Drift Fishing For Salmon: Everything You Need To Know

Alex from Fire Plug Charters drift fishing for salmon - Click on image to see more or to book with Alex.
Alex from Fire Plug Charters drift fishing for salmon – Click on the image to see more or to book with Alex.

Drift fishing for salmon is a common fishing method that is used mostly in faster and larger rivers with stronger currents or where distance fishing is required. As a guide, I have experimented with drift fishing in all types of water and I still use it when I feel it’s the best method to get my clients or me into more salmon.

Drift fishing for salmon is done using a spinning rod and reel, with a leader attached to the mainline and a fixed or sliding weight that is a foot or two up from the hook and bait. When drift fishing you simply cast your rig out into the current where you think the salmon will be and you let it sink and then drift it along the bottom with the current.

There are things that good drift fishing salmon anglers and river guides do to improve the method, and there are things you should know. In this article, I will discuss all of this and more!

This article is part of a series starting with our very popular article called Salmon Fishing: A Complete Guide, where we discuss everything we could think about for salmon fishing.

What Is Drift Fishing For Salmon

John at Gent Bent Guide Service Michigan with a big Chinook salmon
John at Gent Bent Guide Service Michigan with a big Chinook salmon : click the image to see more from John or to book a trip.

When Drift fishing for salmon you will be casting out your bait with only enough weight that will sink your bait to the bottom while still allowing the bait to drift and bounce naturally along the bottom.

You then follow the line with your rod tip as it moves down the river. If you use too much weight, the bait won’t drift naturally or will get hung up too often.

The advantage to drift fishing for salmon is that it allows you to cast and fish far away from you and it also allows you to fish very deep if you need to. You could drift fish in 4 feet of water or 30 feet of water as long as there is a strong enough current to keep your bait moving.

Drift fishing for salmon is similar to what some anglers will call bottom bouncing except that drift fishing works best on larger deeper rivers, whereas bottom bouncing works best when you are fishing close and when fishing in shallow runs, pockets, and smaller water.

For more information on bottom bouncing, check out my page Bottom Bouncing For Salmon.

In some situations, drift fishing for salmon is not always the most effective method, It depends on the type of water where the salmon are holding.

So in case you are new to salmon fishing and you are not sure which method is best, I discuss all the most effective methods and provide guide tips and tricks for salmon fishing on my page How To Catch Salmon In Rivers.

If you do decide that you want to try drift fishing for salmon, it’s important that you use the right gear and that you set up your rig properly which I will show you below.

Drift Fishing For Salmon: What You Need To Know

Eli from SBS Outdoor Action with a big Chinook salmon.
Eli from SBS Outdoor Action with a big Chinook salmon. Click the image to watch their videos of them fishing for salmon.

There are a bunch of things you should know or consider if you want to get into drift fishing for salmon. I will cover each one of these things below.

You need to be sure you use a setup that is proven to work, and that you properly weight the leader based on the depth and the velocity of the current.

You also need to know how to detect a bite, and this can often be the hardest thing for most anglers new to drift fishing for salmon. All this will be covered below.

  • Best drift fishing rigs for salmon
  • Best rods and reels for drift fishing
  • Best line for drift fishing: Includes line weights
  • Best setup and leaders for drift fishing
  • Best hooks for salmon drift fishing: You need salmon strength hooks
  • Best salmon baits for drift fishing
  • The best type of water to drift fish for salmon
  • Shallow water drift fishing methods
  • Deep water drift fishing methods
  • Detecting bottom
  • Detecting a strike when drift fishing for salmon

Drift Fishing Gear

To drift fish for salmon well, you also need the right gear. The right gear which includes the right line, leader, as well as the right rod and reel.

Having all the right gear will improve your presentation and can help you detect the slightest bites from salmon, as well as provide the ability to determine how your presentation is going throughout the drift.

Fishing Rods For Drift Fishing For Salmon

great lakes king salmon
Our team photographer Ryan with a nice great lakes king salmon. Check out more from Ryan on Instagram @neohioanglers, or click the picture for more.

It’s also important to use the right rods for drift fishing for salmon. Longer and stronger rods are best when fishing for large salmon.

