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Introduction to Pacific Salmon River Fishing Techniques

By: Paul Moore
Senior Fish and Wildlife Technician
NYSDEC, Cortland, NY


1. Safety

2. The Rivers - where to go to fish for Chinook and Coho Salmon in New York waters

3. The Fish - life history, timing of the spawning runs, salmon behaviors

4. Appropriate Tackle - fly fishing, spinning

5. Effective Flies, Baits, and Lures - sizes, colors

6. Presentation - tackle set-ups, detecting the take

7. Fighting and Landing the Salmon

8. The Last Cast

1. Safety

Many of the rivers in New York State that have Pacific salmon runs can be dangerous to wade in. Rapidly rising water levels, slippery rocks, deep drop-offs, and strong currents are all things the angler should be on the look-out for. The sight of a school of huge salmon moving past has been known to cause some fishermen to lose all caution and get themselves in trouble. To make your trip safer and more enjoyable always follow these precautions:

  • Wear spiked footwear such as "Korkers" to insure firm footing.
  • Carry a wading staff.
  • Wear polarized sunglasses to detect wading hazards and spot fish.
  • Wear a wader belt or flotation vest.
  • Be cautious - don't cross the river if you think you might have trouble.

2. The Rivers

Presently approximately 1.6 million chinook salmon and 250,000 coho salmon are stocked annually in Lake Ontario and its tributaries by New York State. Some natural reproduction of Pacific salmon occurs but is limited by the lack of high quality tributaries with good spawning and nursery habitat. You may encounter a small run of naturally spawned salmon in almost any tributary running into the lake but the best fishing generally occurs in the streams where the salmon are stocked as fingerlings.

> The Salmon River in Oswego County is, by far, the most famous New York stream for Pacific salmon fishing. It is stocked more heavily than any other stream to insure that enough fish make it back to the Salmon River Hatchery in Altmar for spawning and egg collection. Approximately 15 miles of fishable water exist on the Salmon River from the lake to the first barrier dam. Access to the river is excellent with roughly 2/3's of its length open to public fishing with Public Fishing Rights easements and numerous fishermen parking areas. The Salmon River also has two special "Fly Fishing Only" sections for catch and release fishing. 

New York State streams stocked with Pacific salmon:

  • Black River - Jefferson County - Chinook
  • North and South Sandy Creek - Jefferson County - Chinook
  • Salmon River - Oswego County - Chinook and Coho
  • Oswego River - Oswego County - Chinook
  • Sterling Creek - Cayuga County - Chinook
  • Sodus Bay - Wayne County - Chinook and Coho
  • Genesee River - Monroe County - Chinook and Coho
  • Sandy Creek - Monroe County - Chinook and Coho
  • Oak Orchard Creek - Orleans County - Chinook and Coho
  • Eighteen Mile Creek - Niagara County - Chinook and Coho
  • Niagara River - Niagara County - Chinook and Coho

3. The Fish

Coho and chinook salmon are spawned at the Salmon River Hatchery during the month of October. The eggs hatch out in late November through December. Chinooks are stocked as 3" fingerlings in May or June. Shortly after stocking, they "smolt" and imprint on the scent of the stream before rapidly migrating downstream to the lake. Coho are stocked as either pre-smolt fall fingerlings at 10 months of age (41/2" long) or as 6" yearlings at 16 months of age. The life history of the coho salmon requires that they stay in the streams for at least one year before smolting and moving down to the lake. Once they reach the lakes, salmon grow rapidly on a diet of smelt and alewives.

Chinook salmon returning to the rivers where they were stocked range in age from 1 to 4 years. Age 2 and 3 fish make up 90% of the run and will weigh between 15-25 pounds. Very few fish will be over 40 pounds. Mature coho salmon return to spawn as age 2 fish and will average 8-10 pounds.

Maturing Pacific salmon begin to "stage" off the river mouths from mid-to-late August. By early September some fish have usually started to trickle into the tributaries. The peak of the run when the best stream fishing occurs is actually a rather short 4 week period. On rivers whose flows are controlled by hydropower dams, such as the Salmon and Oswego, this peak period normally occurs from mid-September through mid-October. On other salmon streams across the state the timing of the runs is more dependent on rainfall. Generally salmon will enter these streams somewhat later with the peak occurring in October but lasting into early November if lack of rainfall delays the fish. The salmon run attracts hordes of fishermen. To avoid big crowds try to schedule your trips on weekdays.

