Salmon Fishing: The Most Comprehensive Guide

Eli from SBS outdoors salmon fishing on a great lakes river.
Eli from SBS outdoor Action salmon fishing on a great lakes river. Click on the image to watch the video of this fish being caught.

This is the most accurate and comprehensive article on salmon fishing with all the information coming from full-time fishing guides. We’re taking the mystery out of salmon fishing and we will reveal our guide tactics, favorite baits, and lures, and tell you what gear we use.

Salmon fishing effectively means anglers need to understand the salmon, which includes knowing their feeding habits, ideal water temps, their run times, holding spots, and what baits and lures trigger them to bite. Some salmon fishing methods work very well while other methods don’t work well.

I guarantee you that anglers that don’t fish for salmon like expert salmon guides will struggle to catch salmon. If you are not using these effective methods, you are missing fish

Salmon Fishing

A west coast chinook salmon caught while salmon fishing a big river.
An angler with a typical west coast salmon

Salmon fishing is a popular sport for many anglers especially in late summer and the fall when the salmon enter the rivers to spawn.

This is when anglers have the chance to hook into many large salmon in a day since the salmon will come into the rivers by the thousands and concentrate in pools and runs throughout the river.

Prior to the fall salmon runs, salmon fishing can be very good for anglers fishing in open water by boat or off the piers and shorelines.

There are many salmon species to fish for depending on where you live. We will discuss all of this and more.

Chinook Salmon Fishing

John from Get Bent Guide Service with a massive Lake Michigan salmon. Click the image to see more or to book your trip.
John from Get Bent Guide Service with a massive Lake Michigan salmon. Click the image to see more or to book your trip.

The chinook salmon is a North American West Coast species of salmon found in the Pacific Ocean and its tributaries. Anglers also call them king salmon, or kings, or chinnies.

You can catch Kings as far south as Monterey Bay in California and as far north as the Chukchi sea in northern Alaska.

There is also a large population of chinook salmon in the great lake areas which were stocked there partly to control an overabundance of baitfish and to create a new fishery for anglers.

Now, some great lakes and their tributaries have some of the best chinook salmon fishing in the world.

As a teenager growing up around the great lakes, I remember days of hooking 30 or more kings over 20 pounds. Back then in the 80s and 90s, the king salmon fishing was fantastic, and it is still good today.

As a guide 20 years later, I’ve had clients hook over 30 big king salmon and have seen over 500 large kings swim past us in 8 hours on the water. On many rivers around the great lakes, King salmon fishing is still very good.

Nymphing for salmon can produce big salmon like this King Salmon
Nymphing for salmon can produce big salmon like this King Salmon caught by our contributing photographer Matthew Kuesel from @wisco_castin: click the image to see more from Matthew

The average fall chinook salmon is around 36 inches long and weighs about 30 pounds. In amazing conditions, they can grow to 4.9 feet in length and weigh up to 126 pounds.

Spawning times are dependent upon location. NOAA says they spawn from October through December, but on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, the spawning grounds are often full by June or July.

Around the Great Lakes Region, small sporadic runs will enter some rivers after rains in July and August, but normally all salmon rivers will see the biggest runs of salmon from Mid-September to late October.

Peak salmon fishing for kings would be in October and the top destinations are bigger rivers like the Niagara River, Salmon River NY, west Michigan rivers like the Manistee River, and the Credit River Ontario Canada.

Fishing for King salmon is either done by trolling in saltwater or great lakes, or fishing with a spinning rod or fly rod in a stream or river.

Lake fishing for salmon
Salmon caught in the ocean or lake will be silver and much better to eat.

Many guides use a fly rod for river fishing salmon, but I also use spinning rods with lures, or a Centerpin rod and reel and bait to catch king salmon in the rivers.

King salmon is a favorite of many anglers due to its size of them and abundance and how hard they fight. Once they enter the rivers they will eat baits and lures which we will discuss below.

If you plan on fishing King salmon check the current fishing regulations since they can change based on current river conditions and fish salmon populations.

Coho Salmon Fishing

An Alaskan Silver salmon
The west coast is known for its silver salmon, which is also known as the Coho salmon.

The Coho, which is also known as silver salmon, or silvers are west coast pacific salmon. West coast anglers are more likely to call them silver salmon, whereas great lakes anglers tend to call the coho salmon.

Silver salmon range from the central coast of California to the Arctic Circle in Alaska as well as the great lakes region. They have the greatest population from Central Oregon and throughout the Southeastern section of Alaska with a focus on the coastal rivers.

Coho salmon are also planted in some land-locked lakes and throughout the Great Lakes.

Around the great lakes, some rivers will have very good runs of Coho salmon, however, usually only half the numbers of the king salmon runs.

A nice great lakes Coho Salmon caught by Eli from SBS Outdoor Action. Click the link to watch the video.

Since the great lakes are stocked with Silver salmon from the west coast, in the last 30 years, I have seen strains of Coho salmon that tend to enter the rivers early in the fall, and other strains of silver salmon that enter the rivers later in November.

In fact, it was a Coho caught in the Salmon River in New York that is the current work record and it was caught in September. see Salmon Fishing On The Salmon River NY

Coho salmon have an average length of 24 inches and a weight of 8-12 pounds. The world record for coho salmon is 33.4 pounds and was 42.5 inches long. Caught on September 27, 1989.

A trophy coho salmon would be in the 20-pound range. Record breakers are out there.

Silver salmon spawning grounds become active as early as August in the far Pacific north and later in the year in lower latitudes. In California, the Coho run from November all the way through January.

