Best Baits For Salmon Fishing On Rivers And When To Use Them

A big salmon caught after a big rain

It’s not uncommon for anglers and my clients to ask about the best baits for salmon fishing on rivers around the great lakes so I thought I would write an article about it. Not only am I going to write an article about the best baits for salmon but I’m also going to discuss how and when to choose certain baits and how I rig them.

The 4 best baits for fishing salmon in rivers are the spawn bag, the trout bead, the fly, and the plastic worm. These baits come in different sizes and colors and some will fish better than others depending on the conditions. I will discuss all 10 baits that I use annually.

These are just 4 of the best baits for salmon but there are a few other great baits that I will discuss and a bonus bait that at times might be better than all the other salmon baits. Look for my Guide Tip to see this hot bait.

I will also discuss the best hooks and leaders for each bait because a great bait can be often an ineffective bait simply using the wrong hook or a leader that is too thick or doesn’t work well.

In order to help you see the baits, or to buy the baits, or even just to check prices, I have linked many of them to make it easier for you. I may or may not make a small commission if you make a purchase from that link. The small commission I might make are of no cost to you and they help ensure that this website stays active and continues to grow. Thank you for your support.

Hooks And Leaders For The Best Salmon Baits

Good Hook Size For this bait
This bait is a good size for this hook and the hook gap is wide enough to hook a fish.

Just telling some anglers what the best bait is doesn’t mean they will just start catching fish.

There is a lot of good reasons why a guide like me will use a certain hook for a specific bait.

There is also a reason why I and other good anglers put the bait on the hook a certain way.

In the picture above I show you how to put a bait on a hook properly and why. There are 2 things you need to consider when putting your bait onto the hook and these are both important if you want to get the maximum effectiveness out of your bait.

Hook Size

Bait and hook size
This bait is way too small for this hook which could result in the fish seeing the hook and refusing to eat the bait. Match the hook to the size of the bait.

You need to match your hook to the size of your bait. Using a giant hook with a small bait is a big mistake. I catch plenty of great lakes salmon on a size 10 hook so you don’t really need a huge hook to catch huge salmon.

I hook that is way too big causes two problems, the first problem is that the fish are more likely to see your hook and refuse the bait.

It might not matter how great the bait is if they spot the hook.

An extra-large hook is also heavy and that may not allow your bait to flow naturally in the current because it might act like an anchor weight that keeps dragging your bait to the bottom and causing too many snags.

Your bait should be hiding at least 50% of the hook.

Bait Placement

How to put a bait on a hook
An example of where you want to put your bait on a hook to be sure most of the hook is covered but also to be sure the hook gap is wide enough and the hook point is not covered.

Where and how you put your bait onto the hook is also important. Putting a bait like the soft plastic spawn bag imitation (like the one you see in the first picture) directly over the hook point or in a way that closes the gap is bad.

Closing up the cap too much or covering the hook point can and likely will prevent some fish from getting hooked at all or hooked well enough to hold.

The Best Hooks For Salmon Baits

I have always found that a short shank wide gap hooks to be the best hook for salmon fishing in rivers.

A short hook means less hook exposed at the top and the bottom and a wide gap improves hooking percentage and tends to hold the fish better.

This pictures shows the placement of the bait on a short shank wide gape hook
This picture shows the placement of where the bait should go on a short shank wide gap hook. If your bait will not fit within the green area it’s probably too big for this size of hook.

You also want a hook that is strong enough that it won’t bend on big salmon. I also prefer black or bronze colors hooks over gold, silver, and brightly colored hooks.

This picture shows the positioning of where your bait should go on a short shank wide gap hook. If your bait will not fit within the green area your bait is too big.

Some softer baits like spawn bags can be bigger and can close up the gap and even cover the hook point because they are soft enough to get good penetration on the hook set.

However, an exposed hook point can sometimes hook itself even without a hook set.

Myself, my guides and other guides that I know like to use hooks like these and we recommend them to our clients.

The best hooks for salmon baits are:

  • #1 – Raven Specimen hook – A wide Gap hook that has become very popular with my guides. It hooks and holds well and it’s strong.
  • #2 – Gamakatsu Octopus hook – A hook that has been around for many years and is a proven good hook for salmon and steelhead.
  • #3 – Raven Specialist hook – Another great hook that is used by many anglers around the great lakes
  • #4 – Redwing Tackle Blackbird Sabretooth Premium hooks – similar to the Gamakatsu and Specialist, this is a good hook for salmon and steelhead and is well like by many anglers
  • #5 – Daiichi 1150 Heavy Wide-Gape Hooks – This is my go-to hook when fishing beads or when fishing gin clear water for nervous salmon, steelhead and trout. It’s a thinner lighter wire hook so it’s not the hook you want to be dragging big salmon in with but it’s a low profile hook that allows your bait to move more naturally and is less visable than the other hooks above.