Once chinook and coho salmon enter the streams they are no longer feeding. Their bodies are undergoing rapid physiological changes and their sole purpose left in life is to spawn. While they are not actively feeding, they do exhibit several behaviors which make them vulnerable to traditional sportfishing techniques. One of these behaviors is aggression or territoriality and another is their attraction to fish eggs or egg shaped lures. These will be discussed in greater detail in the "Presentations" section.

Pacific salmon are fish that stay on or near the river bottom as they migrate upstream. You want your bait or lure to pass at eye level to the fish just off the bottom. They generally will not move up in the water column any distance to strike a bait. Salmon often show their presence by porpoising or rolling on the surface of the stream. It is not understood why they do this but they rarely strike when they are surfacing so concentrate on keeping your lure near the bottom.

Fish that are fresh in from the lake seem to strike a lure or bait more readily than salmon that have been in the stream for several days or weeks. The lower sections of rivers are usually excellent places to fish for fresh migrating salmon. Fish on the move also seem to hit better than fish holding or resting in deep pools. If you do fish a large pool, concentrate on either the head or the tailout. The current in these areas will give your lure or bait better action than in the slower center portion. Deep slots or runs along banks, behind logs, or boulders that break the current are other places to try. Salmon seem to prefer holding in water that is a little slower than that preferred by steelhead. Another area where salmon seem to strike well is in the upper spawning areas of a river. Once the chinook and coho have established nests or "redds" they become very aggressive and territorial. This is especially true of the males which fight each other and drive off young trout or minnows invading their space.

Prime fishing time is at first light before the fish have been disturbed by angling pressure. Much of the hot action occurs in the first hour so arrive at your fishing spot while it is still dark and start fishing as soon as it is legal. The last hour of light in the evening also seems to be a period when the salmon hit more readily.

Pacific salmon caught earlier in the run fight better and are in much better condition. Those caught late in the run are beginning to deteriorate and fight poorly when hooked. All Pacific salmon die within a few days of spawning. Their bodies provide food for many aquatic organisms (crayfish, insects, minnows) and are an important part of the cycle of life in the stream.

4. Appropriate Tackle for Pacific Salmon

Fly Fishing
9'-10' long, preferably graphite, for line weights 7, 8, or 9.

A smooth disc drag is almost a necessity to stop runs and tire the fish. Reel should have large enough capacity to hold at least 150 yards of 20 pound test backing. Salmon can give a reel a lot of punishment so purchase the best quality reel you can afford.

Full floating lines are best - allow better line control. A floating running line (.029 or .032 diameter) works well for casting long distances with lead split shot on the leader.

Normally in the 9'-12' range. For the butt section a 2'-3' section of 20-25 pound test fluorescent "Amnesia" monofilament shooting line acts as a good strike indicator. The main section of the leader is a 4'-6' piece of 10-15 pound test clear Maxima. At the end of this attach a small black barrel swivel. This serves as an attachment point for the tippet section and a dropper for split shot. The tippet section should be 3'-5' of 6-10 pound test, depending on conditions.

Minimum of 150-200 yards of 20 pound test backing. The backing should be fluorescent colored so you can see where the fish is running and so other anglers can see you have a fish on.

Spin Fishing
A medium action graphite rod 8'-9' long allows you to keep line off the water and detect the strikes.

Should have a smooth drag with capacity of at least 200 yards of 12-15 pound test line. Main Line - 10, 12, or 15 pound test.

Optional Leader
2'-4' of 6-10 pound test. Heavy fishing pressure, low or clear water require light leaders.

5. Effective Flies, Baits, and Lures


Three basic types of flies are used to catch Pacific salmon when they are in the rivers. These are egg imitations, wet fly/streamers, and stonefly/nymphs. Tie your flies with materials that have a lot of action, color, and flash to attract a salmon's attention and aggravate it into striking. Larger size flies work better earlier in the run the in lower sections of the river. Switch to smaller sizes when fishing for salmon that have been in the river for several days or in the upper areas. Heavy fishing pressure or low clear water would also call for smaller flies and lighter leaders. Use patterns that are quick and simple to tie because you will be losing a lot during a day's fishing both on the bottom and fish that break off. Carry at least 3-4 dozen flies in various sizes and patterns. When a nearby angler hooks and lands a salmon, always attempt to get a peek at the size and color of fly he was using. Fly fishing is one of the most successful methods of catching Pacific salmon because of the unlimited combinations of colors, shapes, and sizes that can be created in the fly.