In Alaska on the Alaska Peninsula, silver salmon begin entering the rivers and spawning as early as June and July and by late July the rivers are full.

A good indicator of run times seems to be due to the severity of the winter where you plan to fish. Alaska is harsh compared to the coastal areas of California so it gets a much earlier run of all salmon species.

See Salmon Fishing In Alaska: A Complete Guide For More Salmon.

Around the great lakes, anglers will see Coho enter rivers in late September through to November.

Cohos are great fighters and are known for their leaps and runs. Since they are aggressive when they enter the river they are prime for fly fishing or spinning rods.

Many people drift fish for them in a boat on larger rivers, or fish from shore at the river mouths or in the river. A prime bait would be salmon roe.

If you plan on fishing Coho salmon check the current Coho limits, river rules, and regulations since they can change based on current river conditions and fish salmon populations.

Sockeye Salmon Fishing

Sockeye salmon which is also commonly referred to as red salmon or reds, or kokanee salmon, is a Pacific Salmon. You can find sockeye salmon as far north as Point Hope, Alaska, and as far South as the Sacramento River in California.

They are also stocked in some landlocked lakes.

Sockeye Salmon are smaller fish compared to Silver salmon and King salmon. On average a 4-5 pound red salmon is a good haul though they can reach 15 pounds. Generally, Sockeye salmon stay in the 1.5-foot length range but can grow to 2.5 feet.

Kokanee salmon are landlocked sockeye salmon and they rarely grow over 1.2 feet and weigh 2-3 pounds.

A angler holding a sockeye salmon
The unique look of a sockeye salmon clearly explains why they are often called red salmon.

Spawning runs of Sockeye salmon vary by location but sockeye salmon can be one of the first salmon to enter the rivers.

Generally Early to mid-Summer is a prime time to catch sockeye in the rivers, especially in northern BC and Alaska. Sockeye are not aggressive strikers and won’t hit lures, or baits, or most flies, since they feed on plankton and smaller critters.

In Alaska, you are legally allowed to use a method called flossing. You floss them by pulling your leader across the bottom of the river and hoping the line goes in the mouth and as the line slides through the mouth, and your bait or fly will then end up hooking them in the mouth.

An angler fly fishing Alaska
An angler fly fishing for Sockeye in Kenia River area Alaska

Sockeye swim with their mouths open so this method works well especially when they are stacked up in pools. They will strike flies if you hit them at the correct water depth. Generally, that’s near the bottom in shallow water and deep holes at resting.

The top destination for Sockey Salmon fishing is the Kenia River in Alaska where large numbers enter the river all at once.

Other nearby rivers in Alaska and British Columbia have excellent salmon fishing.

Anglers do not fish Sockeye Salmon in the ocean since they primarily feed on microscopic plankton.

Pink Salmon Fishing

An angler with a hump back pink salmon
An angler with rare hump back pink salmon which can be caught in Lake Michigan and Michigan tributaries

Pink salmon are primarily a cold-water pacific salmon that are unique from other Pacific salmon species.

Unlike other salmon that run up the rivers every year, pink salmon only spawn every other year and this occurs on odd-numbered years. So, 2023, 2025, 2027, 2029 etc.

Their size also makes them unique while a mature King salmon is usually over 20 pound, mature pinks are usually under 5 pounds.

You will find pink salmon in the Bering sea and all along the shores of Alaska, through the gulf, and down to the calmer waters of Washington state. Puget Sound is a haven for pink salmon.

Some lakes stock pink salmon and you will find small numbers of pink salmon in many of the Great lakes and their tributaries.

Jonn from Get Bent Guide Service with a Pink Salmon.

Pink salmon are the smallest species of salmon we have in the Pacific Ocean. A five-pound pink is a big fish.

The world record for pink salmon is 15 pounds. Generally, you will find them in the 3-5 pound range.

The run times for pinks are August-October but that will vary based on location.

In colder areas such as Anchorage Alaska, they will run early. In warmer waters, they will run later.

Pinks are a great species to learn to fly fish on as they are so numerous and easier to catch without breaking you off constantly. You can catch them with a spinning rod and just about any time of lure or bait will work and fly fishing will also work.

They are voracious over salmon roe and egg-type imitations.

Chum Salmon Fishing

Jigging for salmon is good for Chum salmon too
An angler with a good sized Chum salmon.

Chum salmon range from Yaquina, Oregon all the way through most of Alaska to the arctic coast of Canada.

This is one species of Pacific Salmon that is not stocked in the Great Lake or other locations.

The average weight of chum salmon is 8-15 pounds but the world record for a chum salmon is 42 pounds. The spawning runs for chum salmon begin in mid-to-late summer and can run all the way through March.

Chum are unique in that they like to swim in fast-moving water, but you catch them most often while they are resting. A float with a jig setup is ideal.

They will also hit flies if presented nicely. Almost any pattern fly will do but egg patterns and leaches are popular options.

Atlantic Salmon Fishing

An angler with a Michigan Atlantic Salmon
An angler with a Michigan Atlantic Salmon

The Eastern North American Atlantic salmon range from Greenland down to the Long Island Sound, and up into Northern Quebec Canada. Northern Quebec is said to have some of the world’s best Atlantic Salmon fishing.

Labrador is also a top destination for Atlantic salmon fishing.

Atlantic Salmon were also once native and flourished in Lake Ontario but were wiped out by farming, pollution, overharvest, and dams on spawning rivers.

Atlantics were re-introduced to the Great Lakes in 1972 when stocking programs began in Lake Michigan and top rivers include the Ausable MI, St. Mary’s River MI and Canada, and the Salmon River in NY.

