How To Fish For Salmon

Salmon is a popular and widely respected fish species known for its remarkable life cycle and delicious taste. It belongs to the Salmonidae family and is native to tributaries of the North Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. Salmon are anadromous, which means they hatch in fresh water, migrate to the ocean, and then return to fresh water to reproduce. This unique life cycle has fascinated people for generations and contributes to the allure of salmon fishing.

Salmon is known for its strength and endurance, making it a thrilling catch for anglers. In this guide, we’ll cover the essentials for salmon fishing, including the ideal tackle setup, effective baits and lures, various fishing techniques, the best times and seasons to catch them, where to find them, and tips for beginners, along with a detailed look at the best fishing gear and tools for salmon fishing.

Salmon Fishing Setup

Salmon fishing requires specific tackle and setups to effectively catch these strong and determined fish. The most common tackle used for salmon includes medium to heavy action rods, typically 8 to 10 feet in length. These rods provide the necessary strength and flexibility to handle the power of a salmon. For reels, large-capacity spinning or baitcasting reels are preferred, capable of holding enough line (usually 20 to 30-pound test) to manage the long runs salmon are known for.

The best setup for salmon often depends on the method and location of fishing. For instance, in river fishing, a spinning setup with a 9-foot medium-heavy rod paired with a spinning reel is highly effective. This setup allows for precise casting and control, which is essential in river currents. In contrast, for trolling in open water, a longer, heavier rod paired with a robust baitcasting reel is the best choice. This setup provides the strength needed to troll larger lures or bait and to fight salmon over extended periods.

Regarding the best rig for salmon, the downrigger setup is widely favored for trolling in deeper waters. This involves a main line attached to a downrigger weight, with a release clip that holds your fishing line. When a salmon hits, it releases from the clip, allowing you to fight the fish directly on your line. For river fishing, the drift rig is very effective. This setup typically includes a slip sinker on the main line, followed by a swivel, a leader (usually 18 to 24 inches), and a hook. The size of the hook varies based on the bait and salmon species but generally falls within the 2/0 to 4/0 range.

Best Bait For Salmon

Salmon, with their diverse diet, respond well to a variety of baits and lures. In the wild, they primarily feed on smaller fish, crustaceans, and insects. This natural diet provides a good indicator of the best types of bait and lures to use for catching them.

The best live bait for salmon often includes herring, sardines, anchovies, and sometimes even small squids. These baits closely mimic salmon’s natural prey in the ocean. When fishing in rivers, especially during the spawning season, salmon are less inclined to feed, but scents and the appearance of live bait can still trigger instinctual strikes. For live bait, rigging involves ensuring the bait is presented in a natural and enticing manner. For instance, when using herring, a common technique is to rig it so that it rolls in the water, mimicking the movement of an injured fish.

When it comes to lures, salmon anglers have a wide range of effective options. Spinners, spoons, and plugs are among the most popular salmon lures. Spinners, with their vibrating and flashing action, are excellent in rivers and streams, as they attract salmon through both sight and sound. Spoons, with their wobbling and flashing movements, are particularly effective in open waters and can be used at various depths. Plugs, which mimic the swimming action of small fish, are great for trolling.

spinnerbaits for salmon
spinnerbaits for salmon

Salmon Fishing Techniques

Here are some of the most common and effective techniques for catching salmon, along with explanations of their setups and ideal conditions.


Trolling is a dominant technique for catching salmon, especially in open waters like seas or large lakes. The setup involves using a boat to move your lure or bait through the water. Typically, downriggers are used to keep the bait at a desired depth. This method is most effective in situations where salmon are scattered over a large area or are located in deeper water. The key is to troll at different depths and speeds until you find where the salmon are actively feeding. Trolling is particularly effective during the summer months when salmon are abundant in open waters.

Fly Fishing

Fly fishing is a revered and skillful technique for catching salmon, especially in rivers and streams. This method involves using a fly rod, a specialized line, and artificial flies that mimic insects or small aquatic creatures. The setup requires casting the fly upstream and letting it drift naturally with the current, enticing salmon to strike. Fly fishing is most effective in shallow rivers or streams, particularly during salmon spawning runs. This technique demands patience and practice but can be incredibly rewarding, especially in the hands of an experienced angler.


Jigging is a technique often used in both freshwater and saltwater environments. The setup includes a jig – a type of lure with a lead sinker and hook, often covered by a soft body to attract fish. The angler moves the rod in a series of lifts and falls, making the jig “dance” in the water. This movement mimics injured prey, a tempting target for salmon. Jigging is most effective in areas where salmon congregate, such as near underwater structures, and is particularly good when fishing in deeper water or when salmon are holding in one spot.

Drift Fishing

Drift fishing is a popular technique in river fishing for salmon. The setup involves casting a baited hook upstream and letting it drift down with the current, presenting a natural-looking meal to the salmon. Weights are used to keep the bait near the bottom, where salmon often feed. This technique is highly effective in rivers and streams, especially during salmon runs. The key to success in drift fishing is to allow the bait to move naturally with the current, making it an irresistible target for salmon.

Best Time To Catch Salmon

Catching salmon requires an understanding of their behavior throughout the year, including their spawning patterns and optimal fishing times. Here’s a concise guide:

  • When do Salmon Spawn? Salmon spawn in late summer to fall, depending on the species and location.
  • Best Time of Day to Catch Salmon? Early morning and late evening are the best times. These periods offer lower light conditions, during which salmon are more active and likely to feed.
  • Best Time of Year to Catch Salmon? Late spring to early fall is typically the most productive, coinciding with their migration and spawning periods.


In spring, as water temperatures rise, salmon begin migrating towards their spawning grounds. This is an excellent time to catch them, especially as they become more active. Trolling in open water is highly effective during this period, as salmon are still in larger bodies of water and haven’t moved into the rivers yet.


