Salmon Fishing With Minnows, Herring, and Other Baitfish

Salmon fishing with minnows in rivers can pay off with big salmon like this one from our team photographer Noah.
Salmon fishing with minnows in rivers can pay off with big salmon like this one from out team photographer Noah.

Have you ever heard of guys salmon fishing with minnows in rivers? I’m talking about live minnows and not the minnow imitation flies that many guys use with fly fishing or spey fishing.

As an experienced guide for salmon and an avid angler, I’ve tried and tested various bait options commonly used for salmon fishing, including some less common ones. Salmon fishing with minnows or other small baitfish is a lesser-known technique that can yield great results.

In this article, we’ll explore the effectiveness of using minnows for salmon fishing and discuss different methods and tips to enhance your chances of success. Also included is Salmon Rigging and how Minnows and baitfish compare to other baits.

Do Minnows Truly Work as Bait for Salmon Fishing?

Salmon fishing with minnows in rivers can pay off with big salmon like this one
Salmon fishing with minnows in rivers can pay off with big salmon like this one

Minnows do work for salmon once the salmon enter the river to spawn. Other baitfish will also work for salmon.

Salmon frequently pursue minnows and other baitfish in their natural habitat.

Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume that they would readily take a well-presented minnow as they migrate up the river to spawn, and they do. In fact, many fly anglers already know this which is why they use minnow imitation flies with excellent results.

As well, angers will use spoons, crankbaits, jigs, and spinners which all sort of imitate baitfish. So, will minnows or bait drift fished also work? Yes they do work well for salmon.

Types of Minnows for Salmon Fishing

There are different types of minnows or baitfish that can be used for salmon fishing. Minnows, Herring, and Smelts are all options.

Rigging Minnows for Salmon Fishing

To rig a minnow for salmon fishing, I generally use a hook suitable for the size of the minnow or baitfish. For smaller 2 to 4-inch minnows, a size 8 or 10 hook is good. For larger minnow, smelt, or herring, a size 2 to 6 is best.

To rig the minnow or other baitfish, I hook the minnow once in the back near the dorsal fin. This keeps the minnow alive and active. This won’t harm the minnow and allows it to swim naturally, which can trigger a strike from passing salmon.

Size of Minnows and Herring for Salmon Fishing

For river fishing, minnows ranging from 4 to 5 inches work well for salmon fishing. When it comes to herring, 4 to 6 inches is good for drifting in the current. In murkier or higher water, larger minnows tend to attract more bites.

Conversely, smaller minnows can be effective in low and clear water with current or when dealing with spooked salmon.

Methods for Fishing Salmon with Minnows

There are several effective methods for salmon fishing with minnows. Let’s explore two popular techniques:

Bottom Fishing or Plunking for Salmon with Minnows

A bottom rig for trout , steelhead and salmon fishing ponds, lakes, and in reservoirs.
A bottom rig for trout, steelhead, and salmon fishing ponds, lakes, and in reservoirs. Use 2 to 4 pound leader for trout, 6 to 10 pound for steelhead, and 10 to 14 pound for salmon
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.

Using the bottom rig or plunking rig, cast your line and let the bait sink to the riverbed or bottom of the area you’re fishing. Maintain a slightly slack line to allow the salmon to swim with the minnow. Watch your rod tip and the line for any movement or signs of a bite. When you notice a bite, close the bail and set the hook firmly.

Float Fishing with Minnows

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

Float fishing for salmon is another effective method for fishing with minnows in rivers. In still or deep water, use a slip float for easy casting and to achieve the optimal depth. In rivers or water less than 12 feet deep, a stationary float is a good choice.

Opt for pencil-style or thin-style floats to minimize resistance and improve sensitivity. I treat and fish a minnow the same as I would a spawn sac, skein, or a bead.

Let the minnow drift slowly down the river with the current, keeping it about 2 feet off the river bottom.

Advanced Tips and Techniques for Catching Salmon with Minnows

To increase your catch rates when using minnows for salmon fishing, consider the following tips:

  1. Proper Hook Baiting: Thread the hook through the minnow in a way that exposes the hook point, increasing your chances of a successful hookset.
  2. Reducing Line Visibility: Use a fluorocarbon leader around 12 to 14 pounds, as it is less visible underwater and can improve your success rate.
  3. Consider Weather Conditions: Salmon tend to be more active during overcast weather, early mornings, or late evenings. Fishing during these periods can increase your chances of success.
  4. Fishing at the Correct Depth: Position your bait about 1 to 3 feet from the riverbed, as salmon typically swim at that depth. Using a floating bead to suspend the minnow at the right height can be effective.
  5. Adding Scent: Some anglers find success by incorporating commercially available scents or substances like garlic oil to enhance the attractiveness of the bait.
  6. Fish with Bead Combinations: Experiment with pegging a colorful hard or soft bead 2 to 4 inches up the line. This can attract salmon and increase the number of bites.
  7. Goof Hooks: It is imperative that you use the right salmon hook. You need hooks that are extra strong, very sharp and are wide gape and short shank.

Comparing Minnows to Other Salmon Baits

While minnows have their place in salmon fishing, it’s important to note that their success rates may not match up to other baits. Consistent catches with minnows are less common compared to proven baits like spawn bags or worms.

To achieve optimal results, it’s advisable to rely on baits with a proven track record, especially when targeting selective or cautious fish like larger and more wary wild salmon. Other effective baits for salmon fishing include worms, skein, fish egg sacs, shrimp, flies, insects, and grubs.

Conclusion: Are Minnows Good for Salmon Fishing?

Based on my personal experience, I wouldn’t solely rely on minnows as the primary bait for salmon fishing in rivers, especially when guiding clients. However, there have been instances where minnows have proven to be effective and produced positive results.

It’s important to consider the effort involved in acquiring, storing, and carrying live minnows while on the river. Additionally, using baits with higher success rates and trusted by professional guides is often a more reliable approach.

Should You Use Minnows for Salmon Fishing?

Minnows can be a viable additional bait option when other more reliable baits are not producing the desired results. However, I wouldn’t recommend them as the primary choice. It’s always best to use baits with a high success rate and are trusted by experienced anglers and guides.

Do Salmon Guides Use Minnows?

While I can’t speak for all salmon guides, I’m not aware of many who use minnows as their primary bait. However, it’s always possible that other guides have had different experiences and will use them from time to time.

Salmon Fishing with Minnows: Q&A

If you have any questions, insights, or advice regarding salmon fishing with minnows, feel free to share them in the comments section below.

Tight Lines,


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