Chasing Kings: Great Lakes Salmon and How to Catch Them

Fall is a special time on the shores of the Great Lakes. After a long, wet summer, the nightly lows are finally hitting the 50s, the maples are starting to get that telltale reddish hue and the salmon of the Great Lakes are coming in closer and closer to the spawning tributaries that they will be running over the next month or so. Migrating along with the salmon is a hyper-passionate group of anglers from all across the northeast, looking for a chance to hook, fight and maybe land their first Lake Ontario salmon of the year!

The Great Lakes are home to several species of salmon, with only one of those being considered a native fish to the drainage, the Atlantic. The others include the Chinook, Coho, and Pink salmons, all of whom originally hail from the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific varieties were first introduced into the Great Lakes in the 1960s when Dr. Howard Tanner chucked the first netful of Coho salmon smolts into a tributary of Lake Michigan.

Since then, thousands of salmon have run the Great Lakes tributaries, and thousands of more anglers hit the river banks to get in on the action. Perhaps one of the most iconic places to do this is New York’s Salmon River in Oswego County. For many of us, that river is the focus of many long car rides, long hours behind the tying vise, and even more hours swinging flies and drifting indicators waiting for the inevitable tug, and exclamation of “FISH ON, COMING DOWN!”

In this article, we’ll give you a little primer on how to cash in on this season’s salmon run, from what rods to use, where to best target the fish in the river, and what flies to use. Check it out, below!

Great Lakes Salmon Fly Fishing Gear

A 9-10 WT Rod Setup

The salmon of the Great Lakes are powerful and aggressive animals. Once hooked, Chinook and Cohos will go bonkers, running up and downstream while violently headshaking and cartwheeling through the air, and you’ll need a heavy rod with a strong reel to put the brakes on them and bring them to the net. If you’re looking to save your shoulders from overwork, its definitely worth considering a spey or switch rod to give you better leverage on these powerful fish!

Lots of Flies

You’re going to want to have a plethora of flies available when you’re chasing salmon on the Lake Ontario tributaries. Losing flies is all a part of the salmon fishing experience, as you may break off a few big fish as they do their best to win the battle at hand. A few popular patterns include egg-sucking leeches, estaz eggs, zonker streamers, wooly buggers, intruder-style flies and sucker spawns. If you’re looking for more specific recommendations, we highly recommend reaching out to a few of the local fly and tackle shops like All Seasons Sports, Fat Nancy’s, or Malinda’s Fly, Spey & Tackle Shop!

Waders with Cleats

Cleated wading boots are essential when you’re wading. The Salmon River and many other tributaries can be slick to wade on their best days and can be downright dangerous at high flows. Depending on your wading boots, we highly recommend drilling a bunch of studs in to make sure you’re sure-footed as you fight in an angry King Salmon.

A Big Net

You’re going to want to bring a large net to the tribs. Salmon fight hard all the way in, and having a large, rubber net will not only ease your fish fighting stress but also protect the fish on the end of your line! While you can certainly attempt to land a salmon without a net, you’ll likely lose more than your fair share in those final moments of the battle when all it takes for the fish to break off is one powerful shake of their head.

How to Find and Hook Great Lakes Salmon

Read Reports and Talk to the Local Shops

The best way to figure out when the salmon are running or where the bulk of them are in the river system is through on-the-ground fishing reports. Lucky for most anglers, there are a plethora of local shops and guides that post regular reports throughout the season. Prior to your trip up, we recommend reading the reports from the Douglaston Salmon Run, the Salmon River Newbie, Oswego County’s Fishing Reports & Conditions Page, or call one of the previously mentioned local shops.

Cover Water and Fish the Choke Points

When they’re running, salmon are typically easy to find, all you really need to do is wait until they blast past. That being said, when the salmon aren’t moving through your zone, the best thing you can do is hike up your waders and start walking, scanning every eddy, pocket, and piece of soft water until you see those black backs stirring around on the river bottom.

Salmon will always take the path of least resistance upriver, and you want to key in on that path. Identifying choke points (areas where the bulk of fish have no choice but to run through) is absolutely key if you plan on having banner days on the rivers.

“Tails in the Mornings, Heads in the Evenings”

Some of the hottest salmon action happens in the first and last hours of the day. Salmon will take full advantage of the dark of night to push through shallow, exposed sections of the river on their way between resting holes. Typically you’ll find fish sitting in the tail out of a hole in the morning, and as the day progresses they’ll move further up, staging to push into the next section of water as the sun drops to the horizon.


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