Jordan from A Perfect Drift Guide Company with a nice Atlantic salmon
Jordan from A Perfect Drift Guide Company with an average sized Atlantic salmon.

An average Atlantic salmon weighs between 8-12 pounds and can grow as long as 30 inches.

The world record for Atlantic salmon is 109 pounds from Scotland. The record for Lake Michigan is 32.62 pounds.

Depending on the area, Eastern and Northern rivers will see Atlantic salmon entering rivers as early as June and July. Spawning begins in early fall and is generally done by December.

Atlantic salmon do not die after spawning and can return to the sea or great lakes to continue their journey and they may return to spawn another time and will arrive back much larger.

The best run times will vary, but October is a peak month in many locations for Atlantic salmon.

Fly fishing is popular for Atlantic salmon as is spin casting. Lure, bait, and flies are three options. Techniques include drifting and fly fishing. You can drift for salmon from shore or boat. If you are fishing with bait, salmon roe works the best.

If you plan on fishing the east coast for salmon check the current fishing regulations since they can change based on current river conditions and fish salmon populations.

Salmon Fishing Tackle

John from Get Bent Guide Service with a Michigan King Salmon.

The tackle used will depend on one which salmon species you are fishing for. Larger salmon require larger and longer rods, reels, lines, and leaders, and hooks.

Smaller pinks and sockeye require lighter gear.

The setup for salmon fishing is not complex. You will need a:

Salmon Rods

When it comes to rods, I prefer a longer rod to help improve casting distance and is better for fighting the fish and can also aid in better presentation.

  • Float Fishing Rod: 12 to 14 feet long with a Line rating of 8 to 20lb. A longer rod acts like a shock absorber which protects lighter leaders and aids in keeping the mainline off the water which gives you a better presentation.
  • Fly rod: Streamer Rod 9 foot 9 weight, Nymphing Rod – 10 foot 8 or 9 weight, Spey Rod – 12 to 14 foot 8 or 9 weight.
  • Spinning Rod: 7.5 t0 10 feet long, with a line rating of 15 -30 pounds test is an average salmon rod. If you are targeting bigger fish, a long rod with a line rating of upwards of 25-30 pound test is ideal. Medium action is ideal for pinks, sockeye, and most coho salmon. Medium-heavy action for bigger fish including chinook and Atlantic salmon. See my article on the 11 Best Rods For Salmon Fishing In Rivers.

Salmon Reel

Spinning Reel: Again, the spinning reel size will need to match the size of the salmon. A reel for king salmon would be a size 3500 or for big rivers a 4,000 series spinning reel will work.

A 2500 or 3,000 series would be ideal for pink salmon or coho and chum.

Fly Reels: Larger arbor reels either a 7 to 9 weight would work well for salmon fishing. Spey reels – A good example is the Sage Spey reels for salmon and trout.

For smaller fish, go with the 6/7/8 weight reel, and for larger salmon go with the 7/8/9 weight Spey reels. See Best Reels For Salmon Fishing

Line For Salmon

Line – Braided line is pretty much the standard with a mono or fluorocarbon leader. Braided line in the 15-30 pound test will work well for most salmon fishing.

Leaders For Salmon

Most anglers will use a Fluorocarbon leader between 10 and 18 pounds. Your leader size will depend on the size of the salmon and the type of method you want to use. I’ll discuss the different methods below.

Weights and Terminal Tackle

Split shot weights are used a lot when bait fishing. For some methods like drift fishing and plunking anglers will use pencil lead or bell sinkers. I show you leader setups and best weights for each of these methods.

Other potential terminal tackle will include swivels, snap swivels, bobber stop, and three-way swivels.

Best Hooks For Salmon

The best salmon hooks for bait fishing and for your flies are wide gap and extra thick, and extra strong.

Cheap small hooks will bend or break on big kings, Atlantics, and Coho.

The trick with hooks is that they can’t be too big for your bait, instead, you should match your hook to the size of the bait. As an example, you don’t want a giant size 1 hook for a salmon eggs sac the size of a dime.

Other Salmon Gear Includes:

  1. Landing net suitable for large salmon
  2. Waders – some areas do not allow felt-soul waders. Be sure to check the local regulations.
  3. Rain Gear – rain gear is advisable for fall, winter, and spring fishing.
  4. Polarized sunglasses are a must for spot fishing and fighting glare.
  5. Packs or Vests:- A water-resistant backpack or a vest is very handy for keeping all your flies, baits, and release gear handy.

Check out my article River Fishing Gear: Everything You Need To Succeed In 2023

How To Catch Salmon

Michigan Steelhead Feed behind big salmon like this one.
Michigan steelhead will hold and feed behind big salmon like this one caught by John from Get Bent Guide Service.

Salmon are a saltwater and freshwater target. You can fish them in the ocean, the mouth of rivers, and in rivers and tributaries. Fly salmon fishing in the ocean is a newer method but people are taking on that challenge.

Most ocean salmon fishing is with trolling gear which can include baitcasting reels or mooching reels and heavy mainline.

At the mouth of rivers, you can fly fish with streamers, use a spinning rod to cast lures or bait, or use a Spey rod.

In the rivers, fly rods with nymphing and streamer, and spinning rods using multiple methods are the primary options. Spey fishing with large Spey streamer are also common.

Once in the river, salmon will generally seek out the deeper waters for migration and holding water. Finding deeper waters such as troughs, pools, and deep pockets is the key to finding more salmon.