Your 7-foot general-purpose rod is not made for this job and you will either struggle to hook salmon, or you will lose too many fish because of it.

Most experts that do drift fishing for salmon will use 9 to 11-foot river rods.

The 9 foot 6 inch or the 10’6 Lamiglas X-11 Salmon rod is one of the best salmon river rods for Drift fishing and some other methods, and it only will cost you about or less than $120.00.

Another good rod for this method is the 10’6 Heavy Fenwick HMX Salmon & Steelhead Spinning Rod

You can check out all my recommended salmon fishing rods on my page 11 Best Salmon Rods For River Fishing

Remember, when getting a rod for drift fishing for salmon, you want a fishing rod that is strong enough to hold 12 pound to 14-pound line, and has extra length to help with casting distance and better presentations. A good salmon rod should also be sensitive enough to feel the bottom and the lightest bite.

Longer rods might be difficult to cast in tight fishing situations with lots of overhanging trees but that’s rarely the case when salmon fishing.

A rod of 8.5-foot or longer improves casting distance, allows you to keep the line off the water which will provide better line control and help you see how your drift is going, and the longer rod acts like a big shock absorber which allows you to fish with lighter leaders which are often required when fishing for salmon in clear rivers.

When drift fishing for salmon you are often watching the line where it enters the water to see the slight twitches as the bait and weight bounces over the rocks and the line tightening which indicates you are hung up or have a bite, and this is done much easier with a longer rod that can hold the line higher off the water.

Reels For Drift Fishing For Salmon

A good reel is more critical than when fishing smaller species. You will need to have a reel that will allow you to let line out as the bait drifts down the river.

Baitcasting reels are commonly used for salmon drift fishing on the larger rivers and on the west coast rivers. Casting a baitcasting reel requires some practice, but it gives the finest type of drift fishing control once mastered.

Spinning reels are also used for drift fishing and are likely the most popular reels for drift fishing for salmon on smaller to mid-sized rivers. Spinning reels are also versatile to you can easily switch to other types of fishing, such as casting lures and float fishing.

Bait Casting Reels For Drift Fishing

Drift fishing for salmon, which includes tossing a bait upstream and letting it drift downstream naturally is often best down with bait casting reels because they improve casting accuracy and line control.

The open spool on the baitcasting reel makes it easy to manage the quantity of line released from the reel and the speed at which the line comes out after throwing the bait out.

Most baitcasting reels allow you to adjust the free spool speed for better, longer, and more controlled drifts. This can increase the amount of time your bait spends in the strike zone. 

Matching the reel to a suitable baitcasting rod is important. You should be sure that you use a rod that is made for a baitcasting reel and not a spinning reel.

Larger baitcasting reels that can handle the bigger fish, and hold enough line is important.

There are two types of baitcasting reels. One I call “pop can” reels, and the other are low profile baitcasting reels. Both work; however, for huge rivers and ain’t salmon, the pop can reels are often better due to the amount of line these reels hold.

Some of the best baitcasting reels for drift fishing for salmon are:

Spinning Reels For Drift Fishing For Steelhead

Many anglers use spinning reels when drift fishing for steelhead because they cast well and you can leave the bail open and feed the line out.

It’s important to use a spinning reel that is suitable for fishing for big steelhead. This means that your spinning reel should be able to hold lots of line between 8 and 14 pounds and it should have a smooth and durable drag system.

I discuss the best steelhead reels from economy-priced reels to high-end reels on my page Best Reels For Steelhead.

Line For Drift Fishing For Steelhead

The line you use should be suitable for the rod, reel, and the river type and river conditions.

For example, in bigger rivers, a heavier line of 10 to 14-pound test is best. In smaller steelhead rivers with clear water, a smaller line of 8 to 10 pounds is better.

Not many anglers realize this but thinner lines sink faster and do not get pushed around as easily by the current which allows you to get your bait down faster and then get a more controlled and better presentation.

Most anglers, myself included use monofilament lines when drift fishing for steelhead.

