How To Catch King Salmon: A Complete Guide

Hiring a charter is a great way of learning how to catch king salmon like this one.
Hiring a charter service or fishing guide is a great way of learning how to catch king salmon like this one. Image provided by team Photographer Matthew, check him out on Instagram.

I’ve been lucky to live near a very good salmon river since I was a kid, but back then, learning how to catch king salmon was a little more difficult without the internet and the plethora of information on fishing for king salmon that exists today. I started king salmon fishing when I was 13, and I have spent the last 20 years guiding for salmon.

I want this to be the most complete guide on how to catch king salmon so it includes curated information from many top websites covering the subject, as well as information, tips, baits, and the most effective methods of many other salmon guides.

The king salmon’s aggressive nature, wide range, and large numbers make it a sought-after species. If you are not armed with the knowledge of how to catch them, you are going to find it tough catching fish.

How To Identify King Salmon

One of my clients with a big king salmon caught on a great lakes river.
One of my clients with a big king salmon caught on a great lakes river.

King salmon, also known as Chinook salmon, or spring salmon, can look similar to other salmon species, especially when they are caught in open water.

King salmon exhibit the typical salmonid body shape, and when caught out in the ocean, they are very silver, with black spots on their fins, tail, upper sides, back, and top of the head.

While most salmon out in the open water are silver, one unique feature that sets them apart from other salmon species is their black gums and black mouths. Other salmon species will have white gums and a black mouth in other varieties.

The chinook salmon undergoes a dramatic appearance transformation during spawning and full maturity. Normally they turn dark green, purplish, or reddish, and brown, with hints of red. Males notably develop pronounced kypes during this phase.

Where To Catch King Salmon: Distribution

Catching king salmon on the great lakes is a good place to start.
Image provided by team Photographer Matthew. Check him out on Instagram.

King salmon is considered a Pacific salmon species, and they predominantly inhabit the Pacific Ocean along the pacific northwest coast of North America from California to Alaska.

Kings have also been successfully introduced in all the Great Lakes, with some excellent salmon fisheries for about 50 years in Lake Michigan and Lake Ontario.

Major rivers for salmon along the Pacific coast include:

  • Kenai River Alaska – North Pacific
  • Kasilof River
  • Puget Sound Tributaries
  • Skeena River and Tributaries
  • Frazer River and Tributaries
  • Columbia River and Tributaries

Major rivers for salmon around the great lakes include:

  • Salmon River, New York
  • Niagara River
  • Credit River
  • Ganaraska River
  • St Marys River
  • Manistee River
  • St. Joseph River
  • Betsie River
  • Pere Marquette River
  • Muskegon River

If you are looking to do a trip of a lifetime for king salmon, check out the article Best Salmon Fishing Destinations in The USA.

West Coast King Salmon Fishing

A big west coast king salmon
A big west coast king salmon

West Coast king salmon fishing consists of trolling for salmon year-round. Saltwater salmon fishing times along the west coast are best good from April to September, with June and July being peak times.

River fishing for king salmon depends on the area for the timing of the runs.

Spring king salmon fishing in Alaska can be excellent, and catching fish in the river starts early, with big King Salmon starting to run from late May until late July.

From British Columbia to California, late spring and the summer months are when king salmon fishing is the best out in the ocean. River kings will enter the rivers from late May through September.

Great Lakes Region Chinook Salmon Fishing

A big king salmon caught on the boat of Fire Plug Charters in Michigan. Hiring an award winning charter is a great way to learn how to catch king salmon
A big king salmon caught on the boat of Fire Plug Charters in Michigan. Hiring an award-winning charter is a great way to learn how to catch king salmon.

Chinook salmon fishing on the great lakes starts much later, with some kings entering the river in August, but the majority of the kings and the larger fish will enter the river in September and October.

The best open-water lake fishing occurs in late spring, but if you really want to catch kings, it peaks in July and August.

Catching king salmon can be good near river mouths in September and early October.

Whether you are trolling in open water on the West Coast or the Great Lakes, king salmon love spoons. See Best Trolling Spoons For Salmon.

How To Catch King Salmon: 7 Methods

Learning how to catch king salmon in the rivers is faster when you hire experts like John from Get Bent Guide Service in Michigan.
Learning how to catch king salmon in the rivers is faster when you hire experts like John from Get Bent Guide Service in Michigan.