Salmon charters, local fishing guides, and DIY options are all viable here.

Lastly, be sure to check the local regulations.

Great Lakes Region Salmon Fishing

Watch the guys from SBS Outdoor Action catching King salmon.

Salmon fishing trips in the great lakes can be very rewarding. The deal is that you have to know where to find the salmon – that changes seasonally.

Fishing in the lakes is usually by charter or boat and the method is trolling.

Fishing nearshore can be by boat or from shore with fly rods, spey rods, or spinning rods – drifting, plunking, and float fishing are popular methods.

From boats, the deeper waters in the summer are often where you find salmon in the 40-60F water zone. From shore, usually in the late summer and early fall, you can fish near the mouth of rivers either from shore or nearshore on a boat. Shore fishing, pier fishing, and boat fishing are all viable methods of putting you where the salmon are.

Non-run times – generally deep water is where you find the salmon. Near spawning run times, shallow water, and nearshore water to about 30 feet is where you find the salmon. At run times, the mouth of rivers is a hot location, and tributaries once the fish enter freshwater.

If you are fishing in this area, be sure to read, How To Fish For Great Lakes Salmon in Rivers: Guide Tactics.

Where Is The Best Salmon Fishing Around The Great Lakes

Captain Alex Bialik a Michigan Chinook Salmon. Click the link to see more from Fire Plug Charters.

Three of the best salmon-fishing Great Lakes to salmon fish include Ontario, Huron, and Michigan.

Fishing Lake Erie is not great for those who want to target salmon. They are there, but you have to really work for them.

The “Wild” card for salmon fishing is Lake Superior. It holds chinook, coho, Atlantic, and pink salmon. The bigger the lake, the bigger the fish and that is simply because there are more baitfish here for fish to grow and thrive.

In Lake Superior, many of the salmon are wild and not from hatchery stock. Before hitting any of these rivers be sure to check the local fishing regulations.

John from Get Bent Guide Service with a massive river salmon. Click the image to see more or to book your trip.
John from Get Bent Guide Service with a massive river salmon from Michigan. Click the link to see more or to book your trip.

Lake Michigan Salmon- The mouth of the Milwaukee River, its tributaries, and offshore is a hot spot.

The Pere Marquette, Manistee River, Muskegon River, and St Joseph River, as well as all lake Michigan salmon rivers worth fishing.

The largest rivers generally get the largest runs of salmon and by mid-October they should be full of salmon. See Steelhead Fishing Michigan: A Complete Guide.

If you’re goal is to fish on Lake Michigan check out Lake Michigan Fishing: 3 Top Guides Tell You How And Where.

Lake Huron – The Spanish River and its channel are both hot spots for late summer and fall salmon fishing. The St Maries river and St.Marys Rapids also has the best fishing for Altlantics, and good fishing for Cohos, Kings, Pink salmon., and steelhead trout. April can be excellent for steelhead trout and the lower river is good early season salmon fishing.

Lake Superior – Flag River and the Cranberry River are two spots where salmon fishing is active. The mouth of the rivers and near-shore fishing otherwise you can troll the deeper water in warm weather.

Lake Ontario – Just about any tributary flowing into lake Ontario will get some salmon. Larger rivers like the Oswego River NY, The Salmon River NY, The Niagara River, The Credit River ON, and the Ganaraska River all get runs of salmon. Check out Ontario Salmon Fishing. By mid October most Ontario rivers will have the maximum amount of salmon in them.

Lake Erie – Does not have fishable numbers of salmon but it does have fantastic steelhead trout fishing. Best Pennsylvania Steelhead Rivers

Before hitting any of these rivers be sure to check the local fishing regulations.

West Coast Salmon Fishing

You can fish for Pacific salmon from California to the Alaska peninsula. Saltwater salmon fisheries around Anchorage, Skeena, Vancouver, and most rivers south to Washington will get runs of salmon to some extent.

The bigger the river and the more miles to the spawning grounds the earlier the migration will start with northern area migrations starting in June.

Where Is The Best Salmon Fishing In The West?

The best place? That will depend on the time of year. Generally, the warmer the weather the later the runs.

A west coast salmon river
A west coast salmon river

Alaska Salmon- It is difficult to beat the Kenai Peninsula for salmon fishing in June and July. The runs of sockeye are in the millions and the runs of king salmon and coho salmon are in the hundreds of thousands.

The Kenai River, Russian River, and Kasilof River are three of the best freshwater salmon destinations available.

Anchorage is a good starting point and you are sure to find charters and accommodations near Anchorage.

Cook Inlet, the waters off Homer, and Resurrection Bay are three of the best salmon fishing trips. There are plenty of fishing opportunities near Anchorage Alaska.

BC Salmon – British Columbia Canada is one of the best salmon destinations in the world with fantastic Ocean fishing and fantastic rivers. You will find plenty of lodges and charter boats near these prime salmon fishing destinations. On larger rivers, you may find big salmon starting their migration early in June to get to the best spawning areas far up the river.

Best BC Ocean Fishing:

  1. Chatham Sound
  2. Clayoquot Sound
  3. Comox Harbour
  4. Haida Gwaii/Langara Island
  5. Milbanke Sound
  6. Nootka Island
  7. Port Hardy
  8. Quatsino Sound
  9. Rivers Inlet
  10. Tofino
  11. Ucluelet

Best BC Rivers:

  1. Campbell River
  2. Chilliwack/Vedder Rivers
  3. Cowichan River – Coho Salmon
  4. Dean River
  5. Kitimat River
  6. Powell River
  7. Skeena River
  8. Stamp River
  9. Fraser River

There is also some great salmon fishing farther south in Washington and Oregon in the Columbia River system.

