Best Salmon Lures for Rivers: The Ultimate Guide

June 16, 2020

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Salmon fishing is one of the great pastimes of Northwestern fishermen. Each summer thousands of salmon are caught off the coast of California, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska as they feed on herring and other baitfish. But as every salmon fisherman knows, the best is yet to come. The craziest season for salmon fishing is in the fall when they migrate into freshwater rivers. Millions of fish compress into small waterways that allow anyone with a rod and hook a chance at catching a +20 lb fish. So what are the best salmon lures for river fishing?

You’ve come to the right place! In this article, we’ll go over our time tested lures for all types of salmon, from the legendary king salmon to the lesser-known chum salmon. We’ll also talk about which lures are best depending on the weather and how far into the spawning season you are. First, let’s go over the different kinds of salmon you can catch in rivers.

Best Salmon Lures for Rivers

Types of Salmon That Can be Caught in Rivers

There are 5 different types of salmon that can be caught in rivers throughout the west coast. The two most common species of salmon targeted by sports fishermen are king salmon and coho salmon. Let’s start with them.

King salmon can be identified by their silvery sides and dark green and blue backs. They also have small black spots on their tails and the upper half of their bodies. King salmon usually grow up to an average of 20 to 25 lbs. 

Coho salmon look almost identical to king salmon, except that they often only grow to 15 lbs. The easiest way to tell the difference between the two is to look inside their mouths. King salmon will have black gums and lower jaw, while coho salmon have white gums.

Pink salmon can also be caught in rivers, but only grow to be 5 lbs in weight. They are the most common Pacific salmon, with huge schools swimming upriver every other year to spawn. Pink salmon are also called humpback salmon due to the physical changes the males go through when spawning. Because they only grow to 5 lbs, they aren’t sportfished as much as king and coho salmon.

Less Targeted Species

Sockeye salmon are also smaller than coho and king salmon, growing to an average of 10 lbs as adults. Sockeye salmon are the third most common salmon species behind pink salmon and chum salmon. They live in similar environments as the other species and also migrate upriver to spawn.

Chum salmon are the last salmon species you can catch in rivers, and probably the least targeted by sports fishermen. They grow larger than pink and sockeye salmon, with their average adult weight clocking in at around 15 lbs. Chum salmon aren’t the most desirable salmon to fish for because their meat becomes bad tasting by the time they enter rivers to spawn. Chum salmon are best used for smoking or salmon jerky.

The Best King Salmon Lures for Rivers

Let’s start with the most desirable salmon to catch in rivers: king salmon. Early in the spawning season, the best lures to use for king salmon are cut plug herring or Kwikfish. This is our favorite time to fish for king salmon in rivers because they’re often fresh from the ocean and their meat still tastes great. Wait for the first big rain in your area which will cue the king salmon to begin their migration upriver to spawn. We recommend trolling your herring or Kwikfish with a medium-sized diver to get it down to where the king salmon are swimming.

After it’s rained a few times and you are later in the spawning season (October or November), we recommend switching to back trolling with either salmon roe, salmon beads, or Kwikfish. At this stage the king salmon are no longer eating and will only strike at lures that irritate them or play into their territoriality. Check out our salmon roe bait article on how to make a proper salmon roe rig. And as always, be sure to cover your lures with a masking scent such anise oil!

The Best Coho Salmon Lures for Rivers

Coho salmon go after very similar lures in rivers as king salmon. The best coho salmon lures for rivers early on in the season are cut plug herring and silver spoons. We like using Luhr Jensen Coyote or Kastmaster spoons in silver or chartreuse colors. Focus on fishing the inlets of rivers where the fresh water mixes with saltwater, and if you want to add extra action to your lures consider using a flasher.

Once the fall rains start the best coho salmon lures for rivers are salmon roe, salmon bead rigs, and smaller Kwikfish. Use a similar presentation and tackle setup as you would for king salmon.

The Best Pink Salmon Lures for Rivers

Since pink salmon run smaller than the other species of salmon, we recommend sizing down your tackle and lures setups. Early in the spawning season, we like to use Dick Nite spoons and Marabou Twitch jigs in pink. The spoons should be trolled behind a boat with a diver, while the jigs can be trolled or cast from shore. We recommend casting the jigs in front of where the pink salmon are swimming then bouncing it off the bottom.

Later in the season focus on brightly colored lures in pink and white. Skip the spoons in favor of Marabou Twitch jigs or PLine Lazer Minnows. Both of these lures will annoy frantic pink salmon into biting.

The Best Sockeye Salmon Lures for Rivers

Sockeye salmon can be caught in droves both early in their season and late if you use the correct type of lure. Many fishermen make the mistake of using brightly colored flashy lures that you would use with other salmon when the best lure for sockeye is often very subtle. 

Many fishermen swear by using almost a bare hook. The most common lure is a hook with a small piece of pink yarn tied to it. Focus on finding where the schools are most concentrated, then cast your lure directly into the group. Your goal is to bump them in the face with your lure in order to annoy them enough to lash out at it.

The Best Chum Salmon Lures for Rivers

Last and probably least are the best lures for chum salmon in rivers. Since chum salmon also spawn in great numbers and aren’t feeding by the time they’re in rivers, your best bet will be to annoy them into biting with a Marabou Twitch jig, pink-colored Kwikfish, or Spin Glo lures. We like to also cover our lures in Mike’s Glo Scent to mask any foreign smells we may have added while tying the lure onto our line.

Focus on fishing your jigs with a floating bobber setup or flipping it in front of schools of chum salmon. The Kwikfish and Spin Glo lures should be trolled with a diver like other similar coho and king salmon setups. If the water is shallow enough you can also use small egg weights to sink your lure to the appropriate depth.

Parting Thoughts

Figuring out which lure to use when fishing for salmon in rivers can be a difficult task. There are many different options and you’ll see it all while out on the water. We hope after reading this article you’ll feel more confident picking out the best salmon lures for river fishing. Got a favorite salmon lure we didn’t mention? Let us know what it is in the comments below. 

Happy Hunting!

P.S. Here’s a picture of Finn with a couple of nice coho salmon he caught on the Kenai River in Alaska.

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