The anadromous trout and salmon that enter the tributaries of the Great Lakes or ocean to spawn seldom actively feed during their migration.
Migrating steelhead, Atlantic salmon, and various trout species retain the ability to feed but rarely do so actively.
Pacific salmon become unable to swallow or digest food once they enter the river.
The instinct or memory of all these fish is still there and they will opportunistically pick up food items on their river migration. Another trait remains present and dates back to their early river life when they were growing to smolt size.
Territorialism was important to their survival and growth and you can be sure that these fish will still defend their “space” when they make their spawning run.
While there will be some appeal to their feeding instinct, when we fish with artificial lures and flies for anadromous trout and salmon, we are primarily entering their territory with the hope that they will attack the intruder. It would seem like something large and gaudy would always be a good choice but we must remember that these fish are in a new and relative shallow environment and it is definitely possible to spook them with something too large and flashy.
The goal with all these anadromous trout and salmon is to get their attention and elicit a positive response. To do this we much match the river and atmospheric conditions with a lure that makes them mad or curious or want to eat but does not spook them. For this discussion the weighted spinner will be used as an example because of the wide variety of sizes, finishes, and weights available for this lure and the fact that it is a very good moving water lure. Later we will talk about matching different lures to different holding water types.
An avid stream angler might fish a small gin-clear creek on a bright sunny day or a large river with clarity measured in inches on a rainy, dark day and everything in between. Obviously one lure won’t work well under this range of conditions.
Muddiness or turbidity blocks out light and decreases lateral visibility. It’s usually caused by suspended sediments from runoff or high water mobilizing the stream bottom sand and silt. Plankton can also cause turbidity, especially on rivers that have large impoundments on them. Streams can also be stained with tannic acids or other compounds that decrease light penetration but allow steelhead and salmon to see well laterally because the water is still relatively clear but colored.
Checking the visibility or water clarity is one of the first things that should be done when you arrive at the stream.
When the river is relatively clear you can do this simply by seeing how deep you can see the bottom. For more turbid conditions I use my net rim or a light colored wading staff. If my net rim disappears in less than a foot of depth I generally will not fish with lures unless the stream is small and I am very familiar with its holding water.
One to two feet of visibility is still kind of marginal for fishing with spinners but if the stream is not too high and you can read the water well you can fish your lures with confidence.
As clarity increases to three feet your options increase greatly as steelhead and salmon can see most moving lures in time to grab them. The coveted “steelhead green” occurs when the clarity reaches four to five feet and a river with this visibility will be prime for lure fishing. When the gravel becomes “fuzzy” at four feet most steelheaders fish with great anticipation.
Slight turbidity or stain helps make the anadromous fish feel like they can leave cover safely to attack you offering. I like to describe this condition as the stream water having just the right amount of mystery in the holding water. Six feet or more of visibility is often described as ultra clear and the visiting fish might be reluctant to leave their sanctuaries.
Atmospheric conditions and the amount of shade also influence lure visibility through amount of light they allow to strike the stream. You should also take note of the fact that different lure finishes as well as their size influence their visibility and effect on fish. Real silver reflects the most light and will be the brightest and most visible of the metallic finishes. Nickel is at the other end of the scale with a very dark, muted flash while brass and copper are between the two extremes. Lighter colors are generally more visible and fluorescent colors are also easy for the fish to see.
For our first example, let’s say your stream is fairly small and it is very clear when you arrive. In addition, the sun is out and the shade is rather sparse. It’s time for a small spinner such as a #2 (using the numbering system of the Mepps Aglia) with a blade in a nickel finish.
If the spinner still seems too bright try one with a black blade or, as is my preference, one with a tarnished copper or brass blade.
For a steelhead outing on medium-sized stream with three to four feet of visibility you might start out with a #4 silver spinner on a cloudy day. If the suns comes out you could switch to a #3 silver spinner or a #4 with a brass blade. On a larger more turbid river it is time to use a #5 spinner with a silver blade and a fluorescent body.
Even when you are on the same river be ready to change your lure when the water and/or the atmospheric conditions change. A deep, well-shaded hole might demand a large spinner while a sunlit shallow run would dictate serious downsizing.
Riffled water surfaces decrease light penetration so use somewhat larger, brighter spinners here than when there is a glassy smooth surface over the same depth of water. As I have been preaching for a while, a black duo lock snap allows you to change lures with almost no downtime.
In addition to matching the conditions with the size and finish of your spinner you should also modify your technique as the visibility decreases. Upstream casts and downstream retrieves are only effective when there is enough visibility for the fish to see your lure in time to intercept it. As visibility decreases it is important to slow your presentation and increase the time the lure is spinning near the steelhead or salmon. Increasing your cross stream casts should be the plan as the water clarity wanes. Eventually you will be quartering your casts downstream so the spinner hangs in front of the fish. This is always an effective presentation but becomes necessary when visibility drops below two feet. Fortunately, this increase in turbidity allows you to get above the fish, even in small streams, without spooking them.
Often the fish will help you match your lure with the conditions. If you are not seeing any interest from the salmon and/or steelhead and you know they are present, your spinner may not be large or bright enough to get their attention in time for them to strike it. Conversely, if the fish follow and don’t hit the spinner or chase and then flare away, the spinner may be too bright or gaudy.
In addition to matching the conditions it will also pay off choosing the best lure for the type of holding water that you are fishing. Spinners and spoons are ideal for fishing fast water and spots where you have to get down to the fishing in a hurry, often called pocket water.
They are also ideal for trying to lure out fish from just below a log or other cover where you need to get down in a hurry. Spinners will also draw salmon and steelhead out from overhead cover like overhanging vegetation and undercut banks.
Weighted spinners have action (spin) at very slow retrieves so they are the first choice when you need to make upstream casts and downstream retrieves.
High-action diving plugs are best for fishing straight downstream from your position and can be held against the current in one spot. Or they can be backed down against the current at a rate slower than the current or inched back for another cast. They will help you out when the water is quite dirty as they can be held in place and with internal rattles help the fish find them. They are also helpful when you are above a log jam and want to back a lure under the floating wood and other debris caught above the jam. Overhanging vegetation that touches the water surface would be another spot to back these lures under.
Recently minnow plugs or stickbaits have found a following among cast and retrieve river steelheaders. They work especially well in relatively open water with moderate current and depth like broad tailouts and long runs.
These lures remind steelhead and salmon of the baitfish they preyed on before beginning their river migration. Now they represent intruders in their space and will often result in a crushing strike. Because they look real, a long look in a slow run will increase the chance the fish will grab them. Just the opposite of what might happen when a steelhead or salmon gets to study an unnatural spinner in the same water.
If the run is very narrow, constricted by a rock wall or clay formation on one side, a jig under a float would be a very effective lure as you could drift the holding water with just a few presentations rather than making many casts across the run with other lures. Of course, if you are able to get to the top of the run without spooking the fish you could back a plug down it. And, if you were able to wade to the bottom of the run you could cast a spinner straight upstream and retrieve through the holding water.
Fishing rivers with lures that you cast and retrieve is a very active way to fish for migrating salmon and steelhead.
Covering lots of water and switching lures to match the conditions and the water type will increase your chances for hook-ups. Don’t forget the duo lock snap so that you will be able to make the changes quickly and easily.
A final tip as you choose your lure to match the situation would be to err on the side of being too small rather than too large and gaudy. Using the smallest lure that can be cast far enough, getting down to the fish in their holding area, attracting their attention and eliciting a strike will be the best plan.
- written by Jim Bedford