Lure Fishing For Salmon: How The Guides Do It

A big salmon caught after a big rain

I have been fishing for salmon with lures for over 35 years, and I have been teaching lure fishing for salmon through my guide service since 2006. I use methods that I have tested and are proven to be the most effective methods for me and many other salmon river guides.

If you are not using these methods combined with proven lures you are missing fish.

Lure fishing for salmon in rivers requires the angler to use lures that work well in current and retrieval methods that trigger salmon to bite. Using the right methods and the right lures based on the conditions and salmon behavior is essential.

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Lure Fishing For Salmon: All Salmon

salmon fishing with lures
Guide Graham with a great lakes Coho salmon.

Lure fishing for Salmon can be one of the most effective methods for catching all types of salmon anywhere in the river and it’s easy to learn and doesn’t require much gear.

But just casting lures aimlessly, which is what most anglers do isn’t effective and it isn’t what river guides do.

Lures will work on any salmon species including coho salmon like the one I’m holding in the picture. Even the largest and smallest salmon will hit a well presented lure.

Salmon will hit lures in the river out of aggression, hunger, instinct, or to protect their territory. Whatever the reason, chinook salmon, coho salmon, chum salmon, pink salmon, and Atlantic salmon can all be caught using lures.

Best Lures For Salmon

Eli from SBS Outdoors Action with a nice lure caught Michigan King Salmon.
Eli from SBS Outdoors Action with a nice lure caught Michigan King Salmon. Click on the image to watch the video action.

Let’s start with lure selection and the most effective lures I use when I’m fishing salmon with lures.

It’s essential to know the best sizes and colors and in what conditions these lures will work the best.

I change lures, colors, and sizes frequently when the fish are not biting, and I will stick with working lures.

The best lures for salmon fishing in rivers are plugs, crankbaits, spoons, spinners, and even jigs. It’s also important to have these in a variety of sizes and colors.

I will fish jigs just like lures and I call this twitching for salmon. Jig fishing for salmon can be used in all types of river situations and for all salmon species.

No river is alike, and even each spot may be different so I use a variety of lures.

Some rivers might be clear and some dirty so depending on the water clarity I will also adjust the size and color of my lures.

Often, in dirtier water, I will often choose a straight-moving lure that can be fished slowly and I prefer a lure that makes noise.

Some spots along the river might be slow and deep, while other spots might be fast, or they might be relatively shallow.

For these reasons, you need to have a decent selection of lures.

The best lures for salmon will include lures that can go deep, or that can be fished shallow, or you will at times need lures that can be fished fast, or fished slow. The best lures for salmon should also have good action or an action that works in the conditions of the spot you are fishing in.

The action and the look of the lure are extremely important and are often what triggers the salmon to aggressively bite the lure.

Alex from Fire Plug Charters drift fishing for salmon
Alex from Fire Plug Charters with a nice fall Chinook salmon.

As a guide, I have seen lures cast and worked through a pool of salmon without one salmon showing even the slightest interest.

With a quick switch to a different lure and within a cast or two, my clients are hooked into salmon. Salmon can often be picky about the lure, or the action of the lure.

A lure like an inline spinner that is retrieved in a straight line and high above their heads might not get the attention of a salmon. However, slowly drop a Kwickfish or Flatfish through the pool and that slow wide wobble can drive them crazy.

Now don’t just run out and get yourself a Kwickfish or Flatfish and think that’s all you need. Simply put, Kwickfish and Flatfish often suck in fast water because they don’t run well. They will sometimes spin instead of wobble, or they will blow out on the surface in fast water. Faster water is where a spinner, spoon, or crankbait can be a better option.

But none of that matters if you are not good at lure fishing. Meaning, that you don’t know where or how to present your lure, or how to cover the water. I’ll cover that below.

There are other lures that will work too, but these five lures will almost always get the job done in any situation.

The best salmon lures in rivers are:

  • Kwickfish – Best in slow water or when the salmon are inactive
  • Spinners – Generally good in all types of water and they make a lot of noise so they are good in off-colored or dirty water.
  • Spoons – Spoons are best in slow to medium-speed currents and are great at river mouths or where far casts are required.
  • Crankbaits – Crankbaits are generally good in all types of water, however, some of the shallow-lipped crankbaits do not work well in faster currents.
  • Jigs – Jigs will work well in all types of water but can be the most effective lure in small pocket water, or when you need to get a lure around large boulders.

