This page focuses on how to catch salmon and steelhead in lakes while trolling from a boat.
Great Lake trolling techniques do translate well to the ocean but for Pacific salmon also read the best lures for saltwater salmon fishing.
These are some the largest fish that can be consistently caught in freshwater. This information should be very helpful if you want to catch salmon and steelhead from a boat in the Great Lakes! My dad and I started trolling for steelhead in Lake Erie with moderate success. We would troll right by the mouth of the rivers in the fall with Little Cleo’s and generally catch a few steelhead on an average day and catch a dozen steelhead on a good day.
Then we heard that people catch big Chinook salmon, which are called king salmon if they are over 20 pounds, in Lake Ontario and started taking things more seriously. We would drive to Olcott or Oak Orchard Creek in New York and stayed there for a few days at a time. The first time we went up we did not have much luck. After that trip, I found out that my friend Jory Giger worked as a mate on charter boats at Oak Orchard Creek. He went out with us and our luck changed quickly! Jory taught us what we needed to know. One thing I will always remember is that when the downrigger line releases the slack in the line needs to be reeled up as quickly as possible! Jory would reel the slack up super fast and that makes it all the more fun when a fish bites!
My dad also learned that for the salmon derby tournaments they needed to have a neutral observer in each boat. He volunteered to be the observer for several tournaments and got to see several professional fishermen’s tricks to catch loads of Chinook salmon! It was not long before we could catch 20 fish a day between the Chinook salmon, coho salmon, steelhead and lake trout. We were just fishing for fun and released all the fish caught. This means we can never reach a fish limit for the day!
The basic key to success is choosing the correct lures and having lots of poles out that are set at a variety of depths. Ten poles out would be ideal for an average boat! Four poles out on two downriggers, two poles using Dipsey Divers out the sides and two more lines on the planner boards fishing shallow water. Eight poles out on an 18-foot boat is quite the experience! Three or more people need to be on the boat to run this many lines. In the ocean, each angler can typically only fish one pole. However, in the great lakes, each angler can fish three poles. If two people are on the boat only six poles can be used while trolling, which is still pretty good.
Here are the best salmon trolling lures for the great lakes.
1. Dreamweaver and Northern King and Stinger Spoons
Price: Around $10
Dreamweaver and Northern King spoons are different spoons but are very similar. The standard size for both is 3 3/4 inch and weight 1/2 ounce but come in various other sizes. These come in many different color patterns.
Dreamweaver Triple Back Magic and Northern King Natural Born Killer are two of my favorites. The black and silver spoon above is similar to the Triple Black Magic pattern but these plugs are hard to find anywhere.
You may be able to find them on eBay or at local bait shops. Northern King and Dreamweaver went out of business so Stinger spoons are the next best thing.
Dreamweaver and Northern King spoons are considered heavy spoons. Typically salmon trolling speeds are from 2 mph to 3.5mph. These spoons perform best around 3mph. We run black and white down deep on the down-riggers and brighter colors at shallower depths. A good distance of line to run behind the downrigger ball is 5 feet to 15 feet. These are “heavy” spoons but we rarely run these without a rigger, Dipsy or jet diver. Orange works great at shallow depths for salmon and steelhead. However, we have better option to run on the planer board lines.
2. Orange J-9 Jointed Rapala for Coho Salmon
Price: Around $14
Gold Fluorescent Red J-9 Jointed Rapala plug. This plug is 3 1/2 inches and has a white stripe on the bottom.
A random customer at a bait shop suggested this lure to me and boy am I glad he did. What he called an orange J-9 jointed Rapala works magic on coho salmon and steelhead near the surface. This plug should be set far back behind the boat, really far back, the line is only to far back when there is no line left on the reel or when a turn is made and all the lines cross. So actually setting the line 300 to 500 feet back is good. This outproduces any other spoon on the planer board lines running near the surface. I know this works great in Lake Ontario and I want to try it in Lake Erie for Steelhead but have not got a chance to yet. I did try this lure on one pole when running charters in Alaska and it got hit more often than any pole we had on the downriggers when trolling for coho salmon, it was the j-12 version which is slightly larger.
3. Pro Troll Flasher with Fly
Price: Around $15
Pro-Troll Flasher with EChip. This flasher is 8 inches longs and comes in a variety of color. The picture is chrome green.
The flasher rolls in the water and this looks like a salmon feeding and attracts and excites other salmon that see the flasher. I knew people used flashers on the west coast with cut bait, hoochies, and spoons but I had not heard of people using these in lakes before. In Lake Ontario, they work great for king salmon. The fly should match the flasher and the best color depends on the conditions but we typically use green flashers and with green flies.
Ace Hi Fly By Silver Horde
Price: Around $9
The fly should match the flasher and the best color depends on the conditions but we typically use green flashers and with green flies.
Salmon Leader with Hooks
Price: Around $5
If you do not know how to tie double snell knots than you should but a leader for the fly. Just cut the leader to about 32 inches and tie it to the flasher with your favorite fishing knot. You can get away with just using one hook but having two hooks definitely help to bite to catch ratio.
