How to Fish Meat Rigs for Salmon: The Complete Guide
It’s the time of year that every salmon fisherman loves. Large king and coho salmon are congregating close to shore and getting ready to migrate upriver. If you haven’t gotten out on the water yet, you’re probably chomping at the bit to get your line in the water.
The most common way to catch salmon this time of year is to troll for them with downriggers. If you’ve ever been trolling for salmon, you’ve probably heard of fishing a meat rig. So what exactly is a meat rig, and how do you fish them for salmon?
A meat rig is similar to a traditional herring or hoochie trolling rig, except the angler ties several flies further up the line in front of the bait. The idea with this is to simulate baitfish feeding on smaller fish and entice the salmon to bite. Everything else in the meat rig setup is the same as a traditional salmon tolling rig.
Want to learn more? You’re in luck! In this article, we’ll go into detail on the exact specifics of meat rigs, how to make a meat rig, as well as how to fish them. We’ll also cover the types of salmon you can catch with meat rigs, as well as general tips and tricks to catch more fish. Let’s get to!
What is a Meat Rig?
As we mentioned earlier, a meat rig is very similar to a traditional salmon trolling rig – with the addition of several flies further up on the line. The flies are usually bright in color and simulate small fish that the bait might be chasing to feed.
Meat rigs are best trolled at 20 to 40 feet underwater, and at speeds of 1 to 5 mph. Now that you know what they are, let’s get into how to make a meat rig.
How to Make a Meat Rig
Meat rigs comprise of 4 different components: a flasher, leader, bait rig, and one or two flies. You may have noticed that this is very similar to the traditional salmon trolling leader we went over in our trolling for salmon with downriggers article. Let’s go into detail on each piece of the meat rig.
The flasher is a metal or plastic plate that’s used to attract salmon that might be too far away to see your lure. The flasher imitates a hurt baitfish or other underwater animal and attracts curious salmon. Once they get close enough to see your bait and the flies they forget about the flasher and go after it instead.
Not only do flashers attract salmon with the shiny coating, but they also make a vibration in the water that simulates a wounded fish.
For meat rigs, we recommend using a 20 to 30 monofilament leader between 4 and 6 feet long. For coho salmon make your leader around 4 feet long. With king salmon, you can go longer: 6 feet long isn’t uncommon.
The big difference between normal salmon rigs and a meat rig is the addition of a fly halfway between the flasher and your bait. We like to tie the fly around 2 to 3 feet back from the flasher, then tie the bait on the end of the remaining leader.
We typically use pink or chartreuse colored flies. You can use a 1 to 2-inch long saltwater fly, or even a small hoochie squid as your attracter. Pick these up at your local bait shop.
Lastly, you’ll need to tie on your bait rig. We like to use herring for both coho and king salmon, paired with a double single rig. Cut plug the herring, then thread the tailing hook through the top of the cut end of the herring. After the trailing hook, hook the second hook through the top of the herring as well.
This will allow the plug cut herring to spin properly in the water while being trolled. We like using the double hook rigs because they increase your chances of hooking the fish.
How to Fish Meat Rigs
Now that you’ve made your meat rig for salmon, let’s discuss how to properly fish it. Meat rigs are a great choice for fishing for both coho salmon and king salmon.
Early Season Meat Rigs
Early on in the season (June to August) you should focus trolling your meat rig in the open ocean. If you’re fishing off the Oregon or Washington coasts, you can often find coho and king salmon less than a mile offshore.
Wait until the weather is good and be sure to follow any coast guard guidelines. While the salmon are smaller this time of year, it’s often the most productive fishing you’ll experience. There have been days where we can hardly keep our meat rigs in the water before getting a salmon on.
Set your downrigger down to ~20 feet. If you’re using multiple downriggers, try them out at depths from 15 feet to 40 feet. Troll at 2 to 3 miles per hour. If you want to specifically catch coho salmon, you can speed up to 4 or 5 miles per hour. For king salmon, we recommend slowing down to 1 to 2 mph. Once you start getting bites a certain depth, switch them all to that depth.
It’s worth noting that especially early on in the season, check the local salmon fishing regulations to see how many fish you can keep. You’ll also often end up catching both native and farmed fish. Check their adipose fin for clipping and only keep what you are allowed to!
Late Season Meat Rigs
Once the salmon run season starts (Late August through October), we move our meat rig fishing inshore to bays and river inlets. This is where hungry salmon like to hang out as they wait for the first big rain so they can swim upriver and spawn. Adjust your downrigger depth to 15 or 20 feet depending on how deep the bay or inlet is.
Be sure to keep an eye on your depth finder as dragging your downrigger weight on the bottom is a quick way to lose your setup. The fish this time of year won’t be feeding as actively, but they’ll also be larger. It’s not uncommon for king salmon to reach 30+ lbs this time of year, with coho growing up to +15 lbs.
Types of Salmon You Can Catch with a Meat Rig
Guess what? You can catch pretty much all types of salmon with meat rigs. King salmon and coho salmon, however, are the most commonly targeted species.
Since downriggers help sink your meat rig to the exact depth you want it, they work well for most situations. There is a misconception that downriggers are only meant for fishing at deep depths. We’ve used downriggers to fish for coho salmon at only 15 feet deep and seen great results.
Do You Need a Downrigger?
Since downriggers allow you to get your meat rig to the desired depth, is there a way to fish a meat rig without a downrigger? Of course, there is! If the salmon you’re fishing for are only 10 or 15 feet down, you can easily get your meat rig to that depth using traditional weights or a diver.
We recommend checking out our article on how to troll for salmon without using a downrigger to learn more.
Tips and Tricks for Fishing a Meat Rig
- Bleed your salmon after landing it. Be sure to bleed your salmon after landing it. This ensures the meat doesn’t spoil and keeps the fresh flavor more intact. All you need to do is cut the salmon behind the gills after you’ve killed it, and put it in a cooler. Be sure to clean your cooler afterward (obviously).
- Respect salmon laws. Salmon are one of the most prized fish to fish for on the west coast, and in recent years their numbers have gotten drastically lower. Please respect all fishing limit laws and only take what you’ll use from the ocean. This should be common sense, but we still see fishermen keeping fish that are too small or unnecessarily harming salmon that aren’t of legal size all the time. Be respectful!
- Be aware of where your meat rigs are. While downriggers are great for getting your meat rig far away from your boat, always be aware of how far back it is and how deep you’re trolling. The most popular salmon fishing areas can get very crowded on the weekends and it’s easy to snag your line on someone else’s. This almost always results in polluting the water as well as lost fish.
- Stock up on bait ahead of time. Since meat rigs require you to use a cut plug herring, we recommend buying a bunch the day before from your local bait shop. Keep them refrigerated and bring them along on your boat. You’ll need to replace the bait every 30 or so minutes, so it pays to have lots on hand. We also like to add several drops of anise oil to each herring before rigging it.
Fishing a meat rig for salmon is one of the most effective methods for catching both coho and king salmon. The extra attractant of the flies mixed with the natural scent of the bait and action of the flasher is a killer combination. And with the price of salmon continuing to go up, fishing a meat rig can be a valuable alternative.
Now that you know how to fish meat rigs for salmon, we hope you’ll refine our methods even more. Come up with a new setting for your meat rig? Let us know about it in the comments below.