I don’t consider baits as being a lure despite what other people have said or written about, so you won’t see any mention of baits on this page. I consider bait something like worms, fish eggs, shrimp, beads etc. and baits are fished with different methods than fishing with lures.

If you are interested in baits for salmon then check out my page Best Baits For Salmon In Rivers.

Use The Right Size Lures 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.

Salmon are not usually small when they enter the river.

They have been feeding on large baitfish out in the ocean or lake most of their lives.

Yes, salmon will eat small baits like a single salmon egg, but when lure fishing for salmon you need to think bigger.

For most salmon fishing with lures, lures from 3 to 5 inches are best. Make it worth their while to attack your lures. A one-inch crankbait probably isn’t going to do it unless you are fishing low gin clear water in a very small creek.

I change my lure sizes based on a number of factors and every day can be different and every spot can be different.

These are the top things I consider when choosing the best lure size for salmon.

  • The average size of the fish in the rivers. Big fish mean big lures!
  • The fish’s activity level. Aggressive fish will hit bigger lures, and less aggressive fish will be more inclined to bite a smaller lure or a slow-moving lure.
  • The color of the water and the clarity. The dirtier the water, the bigger the lures. Here’s my guide tip for you which I learned doing a tournament and seeing what the most fish were caught on. Use noisy lures in dirty water.
  • Size of the river that I am fishing. The small rivers may require smaller lures, big rivers are best fished with bigger lures.
  • The water temperature. The colder the water, or if there was a drastic drop in water temperature overnight the salmon may be less aggressive and a smaller lure might work better. as the water temps increase or stabilize larger lures will be a good choice.
  • The light conditions: In low light use bigger lures, brighter lures, or even glow lures.

When lure fishing for salmon in clear or low water or when the fish are being pressured by lots of anglers, I will often start with a smaller three inch lure, and if that doesn’t work I will start trying larger lures.

Dylan at mr_sandy_pond with a nice salmon caught on a crank bait
Dylan at mr_sandy_pond with a nice salmon caught on a crank bait – Click the image to see more from Dylan

The reason I start with smaller lures is that it’s less likely to spook a nervous salmon in very clear water.

If they don’t eat the small lure, I will keep going up in size and if that doesn’t work, I will start changing colors, lure types, and retrieve types. I will also change lures based on speed and lure action. Most guides, whether using lures or baits, will use a process of elimination based on their observations until they determine what works.

If I find that the salmon are very aggressive, I find larger lures can work well. I also like to use lures that move fast, I call these search lures will be the best option. Using a fast lure means you can cover more water and hook up sooner.

But, if I find that the salmon are not biting and are not aggressive, I often find downsizing to smaller lures and lures that move slowly with an enticing wobble or a twitch and pause receive is best. Basically, you will need to experiment to find the right size of lure and the right action for the fish.

Using The Right Salmon Lure For Water Clarity

When salmon fishing with lures very clear water, I will often try both small and large lures, but if the water is dirtier, I will mostly use a larger profile lures so that the fish will be able to see better.

Michigan Steelhead Feed behind big salmon like this one.
Lures work for big salmon like this one caught by John from Get Bent Guide Service. For steelhead and salmon trips, click the image.

GUIDE TIP: Use lures that make a lot of noise under the water, like a rattle or a vibration when lure fishing for salmon in dirty water. The sound will help the trout detect that the lure is there and it will help the trout home-in on the lure and hit it. A spinner like the Vibrax brand will be a lot noisier than a spoon or a jig.

Some crankbaits and plugs like the Kwickfish have built-in rattles. It’s also important to fish them as slowly as possible and fish them in a straight line. This allows the salmon to zero in on the lure easier.

A lure that is too fast or darting side to side will be more difficult for the salmon to hit in dirty water.

Use the Right Lure Size For The River

Learning how to fish for great lakes salmon put this angler onto this big Chinook salmon
One of my clients on his first trip for great lakes salmon. We must have seen 300 salmon swim past us and up the rapids in a 7 hour day.