Summer is prime time for salmon fishing, especially as they start entering rivers for spawning. Both morning and evening are great times to fish due to cooler temperatures and increased salmon activity. Fly fishing in rivers and streams is particularly effective, as well as trolling in early summer before the salmon head upriver.


Fall is the peak of the salmon spawning season. They are abundant in rivers and streams, making it an excellent time for river fishing techniques like drift fishing or fly fishing. During this season, focus on fishing in the early morning and late evening when salmon are most active.


Winter fishing can be challenging due to colder temperatures and lower activity levels in salmon. However, in regions where salmon are present year-round, deep trolling in saltwater or jigging in deeper parts of rivers can still yield success.


Fishing for salmon at night can be productive, especially in well-lit areas like near dams or where artificial lights are present in the water. Lures that create vibration or are luminescent can be effective. Trolling or casting with these lures in areas where salmon are known to congregate can lead to successful catches.

Where To Find Salmon

Finding salmon requires understanding their preferred habitats and behaviors in various water bodies. Salmon thrive in both freshwater and marine environments, making them versatile targets for anglers.

  • Best Water Bodies for Salmon: Oceans, rivers, and streams are prime locations.
  • Depth for Fishing Salmon: It varies; in oceans, they can be found from the surface down to about 300 feet, while in rivers and streams, depth is dictated by the waterway’s characteristics.

A fish finder can help locate salmon especially in larger and deeper bodies of water. It helps in identifying salmon schools and determining the depth at which they’re swimming.


In the ocean, salmon are often found in coastal waters. Trolling is the most effective technique here, using downriggers to reach the desired depth. The setup typically includes medium to heavy action rods and large-capacity reels, suitable for the open water environment and the potential size of the catch. Fish finders play a crucial role in locating salmon, especially when they’re schooling in deeper waters.


Rivers are hotspots for salmon, especially during their spawning runs. Drift fishing and fly fishing are highly effective techniques in these environments. For drift fishing, use a setup with a sensitive rod to detect bites, a reel with a smooth drag system, and a rig with a slip sinker, swivel, leader, and hook. Fly fishing requires a fly rod and reel, along with flies that mimic local insects or small fish. In both cases, focus on areas with slower currents, such as behind large rocks or in deep pools.


Streams, particularly those that connect to larger rivers or the ocean, are excellent for catching salmon. Here, fly fishing is particularly effective. The setup involves a lighter fly rod and reel, with various flies designed to mimic the local prey. Look for salmon in deeper pools or runs, where they rest and feed during their migration upstream.


Shore fishing for salmon can be surprisingly productive, especially near river mouths or coastal areas where salmon congregate before heading upstream. Spinning and casting are common techniques from the shore. Use a long, medium-heavy rod for casting distance and a reel capable of handling potentially large fish. Focus on casting near structures like jetties, piers, or rock formations where salmon might be hunting or resting.

Tips To Catch Salmon For Beginners

Here are some straightforward tips for beginners looking to catch salmon:

  • A medium-heavy spinning rod around 8-9 feet paired with a spinning reel is a versatile and easy-to-use option.
  • Use a monofilament or braided line in the 20-30 pound test range, which offers a good balance of strength and ease of use.
  • Pre-tied salmon rigs with cured salmon eggs or artificial salmon eggs are great for starters. They’re easy to use and highly attractive to salmon.
  • If you prefer lures, start with a spinner or spoon. These lures are user-friendly and effective in attracting salmon.
  • For bait, thread the hook through the bait (like salmon eggs) ensuring it’s secure but not masked. For lures, they are usually ready to use straight out of the package.
  • Practice casting in an open area before heading to the water. Focus on smooth, controlled motions.
  • Look for areas where salmon are likely to be, such as deeper pools in rivers, eddies, or near submerged structures.
  • When retrieving your line, do it slowly and steadily to make the bait or lure appear natural in the water.
  • Make sure to understand and comply with local fishing regulations regarding salmon fishing.
  • Salmon fishing can require patience, so don’t get discouraged if you don’t catch something immediately.

Best Salmon Fishing Gear And Tools

Fishing Rod

The ideal salmon fishing rod combines strength and sensitivity. A length of 8-10 feet is optimal, providing good casting distance and control. For river fishing, a medium-heavy action rod is perfect, as it offers the necessary backbone to fight salmon while maintaining enough flexibility for an enjoyable experience. For ocean fishing, a heavier rod may be necessary due to the larger size of ocean-going salmon and the more challenging conditions.

Fishing Line

The choice of a good salmon fishing line is crucial. A monofilament line in the 20-30 pound test range is suitable for most salmon fishing situations. It offers good strength and stretch, which is helpful in cushioning the impact of a strong salmon strike. For anglers preferring more sensitivity and less stretch, braided lines of similar strength are a great alternative. They provide excellent feedback from the lure and are ideal for feeling subtle bites.

Fishing Reel

A high-quality reel for salmon is crucial for fishing successfully. For spinning setups, a reel with a smooth drag system and sufficient line capacity for 20-30 pound line is ideal. It should handle long runs by strong fish without overheating or failing. In baitcasting or trolling situations, a reel with a robust build and a reliable drag system is key. It should offer a smooth performance and be capable of holding enough line for deep or extended runs.

Fish Finder

A good fish finder is invaluable for locating salmon, especially in larger and deeper bodies of water. Key features include a high-resolution display, accurate depth readings, and the ability to differentiate between fish sizes. A fish finder with GPS functionality is highly advantageous for marking successful fishing spots and navigating large water bodies. The sonar technology should be capable of providing clear images, even in deeper water, to identify salmon schools or individual fish.