The Anatomy Of A Rip

By Lenny Rudow

Reading the water and understanding how to hunt for fish in rips will help you become a better angler.

Holding a large tuna catchTuna can swim more than 100 miles in a day. How are you going to find them?

Predator fish of all species are attracted to rips, for one simple reason: they make eating easier. A rip that forms where rushing river waters are disturbed by rocks attracts trout. A rip generated by currents rushing over shoals attracts striped bass and flounder. A rip caused by colliding bodies of water offshore attracts tuna and billfish. Anytime, anywhere, for any species you're targeting: when you spot a visible rip on the water's surface, it deserves your undivided angling attention.

Get Ripped

Wait a sec — what exactly is a rip? In its most basic form, a rip is simply an area where the water is disturbed. Usually, though not always, the cause lies beneath the surface: some form of structure interrupts the flow of the water and causes turbulence, which creates small standing waves or ripples. You know those little waves that form on either side of bridge pilings, when the current is moving against them? Those are rips. The visible ripples formed where a pipe discharges water? Rips again. The swirling vortex you see behind a boulder in the river? That, too, is a rip.

What is it, exactly, that makes it easier for the fish to eat in such spots? There are several reasons. First off, if the rip is created by a solid object in the water, that object may attract baitfish and prey critters, just as any other structure would. Second, temperature differences, oxygen level, and turbidity can all be affected by the turbulence of water, and for a number of different reasons, these factors can make a rip or the area around it attractive to fish. Finally, all that turbulent, churned-up water tends to dislodge and disorient those small baitfish and prey critters, making them easy pickings.

Anatomical Corrections

So you see a bit of disturbed water, label it a rip, cast there, and load your cooler with fish, right? Not so fast. While many fishermen catch plenty of fish from rips, a few basic misconceptions keep them from attaining high-liner status. First off, you have to comprehend the anatomy of the rip itself. To simplify matters, for now we're just going to address the most common form of rips, those created by a solid structure in the current. (We'll get to the less common rips in a moment.) Whatever structure causes the disturbed water is going to be upcurrent from what you see on the surface. In shallow water that's just four or five feet deep, the actual cause of the rip may be only a few feet away. But in 20 feet of water, the cause may be significantly farther away from the visible clues. So if the fish are oriented to the structure, casting directly into the middle of a rip isn't the best way to catch fish. Instead, focus on the beginning of the rip, and probe upcurrent from there.

Lighthouse creates rip for big catchThis lighthouse provides a great example of a rip created by current hitting structure; note the visible ripples on the water's surface, to the right of the angler.

Also, consider where the active fish will be hunting if they aren't orienting to the structure. Contrary to popular belief, they won't usually feed in the lee of the structure. Sure, they may hide behind a piling or a boulder, but this isn't where they hunt; this is where they hang out. And quite often, casting into a pocket of calm water surrounded by a rip — dropping your lure right on top of the fish's heads — will spook them instead of generating a strike.

So rather than shooting for that calm piece of water, aim your lure for the “feeding zone” of the rip. This is just outside of the calm water, just upcurrent of the structure. Why upcurrent? Because fish swim into the current and spend the majority of their time facing that way. Send your lure downcurrent of them, and your lure may land mere inches away from the fish — but they'll never even see it.

Or maybe they'll get an eyeball on your lure but decide not to pursue. Why didn't you get that hit? There are countless possibilities, but there's also one standout reason why some anglers get fewer hits than others when fishing a rip: boat position and the direction of the retrieve. Position your boat downcurrent of the rip, then cast into it, and you'll be retrieving your lure with the current. Remember when we mentioned how fish spend the bulk of their time swimming into the current, not with it? This is a control thing. Just as an airplane needs to take off and land into the wind to maintain control, a fish needs to head into the current. It may dart across the current and make short bursts of speed downstream using the current to it its advantage. But it's very rare to see a prey species meander down the current in a lackadaisical manner — which is exactly what your lure probably looks like moving with the current, since its action is squelched as it gets pushed from behind. Bearing this in mind, to maximize the catch, you'll want to position your boat upcurrent of the structure, far enough to the side to cast into the base of the feeding zone and retrieve upcurrent or across the current.

Genetic Mutations

Now, what about those less common rips? There are a couple of heavy-duty fish attractors you need to know about. The first are rips that form along points of land that jut out into the water. In most cases, these won't have any obvious structure disturbing the flow of water other than the land itself. So in this type of rip, you're not going to find fish relating to any single item; the fish will be relating to the abrupt change in the water flow itself.

Viewed from above, these rips usually look more or less like half of the V-shaped or U-shaped rips created by solid objects; in other words, they appear as a more or less straight or slightly curved line. And the disturbed water itself should be fished exactly as you'd fish other rips: position yourself so the retrieve is into or across the current, cast to the upcurrent side of the rip and into the feeding zone, and as you continue casting, work your way up the current from there.

Here's the weird thing: Point-generated rips often have a secondary feeding zone, which can be to either side of the rip (but not to both sides, just to one or the other), somewhere between 10 to 50 feet from the rip itself, and close to the shoreline or to an adjacent drop-off. And here's the even weirder thing: in the secondary feeding zone, you'll usually catch a fraction of the number of fish you find in the rip itself, but often, these fish will be significantly larger than the average-sized fish found in the rip. So after fishing a point-generated rip, always probe the shorelines and drop-offs to either side of it.

Ocean currents provide a second form of unusual rips. Any oceanic troller worth his salt knows to troll through and across visible rips on the surface, which are caused by colliding bodies of water. They often go hand in hand with temperature breaks and with differences in water clarity or color.

When it comes to this type of rip, all of the normal rules go out the window. And it's not at all unusual to pass through dozens of rips in a single day with zero bites, then encounter one single rip which, for whatever reason, is loaded with fish. This makes it easy to figure out how to approach oceanic rips: hit them once or twice, and if nothing happens and you spot no other strong indications of fish on the feed (diving birds or slicks), then move on.

Whether a rip is in the middle of the ocean, a clear-running river, or an estuarine bay, one thing is for sure: once you understand the features of a rip and how to apply that knowledge, you'll catch more fish. 

BoatUS electronics editor Lenny Rudow, a fishing expert, is the author of several fishing books and a senior editor for

— Published: February/March 2016

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