In small streams where I don’t need to cast very far, I will use lures that are much lighter and smaller so I don’t spook the salmon.

These lures won’t make a big splash in a small pool and spook all the fish.

When lure fishing for salmon in larger rivers that require much longer casts, I will go to a larger sized lure or a heavier lure that can be cast a long way.

The Right Lures For Low-Light Conditions

Matthew Kuesel from wisco_castin with a huge fall salmon
Our team photographer Matthew Kuesel from wisco_castin with a huge fall salmon – Click the image to see more from Matt.

Under low light conditions and when fishing at night, I find that larger lures will work better than smaller lures. Lures that move slower and have some noise like a rattle or a vibration also tend to work better in low light conditions of early morning, dusk, and at night.

Low light is also a time to consider a straight retrieve to allow the salmon to hit the bait easier.

I also find that salmon are often more active in low light conditions and as I said before, more active fish will hit larger lures.

Use The Right Lure Colors When Lure 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.

Using the right lure colors can be very important when lure fishing for salmon because under certain conditions the salmon will be more aggressive on one color versus another color.

It is really difficult for me just to say one color is the best. The truth is there are so many variables that make some colors better than others:

  • Clear Water: I tend to use more natural colors in clear water: blacks, browns, and greens, as well as silver, copper, bronze, and gold.
  • Dirty Water: Bright is often a good idea. Chartreuse, hot orange, and red are often good options.
  • High Water: Almost any color can be good in high water that is relatively clear. I will often switch from a light and bright color to a black or dark lure to see what the fish want. This is where a hot orange could easily work as well as black.
  • Low Water: stick with the more natural colors mentioned above.
  • Small Streams: I tend to stick with the more natural colors mentioned above, if those do not work I will start trying brighter colors. Often silver, gold, and copper will work well.
  • Large Rivers: Same as high water where just about any color could work.
  • Fast Water: Often bright colors will grab their attention and can be best since fast water means your lures will be moving quickly and you want to get their attention fast.
  • Slow Water: Most colors can work, but I tend to start with more natural colors and then try brighter colors if those don’t work.

Lure Fishing For Salmon In Small Streams

Great Lakes Salmon Fishing
My friend and fellow guide Paul with a small stream king salmon.

Lure fishing for salmon in smaller streams and rivers calls for different lures and different tactics than you would use when fishing in larger rivers.

Small stream lure fishing for salmon may mean one or two casts in a pool or pocket and then you move.

This is simply because on a small river with a pool that is 12 feet by 12 feet the salmon can see your lure from just about anywhere in that pool.

Lure fishing for salmon in small rivers doesn’t require heavy lures that can be cast far and large lures can sometimes spook salmon holding in smaller clear pools. It’s best to start with small lures and then work your way to larger sizes.

The best lures to use in small rivers are spinners, spoons, and jigs but I have done well with small plugs like Flatfish too.

Whether I fish a small river or a large river, I cover each spot the same, and I always try to start presenting the lures from the top of the pool. I do this because fish look upriver, therefore casting across and swinging the lure in front of them is more effective than casting your lures behind them where they can’t see them.

I discuss this more below.

Lure Fishing For Salmon In Larger Rivers

When Lure fishing for salmon on large river like this one, you need to cover the water effectively.
When Lure fishing for salmon on large rivers like this one, you need to use the right lures and cover the water effectively.

When lure fishing for salmon on larger rivers that are forty feet across or more, you will need to change your tactics and your lures.

Lure fishing for salmon in larger rivers often requires bigger lures or heavier lures that can be cast far enough to get to the fish.

You will also need lures that can get deep enough since many larger rivers are deeper. Using a 5-inch Rapala crankbait that only dives 3 to 5 feet deep may not be the best option when the salmon are 12 feet down, which means you will need to find lures that can get to the desired depth.

You also need to know where the right depth is and how to get your lure there which I discuss below.

How To Fish Lures For Salmon Effectively

A river salmon caught by Alex from Fire Plug Charters
A river salmon caught by Alex from Fire Plug Charters

I watch a lot of anglers lure fishing for salmon with very poor technique and because of that, they miss a lot of Salmon.