In Oregon, check out:

  1. Salmon River
  2. Rogue River
  3. Tillmook Bay
  4. Trask River
  5. Wilson River
  6. Nestucca River
  7. Siletz River
  8. Siuslaw River
  9. Alsea River

East Coast Salmon Fishing

For Atlantic Salmon it is difficult to beat The Penobscot River in Main – The western branch; however, good luck getting a spot to fish there.

  1. Morell River and Mill River in PEI
  2. Gander River NL
  3. Humber River
  4. Exploits River
  5. Grey River
  6. Portland Creek
  7. Pinware River
  8. Flowers River

If you are going to fish any of these areas or rivers be sure to check the regulations before you fish.

Boat Fishing For Salmon

The use of boats out in the open water is a great way to catch salmon.

Ocean Fishing Methods For Salmon

Mooching reels a common when trolling for salmon on the ocean. Watch this open-water Salmon Fishing video with a 30-pound King salmon.

The most popular and effective method for fishing salmon from a boat is trolling and this is what guides and charter services do.

Find schools of herring and troll around them looking for feeding salmon.

You can chum for salmon but end up with many other species attracted by the chum. Those can include big predators that will take your salmon off the line.

People are fly fishing for coho salmon now in saltwater in select areas where the coho stack up. Charters work best for salmon fishing in saltwater unless you have a boat big enough to handle the ocean swells.

Normal methods of trolling include flat lining which means you just let your line straight out the back of the boat while you troll.

An angler reeling in a salmon.
An angler reeling in a salmon. Watch the guide video of salmon trolling big open water.

You can also use Dipsy Divers which are inline devices that pull your lures down to a desired depth based on how much line you let out. This method is great if the fish are 10 to 60 feet down.

Downriggers are most often used on charter boats because the guide or captain can get exact depths with their lures by lowering the downrigger balls (weights).

I use cut-baits with herring, flutter spoons, crankbaits, and at times plugs, when trolling.

Morning fishing and early evening are good times to be on the open water since the water is calmer and the salmon are more active. Some of the largest salmon are caught in low-light conditions.

Ocean rules and regulations and catch limits may apply to your state or province.

Lake Fishing Methods For Salmon

lake fishing for salmon
Captain Alex Bialik and his happy clients with multiple Lake Michigan Chinook Salmon on the line. Click the link to see more from Fire Plug Charters.

Generally, you troll for salmon on the Great Lakes similar to how you troll on the ocean. You can also fish from the shore which I will discuss below.

On big lakes, charter boats are your best bet unless you have a good sized boat and all the required gear.

The key is to know where in the lake the salmon are and then target them based on water temperature. Early in April, the salmon will often be in closer to shore, in the summer the salmon can be over 20 miles out feeding on schools of bait.

Captain Alex Bialik and his happy client with a Lake Michigan Chinook Salmon. Click the image to see more from Fire Plug Charters.
Captain Alex Bialik and his happy client with a Lake Michigan Chinook Salmon. Click the link to see more from Fire Plug Charters.

A fish finder will help, especially if it shows water temperature and depth.

Locate big schools of bait and you are surely going to find some big salmon.

If the lake has a tributary, you can fly fish or spin fish from the mouth and boat fish from near shore when the salmon are staging in front of the rivers in late summer and early fall.

Shore Fishing For Salmon

Shore fishing salmon on a west coast river
Shore fishing salmon on a west coast river can get crowded at times.

Many lakes and rivers make amazing places to fish. Shore fishing includes fishing from piers, around the mouth of rivers, and shorelines or beaches.

The best times will vary by season and most revolve around when the salmon are preparing to enter the freshwater to spawn and are staging near shore.

When shore fishing, I will either cast a bait using what is known as the “plunking method” or I will use a slip bobber that will allow me to fish 10 to 30 feet deep.

I will also cast lures such as spoons, spinners, crankbaits and plugs.

Jigs can be fantastic since they will cast far and get to the bottom where sometimes the salmon are cruising.

Incoming tides or strong winds blowing into the shores will often be the best times to fish near shore since currents will bring in baitfish and salmon closer to the shores.

River Mouths And Pier Fishing For Salmon

Fishing a river mouth is one of the best ways to target a lot of salmon. This could mean casting into the river or casting out into the open water into or along side the current flow.

Often, March and April will see salmon in closer to shore and in proximity to allow the salmon anglers to cast to them.

Late July and August will also see salmon moving in closer to shore, especially near the spawning rivers.

Because the salmon will stage in the ocean or lake around a river mouth just prior to spawning you have a better opportunity of not just catching one, but many. Salmon might start showing up near river mouths 30 days prior to the spawn and just hang around until the river conditions are suitable for them to start tithe migration.

This is especially true on small rivers that get low. You may have fish show up in Mid-July or August and not run until rains in October raise water levels enough.

And since they don’t all show up and run at once, often river mouth fishing can be good for a few months.

Terminal tackle can include lures, hooks, bait, or flies.

I have found that the key to river mouth fishing is fishing during low light, which means fishing early mornings and at dusk, which is when most salmon will move in closer to the river mouth or even up into the river. Cloudy days are also a good time to fish.

GUIDE TIP: Also, follow the forecast since rain will raise river water levels and this can trigger the big runs of salmon. This is especially true on smaller streams or low-water rivers. Be there the day of the rains and a few days after for the best success.

Anglers have been known to do well at night since salmon will start migrating during low light hours and throughout the night.

