridge? Yancey Rd. Bridge? What about the point as it opens up into the main lake or somewhere else?

Switching to “map” view can sometimes help clear up the picture when the lake level is extremely low or high during the time the satellite photo was taken.

Sometimes you have to zoom in really tight to see where these changes occur. However, zooming out really far can also help you see what the true natural width of the river was, compared to what it is in the area in question.

Now that you’ve gathered all the info you can clearly see that the Yancey Rd. Bridge is the best landmark to mark the boundary for this river, as it then becomes lake on the west side of the bridge. If you chose the railroad bridge, you really wouldn’t be wrong either. For the most part it is basically still a river until the railroad bridge and I’d venture to guess that most people would call the section between Yancey Rd and the railroad bridge “river” in general terminology. If a boat runs up the river from the lake, and they were in that section, and someone asked where they fished they would probably say “we went into the river.” But, I think you can see based on the definition we’re going by, that it technically becomes “not its true natural river self” around Yancey Rd. Does it still have current, yes. Is it basically still in a river channel, yes. However, it just isn’t the exact depth or normal width that it would have been, had a dam not been created downstream to form the lake.

Relating this back to any of the River Bassin’ Tournaments (most go by the honor system on this topic) myself or tournament director Justin Hausner, would have told anyone who emailed us in regards to this area that Yancey Rd is the boundary. Now, had the Yancey Rd. Bridge not existed, I would have ruled in favor of the railroad bridge. However, it is every angler’s responsibility, when in doubt, to email or message us so they can get an answer and sleep well at night knowing they are in bounds and their fish are legal. After all, it isn’t worth a felony on anyone’s record (fraud) and all that comes from that (losing job, reputation, kicked out of tournaments etc) just for some of the prizes or cash that these tournaments offer.

I won’t get into it here, but now that we’ve established when a river is no longer its normal self, I’ll leave you with a tough question. What happens now if you have clear, natural river feeding a lake but just upstream in the natural river section you have a dam where another lake was built. In other words, you only have maybe a few hundred yards of river, or maybe a 1/2 mile or 2 or 3 miles of “free flowing natural river” before it becomes a lake. Is that true river section legal for River Bassin’ Tournaments? Are those fish river fish or lake fish, given they are confined to a certain area, that happens to be predominantly lake? Currently, if you are fishing in the river area, as defined by what we just went over, then you’re legal. Should it be? It is the debate we have going on in the Austin and San Antonio, TX areas currently, and it’s created a good bit of conversation and healthy debate on the matter.

Now, don’t get me started on all the natural lakes in MN, WI, MI, etc!!!! That’s for another time! Until then, lets enjoy a healthy debate, or better yet, just get out there and fish some wild waters as the Spring bite begins!