Many anglers think to fish salmon that you just cast and then retrieve the lure.

This is not entirely true and is not what a good guide would do.

A good angler lure fishing for salmon will know how to cover the water properly.

Covering the water properly means covering all areas of the spot and not leaving any spot untouched. It also means covering the water at the right depth or at least finding the right depth.

A good angler will also need to know how to work a lure since different lures work differently. Even changing your retrieve or alternating from a straight retrieve to an erratic retrieve can make a big difference.

Just watch an average angler casting lures for bass, then watch a top tournament angler casting the same lure for bass. Almost always, the average angler just casts and does a steady straight retrieve, but the tournament pro will work the lure by twitching, pausing and ripping it to give the lure an action that produces more bites.

Salmon are no different and the right retrieve can make a big difference.

In order to cover the water well and work the lure properly, you need to be in the right position and you need to know how to get the lure in the strike zone.

Covering The Water Effectively With Lures

Fish Flies With Spinning Gear

Covering the water is likely the biggest mistake the average angler lure fishing for salmon makes. I’ve watched hundreds of anglers and clients pick up the rod and just start casting aimlessly. There is no rime or reason to where they cast, they just cast and hope something bites.

This is a big MISTAKE and is the reason why a lot of anglers will go home empty handed or with few fish landed.

River guides will always cover the water systematically to maximize their chance of catching more salmon.

To cover the water with a lure effectively, you need to have your starting point and your end point in mind and make sure you cover every 3 to 6 feet of the spot you will be fishing. See below.

When lure fishing for salmon, you should almost always start casting at the top of the pool where the river goes from shallow to deeper, and then work your way down the pool. This is a much better method than starting at the bottom of the spot and working your way up.

To land your lure at the start of the deep water, this means you need to be standing 20+ feet upriver of where you want to land and present your lure. See diagram

Part of the reason you want to start casting from the top of the pool is that salmon face upriver most of the time and a lure being retrieved behind the fish might spook it.

Also, it’s because a lure that is behind the salmon may not be seen so the salmon won’t eat it.

The exception to this rule is fishing in low clear water with salmon that are nervous so it might be better for you to stay behind the fish so they don’t see you and get spooked. A spooked salmon’s first instinct is to freeze and they will go lock-jaw, which means they won’t eat anything.

The picture below shows where the angler should stand and cast on his first and all consecutive casts.

Each cast should land about 3 to 6 feet apart so that as the lure path is retrieved about 3 to 6 feet apart each time. In clear water, it’s not unusual for a salmon to move up to 6 feet to grab a well-presented lure.

Casting 5 or 6 feet apart is my go-to distance when the water is very clear, but when the water is dirtier, I will make each cast land 2 to 3 feet apart to be sure all the salmon see the lure. This is because they can’t see as far in dirty water.

On big rivers that are clear, I often go to every 5 to 6 feet apart just so I am able to cover a lot more water at a faster pace.

You should start your cast right where the water goes from shallow into deeper water and you should end your cast where the water goes from deeper into the shallower water. often, this means you are fishing between the rapids.

It’s not uncommon to catch the biggest salmon on that first drop where the deep water starts because these are the most aggressive fish that are ready to move to the next pool. However, salmon can be anywhere in a pool or run so fish it all.

Covering the water with lures
Land your lure 3 to 6 feet downriver with each cast and let the lure swing across the pool as you retrieve it.

Cover The Depth Of The Water With Your Lures

Effective lure fishing for salmon requires you to cover the water at all depths and this can be a bit tricky, but if you use these tips it can really help you catch more salmon. In many rivers, we can’t see the bottom so we don’t know how deep the spot is.

If we cast out a spinner or a spoon and start retrieving it immediately, the lure may only go down 1 to 3 feet. That’s great if the spot is only 3 or 4 feet deep, but it’s bad if the spot is 10 to 12 feet deep and all the salmon are on the bottom.

In a river, many salmon won’t move more than 5 or 6 feet to hit a lure so it’s always best if we can get the lure down and within 2 to 4 feet of a salmon so that we can catch the less aggressive fish too.