However, night fishing regulations may apply so check the local regulations.

Methods For River Fishing For Salmon

Salmon fishing methods

The general methods of fishing salmon in rivers are either fly fishing or using a spinning rod and reel setup with a bobber or a drift fishing method, or with lures.

In some situations, you would use a Spey rod which will enable you to cast across stream at longer distances on wider and shallow rivers where fly presentation is essential.

I go into great detail on the best methods and baits that I use to get my clients into more salmon once they enter the river, all on my page, How To Catch Salmon In A River: Guides Explain Methods And More…

Fly Fishing Methods

There are three common methods of fly fishing for salmon to consider, and all three work well if you know how to use them, when to use them, and you use the right flies.

Spey Fishing For Salmon

Spey Fishing

Spey fishing for all salmon is an effective and fun method.

With Spey casting, anglers and guides usually use a two-handed Spey rod between 11 and 14 feet long and a heavy fly line.

With what is known as the Spey cast, (there are many different Spey casts) the angler can make very long casts across the river with little to no back cast which is great when there is very little room behind you.

With Spey fishing for salmon, I use larger flies of 2.5 to 4.5 inches long that resemble baitfish. The idea is to cast across and slightly downriver and then let the Spey fly swing across in front of the fish.

I use Spey fishing and Spey flies for salmon, trout, and steelhead. for more on the methods used for salmon and steelhead check out Spey Fishing For Steelhead & Salmon: Best Setup And Tactics.

Big fall kings love large 4 to 5-inch flies like intruders in bright chartreuse colors.

There are several styles of Spey fishing that work slightly differently and each is good in different types of water. It is helpful to understand each technique so that you can pick the tool that best fits your fishing adventure.

Salmon in freshwater do not normally strike a surface or dry flies, with the exception of maybe Atlantics. Spey fishing is a common way to present flies on the surface for Atlantics especially when larger fish are holding in pools.

Nymphing For Salmon

Head guide Jordan from A Perfect Drift choosing the right fly for salmon.
Head guide Jordan from A Perfect Drift Guide Company choosing the right fly for salmon.

Nymphing is a popular fly fishing method that I use to drift flies below the surface, and this method works well in smaller streams or when the salmon are held up in pools.

These flies which are often called nymphs can resemble actual nymphs which are aquatic insects, but I also use egg patterns which are often one of the best fly patterns for salmon.

I will also use worm patterns which can work very well for salmon, and streamer patterns which can imitate leeches or baitfish.

There are two primary nymphing techniques all salmon fly anglers should know.

Indicator Fishing For Salmon

Indicator nymphing
My client nymph fishing a popular steelhead and salmon river.

Indicator fishing is likely the most popular nymphing method, and it involves using a brightly colored float or bobber known as a strike indicator, which is meant to indicate when a strike occurs.

If you are new to fishing, an indicator is a good tool to help you know when to set the hook. With most salmon species, the strike is so hard that there will be no question as to when to set the hook. But sometimes the bite can be subtle so the strike indicator really helps detect a bite.

That means when you are fishing salmon and you want to keep your bait or fly at a specific depth, you attach it to a strike indicator so that it cannot sink to the bottom and it suspends.

An assortment of indicators for fly fishing

When To Use Indicators: I use indicators when fishing large spots, deeper water over 3 feet deep, and when casting distance is required or I need to drift my bait at a distance.

Skilled indicator anglers also use their indicators to control the speed of the fly which, based on guiding thousands of anglers will tell you is one of the most critical things required if you want to catch a lot more fish.

In fact, I’ve said many times that I believe that controlling your speed to match the bottom current can ten-times your success.

This is a good technique for pulling fish out of deeper holes and enticing fish that are swimming past and not resting. In shallow water, you would use an indicator style of fishing called Euro Nymphing.

I go into more detail on nymph fishing on my page Nymphing For Salmon: How The Guides Do it.

Euro Nymphing For Salmon

Great Euro Nymphing water is made better with the right Euro nymphing rod.
Great Euro Nymphing water like this is made more effective with the right Euro nymphing rod.

This a relatively new method for salmon fishing but ask ALL the top competitive fly anglers in the world and they will tell you that they could not compete without this method because it is just so effective.

Euro Nymphing is a short-line, and tight-line nymphing method that uses a piece of colored mono mid-way up the leader which helps indicate a strike. You use 1 or 2 weighted flies and no split shot on the line and you try to maintain light tension on the leader as the fly drifts down the river.

The colored piece of line is called a “Sighter’ and it enables the angler to detect a strike, control the speed of the fly, as well as control the depth of the fly. All these factors can lead to more fish.

Euro Nymphing is a method I use in shallow water under 6 feet, in pocket water, and in smaller holes where close fishing is required.

Euro nymphing excels in very shallow water under 3 feet deep where an indicator will spook the salmon.

I’ve been teaching anglers how to Euro nymph, or what some call “Modern Nymphing” or “Tight Line Nymphing” since 2006, and can honestly say that in the right river conditions, it is far more effective than other nymphing methods.

I use this method for salmon the same way I fish steelhead. To learn more about this method check out Euro Nymphing For Steelhead: Methods And Tips Of The Guides

Streamer Fishing For Salmon

flies for Pa Steelhead

A streamer is a type of wet fly that usually resembles a baitfish.

With streamer fishing you simply cast your streamer fly out and use a line stripping-in type of retrieve that imparts a swimming-type action to the streamer fly.

