Salmon in the Great Lakes run into the tributaries to spawn each fall. This usually starts in September and ends at some point in October. In most of the Great Lakes king salmon and silver salmon predominate. During the annual salmon run countless anglers from all over the United States and even the world show up to chase these large and fast fish.
Some people claim salmon don’t feed when they are on spawning runs. Recent research and a lot of angler experiences say otherwise. There is no doubt that some people snag salmon in Great Lakes tributaries, but that does not mean that snagging is right or the only way to catch spawning salmon. Most states outlawed snagging long ago and require people to catch salmon in the tributaries legally by getting them to bite on a bait or lure with a hook in it.
Salmon fishing isn’t nearly as complicated as steelhead fishing in the Great Lakes tributaries. Anglers looking for steelhead sometimes carry huge containers filled with jigs and eggs in all different sizes and colors. Most people who fish for salmon in the tribs pack a lot lighter. Some even show up with nothing but a piece of sponge on a hook, though they are usually more interested in snagging than catching.
That doesn’t mean having a variety of options doesn’t help. Fishing with the same thing day in and day out will never be as successful as changing with the conditions. When it comes to catching salmon in the Great Lakes tributaries though, a few basics can go a long way.
Rods and reels
Kings and silvers and big, strong fish. They are capable of big bursts of speed, directional changes, leaps and more. They also use their size and the speed of the flowing rivers and streams they spawn in to their advantage. They can tear up the average fishing rod and reel in no time. You don’t necessarily need specialty gear to catch salmon, but it sure helps!
Having the right pole doesn’t have to break the bank. You don’t need to buy a deep sea fishing pole that looks like a broomstick either. The Okuma Celilo Ma is a good rod for salmon that doesn’t cost a ton of money. The Celilo Ha has a heavier action that can help tame big fish, but it is not as good at casting smaller baits and lures.
The 8.5 foot medium action Daiwa DXS costs a little more but offers more flexibility. It is capable of handling big salmon but also light enough to finesse any steelhead in the streams chasing salmon spawn.
A great reel to pair with any of these rods is the Okuma Trio 40S. It has a smooth and steady drag that can withstand the punishment big salmon deliver. A less expensive alternative that doesn’t give up too much in the way of quality is the Trio 40 Standard.
Baits and lures
As stated above, you don’t need to carry a huge arsenal of lures to catch salmon in the Great Lakes. A selection of some of the best baits and lures for Great Lakes salmon will do.
So you should at least have a jar of anise-scented Atlas Salmon Eggs and a pack of Gulp! Floating Salmon Eggs with you on the tributaries. Carrying some 1/8 ounce Salmon Jigs and a J-Plug or two wouldn’t hurt either. Carrying a variety of sizes and colors always helps.
Hook, line, and sinker
Salmon are big. They can easily top twenty pounds. Sometimes they grow to be 34 pounds. The New York state record king salmon caught in the Salmon River was a whopping 47 pounds 13 ounces. Does that mean you have to use 50 pound test line to fish the Salmon River? Of course not. That would be hard to manage.
Once you learn how to play big salmon in moving water you can easily get away with using twelve pound monofilament fishing line. If you’re not confident in your abilities, you can fish with fourteen pound test line instead. Berkley Trilene is a good brand but Maxima is favored by a lot of veterans of the Great Lakes tributaries.
Most salmon fishing in Great Lakes tributaries consists of drift fishing with some form of the slinky drift rig. Your best bet is to tie on a leader of 10 to 12 pounds flourocarbon line. This makes the end of your line virtually invisible to fish. Salmon in the tribs get harassed and turn line shy pretty quickly, so this helps.
Obviously you need hooks to catch fish. Salmon egg hooks in sizes 6, 8 and even 10 work well with the salmon egg imitations mentioned above. They also work with real salmon eggs and salmon egg sacks if you decide that you want to use them.
To drift fish you will need some kind of weight. Some people use slinky weights in the Great Lakes tributaries and they work fine. Carrying a nice assortment of lead split shot gives a lot of versatility since you can add and take away weight as needed depending on the depth and speed of the water you are fishing.
Make sure you are allowed to use lead shot where you want to fish. Lead sinkers are now banned in some places. If you can’t use lead, you might be stuck using tin shot. It’s not nearly as heavy as lead and it shines line a mirror, so it’s not a great choice. Tungsten putty is the best alternative, but it costs a lot more than lead shot.
If you plan on using any jigs, you’ll need some floats so you can fish them on a floating drift rig. Salmon jigs are bigger than steelhead and trout jigs, so you’ll need a suitable float like the Aero Float or the Blackbird Phantom.
There are places where you can fish for salmon along the Great Lakes tributaries without getting your feet out but they tend to be the most crowded. That’s where the real “combat fishing” happens and it’s frankly not a lot of fun.
It’s much better to wear a pair of chest waders so you can move around in the streams and rivers and try to get away from the crowds as much as possible. Wearing waders also lets you chase after fish that do big runs up or down stream when its possible (and safe). The Hodgeman Caster Cleated Boot Foot waders are a good fit and they won’t break the bank. Anytime you wear chest waders you should also wear a wading belt. They’re cheap and they can save your life.
Polarized glasses are basically a must have item. They help you spot salmon in the water, let you see how the salmon react to your bait or lure, and protect your eyes from any flying hooks or sinkers. They don’t call it combat fishing for nothing! I fish often enough to make high quality and high comfort Costa glasses worth the price but you can get a cheap pair of polarized glasses for a few bucks if you don’t want to go all out.
Since you don’t have to carry a huge variety of lines and lures, it is not really necessary to wear a vest when salmon fishing in the Great Lakes tributaries. Any jacket or shirt suitable for the weather will work if it has at least a few pockets. I like this wading jacket from Frogg Toggs. It is waterproof and windproof, which really helps on autumn days around the Great Lakes. At the same time, it is breathable so you don’t sweat when battling a big salmon. It also plenty of pockets in all the right places for when you’re standing knee deep in water and need to grab some salmon eggs with speed.
You don’t really need a net when fishing for salmon in the tributaries either. Any net big enough to scoop up a thirty pound king salmon is not a net that will be easy to carry around. Imagine chasing a big salmon taking your line on a long run through fast rapids with a huge net in your hand.
Because kings and cohos have huge tails, it’s actually pretty easy to grab them with your hand. This is called “tailing” a fish and it’s not as difficult as it sounds. Tailing a worn out salmon is a breeze when wearing a landing glove. Just be careful about hooks! Salmon in the tributaries often get various lures and flies stuck in their skin from snaggers and other more sporting anglers who accidentally pierce the fish through their bodies when aiming for their mouths.
Some claim tailing fish a glove on harms fish. If you are concerned about that you can also tail salmon with your bare hands. I do it all the time. It’s not all that difficult but at times the fish winds up and swims off again. Sometimes they get off the hook in the process.
If you plan on keeping any salmon, you’ll need a sturdy stringer. The one dollar stringers you use for crappie and small trout won’t cut it. Yamawa has a nice rope available and another company sells this less expensive steel stringer that should work too.
Finally you’ll want to have the basics for rigging and removing hooks. You should carry a pair of hemostats like these Dr Slicks and a line nipper on a retractor that you can pin to your clothes. You don’t want to be stuck in the middle of a stream trying to gnaw through a piece of 14 pound test fishing line with your teeth.