Therefore we have to find the bottom to make sure the lures are deep enough. The way I find the bottom is to use lures that run deeper like a deep-diving crankbait or plug or I will use sinking lures like a spinner or spoon and allow them to sink to the bottom before I start to retrieve them.

FYI, a wide-blade spinner will run shallower than a thin-blade spinner so keep that in mind when running spinners in deeper water.

Also, the lip on a lure will dictate its depth.

Lures For Trout Fishing
Some trout lures will go deep and some will stay shallow. Use the right type of lure to get your lure down to the trout.

To find the bottom when lure fishing for salmon, I cast and make a retrieve with my rod tip straight out or pointed slightly toward the water. If I don’t hit the bottom, I will repeat the exact same cast in the exact same spot or the same path but this time I will retrieve it with my rod tip lower or even touching the water. If I don’t hit bottom I repeat again but this time with my rod tip a foot or two into the water.

If I hit bottom on any cast, I will lift my rod tip up, if it hit again partway through the cast I lift the tip even higher.

If I still don’t hit bottom I will change my lure to a deeper diving lure or a weighted lure like a spoon or a spinner and repeat.

If I still don’t hit bottom with these sinking lures, I will cast and let the lure sink for a few seconds before I start my retrieve. If I hit bottom, I lift my rod tip and on the next cast, I won’t wait as long before I start to retrieve.

If I still don’t hit the bottom I will wait longer to let the lure sink deeper before I start my retrieve.

I will repeat these steps from the top of the spot to the bottom of the spot since the river can be deeper or shallower as you move down the river and cover the water.

Once you figure out the rod tip angles or the sink time of the lure that gets it to the bottom all your other casts should be faster locating the bottom.

If while searching the bottom you start hooking fish then you know your lure is at the right depth.

The reason I keep trying to locate the bottom is that the top of the pool where the rapids come in might be 3 feet deep, but 10 feet downriver from that spot it might be 8 to 12 feet deep. If detect the bottom at the top of the pool and don’t adjust my depth 20 feet down the pool my lure could be 10 feet over the salmon and that will likely mean no bites.

It’s also not uncommon for one side of the pool to be deeper than the other like in the diagram so pay attention to where in the retrieve you keep hitting the bottom.

Once you hit bottom or if there is a high spot that you keep hitting, simply lift your tip high enough to raise the bait up and off the bottom at that point. Ideally, you want to keep your bait about 24 to 36 inches off the bottom.

If you get good at covering the water systematically and you get good at finding the bottom and then lifting the lure up and off the bottom you can greatly increase the amount of fish you can catch.

Lures that drag the bottom get hung up often and you will likely catch fewer fish so don’t drag the bottom unless you want to lose a lot of lures.

Work Your Lure For More Salmon

The last tip I will give you when lure fishing for salmon is to work your lure. I talked a little about this above.

The difference between a professional bass angler using a crankbait and a rookie angler using a crankbait is more than just the amount of fish they both catch. Yes, the professional bass angler will usually catch way more bass even if they are both using the same lure simply because the pro anglers will work the lure better.

A lure that is cast out and then reeled straight in will catch fish, but a lure that is cast out and worked in a way that puts more action into the lure in will catch far more fish. I and other guides, pro anglers, and tournament anglers have proven this over and over again.

Often, the difference between a great angler and an average angler is how much effort they put into the lure.

I have taught many anglers how to do this well and it always catches more salmon. Salmon and other predatory fish have a harder time resisting a dying, struggling, or injured baitfish.

Therefore, if you reel your lure straight in it looks healthy and fast and something that might get away so it’s a harder target for the salmon, but if you jerk it, rip it, and then pause it, then it looks injured and this is harder for even a neutral active fish to resist. Often, the more erratic, the better the results.

Even with spinners and spoons, I will reel it in 5 to 10 feet and then rip it or jig it with a split-second pause between rips and pauses to trigger more strikes. Try it, it works!

Best Lines For Lure Fishing For Salmon

There are four types of lines that could be used when lure fishing for salmon. Your options are Monofilament, Copolymer, fluorocarbon, and Braid.

Everyone has an opinion or a preference, but based on my experience, this is what I recommend.