I also personally prefer bright colored lines that can be seen from a distance because when drift fishing for steelhead it’s very important to be able to see the line for both bottom detection and strike detection. With bright-colored fishing lines and also with clear lines, you should always use a leader.

Leaders For Drift Fishing For Steelhead

For drift fishing leaders, I tend to use a leader that is one or two sizes smaller than my mainline. This means if my mainline is 10 pounds, I will use a 6 or 8 pounds leader. I would never use a heavier leader than my mainline or you will risk breaking off your entire leader and all your gear.

I will discuss leader setups below.

Leader Setup For Drift Fishing For Steelhead

There are a few good leader setups for drift fishing for steelhead and this is the one that I use and many anglers use.

With this setup, you can use a few different types of weights which I discuss below and you should adjust your leader size based on the conditions.

In smaller great lakes streams that are less than 30 feet wide and are clear, I would use a 6 or 8-pound leader.

For larger rivers that are 40 to 100 feet wide, I would likely upsize to an 8 to 12-pound leader but I would only go as heavy as I can get away with and would prefer to keep it as light as possible since leaders that are too thick could be seen and avoided by steelhead, especially on slower and clearer water.

Steelhead drift fishing leader setup
This is a typical drift fishing leader setup for steelhead and can be used on almost any river. With this setup the mainline goes further down and the weight slide on the mainline or is attached to the mainline.

The issue with the standard leader is that the mainline is in the strike zone and it might be detected by the steelhead and that could spook them. For this reason, I use a short section of fluorocarbon above the bottom swivel which you can see in the below diagram. Fluorocarbon is less visible to the fish.

The other issue with the monofilament mainline being so low is that it will like drag across the rocks and since most anglers use monofilament which is less abrasion resistant than fluorocarbon there is more of a risk of nicks and scaps or cuts in the line and therefore some more break-offs.

Therefore, when I guide I add a 12 to 24 inch piece of fluorocarbon leader above the bottom swivel. Most often this extra leader section will be the same size as my mainline or 1 size smaller.

Improved Drift Fishing Rig For Steelhead
This improved drift fishing steelhead rig is more stealthy and abrasion-resistant because there is an added length of fluorocarbon leader. This removed the thicker and more visible mainline from the strike zone and fish’s view.

Swivels For Drift Fishing

A lightweight leader is attached to a heavier mainline using barrel swivels. This enables you to swiftly adapt your rig to changing sea conditions and reduce mainline snag loss.

Lead For Steelhead Drift Fishing

Basic drift fishing for steelhead is simple because it’s primarily a line, leader, weights, and a bait, yet it can be a challenging method to master if you want it to be more effective.

The drift fishing technique involves using enough weight to sink your bait to the bottom, but too much bait will impede a natural drift, and too little weight will prevent you from getting your bait deep and in the strike zone.

You will need to change the weight based on the velocity and depth of the water and doing so requires learning how to detect the bottom.

For steelhead fishing, there are various ways to hook up your lead. First, ensure the lead is straight to avoid line twists and bottom hang-ups. Otherwise, it will twirl in the current, you should also hook your lead on with a snap swivel or 3-way swivel.

Lets talk best weights for drift fishing for salmon.

Pencil Lead

The most common and cost-effective lead weights for drift fishing is pencil lead weights.

The diameters of pencil lead are 1/8, 3/16, and 1/4 inch and all can be used when drift fishing for salmon.

You can make your own weights, or you can buy them premade.

To make a pencil lead weight, simply cut off the desired length which can be one to four inches, the length will depend on the depth. Then pinch one end flat and poke a hole in it with a nail or hole punch. Add a snap swivel, and you are good to go. You can see how to do it in this VIDEO

To make your own you will need a good lead like Danielson Sinker Solid Lead Wire and snap swivels.

You can also buy premade pencil lead weights like the ones in the above pictures.

Pre-made pencil lead weights

Lindy No-Snagg Slip Sinkers

Another option is the Lindy No-Snagg Slip Sinkers.

These are designed to bounce or slide over rocks without getting hung up as often.

They come in colored or solid black as well as one with or without a rattle. I have tried them all and they all work. Check Price

In some areas, lead is not permitted, however, I believe these are. Please check your local fishing regulations to confirm.