Catching king salmon requires knowledge of their season migration, their spawning runs, and even knowing what time of day is best.

You’ll often see leaving port in the early morning because that’s often when the salmon fishing is best.

Knowing which methods are best for different situations can improve your success.

1. Spinning/Casting:

Spin fishing for king salmon or casting with baitcasters is a popular way to catch king salmon. Spinning and casting with lures and baits are the primary ways to fish.

2. Bait Fishing

Using bait is a very effective way to catch king salmon. Use bait at river mounts for cruising salmon from the shores and beaches, and especially up in the river. Bait fishing methods include:

  • Float fishing
  • Plunking
  • Drift fishing
  • Bobber Doggin
  • Trolling: Certain baits can be used for trolling
  • Mooching

I’ll discuss these methods below.

3.Trolling: Steps For King Salmon Fishing

King salmon trolling require special equipment as seen on this salmon fishing boat.
King salmon trolling require special equipment as seen on this salmon fishing boat.

Trolling for salmon is when you pull lures or cut bait behind a moving boat.

Trolling for king salmon allows sport anglers the ability to cover a lot of water and since salmon are aggressive feeders and since they roam, this is the most effective method for open-water kings.

With the aid of dipsy divers, divers, down riggers, lead core lines, and copper lines, anglers can cover many different parts of the water column.

With the help of a sonar unit, I can pinpoint schools of baitfish and the salmon and determine the best depth.

The steps for trolling are simple:

Location: Look for seabirds hovering and diving or any congregations of salmon fishing boats or salmon charters.

Step 1: Bait

Choose a productive bait like a cut bait herring or anchovies or a lure such as a plug, spoon, trolling fly, or crankbait. Use cut bait salmon trolling rigs.

Step 2: Add weight or diving device like a Sinker And Silver Dodger.

Anglers use downrigger fishing, lead ball sinkers on the mainline, dipsy divers, or trolling divers to get the bait to the desired depth. Then add a flasher or dodger and the trailing bait of choice.

Step 3: Release Your Bait

Drop your bait down to the desired level and wait.

Step 4: Catch A Fish

Listen for the reel and watch the rod tips to detect a bite. When the salmon gets close to boat, net the fish in a large salmon net.

Step 5: Bleed the Fish and Ice The Salmon

Cutting the throat area of the salmon to get the blood out is said to improve the taste and preserve the salmon. Get the salmon on ice in the cooler as soon as possible.

4. Back Trolling

Back trolling is a river trolling method where the boat drifts down the river slower than the current. The idea is the lures or plugs are held in position down river and out of the back of the boat, where they are slowly lowered into pools or salmon-holding water.

In back trolling, you can use either a drift boat facing downstream or a powerboat with the bow oriented upstream. This method is often considered a more laid-back approach to fishing, where the fishing rod remains in its holder, anglers sit comfortably in chairs beside the rods, and one individual operates the oars or motor.

5. Back Bouncing

This is similar to Back trolling, except it involves the lifting and dropping of your bait rig off the bottom from a stationary boat or from a very slow drifting boat.

6. Side Drifting For King Salmon

Side drifting for king salmon involves drifting down the river in a boat and drifting your bait beside the boat as it drifts. It is a popular method worth considering.

7. Mooching

Mooching for salmon is an open ocean fishing method where the angler lowers a cut bait like a herring down to a specific depth and then reels it back up, hoping a salmon will follow and hit the bait. Anglers can drop the bait over 100 feet or only 2 or 30 feet, depending on where the baitfish and the salmon are located.

Using a fish finder is a great water to determine the right depths to fish. The boat drifts naturally with the current or wind. Other species can be caught with this method.

7. Fly Fishing

Fly fishing is a really fun way to catch king salmon in the rivers, from shore, or even from the boat. Fly fishing in the river is done by streamer fishing with a stipping-in method that resembles a swimming bait fish.

Fly anglers will also swing flies across the river allowing the current to swing the fly or swim the fly.

Nymph fishing for salmon is also very popular and effective. You can use egg imitation flies, nymph imitations, or baitfish imitations.

Bank Fishing For King Salmon

Bank fishing for king salmon is done at river mouths, up the rivers, or on the ocean’s shorelines. Bank fishing consists of casting heavy lures or a heavy bait rig with a method known as plunking. Jig fishing is also common when king salmon fishing from the bank.