Wet fly/streamers - represent small fish invading the salmons' territory or spawning bed, trigger aggressiveness.
  • Wooly Buggers #2-8 colors: black, olive, purple,chartreuse, flame, orange. Mix krystal flash material in the tail.
  • Mickey Finn #2-8 - an old standard pattern that works well.
  • Black Bear Green Butt #4-10.
  • Comet style flies #2-10 - with bead chain eyes and hot fluorescent colors in the body, hackle, and tail.
  • Maribou Streamer - various hot colors, has pulsating action in the water.

Egg Imitations - the spawning run seems to stimulate salmon into picking up and mouthing fish eggs.
  • Glo-Bugs #6-8 - colors: chartreuse, flame, orange, hot pink.
  • Estaz Eggs #6-8 - same colors as glo-bugs, both are quick and easy to tie.

Stonefly/Nymphs #4-10 - carry some tied with hot colored flashy materials like estaz and krystal flash as well as more natural colors like black and brown.

Spin Fishing

Egg Sacks - Salmon eggs are one of the top producers. Preserved skein eggs or loose eggs tied into sacks, the size of a dime or nickel with nylon mesh are fished dead drift through runs and pools. Real eggs give off a scent that milks into the water stimulating the salmon.

Single Blade Spinners - 1/8, 1/4, and 3/8 oz. sizes in various hot colors. Spinners with single point hooks are effective on salmon and are required in most NY Great Lakes tributaries.
  • Rooster Tails
  • Mepps
  • Panther Martin
  • Blue Fox

Artificial Eggs - come in a variety of hot colors, some are impregnated with scents.
  • Jensen Eggs
  • Crazy Eggs
  • Yarn Balls
  • Berkley Power Bait

Floating-Diving Plugs - plugs can be cast across and retrieved in a sweeping arc to cover holding water especially pool tail outs. Also inline side planers can be used to maneuver the plug in front of holding salmon often triggering a strike. Buoyant plugs (which float when at rest) having no more than 15 hook points are allowed in New York's Great Lakes tributaries.
  • Hot Shots
  • Hot-N-Tots
  • Rapalas

Note: The mention of product names in this Article does not constitute an endorsement by the State of New York.

6. Presentations: Tackle Set-Ups, Detecting the Take

For the greatest success, you want your fly, lure, or bait to be presented in the first 6-18 inches of water off the bottom. To do this properly you will almost always have to add lead to your line or leader. The secret to success is to use only the minimum amount of lead necessary to keep your lure in that narrow band of water just off the bottom. Too much weight causes your rig to hang up on the bottom resulting in loss tackle. Too much weight causes a loss of sensitivity, limiting your ability to sense when a salmon has picked up your bait. Too much weight attached to your line also causes your rig to drift unnaturally and will often spook the fish. Not enough weight will cause your lure or bait to float by too high in the water column where it will not interest the salmon. Use removable split-shot sinkers like Water Gremlins. Carry at least 3 or 4 different sizes and constantly adjust the amount of weight depending on the type of water you are fishing. As your rig drifts downstream, it should only occasionally tap the bottom.

When fly fishing, using a floating line with lead attached to a long leader is more effective than using a sink-tip or full-sinking flyline. It gives you better line control and sensitivity to your fly because heavy currents are not pushing on a sunken line. The floating fly line also acts as a strike indicator allowing you to better detect hits. Rarely will the salmon smash the fly or strike hard. Often the fish just grabs the fly in its mouth and your line will simply stop, hesitate, or dart forward slightly.

A spawning salmon's mouth is very hard bone, cartilage, and teeth. In order to get a good hook set, it is important to always keep your hooks as sharp as possible. Carry a hook hone and touch up the point occasionally. If you think a salmon has taken your fly or bait, do not strike by lifting the rod straight up. This will either pull the fly out the fishes mouth or result in light hook-ups in the nose, lips, etc. which will easily pull out. The best way to strike is to lay your rod to the side and tug on your line to bury the barb. This usually results in the fish being hooked in the corner of the mouth which is the most secure location.

There are two basic methods of presenting a fly, bait, or lure to a salmon. I call one of these the "dead-drift" and the other the "wet-fly swing". These methods can be used with either fly fishing or spinning tackle. I believe, however, that fly fishing is the most effective method of catching spawning Pacific salmon because of the unlimited sizes, shapes, and colors of flies you can create to excite the salmon into striking. This method also offers you the greatest control and feel of your drifting lure.