The Slinky: Best Option

A slinky is a different type of lead weight that many anglers won’t know about. A slinky is a collection of split shot weights or lead shots stuffed in parachute rope, For many anglers, including myself, this is my favorite type of weight for drift fishing.

The slinky rig can be as short as a half inch or as long as a few inches and this long slender profile enables the lead to bend and slip over rocks without being tangled or hung up as frequently. 

I first heard about slinkies back in the late 80’s or 90’s from a river fishing magazine that claimed the slinkies were the best type of weight for drift fishing for salmon and steelhead.

I went out and bought everything I needed and started making and using slinkies, and, THEY WORK GREAT. In fact, they are my go-to weight when drift fishing for salmon in almost all rivers and types of water.

Steelhead Slinky
Click on the pictures to watch the video on how to make drift fishing slinkies

Some guys will also make slinkies out of surgical tubing packed with lead shots, however, I found the soft surgical tubing dulls the detection of the weight bouncing off the rocks, which is why I don’t recommend it.

It’s very hard to find slinkies in stores or online to buy, so most anglers just make them. Part of the reason it’s better to make them is the cost and the variations in sizes that you can make to suite your needs.

To Make Slinkies:

To see how slinkies are made watch this video

Split Shots

Weights for Your Float Fishing Leader Setup

You can also use a bunch of split shots either added directly to the line or leader, or you can add a dropper stage of 3 to 6 inches long and add the required amount of split shots to the dropper.

I don’t like carrying a lot of pencil lead or slinkies with me on some rivers for the 1 or 2 spots that I might try drift fishing for salmon, therefore the dropper and split shots method works for me.

The downside is the splits shots will often keep slipping off your dropper line as they drag across the rocks. The upside, is if they get stuck, a quick jerk and they all fall off and you keep your rig, your hook, and your bait intact, and you just need to add some more weights to get you back fishing.

A tip to prevent the weights from sliding off is to tie one single overhand knot at the bottom of your dropper. This will prevent your weight from falling off easily.

If I plan on fishing large rivers where mostly drift fishing is required, then I will use slinkies or pencil lead.

For split shots, I use the same one that I use when bottom bouncing or when float fishing. The ones that I found to work the best are the Sure Shot Brand in sizes AAA, or AB, or the Raven Super Soft Split Shot

Check Price On Sure Shot: HERE

Check Price on Raven Soft Shot: HERE

Check Price on Raven Splits Shot Variety Dispenser: HERE

NOTE: Do yourself a favor and do not buy or use the shiny silver split shots or the ones with the wings. These can be detected by the salmon or can cause line twists.

Reading Water For Steelhead Fishing

Steelhead Behavior

When selecting the ideal fishing sites, it is necessary to understand how steelheads live and thrive.

These incredible creatures travel thousands of kilometers to breed. They have a long and challenging trip ahead of them. Keep this in mind while you search for places on the river where the current and depth are more suitable for them

Deeper And Bigger Water

Salmon are often difficult to catch in larger deeper rivers for a few reasons.

Often the salmon are spread out in big rivers and they don’t concentrate as much. It’s also common that the main current where they are is over 50 feet out. At times the salmon will also hold in deeper stretches on big river that might mean over 15 feet deep. All of these places can be difficult or impossible to fish effectively with other methods like float fishing.

Steelhead are resourceful, so they will not use energy fighting the rapids. In the frigid winter months, it also means they preserve energy by keeping near to the bottom. Unless the conditions are ideal, fishing in shallow water can be a waste of time.

This is why you are more likely to find steelhead in deep pools, deep runs, and in larger sections of the river and this is where drift fishing for steelhead really works well.

The advantage to drift fishing is you can fish 3 feet deep or 3 feet deep, all you need to do is add enough weight and to detect the bottom so you know when you are deep enough and then allow your rig to drift with the current.

Avoid counter-currents 

Generally, steelheads tend to avoid water with counter-currents or eddies. So if your fishing gear happens to get stuck in a back eddy, best believe the fish won’t come swimming up towards your bait.