I use the exact same streamer fishing methods for steelhead so until I get my article on streamer fishing for salmon completed, check out Streamer Fishing For Steelhead

Also, for more details on all the best fly fishing methods, and best flies, and required fly gear, check out Fly Fishing For Salmon: Tactics Used By Guides For More Salmon

Float Fishing Is Great For Salmon Fishing

Dylan with a salmon caught on a float fishing bead rig.
Dylan with a salmon caught on a float fishing bead rig. See more from Dylan by clicking the link

Float fishing is a method using a float, also called a bobber to suspend and drift your bait down the river with the current.

Having your bait suspended just off the bottom in a pool, riffles, and rapids will keep your bait in the strike zone longer and will equal more salmon hooked.

In many rivers, float fishing is the most effective method for salmon fishing, if it’s done well.

The problem is, and I say this with certainty after guiding and teaching thousands of anglers, that most anglers do not float fish very well and this limits how many salmon they catch.

There are 4 fundamentals to float fishing effectively and I discuss this on my page Float Fishing For Salmon – Great Lakes Tactics From A Top Guide. If you are not doing each of these fundamentals well, you are missing fish.

When fishing deeper water use a sliding float, known as a slip float and a bobber stop. In water, less than 10 feet deep a fixed float is best.

Don’t be a total noob and use the wrong float. Using a float meant for river float fishing is best and will greatly increase your chances. See Best Floats and Weights Setup For Float Fishing Rivers.

Centerpin Fishing For Salmon

Float Rods - Image By Dylan @mr_sandy_pond
Float Rods – Image By our team photographer Dylan @mr_sandy_pond

Float fishing is done with a spinning reel, or a baitcasting reel which is Ok, however, to make float fishing even more effective, anglers use what is called a Centerpin reel or also known as a float reel.

The Centerpin reel looks like a fly reel or a mooching reel except that it has no drag and this allows the mainline to feed off the reel with just the pulling of the float, which is being pulled by the current.

Steelhead and Centerpin reel lying on ground side-by-side
A Centerpin reel and a nice steelhead: Image provided by Matthew from @Wisco_castin – Click the link to view more.

The Centerpin reel uses mono or braided mainline and allows you to have your bait suspended from a float, but it also allows you to get very long, smooth, controlled drifts down the river.

It’s these long smooth, controlled drifts, that give you a much better presentation and that equals more fish.

In my opinion, it’s hard to beat a Centerpin reel when float fishing for salmon.

If you float fish and haven’t tried this method or want to learn more about it, check out Centerpin Fishing For Salmon: Guide Tips and Tricks.

You may also be interested in 10 Best Salmon Leaders And Setups For Multiple Methods

Drift Fishing Method For Salmon

I have mentioned drift fishing multiple times and for good reason, drift fishing is a great method for long distance fishing in deeper faster water without a boober or float.

With drift fishing, you are simply letting the line drift down the river. Your line, leader, some weights, and your bait all drift downriver with a semi-tight line and you watch the line for any twitching, pulling, or sinking of the line which indicates a bite.

The drift method works by allowing the tackle to drift with the current so that it presents the bait to the fish in a natural way.

Drift fishing can use all kinds of bait including, worms, plastics, jigs, nymphs, flies, and roe. For more on Drift Fishing For Salmon: Everything You Need To Know

Drift fishing for some anglers can also mean drifting down the river in a boat, which is a whole other topic.

Bottom Bouncing Is Good For Salmon Fishing

Image courtesy of Fire Plug Charters.

Bottom bouncing is similar to drift fishing except I will use it in shallower water, when fishing closer to me, and on smaller streams or smaller sections of water.

I also prefer this in pocket water or when the salmon are holding near structures like boulders and logs.

The leader and weight setup is also different since you are fishing this in shallower water you don’t really need as much weight.

There are some modern and advanced setups and tactics that I teach that will make drift fishing even more effective, check it out at Bottom Bouncing – 5 Proven Guide Tips For More Fish.

Plunking Method For Salmon

Plunking is the opposite of drift fishing. It plunks your sinker down in one spot and then keeps the bait, fly, or lure in that location.

You can use a bead or floater to help keep the bait or fly off the bottom and the tackle setup is generally in a straight line.

Plunking allows you to fish to your bait in pools and slow-moving water while you wait for a hungry salmon to swim by and grab your bait.

Add a corky with a single hook tipped with salmon eggs, shrimp, or twister tail to the standard setup for added attraction.

Best fishing is when the salmon are moving through

Plunking is used in rivers and in the lake from the shore. To see more about this method, check out Plunking For Salmon: The 2 Best Setups And Baits

Bobber Doggin For Salmon

Bobber Doggin is a relatively new method of bobber fishing when you use a bobber or float to indicate a bite as the boober drags the weights and the bait down the river.

With a floater or drop shot type of rig you can keep the bait off the bottom and the idea is that the dragging weights will slow your bait down and keep it in the strike zone. This is also one of the better methods if you cast upstream.

I give you my honest thoughts on this method in my article Bobber Doggin: Trout, Steelhead, And Salmon Tactics.

Best Baits For Salmon

Beads have been a very hot bait for salmon and have gained a huge following over the last 10 years. Image by Get Bent Guide Service.

Bait for salmon includes flies, salmon roe, beads, etc. and salmon will hit all types of baits if the bait is presented to them properly.

Some baits and sizes will work better based on the activity level of the salmon and the conditions of the river which is why I have multiple baits on me when I fish and guide for salmon.