"The Dead-Drift"

The basic aspect of this method is getting your fly or bait to drift along as naturally as possible in the current just off the river bottom. You can use egg flies, stoneflies, spawn sacks, or artificial eggs. It is an effective method in pools, runs, or spawning riffles. Position yourself across from, or across and slightly upstream from where you can see salmon or where you think they are. Move as close to the fish as possible without spooking them. Cast up and across stream at a 45? angle. Have just enough weight on your line or leader to get the bait down to be near the bottom 15 inches of water. As your rig drifts back towards you, raise your rod towards the vertical position to minimize the amount of line on the water. When the rig has drifted down to directly opposite your position, your rod should be almost vertical. As the rig passes you, turn your upper body to follow the drift and slowly lower the rod until the line and rig are directly below you. During the drift, concentrate on the point where your line enters the water and feel with the line and rod tip. Watch for any hesitation, upstream movement, or tug on the line. Using as little weight on the line as is necessary and as light a pound test line as possible gives you the best sensitivity to detect the take of a salmon.

For some unknown reason Pacific salmon on their spawning runs seem to be attracted to spawn or egg shaped flies or lures. Whether they are stimulated by the sight of eggs or just curious, they will often take the bait into their mouth before spitting it out. The stoneflies or nymphs, whether natural or hot colored, may trigger aggression or be seen by the fish as an intruder coming into their territory. Also when females are on a redd they don't like objects coming into the nest and may be simply trying to tidy the nest when they take the bait.

"The Wet-Fly Swing"

This method works best in areas of moderate current speed such as runs or riffles. You can use streamers, wet flies, single blade spinners, or floating diving plugs. Position yourself upstream from where you can see the salmon or where you think they are holding. Make your cast directly across or across and slightly upstream. The object is to get your lure to sink until it is just off bottom, drift downstream, and then swing in an arc passing directly in front of the fish at eye level. The streamer or spinner imitates a small fish intruding into the salmon's territory and triggers an aggressive response or territorial defense. This is especially true when the salmon are on a spawning bed. Often it requires many casts, each passing the lure in front of the fish, before it becomes annoyed enough to strike. Smaller lures and flies with lighter line will often out perform the larger sizes and be less likely to spook the fish. The lure should not be moving very fast as it passes the salmon.

Typical Terminal Tackle Set-ups


Remember - minimum amount of lead, and smaller hooks sizes allows your bait or lure to be presented in a more delicate, life-like manner. lead weights too close to the hook will spook the salmon and not allow the bait to drift naturally.

Fly Fishing

The long light tipped section allows the fly to drift naturally along the bottom in a very life-like manner without drag. Remember you want the fly to swing slowly in front of the salmon at eye level.

7. Fighting and Landing the Salmon

After the hook-up get all your loose line back on the reel as soon as possible. On the first long run hold the rod tip up and let the reel's drag do the work. It should be set tight enough to put some pressure on the fish but not strong enough to break your leader. After the initial run, pressure the fish as much as you can. Hold your rod low to the water and switch from one side to the other to turn and tire the fish more quickly.

If the salmon makes a long run downstream, you usually have to follow it and try to get below it. You cannot drag a large fish back up river. One trick that will sometimes turn a fish running downstream is to lower the rod and open the bail on the reel or throw a lot of slack line off a fly reel. When the fish feels the line go slack, it will often stop and turn back upstream. The ideal situation is when the fish is running upstream where it will be fighting both the current and your drag.

Chinook salmon can be landed by grabbing the narrow area just forward of the tail. With a coho you'll have to wear a wool glove or the fish will slip out of your grasp. The best situation would be to have a partner stand below the fish with a wide mouth net. Try to be a good sportsman and be courteous to others. If a fellow angler hooks a salmon nearby, be prepared to reel in and step back out of the way.

8. The Last Cast

Some final thoughts on river fishing for Pacific salmon. Just because these fish are in the last phase of their life cycle and will all die within a few months, they should not be treated with less respect than any other great gamefish. The snagging or intentional foul-hooking of Pacific salmon is now prohibited by law in all waters of New York State. While not as easy to catch as bluegills in a farm pond, chinook and coho salmon can be enticed into striking a bait or lure using traditional angling techniques.

With a little patience, skill, knowledge, and practice, any angler can enjoy success. Isn't this what fishing is all about? Avoid the temptation to foul hook salmon just for the fight. It's not the same - believe me. Fool the fish, not yourself. The thrill and satisfaction you get when a 25 pound fresh run chinook takes a fly of your own design and heads back to the lake on a reel-screaming run makes all the effort worthwhile!

This document is public information prepared by the The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation

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