River Fishing For King Salmon

River fishing for king salmon might be the most popular and accessible method of catching king salmon. Depending on the region, the kings will be in the rivers from May through November.

River fishing for kings can be done with many methods and can be done by foot or by boat on larger rivers.

Anglers fishing rivers will do well fishing the deep holes, migration routes, and deeper runs.

River Fishing: Wade Fishing

River fishing for big kings like this one can be exciting with lots of salmon entering the river at once.
River fishing for big kings like this one can be exciting with lots of salmon entering the river at once. Image provided by team photographer Dylan. Check him out on Instagram

Wade fishing by foot along rivers is a great way to fish for big kings.

A simple walk to your favorite salmon hole or spots you think salmon are holding or moving through, pick your favorite river fishing method, and start fishing.

Boat-Based River Fishing

Boat-based river fishing is a good option for escaping crowds or getting out to fish the wade anglers can’t reach.

Casting from the boat, drifting with drift rigs, fly fishing, back trolling, and back bouncing are all methods used.

Tactics For Freshwater Kings: River Kings

There are many tactics for fishing for river kings and the method you use can be personal preference or if you’re a versatile and wise angler, the method you choose will be the most effective method based on the conditions.

Drift Fishing: Drift Rigs

Drift Fishing Leader For Salmon
This is an effective drift fishing leader for salmon.

Drift fishing for salmon can be done by boat, which is when the bait rig drifts alongside the boat as the boat drifts down the river.

Drift Fishing can also be a stationary method, where the angler is still and casts out and lets the drifting rig drift downriver with the current.

This is usually done using baits like salmon eggs, skein, shrimp, flies, or lures line the spin n glo. It is a fairly simple rig and method, but some anglers find it difficult to detect the bite.

Bobber or Float Fishing: Float Fishing Rig

Salmon leader for float fishing
This is the same leader setup that I use when guiding and fishing for great lakes salmon.

Bobber fishing methods like Bobber Doggin are used for fishing river kings. The bobber used in the river is now as a float, so the method of float fishing is one of the most effective methods for catching king salmon.

A bait can be drifted just off the bottom in the strike zone under the float for long drifts, which is a great way to cover water and present the bait.

This method requires a longer rod combined with a lighter line, smaller salmon sized hooks, the right baits, and most of all, a good float fishing rig and presentation.

In fact, the presentation is the key.

Casting Spinners and Spoons and Crankbaits

A big king salmon caught on a lure.
A big river king caught on a lure. Kings love bright colored lures. Image provided by Dylan. See more from him on Instagram.

Casting spinners and spoons for kings is popular and productive. Anglers can fish these lures anywhere in the river, from the bank or boat, as well as on piers and shorelines.

Heavy spoons between 3 and 5 inches are best for casting.


A good salmon plunking rig used with baits like spawn sacs and skein.
This is a good salmon plunking rig used with baits like spawn sacs and skein.

Plunking is a still fishing method best used in areas with migrating salmon. It can be used up the river, at the river mouths, or in the open ocean.

The plunking setup is pretty basic, and the method is simple and relaxing. You simply cast out your plunking rig and wait for a salmon to swim by and grab it.

Your leader material should be fluorocarbon to ensure the salmon do not see it. Leader length is generally 2 to 3 feet long. The weight is connected by a three-way snap swivel.

The hook size will depend on the size of the bait.

King Salmon Baits

The baits used for king salmon are often brightly colored, and include salmon eggs, whether loose and tied into a spawn sack or chucks of skein on larger hooks.

Shrimp, worms, Berkely power bait, and flies also make good baits.

Tackle And The Right Gear

Pacific salmon and Kings are big and therefore, they require heavier gear. A heavy line between 12 and 18 pounds is used for most river fishing methods. See best lines for salmon fishing – here.

The main line for trolling on the pacific ocean can be up to 40 pounds, 300 or more feet it loaded onto a heavy trolling reel. A heavy duty rod of 7 to 9 feet long is required.

The terminal gear in your tackle box, such as hooks and weights, will depend on the size of the bait and the method you use. It’s best to check the link provided for each method.

Q: Do I need a special fishing license to catch king salmon?

You will require a fishing license and a trout and salmon tag in some areas. Only a fishing license is required for fishing Chinook Salmon in other areas.

How To Catch King Salmon Q&A

If you have a question or comment on how to catch king salmon or have some advice to share, let us know in the comment section below.

Tight lines


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