Multipurpose Line

If you are a newer angler or an occasional fisherman that wants to cast lures, then switch and do some float fishing, or you might want to do drift fishing or bottom bouncing, go with a monofilament line like 12 to 14-pound Sufix Elite for great lakes steelhead, or use 14 to 17-pound line for West Coast Salmon or when fishing big rivers.

Sufix Elite Mono Line

I do not like fluorocarbon or copolymer lines if you are going to do any float fishing.

If you are a frequent or more experienced angler, use a 25 to 35-pound braided line for all methods.

When casting lures with a braided line add a 14 to 17-pound, 16″ to 24″ fluorocarbon leader like Seaguar STS Steelhead Leader. I attach my leader with a quality 2-way swivel like the SPRO Power Swivels.

Lure Fishing Only Line

Braid is likely the best line for anglers that just want to cast lures and my go-to braid for lure fishing for salmon is Sufix 832 Advanced Superline which is said to be the strongest and most durable braid.

Baidedlines are very thin which helps cut through the water to get the lure deeper and to stay deeper. Braid also has no stretch so the hook sets are solid.

Braid is also a much thinner diameter and therefore you can get a lot more on the spool which is a bonus when those giant steelhead make 300-foot runs.

New users to braid may find some rod tip wrapping more often but with practice and some adjustments, this should happen less.

Two other good brands of braid that I have used for 20 years for salmon all around the great lakes is Berkely Fireline and PowerPro Braided Spectra Fiber Microfilament Line

Fluorocarbon lines are also a good choice for casting lures. Fluorocarbon is less visible to the fish, it tends to sink so which helps keep the lure down, and it is very abrasion resistant so it’s good when fishing around a lot of rocks.

Caution: Cheap fluorocarbon lines suck! They tangle, twist, and can jump off the spool whenever you give it any slack. Therefore, buy only top-of-the-line fluorocarbon lines that are proven to work well on spinning reels or baitcasting reels. I recommend lines like 15, 17 or 20-pound Seaguar InvizX Fluorocarbon Line. Go lighter for smaller rivers and heavier for larger rivers or for west coast salmon.

Attaching The Lure

There are a few ways that are best to attach your lure to your mainline or your leader.

I mention above about using a 16 to 24-inch fluorocarbon leader of 14 to 18-pound test, or 20 pounds when fishing west coast salmon on very large rivers. I attach the leader using a quality swivel. This is for braided lines, however, I do this will all types of lines.

The reason is that Fluorocarbon is less visible to the fish, it is also abrasion resistant which can help prevent break-offs from nicks, scraps, and cuts from rocks.

To attach the lure to the leader or to the mainline using a standard knot like an Improved Clinch Knot. You can tie the mainline directly to the lure. Onlures that spin like a Mepps Spinner can cause some serious line twists which can weaken the line. I generally only tie mono or fluorocarbon direct to crankbaits or plugs like the Kickfish.

The other option is to use a loop knot. Loop knots are supposed to give the lure more freedom to move and create more action. A simple and strong knot like the Kreh Loop Knot works well with lures and is the one I use.

The last method and the one I use the most is a good snap swivel. I say “good” because there are some really weak and crappy ones available that will open and bend when fighting big steelhead and salmon. Consider a good snap like the Offshore Angler Ball Bearing Swivel with Coastlock Snap

Don’t Forget Your Salmon River Gear

Fishing For great lakes salmon in crowded conditions
Guide Paul with another nice great lakes chinook salmon.

It’s important that you have all the right gear when fishing salmon on rivers.

The right gear will help you get to the fish, stay comfortable and dry, and will help you manage and land your trout.

Using waders will help you position yourself to cover the water better, the proper rod and reel will help you cast and fight the fish, and the proper net will help you land the fish.

Lure fishing is great but at times there are other methods that will work better. If you are new to salmon fishing you should consider looking over all my best methods, my most effective baits, as well as the best rods and reels for salmon fishing.

Ask A Guide About Lure Fishing For Salmon

Anyone that knows me knows I love to teach and guide for salmon, steelhead, and trout with many methods which include lure fishing for salmon. If you have a question about lure fishing for salmon or if there are some tips you have that you want to share, let me and our readers know in the comment section below.

Tight Lines


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