Some of the best baits include:

  1. Wooly buggers
  2. Salmon egg pattern flies
  3. Sand shrimp, or salad shrimp
  4. Beads and plastics
  5. Plastic Steelhead Worms
  6. Skien
  7. Yarn flies

I discuss all the best baits for salmon, plus rigging, hook sizes, as well as bait sizes and colors in my article 10 Best Baits For Salmon Fishing On Rivers And When To Use Them.

Lure Fishing For Salmon

Notice the type, size, and color of the lure. This salmon was caught by team photographer Dylan. Check out more from Dylan on Instagram

Casting lures is a great way to catch salmon in the river, or from shore. Some lures work better than others and there are a few lure methods you can try.

Covering the water effectively with a lure, getting your lure down and deep enough, as well as working your lure properly when retrieving it can really make a big difference.

Many colors of lures will work with silver, gold, and copers being good options. Big fall chinook salmon seem to love bright lures like chartreuse crankbaits.

Often the largest salmon will be either caught on lure or salmon eggs and all salmon from Alaska to the great lakes will grab lures.

Lure might work all day but mornings are best.

Spinner Fishing For Salmon

Image by SBS Outdoor Action

Spinners are unique in that they use both vibration and flash to attract fish.

These are generally metal lures, though some have plastic parts. They are designed to spin in the water which creates both a vibration and usually a flash of movement.

You fish from upstream with a retrieval rate that keeps the spinner off the bottom but not near the surface.

Spoon Fishing For Salmon

Spoons differ from spinners in how they move. A quality salmon spoon will wobble from side to side rather than spin, but not all spoons are created equal.

Spoons are one of the best lures for steelhead.
Spoons are one of the best lures for salmon fishing if you know how to use them properly.

Spoons used for trolling for salmon are also known as flutter spoons and they have a great wobble that looks like a swimming baitfish, however, they are very thin and lightweight which is what gives them such a good wobble, but that lightness also makes them a poor choice of spoon for casting.

For casting, you need a thicker and heavier spoon that can be cast far and will stay down and below the surface in the current.

Like spinners, spoons can create vibration and a flash of movement. Actually, the vibration is often just the treble hook ticking off the spoon.

With spoons, I will cast them across the river and let them swing across with the current. This seems to work well. To get them deeper I will use a heavier spoon or I will allow the spoon to sink before I start my retrieve.

Another method that works very well for me and other guides is to retrieve them in a jigging-type motion. Sometimes this means an up-and-down motion that allows the spoon to bump the bottom and then lift, and then bump the bottom again, and again.

I discuss this in my article Lure Fishing For Salmon: How The Guides Do It

Plug Fishing For Salmon

The Kwikfish K series Flo Chartreuse/Green UV is one of the best salmon lures
The 5 inch Kwikfish K series Flo Chartreuse/Green UV is one of the best salmon lures when the salmon just enter the river.

Plugs can be wooden or made of plastic. They can be jointed or hinged or a solid piece.

Different types of plugs do different things. Some dive and wobble and some just wobble. They are mimics of shad or other bait fish.

They come in a range of sizes and salmon love them. You can use plugs for trolling or you can cast and retrieve them.

Salmon anglers will occasionally cast them in rivers or at the river mouths because the slow wobble will entice big pre-spawn aggressive salmon to bite.


Jig on Rod

Salmon anglers seem to forget about jigging when it comes to salmon fishing however, jigging can be a great way to catch salmon.

Jigging is an up-down motion where you bounce the jig off the bottom and then lift it up a foot or so. The process repeats. Some salmon anglers also call the twitching jigs for salmon.

You can jig from a pier or a boat, but you want to make sure that you have enough depth so that the line remains vertical.

A good way to measure the jig rise and fall pull is to position the rod at your hip with the tip facing the water and then move the tip to the angle about where your armpit is and then point it back down to the water.

I discuss this method and the best jigs on my page Jigging For Salmon In Rivers: 3 Best Methods Guides Use!

Side Drifting And Back Trolling

Side drifting is fishing from a boat at a slow speed from the center of the river to the bank. You cast out, and allow the lure to descend close but not on the bottom, since the salmon are on or near the bottom, you lure 3 to 5 feet off the bottom and over their head is best, and then hold the lure there without reeling in.

Some anglers will hold the rod while others will put it in the rod holder and wait.

The slow movement of the boat side to side and downriver drops the lure back and into the salmon zone. The side-to-side movement of the bot moves the lure side to side to cover more water and present the lure to more salmon.

A benefit of side drifting is that you are not fishing the boat over the fish so there is less chance of scaring the fish. You are pulling the lure or bait across the swim path and gaining access to all of the fish in the water.

This is a very effective method and one used by salmon and steelhead anglers all season.

Anchor Fishing

Similar to side drifting you are fishing from the center of the river to the side but instead of drifting you have anchored the boat in one spot. The lures are still out the back of the boat and held at a height of 3 to 5 feet over the bottom.

The process allows you to take full advantage of one spot on the river and allows you to play the river’s topography to the salmon species you are targeting.

Anglers may lift the anchor and shift the boat down slowly 10 to 20 feet at a time to cover more water.

Anchor fishing can be dangerous on swift currents so be sure you know how to do this well.

On smaller slower currents, anchor fishing can be done from a motor boat or a drift boat, or a raft.

Be sure you do it correctly and safely, watch this video on Anchor Fishing.

For more on salmon fishing check out these articles:

The Best Mainline For Salmon Fishing In Rivers

Spin Fishing For Salmon: 5 Most Effective Methods and Baits

Advanced Bead Fishing For Salmon: Guide Tactics and Setup

Salmon Fishing Q&A

If you have a question, comment, or tip about salmon fishing let me know in the comments section below.

Tight Lines,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *