Best Salmon Lures And The Guide Tactics For Salmon In Rivers
Fishing guides use salmon lures when fishing and guiding for salmon in rivers because lures are an effective way to catch salmon and because it’s exciting when the big aggressive salmon hits the lure.
This article is about the best salmon lures and the tactics that river guides use to fish them.
The 3 best salmon lures when fishing for salmon in rivers are the Kwikfish because of its enticing wobble, and the in-line spinner because of the sound and flash it makes, and the crankbait. There are 6 other lures that can also be great when salmon fishing.
I and other river guides know that you want to use salmon lures that have flash, action, and have a good vibration or sound to them. Some salmon lures meet these criteria easily and they are often the most effective.
I will change or use different salmon lures based on different river conditions and the activity levels of the Salmon and I will discuss which lures you should use.
GUIDE TIP: Watch for my guide tips throughout this article for tips on how to fish some of these lures better.
This article is part of a series starting with our very popular article called Salmon Fishing: A Complete Guide, where we discuss everything we could think about for salmon fishing.
Best Rods For Casting Lures For Salmon
GUIDE TIP: Although you can use any 7-foot medium or heavy action rod when fishing lures for salmon, a rod that is longer and heavier will increase your casting distance.
A longer rod will provide more control over your presentation, and it will also make landing the salmon easier. You will always catch more salmon using a proper salmon rod.
If you want to know what the best salmon rods are for casting lures or when float fishing and bottom bouncing, check out my page Best Salmon Rods For River Fishing
Best Salmon Reels For Casting Lures
You will also need a reel that can hold a lot of line, can cast far, and has a great drag system. A good reel with a smooth drag will prevent your rod and your line from breaking, and it will help you land more salmon.
Be sure to check my page Best Reels For Salmon Fishing In Rivers for reels that are strong enough and smooth enough for casting lures.
9 Best Salmon Lures For River Fishing
These are the nine best lures that I and my other guides use and the ones that we found to be the most effective salmon lures when fishing great lakes rivers.
The Kwikfish Lure
I was just talking to one of my guides about salmon fish on a specific river, and he mentioned that when the salmon start to enter the river he hits the bigger slower pools and they use Kwickfish lures.
I wasn’t really surprised by this because the Kwikfish lure has been one of my best salmon lures for about 20 years and it has caught a lot of salmon for my clients.
The reason this lure works so well is that it has a wide wobble and it can be retrieved very slowly so that it dangles in the salmon’s face longer which triggers hard aggressive strikes.
Some models like the Kwikfish K Series have rattles built into them that the salmon can hear from a longer distance. They literally hear or feel the vibrations first then see it, and then they hit it.
I like the 4 to 5-inch Kwikfish for salmon fishing, and I find that the bigger sizes are best when the salmon have just entered the river and the smaller sizes are better if the salmon are holding in clear pools or have been in the river for a couple of days. In very clear water when the salmon are holding and pressured sometimes a smaller 3″ size will work best.
Guide Tip: I will sometimes speed up or rip the lure with an immediate pause for a second to trigger more strikes from less aggressive salmon. I do this about every 10 feet, and I will do this more often if the salmon don’t seem to be taking the lure on a straight steady retrieve.
In most water conditions I do well with the all silver color or silver-green/chartreuse combinations like the Flo Chartreuse/Green UV. The Silver-blue can also be a good color in most water conditions.
A secret color that has been hot for me over the last few seasons has been the Flame Thrower.
In stained water, I tend to do good with darker colors like the Funky Chicken, black, and fluorescent red. The Fickle Pickle color is also a good color for me and some of my guides in green and stained waters.
There are many other great colors for anglers to try because on some rivers other colors might work better. FishUSA.com has a big list of great Kwikfish colors.
Leave a comment in the comment section to let me and other readers know what works best for you.
Yakima Bait Original Flatfish And Wardens Flatfish
Almost identical to the Kwikfish fish are the Yakima Flatfish and the Wardens Flatfish.
The reason I mention these brands is that they have some great colors that you can’t get with the Kwikfish like the Flourescent orange, Black Orange Spot, and the Pearch Scale.
These are all orange colors and some days and on some rivers, the orange is hard to beat.
They also have the Yakima Bait Mag Lip FlatFish which can be good in slower deeper water rivers and pools.
How To Fish Kwikfish And Flat Fish
When you fish with Kwikfish or Flatfish you need to use a slow retrieve. It’s not that the salmon won’t hit a fast retrieve, it’s because this lure will not run properly if you retrieve it too fast. A retrieve that is too fast can cause the lure to spin or ever come up to the surface.
A nice steady slow retrieve will keep the lure wobbling enticingly from side to side. Sometimes just the current speed alone will make it wobble enough.
A combination of the current speed and the retrieve might cause it to spin and blow out and if this is the case just slow down your retrieve. The slower the current the faster the retrieve can be.
I fish this lure the same way every time. I start at the top of the pool and cast across and slightly downriver, I lower my rod tip and make a super slow retrieve. In fast currents, I won’t retrieve or reel the handle at all, I simply cast across and then allow the lure to swing across the current and let the current give the lure the action.
Then I step down and repeat again and again until my lure has reached the bottom of the run.
I cover the water systematically from the top of the pool to the bottom of the pool casting about 2 to 3 feet down each time I cast again and allowing the lure to swing across the river. I use this method with almost all lures in moving water.
In really deep water I will use some weight about 2 to 3 feet up the line just to get the bait into the salmon’s strike zone.
Using this method makes the Kwickfish and the flat fish one of the best salmon lures you can use.
Inline spinners which are also known as just spinners are some of the best salmon lures in both slow and fast water rivers.
Spinners are also excellent lures when fishing off the pier or the shore of the lake.
When using spinners for salmon, I like to cast across the rivers and start a slow retrieve allowing the blades to spin as the spinner swings across the river.
For each cast, I will either cast about 3 feet further down or I will step down and cast straight across again. I usually keep my rod tip straight out and pointed in the direction of the lure and I will keep it at about waist high.
If I need less depth I will cast on more of a downriver angler or I will keep my rod tip higher. The higher your rod tip the higher the spinner will be.
If I need more distance, I will either lower my rod tip close to the surface of the water, or I will cast more upriver and allow the lure a few seconds to sink before I start my retrieve and start the spinner swinging across the pool.
The longer you give the spinner time to sink the deeper it will go. You will need to adjust this by how much you are hitting or snagging the bottom.
Some spinners will go deeper than others, and that depends on the weight of the spinner and the type or shape of the blade.
I try to always keep my spinner and almost all my lures 12 to 36 inches off the bottom.
Guide Tip: When covering the water, I will often make a cast with a nice steady retrieve and then I will make a second cast in the exact same spot, but this time I will use stop and go, rip-rip type of retrieve. I do the rip-rip about every 5 to 10 feet and follow that with a 1-second pause. I have seen the salmon ignore the straight steady retrieve but then smash a rip-rip retrieve on the very next cast.
One of the best general-purpose spinners for fast, slow, deep, and shallow rivers is the Blue Fox Classic Vibrax – I will use the size 3 in shallow clear conditions and the size 4 and 5 for bigger water. This lure shines in shallow water because it will run shallow.
One of the reasons that I like this spinner more than a standard Mepps Aglia or other Mepps spinners is because I believe it has more vibration that seems to attract the salmon better. After years of heavy testing, I have found the Vibrax spinners to work the best.
My best colors for the salmon are the glow green, glow chartreuse and the glow orange/pink. I also catch a lot of salmon and steelhead on the silver or silver shiner, Chartreuse Green Candyback, Orange Candyback. There are a lot of other great colors.
In darker water, dirty water, and at night, I have had the most success with the solid black color as well as red.
If you fish deeper water for salmon and you want a spinner that will get deeper and one of the best spinners for that is the Blue Fox Vibrax Bullet Spinner which has a thinner blade that cuts through the water better. It’s also a good spinner if you want more speed. I use it in the same sizes and colors as above.
2 other good spinners worth trying are the Blue Fox Vibrax Minnow Spin and the Panther Martin Spinner. The Panther Martins come in a ton of cool colors and they used to be hot sellers when I owned my tackle shop, and many anglers would swear by them. I have a few of the Panther Martins, and they have been good for steelhead and salmon
Spoon Fishing For Salmon In Rivers
Spoons can be one of the best salmon lures if they are used properly and if you use the right ones. Boat anglers catch tons of salmon trolling with spoons but once the salmon enter the rivers, anglers almost forget that spoons even exist.
Most anglers simply cast them out and just reel them in and that works sometimes but the most effective way to fish them that I have found is to cast the lure across and allow it to sink to the bottom and then lift your rod tip with a slow retrieve. I lift the rod tip only high enough that the spoon will hit the bottom every few feet.
Each time the spoon hits the bottom I quickly lift the tip to make the spoon jump up off the bottom about 2 to 3 feet and then lower the rod tip again with a slow retrieve to allow it to bump the bottom again, and keep repeating this from the fsr bank to the close bank. Then move or cast down 3 feet and do it again.
When I use spoons for salmon, I will often add a strong high quality swivel. I will use a size 3 or 4 snap swivel from Owner or a size 6 VMC Snap Swivels.
Not all spoons are good for river fishing. Many salmon spoons are designed to be trolled and are too light for casting. Use spoons that are known to be good for casting and river fishing like the ones below.
When fishing bigger rivers, I like spoons in the 3 to 4.5-inch size, and when fishing small to medium-sized clear rivers, I find that 2.5 to 3.5-inch spoons often work better, especially with salmon they are spooked.
My favorite spoons and most effective colors when salmon fishing in rivers are:
- Krocodile Spoon – This is my favorite salmon spoon for spoon jigging. It is good in faster bigger rivers or in a smaller clear river in the 3 to 4.25 sizes but I might use the 2 11/16 inch or 2 5/8 inch when fishing small clear rivers. The colors that work best for me are the Chrome-Silver Prism Lite, Hammered Brass-Fire, Metallic Perch, Chrome Green Mackerel, Chrome/Flo. Green Prism-Lite, Blue Mackerel.
- Acme Little Cleo Spoons – The 2/5 oz is my go-to size and this spoon can cast a mile. I will also use the and the 3/4 on bigger river or aggressive salmon. I have done well with the colors, Hammered green/gold, and hammered green/silver, and the hammered blue/silver, and the gold/orange. Melo yellow, and the Green digger have been very good. If you are new to this lure, check out this Acme Little Cleo Classics Kit – 3/4 oz. – 4 Assorted pack which has great colors for salmon.
- Original Doctor Spoon – This has been a productive spoon for casting salmon in rivers and it comes in a lot of great colors including the Chartreuse that is hard to find in the other spoons.
Two other spoons that I use and like are the Eppinger Daredevil spoons and the Mepps Syclops Spoon.
Crank Baits For Salmon Fishing
I and many river guides like to use crankbaits for fresh running salmon, especially in the lower ends of the rivers. I often use a rip-rip retrieve mixed with 10 feet of steady retrieve, then a rip or two and a pause.
Often the more erratic the retrieve the better. This can often trigger really aggressive strikes.
It’s not uncommon to catch other species like bass and trout when using crankbaits.
When fishing for salmon, I like my crankbaits to be between 3 and 5 inches long. There are times when a 6 inch crankbait will work better so it’s a good idea to have a good selection on hand.
Kelly from Northern Michigan Custom Rod and Guide Service says the “Thunderstick is top crankbait for Kings”.
He also likes the deep diving models and based on his pictures he prefers the Chartreuse or brighter colors like the Luminous Green Herringbone
Other crankbaits like 3-inch Cotton Cordell Big O Crankbait in Chartreuse or silvers colors have been hot for me when fishing for salmon. I will use this in water 10 feet or less.
When I need to get deeper and when I want to bounce my crankbait off the rocks a few times, I like the 3.25 inch Cotton Cordell Wally Diver in chartreuse, orange, silver/black, silver/blue. Another good choice for getting deeper is the Rapala Down Deep Husky Jerk or the Rapala Shad Rap SR09 Hard Bait.
Jigs For Salmon Fishing
Jigs fishing for salmon can be very effective which makes jigs one of the best salmon baits.
What I like about jigs is that you can use heavier ones for bigger deeper and faster rivers and smaller ones for the smaller creeks and rivers that you might find salmon in.
When I talk about jigs for salmon, I’m not talking about the type that you use when float fishing for salmon. I’m talking about jigs that you can cast.
I will try to cover the water the same way as with most lures. This means covering the water from the top down.
With jig fishing you can jig them in an up and down motion, you can twitch and rip them. I have also seen guys use large paddle tail jigs and reel them in like crankbaits, with a few rips and twitches along the way.
Salmon Jig Size
I cast them across the same way that I do with other lures and jig them up and down as they swing across the pool. To do this the jigs need to be a good size and weight.
I have done well with 3 and 4-inch jigs and the same colors that wor and the 3/8 ounce, 1/2 ounce jigs are my go-to weight, but I will upsize for longer casts or faster water.
Twitching jigs like the AeroJig Twitchin’ Jig are great for twitching through pools, and they come in lots of colors.
Jig Colors For Salmon
I use the same bright colors that I use when crankbait fishing, but I have found on nervous fish, or fishing in smaller rivers and when salmon are holding in pools that blacks and olives can often be a better choice
Some jigs that have worked well for me when salmon fishing are the:
- Booyah Baits Mobster Swim Jig – I have done well with black, and have crushed them with white, and even had good days with chartreuse colors.
- Strike King KVD Swim Jig in the largest size is another good option when jig fishing for salmon.
- 3 or 4-inch twister tail and paddle tail jigs on a standard 1/4oz jig head are good jigs to try when fishing for salmon.
- Gary Yamamoto Zako Paddletail Swimbait – 4” – Chartreuse Shad on a large 1/2 or 3/4 oz jighead can be deadly.
Guide Tip: Salmon fishing can be frustrating with all the people and crowds. I use pontoon-style river boats to get me into private water or to get me far enough away from the crowds. These ultralight pontoon boats allow me to also cover a lot more water and to allow me to get from one side of the river to the other side when fishing deeper faster rivers that are hard to cross.
Some of my river boats weigh less than 40 pounds so I can easily pack them into a bag and walk it back.
To see my methods on how I use pontoon boats for more fish and to see my recommended boat check my page Catch More Fish With Fly Fishing Boats.
Covering The Water Well With Lures
It’s important that you cover the water well. One thing river guides do differently than most anglers is they fish each spot with a plan.
When fishing with just about all lures, most of the time you will start at the top of the pool or spot, and you systematically cover the entire spot from the top of the spot to the bottom of the spot.
This often means between the rapids, or between the two shallow sections.
Covering the water so that your lure lands every 3 to 6 feet will ensure that you get your lure in front of as many salmon as possible. If you cast aimlessly as many anglers do, you will likely miss fish by not getting your lure close enough to some fish.
The diagram above shows my casting pattern. In clear water, I may spread out each retrieve by 6 feet apart but in dirtier water I will spread the casts out 2 to 3 feet to ensure I get my lure close enough to the salmon.
Getting Your Lures Deep Enough
You also need to get your lure down to the fish. This means with lures like spoons, spinners, or jigs, you will need to cast and let your lure sinks before you start your retrieve.
With crankbaits, you will need to consider bigger lures with deep diving lips that will get down to the fish.
You will also need to lift or lower your rod tip during the retrieve to either gain depth or keep the lure off the bottom.
A rule of thumb is if I start tapping the bottom with a lure I lift my rod tip a foot or two because I want my lure 12 to 3o inches over the fish’s head.
If I don’t tap the bottom, FIND IT! If your lure is 8 feet over their heads they may not eat it. Therefore, I keep lowering my tip, even into the water to gain more depth, I will keep going deeper until I start hitting the bottom or start catching fish.
In the case of lures like crankbaits, this might mean changing crankbaits to a more aggressive dive curve and to ones that get deeper faster.
With spoons and spinners, it’s simply a matter of letting the lure sink longer after it hits the water and then keeping your rod tip down, or adjusting it as needed.
Lures like Kwickfish or Flatfish may require weight on the line to help them get deeper.
Best Methods For Salmon Fishing
Although casting lures for salmon can be a great method, there are other methods that I use when fishing for salmon. You can see the best ways to fish for salmon on my page Fishing For Salmon In Great Lakes Rivers
Got A Question About The Best Salmon Lures
If you have a question, comment, or recommendation that you want to share about the best salmon lures let me know in the comments section below.
Cool River Fishing Accessories
Simms Taco Bag
It’s a wet wader bag for storing your waders after a day on the water and it’s a mat to stand on to keep your feet dry when getting your waders on and off.
Duffel Bags and Stream Packs
Having a dedicated bag to pack and carry your waders, vests, boots, jackets, and more is a good idea. Waterproof and mesh bags are available.
Waterworks Release Tool
Protects your flies from damage caused by forceps, This tool gets all hooks out easily. Even deep hooks come out with this tool.
When I flip these down to tie knots a lot of guys say ” I need to get some of those”. These are great for anyone that ties knots. Make sure they are lined up properly for the best view.
Nice article as usual Graham,
I was wondering how effective would swinging a texas rigged 3-4inch paddle tail soft plastic be in waters were you would usually swing a fly ?
I have also found some weedless soft plastic soft vibe baits similar to a rattle trap but more subtle vibrations and weedless as well and are less than 10cm,
I wanted to know your thoughts on it, as fishing such lures could avoid the whole issue of snagging fish .
I can’t say that I have tried that, however, I have caught plenty of steelhead and salmon swinging flies so I don’t see why a paddle tail wouldn’t work for them. I’ve also caught or had my clients catch a bunch of steelhead by letting their pink and red worms swing at the end of a drift under a float. The 4″ Mad River Steelhead worms are the best for that.