It is advisable to avoid counter-currents and focus on faster river water with a unidirectional flow.

Water Levels

One of my clients with a high water and dirty water salmon.
One of my clients with a high water and dirty water salmon caught fishing the edges of the river and areas where they concentrate during high water.

When river levels are high, you can fish for steelheads that will be holding near shore.

However, steelhead will usually relocate towards the slower and much shallow water on the beach line if the river gets blown out.

This creates a favorable condition for them to migrate upstream more easily. 

When drift fishing for steelhead in slower water you will need to use less weight otherwise the current won’t be strong enough to keep your bait moving down the river. You do not want your bait or your weights to stop.

If the water is higher, you will need to increase the size of the weight to ensure you get to the bottom and this will also slow your bait down which is a good thing.

Detecting Bottom

Detecting the bottom is one of the most important things to learn how to do well when drift fishing for steelhead.

You do this by watching your line closely. If you do not have enough weight your line will drift down the river smoothly. If you hit bottom, the line with catch and will stop or it will twitch as your bait bumps bottom.

Your line should be twitching and lightly bouncing as the weights tap bottom and it should always be moving at the speed of the current.

If the line keeps stopping then you know it is hanging up on the bottom or a fish has grabbed your bait. It’s difficult to tell which is which sometimes.

If it keeps grabbing the bottom you probably have too much weight. If you see that the weight is taping bottom periodically and the line is twitching and then it stops completely, that could be a fish so set the hook either way.

Setting the hook when the line stops is how you check to see if a fish is there or not.

If it keeps stopping but no fish is there you probably have too much weight for that spot.

Good anglers with good rods may also be able to feel the light ticks as the weights bounce across the bottom. Many anglers will also hold the line just above the reel with there their thumb and index finger. Holding the line might enable you to feel the ticks and taps as the weights bump bottom.

Detecting A Bite When Drift Fishing For Steelhead

Detecting a bite is often something many new anglers struggle with but with practice, it will become easier. Detecting a strike requires watching the line near the waters surface like a hawk.

The line should always be moving around the same speed as the current and if it stops for more than a second you should set the hook as this could be a bite. If nothing is there you can continue to let the bait drift down the river.

Also, if you feel any pulling or the line straightens abruptly you should set the hook. Basically and especially in the beginning, set the hook on everything!

I believe a lot of anglers miss bites with the drift fishing method which is why I don’t use it often with clients, and which is why I, along with thousands of other good anglers will prefer to use a float.

Float fishing is almost always the most effective way to catch salmon and steelhead in a river. You can see how to do it on my page Float Fishing For Salmon.

Hire A Drift Fishing Guide

It might take years to master drift fishing for steelhead, especially bite detection. As a result, you might end up wasting plenty of time trying to figure it all out and will be missing out on a lot of fish.

The basic guidelines discussed above will help you with drift fishing for salmon, but it’s critical to remember that each river is unique and that drift fishing is not always the best option.

If you continue to struggle with drift fishing for salmon, do your homework and choose a good drift fishing guide that has spent a considerable amount of time drift fishing for salmon.

Best Baits to Use When Drift Fishing for Steelheads

The bait you use should be appropriate for the conditions you’re fishing in.

A steelhead’s sense of smell is good and steelhead can detect bait by movement and scent when the water is so dirty that you can’t see more than a few inches into it.

Eggs sacks, beads, worms, jigs, and flies are all great baits for drift fishing for steelhead. 

Increase your chances of catching more Steelheads by knowing how and when to use different types of bait. It is also best to know the optimum colors and sizes which I discuss in more detail on my page Best Steelhead Baits.

Spawn / Roe- This is the most popular steelhead bait, but it is not necessarily the best.

Worms – Plastic and real worms can outperform roe under the right circumstances.

Beads – A tiny bead that looks like a salmon or steelhead egg can be precisely what the steelhead is looking for, and it can be the ideal steelhead bait.

Flies – Some flies are excellent steelhead bait and can even be the finest bait.

Drift Fishing For Steelhead Q & A

If you have a question, comment or some advice about drift fishing for steelhead let me know in the comments section below.

Tight Lines


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