Saturday, February 4th, 2023
Saturday, February 4th, 2023

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Don’t give up on river salmon

By Mike Gnatkowski

Contributing Writer

Salmon runs are a fraction of what they use to be, but the good news is if you can catch one it might just be the biggest you’ve ever caught. These bigger fish make hitting rivers worthwhile. 

When salmon were first stocked in the Great Lakes it was assumed that they wouldn’t bite once they entered rivers. Savvy anglers quickly dispelled that notion and put an end to snagging. 

Even though a salmon’s stomach atrophies to make room for spawn and milt they still bite after entering a river in the fall. “Why” isn’t clear when they technically can’t swallow, but they do. Experts claim they are eliminating the spawn of other salmon from the equation. I’m not sure. All I know is that I’ve had river kings swallow a gob of spawn so far down their throat they were bleeding from the gills. 

Salmon will smash wiggling plugs and spinners, too. No one’s sure if it’s because they see it as a threat or it’s a reflex action from years of feeding out in the lake, but given the right lure and presentation it’s a good way to catch river salmon. 

Many of the salmon I first caught in the river were from the business end of a drift boat. It was a long, frustrating learning process. I caught a few salmon on your typical crankbaits like Hot-N-Tots and Wiggle Warts, but I wasn’t catching as many as I should have. I contacted my drift boat-fishing mentor Joe Schwind and asked what my problem was. 

I quickly learned that salmon like (or maybe dislike) more of a side-to-side Flatfish-type wobble than the jittery action of a Hot-N-Tot. Once I changed lures I started slaying the river kings by concentrating on slightly slower pools and runs more conducive to the wobble. 

One thing you have to do when fishing salmon is be deliberate. Rather than hot-shotting by rowing the boat to slowly slip downstream, I learned that it’s better to anchor and bump the boat along giving the salmon plenty of time to get aggravated and strike.

I eventually discovered that plugs weren’t the only lures that would catch salmon. Friend Fred Kirchner showed me that river kings would crunch in-line spinners, too. The beauty of the spinners was that you could fish locations you couldn’t fish any other way, places where resting salmon spent the majority of their time. 

Deep undercut banks, logs, lay downs, tail-outs, and stumps that salmon use for cover and where you can’t use most techniques can be fished with spinners. The idea is to cast slightly upstream, hold your rod tip low to the water pointed slightly downstream, and retrieve the spinner across the current allowing it to swing in a wide arch. Five- to seven-foot deep runs are ideal spots to retrieve the spinner across the top of the junk without getting snagged. It takes a little practice and some knowledge of the river, but the technique covers a lot of water and can be deadly. 

Heavy spinners with a No. 5 blade work best. The idea is to let the spinner slowly swing across the current. Most commercial spinners will work, but serious anglers usually make their own. It’s cheaper and you can customize the hooks, tubing, and tape on the spinner. 

Even though salmon don’t eat while they’re in the river they will swallow a big chunk of spawn. Anchor above a deep run or hole and slowly allow the spawn to bounce back through productive water. If you’re not getting snagged you’re not fishing in the right place. To be successful requires a sense of feel. Huge salmon only peck like perch at the spawn and all you feel is a sense of weight or a subtle tick. Many times by then they have it swallowed. 

Rig up with a ¾- to 1-ounce pencil lead sinker and run the spawn on a dropper snelled to a No. 4 treble or 1/0 single hook above. You can add a bobber to serve as a strike indicator if you’d like to. 

Frequent some of the cleaning stations to secure a supply of spawn. The eggs might still be in the skein. Take the skein of eggs and cut it down the middle and lay it open. Then work 20 Mule Team Borax, available at your local grocery store, into the folds of the eggs. Allow the eggs to air dry for an hour or so and then vacuum seal them for future use. You can add some commercial egg cure for a little added color if you want. Store the eggs in a 1-gallon paint bucket while you’re fishing and try to prevent getting the eggs on your boat. You’ll need a chisel to get them off! 

Skein is best fished with a bait-casting reel and an 8- to 81⁄2-foot rod. Graphite is preferred for its superior sensitivity. Use 14- to 20-pound-test for your main line and a 12-pound leader. Have your rigs tied up ahead of time so you can re-rig fast!

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