For great lakes salmon fishing in rivers I would recommend having one or two of these hooks in sizes from size 6, size 8, and size 10, and be sure to match the size of the hook to the bait size.

The Best Baits For Salmon Fishing In Rivers

Best Baits for salmon will catch big slamon like this.

When I fish for salmon, steelhead, and even trout and I catch a ton of fish, if another angler asks how I did when I tell them how many fish I caught they often ask what bait was I using. Often, these anglers didn’t do so well so they think the reason I did so much better is because of my bait.

The honest truth is that 9 out of 10 anglers that are not catching much fish are because of things not even related to their bait. Things like a bad presentation or a bad leader setup, and even a bad hook can be a reason for not catching any fish.

How they present your bait is often more important than the bait itself.

I tell my clients that the bait is only as good as your presentation, and your presentation is only as good and your leader setup, therefore you need to get it all correct if you want to catch more fish.

That means that if you drag your bait through the pool, or your bait is way over their fish’s heads, or you cover the water poorly, or even if your leader is too thick or not built properly, your great bait could become less effective and maybe not work at all.

If you think your presentation needs some work, or you would like to see my proven leader setup for salmon and steelhead be sure to check out my page How To Fish For Salmon.

A pile of spawn bags
Spawn bags of all sizes and colors are a good choice for salmon but there are times that spawn bags will not work.

Spawn Bags For Salmon Fishing

Spawn bags are the best bait for salmon fishing when the salmon enter the rivers and more salmon are caught on spawn bags than any other bait, but…..

But before you grab a bunch of spawn bags and run out to the river let me just say that I catch a lot more salmon on other baits.

The reason why spawn bags catch more salmon than any other bait is because 90% of anglers use spawn bags. If 90% of anglers used beads, or flies then they would be the best bait. I’m not saying that spawn isn’t the best bait, it’s just that there are times when it’s not.

I find that too many anglers are one-sided and only fish spawn and that mentality could limit the amount of salmon you catch. Many times I have outfished the spawn bag guys, even standing right beside 10 of them with other baits.

If 10 guys are running spawn bags through a pool for hours, those salmon will quickly get smart and stop eating spawn bags.

This is why I can often walk into a pool that everyone has fished with spawn bags and I will use a small fly, or a pink worm, or something that is different, smaller, or less intrusive, and I will catch a bunch of salmon that the spawn guys couldn’t catch.

However, spawn is often the best bait for new anglers and I discuss the reasons why I think this, as well as my color and size preferences in different types of water on my page Spawn Bag Tactics And Secrets.

For most spawn bag sizes I prefer to use a size 10 or size 8 hook.

Salmon Fishing With Beads

Fishing with soft and hard beads has become a very popular way of fishing for salmon, steelhead, and trout. The reason beads are so popular is that they work very well.

A bead and hook all rigged and ready to go
A bead and hook all rigged and ready to go.

I have seen studies that prove that some salmon will eat once they enter the river and one of the things found in the bellies of spawning fish that were still eating was single salmon eggs.

The belief is that salmon will occasionally eat eggs that float past them out of instinct, aggression, or even hunger, and they might eat just to maintain energy to prolong their spawning duration which can allow them to spawn longer and spawn more often.

Beads are a great way to imitate those loose salmon eggs drifting in the current, and based on my experience, beads will often outfish bigger spawn bags.

There are a few different brands of beads as well as soft and hard plastic and glass beads that anglers can use.

There are also a few good ways to rig beads. Anglers also have a ton of different colors and sizes to use and I discuss all of this and how I fish beads for steelhead and salmon on my page Fishing With Beads. Or, if you are a trout angler, I go into detail on how to fish beads for trout on my page Bead Fishing For Trout.

Plactic Worms For Salmon Fishing

For many years 3 and 4-inch plastic worms have been my secret hot bait for steelhead and trout, but they are also one of my best baits for salmon fishing in rivers and I use them all the time.

A salmon caught on a pink worm
My client found out that pink worms can be a great bait for big salmon like this one.

Worms are big, they stand out in the current, and fish love worms.

Salmon learn early in life that a worm drifting through the current is an easy target and a good meal.

When the salmon are full grown and return to the river, they recognize these worms as a food source and will move a long way to grab a well-presented worm.

I have seen salmon hit a worm that is swinging across the pool at the end of a drift, and I have seen salmon hit a worm as it’s being reeled in, and I have even seen salmon chase a worm to the surface.

Pink worms are my go-to color most of the time when I am fishing for salmon, but I have had days when the salmon prefer the red worms or the brown worms.

I discuss my tactics, setups, and my favorite worms for steelhead, trout, and salmon on my page Fishing With Worms.

Flies Are A Great Boat For Salmon In Rivers

A big salmon caught fly fishing
A huge salmon caught on a fly while fly fishing. Flies can also be fished effectively under a float or with the bottom bouncing method.

When salmon are young they feed heavily on aquatic insects which anglers will often call flies. Adult fish will still eat flies and at times, flies will often be my most productive bait.

Flies can be fished effectively under a float when float fishing, with a fly rod, or with the bottom bouncing method.

There are times when the anglers are all using spawn bags or brightly colored baits and that can sometimes stop the fish from feeding. This is when a black or brown nymph can really shine.

Most often I will use size 8 and 10 flies but will sometimes drop down to a smaller size 12 when the fish are pressured and nervous.

Some of the best flies for salmon fishing are: (click the link to see or buy the fly)

  • Wooly Bugger – Like this in a size 8 or 10 but have done well with samller size 12 and 14 sizes. I also like them with or without a gold or silver beadhead. I do find that the pattern in the link with the flash on the sides works the best. I have found that black and olive work the best but there are days when the white and pink will be hot.
  • Egg sucking leech – This is another productive and proven pattern for salmon. I like the orange, pink and chartrues heads on a black or olive body the best. The pattern in the link with the flash on the sides and in the tail tends to work better for me. I like flash becuase the salmon like flash.
  • Prince nymph – This is a fantastic attractor nymph pattern that has been great for salmon and steelhead. I think the combination of the greenish shine on the body and the white wing gets their attention.
  • Stonefly – I tie my own and have a pattern that seams to worm better than most. This Bead Head Copper John Nymph in the link is the closest that I have seen to the stonefly pattern that I tie and use.
  • Copper John – Another great fly that seams to work in most colors however the red body version is the hot fly some days.
  • Zug Bug – Something about the peacock herl on this fly that drives big salmon crazy some days. I will always have some of these on hand.

If you want to see more of the flies that I use and recommend when fishing for salmon around the great lakes, be sure to check out my page on the Best Flies For Salmon Fishing On The Great Lakes, or if you want to learn to fly fish for salmon check out my page How To Fly Fish For Salmon.

Minnows and Minnow Patterns For Salmon Fishing

I have used live, dead, and even dead salted minnows with some success on fresh run salmon that have just entered the river.

The best minnow for salmon fishing and what I prefer to use most often is the Berkley Gulp! Alive Minnow which I will fish under a float or when bottom bouncing in shallow runs and pockets. Other good options for minnow patterns are the Berkley PowerBait Pro Twitchtail Minnow and the Cabela’s Fisherman Series Go-To Swim Minnow which has a little extra movement in the tail in faster currents.

Most of the time I use minnows that are natural shad or minnow colors like silver with back, green or blueish backs. However, orange and chartreuse can be hot some days.

With these minnows, I will use a size 8 or 10 hooks and will hook it mid-body at the top of the back so that it rides more horizontal in the current.

Plastic Grubs and Plastic Flies Are Great For Salmon

Something that not a lot of anglers use is plastic grubs and plastic flies, however, I have had very good success with these baits under a float or when bottom bouncing. I use them in medium to fast-moving water mostly.

Salmon, like many river fish, are opportunistic and will grab anything that is presented well and looks edible.

The Mad River Steelhead Grubs, the Berkley Gulp! Crickets and the Berkley Gulp! Pinched Crawlers have all been good for me.

I have also done very well some days with the 3.5″ Vudu Rattle Shrimp in the colors gold, natural, and magic. I have also done well with Tsunami Holographic Shrimp in colors rootbeer, silver glitter, and red glitter.

Another bait that fits into this category is the leech. I don’t use real leeches but there are some great fake ones. My favorite is the Berkley Gulp! 3” Leech or the Gulp Alive Leech.

Plastic Eggs, Fake Eggs, and Egg Clusters

Just like the beads and spawn sacks, these are just imitations eggs and at times they will work great for steelhead and salmon.

Plastic single eggs and egg clusters like the Sac Attack Imitation Cluster Eggs, or the Mad River Single Eggs and the Berkley Gulp! Floating Salmon Eggs.

Jigs For Salmon Fishing

You can fish with jigs for salmon a few different ways. There are times when casting a bass or walleye-style jig with a spinning rod and then slowly swinging it and bouncing the jig off the bottom and across the river can be deadly for salmon, steelhead, and even for trout.

For this tactic, I used Chompers Skirted Football Jigs, or the No-Alibi Pearl Alien Jigs, or the Missile Jigs Ike’s Mini Flip Jig. I have also done well with a jig head and a plastic minnow like the Berkley Gulp Alive minnow or even a twister tail type grub like the 4 inch Strike King Rage Tail Grub.

There are other times when drifting a jig under a float will be very effective and I use this method the most.

I will also use the bottom bouncing method and will dead drift the jig or use a bounce and dead drift presentation.

Good jigs for under a float or when dead drifting with the bottom bouncing technique is are jigs like the Jiggy Bugger Steelhead Jigs, or the Hawken Beau-Mac Marabou Steelhead Jig and the which are two of my favorites.

I’ve also done very well with the Steelhead Worm Jigs, or Kalin’s Marabou Jigs, or the Mimic Fry Jig, and the Fly Jig. These are all good options when salmon fishing under a float.

Guide Tip: A very hot bait for many anglers and a bait that often works when other baits don’t is Skein.

Skein is the immature eggs of salmon, steelhead, or trout. Skein eggs are stuck together by a fine membrane and as the salmon get close to spawning the eggs will start to loosen from the membrane so they can be dropped when the salmon spawns.

Anglers have found that skein can work better than any other baits especially with fresh salmon that are just entering the river.

Most anglers use Coho or king/Chinook salmon skeins from fish that they have caught. You can also buy skeins like the Pro-Cure Salmon Roe at Bass Pro Shop or the Pro-Cure Vacuum Packed Salmon Skeins eggs on Amazon.

If you have your own skein be sure to cure it properly. Many anglers use Pro-Cure Bait Cure or Pautzke Balls O’ Fire Cure Fish Egg Cure.

Lures For Salmon Fishing

If you are the type of angler that likes to throw lures at salmon and want to know my best lures and my tactics check out my page Lure Fishing For Salmon and don’t forget to check out my page Best Gear For River Fishing where I discuss all the release gear, waders, boots, vest and more.

Putting The Best Salmon Baits To Use

How you use the bait is as important as the bait itself. When I fish baits in the river for salmon I either use the float fishing method or I use something know as Bottom Bouncing.

You can see how to do both of these methods well on other pages. Check out my page Float Fishing For Salmon – Great Lakes Tactics From A Top Guide and my page Bottom Bouncing – 5 Proven Guide Tips For More Fish.

Want more on what bait to choose and when, see below.

FAQ’s About the Best Baits For Salmon

I received this message from a reader and thought I would share it with you since it’s related to the best baits for salmon and how to fish them in certain situations.

Question: Could you please elaborate a bit on when would the Salmon prefer a minnow style bait over eggs or rubber worms.

And targeting them on the fly like the woolly bugger and gulp minnows, is a complete dead drift better than say a retrieve where you trot the float in minuet steps of slow and fast speeds thus causing small up and down jigging motion on the buggers and other streamers to get a reaction bite?
I came across a pod of 3-4 salmon tried dead drifting, worms/woolly buggers/ egg sucking leeches, I couldn’t get them to bite at all except for one swipe at the egg-sucking leech.

Hi Durvesh,

I dead drift baits that don’t normally have movement in the river and on occasion I might bounce or jig a bait like a minnow, a fly, or a jig to get a reaction strike. However, it will depend on the spot. 3 or 4 salmon holding in a smaller clear pool are likely to be nervous fish, therefore jigging or causing any type of commotion on the surface can spook them even more.

In larger faster flowing spots, jigging or holding back and releasing your float might work but 90% of the time I will dead drift a bait and it seems to work well.

I will often use smaller less intrusive baits like flies in low clear waters and bigger brighter baits in bigger pools or faster water.

Trying to determine if the fish want a worm or an egg or a minnow is trial and error and I will often rotate baits in each spot until I find something that works.

Make sure you use the right type of float for the type of water you are fishing, make sure you have the right leader set up and the right size leader for the spot, and make sure you fish well and don’t spook the fish.

Sometimes salmon can be very aggressive when something enters their space so they may hit an aggressively retrieved fly, jig, or lure out of anger or a territorial thing, so sometimes a switch to a lure will do the trick. However, that is always my last resort since that can also spook the fish.

Honestly, some salmon just won’t eat once they enter the river no matter what you do or try.

Ask A Guide About The Best Baits For Salmon Fishing

If you have a question, comment, or even a suggestion related to the best baits for salmon fishing in the river, let me and other readers hear it in the comment section below and I or one of my guides will get back to you.

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