4. Little Cleo Spoons
Price: Around $5
Little Cleo spoons are great for trolling of steelhead and salmon near the surface. Because little Cleo’s are heavy spoons they can be trolled behind the boat without a downrigger, Dipsey Diver or jet diver. They certainly can be used in combination with those devices. We typically run these straight out the back or on planner board lines. These come in a standard smooth finish and in a hammered series that gives a great texture to the spoon that looked like fish scales. My go-to colors are purple-black or blue-green in the hammered series and Gold Fluorescent Stripe in the standard series. The amount of line out will control the depth but we typically run these 200 feet or more behind the boat. This will still be fishing fish near the surface and lure probably does not go deeper than 10 feet or so at a typical 3.o mph trolling speed.
I really like the Acme Little Cleo Spoon. This is a short spoon only 3 3/8 inches for the 3/4 ounce spoon that is typically used for trolling. Little Cloe’s come in sizes ranging from 1/8 once all the way to 1 1/4 once.
5. KO Wobbler
Price: Around $6
The KO Wobbler runs very similar to Little Cleo spoons. They have slightly different action and vibrations than other spoons so it is worth having something a bit different out that also consistently catches fish. These run a bit deeper which is another reason to have different types of spoons out. They are still sent straight out the back or on the planer board lines.
Hopefully, these lure suggestions help. If fish are being marked on the finder for a long time and are resulting in bites then change something! Change colors, troll speeds, depths and make s-turns. Its never exactly the same from day to day but these lure choices certainly have a great chance at producing salmon, steelhead and lake trout. Below I will further discuss basic trolling techniques that help cover as much water area and depth as possible while you troll.
Salmon trolling techniques for the Great Lakes, Downriggers and Planer Boards
Price: Around $60
Boat planer boards are use to run surface line away from the boat similar to an outrigger on the big offshore fishing boats. Planner boards can actually get the line further out than outriggers though. You will need to attach the board to the boat with a rope commonly attached with a planner reel. The fishing line is attached to the rope by using release clips that can slide down the line.
Planer boards are a great way to get two or three lines way off to each side of the boat. This is especially important when fishing for steelhead and coho salmon that are typically in the water near the surface during the fall. This way the boat does not scare the fish and if it does it will move the fish to the side where the lures on the planer boards will be trolled.
These plastic planer boards that are the right size to get lines off to the side of the boat even in wavy conditions. Each planer board is connected to an elevated reel that has 200 feet of 200lb braided line or rope. Fishing poles are set the desired distance behind the boat and then attached to a clip that is allowed to slide down the planer line as more line is released from the fishing pole. This can be done with two or three poles on each side of the boat. This allows a much wider area to be fished during a troll and which greatly increase the chances of catching fish! Typically lines are set 150 to 500 feet to the side of the boat.
Cannon Uni-Troll 10 Manual Downrigger
Price: Around $280
Having at least one downrigger is a must when fishing for salmon. The big fish are often below 40 feet and frequently in the 60 to 100-foot range. Using downriggers takes the guessing out of what depths are being fished. A line counter on the downrigger shows the depth of the ball and the ball can be seen on the fish finder when trolling. The lines should be adjusted to be 3 to 15 feet above the fish. A spoon, plug or flasher with a fly are typically set 3 to 15 feet behind the ball.
Downrigger Stacking Clips
Price: Around $60
Walker Downrigger Stacking Clips are used to fish a second line on a single weight. These clips have stronger springs than the standard Cannon clips which makes them great for fishing for salmon because fast troll speeds are used. There are red clips that are even stronger but these are typically used for flasher and fly setups that are connected to the clip behind the ball. If the line is releasing early the mono line can be twisted before placing it in the clip. The wider line holds better in the clip. When a fish bites and the line is released from the clip and there is slack in the line for a short period of time. Stronger clips make it so the hook is set better before this slack period. This is why I like stronger clips even if the line needs to be jerked to release smaller fish. When fishing for salmon deep there are not many small fish. When walleye fishing using a lighter snap is a good choice.
Stacking rigger is a great way to catch more fish especially king salmon and lake trout that tend to be a deep water depths. If you are not familiar with how to set them up I will briefly explain it here. One line is let out and attached the rigger ball clip and the downrigger is sent down only part way, 20 feet for example. The swivel is placed around the wire and a clip is clipped to the wire. A second pole is let out 10-30 feet and is then is clipped to the second clip on the sacker. The downrigger is then set to its final depth say 90 feet. Not a lure is at 90 feet and a lure is at 70 feet. This allows for more of the water column to be fished. If two downriggers are being used lines can be fished at four different depths. This is awesome when fishing for salmon because they are often located at a variety of depths.
Thanks for visiting Global Fishing Reports. I hope these suggestions help you catch more salmon, steelhead and lake trout!
If you have any suggestions for top lures and baits for salmon and steelhead, leave a comment below!
Captain Cody has worked on charter fishing boats in the Florida Keys, Virgin Islands and Alaska. Cody grew up in Pennsylvania and has also done extensive freshwater fishing including bass fishing tournaments. Cody strives to provide detailed information about the best fishing gear and tactics to help both novice and experienced anglers have a more productive and enjoyable time on the water. Cody also has a background in aerospace engineering and neuroscience but really only takes pride in being good at one thing and that is fishing!