Best Gear For Great Lakes River Salmon In 2020
Best Gear For Great Lakes Salmon

Best Gear For Great Lakes River Salmon In 2020

Everything you need to know to get set up for great lakes salmon from a top salmon fishing guide. All the best gear for great lakes salmon fishing plus some tips to get you catching more Salmon.

I have been guiding for 20 years and fishing for great lakes salmon in rivers all around Lake Ontario, Lake Huron and Lake Erie for over 35 years. This is the advice and recommendations that I give to all my clients that want the best gear for great lakes river salmon.

Get Set-Up Right For More Salmon

Some guys catch the occasional salmon if they are lucky, and some guys catch a sh!t load of salmon and they do it easily and regularly. Why is it that some guys just don’t catch many?

Knowing when, where, and how to catch salmon is important, but I assure you that the guys that are catching all the salmon also use the best gear for great lakes river salmon and if you want to start catching salmon like they do you should be using the best gear too.

I’ve said it many times that you could probably build an entire house using only a hand held screw driver and a saw, but why would you when it’s so much better if you had a hammer and a drill. Sounds pretty dumb to think you could get away with using just a screw driver right?

So why do guys think catching salmon on their 7 foot multipurpose rod is a good idea? Or why are they using a 13 foot surf casting rods as thick as a baseball bat, with a dumbell sized chunk of lead and a float that’s as big as my foot and a giant treble hook? These are the guys that rarely catch fish and struggle for just 1 salmon!

The right gear is like the right tool for the job and it can significantly help you catch more salmon.

For information on the when, where and how to fish for great lakes salmon in rivers check out our Fishing For Salmon Page

The 4 Best Spinning Rods For River Salmon

When it comes to spinning rods for great lakes salmon in the rivers there are rods for throwing lures and rods for using floats. There are also rods that are suitable for both methods.

Rods in the 8’6″ and 9’6″ range are best for casting lures and can also be used for float fishing or for bottom bouncing.

Rods in the 10 foot to 11 foot range are my preferred choice for an all around rod that is best for both casting lures and for float fishing. This is also a great size for pier and shore casting into the great lakes.

Rods in the 11 to 13 foot range are best for guys that just want to float fish for salmon.

I recommend rods rated between 10lb to 20lb line. Going heavier is not recommended because even though many of the salmon may be over 30 pounds the leader at the bait may need to be as low as 8lb or 10lb test when float fishing to get those skittish salmon in gin-clear water to bite.

Having a super heavy rod rated for 30 or 40 lbs is useless, especially considering many reel drags will only go up to 30lbs anyways and almost never will you need 20 or 30lb test.

St. Croix Avid Salmon & Steelhead Spinning Rod

BEST ROD – This is one of the best all around high end salmon spinning rods on the market and one I use myself for both casting and for float fishing for salmon.

The 10’6″ Medium 8 – 12lb, would be great for both casting lures or using floats. Model # AVS106MF2

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Fenwick HMX Salmon & Steelhead Spinning Rod

MOST POPULAR – If you want a rod with a slightly higher line rating this is it. I know a lot of guys that use this rod and I have used it myself. This is a favorite for casting lures, bottom bouncing and for float fishing for salmon.

Get the Medium 10’6″ long  8-15lbs model # HMX106M-MFS-2

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St. Croix Triumph Salmon & Steelhead Spinning Rod

UNDER $160.00

This is a great spinning rod for casting lures, bottom bouncing or it could double as a short float rod.

Get the Med-Heavy, 8’6″ long  8-17lbs model # TRSS86MHF2

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Okuma Celilo Salmon & Steelhead Spinning Rod

UNDER $100.00

This is a good economy spinning rod for casting lures, bottom bouncing or as a short float rod.

Get the Med-Heavy, 9 foot 10-30lbs model # CE-S-902MHa or the 8’6″ Med or Heavy rod model# CE-S-862Ma

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St. Croix Wild River Salmon & Steelhead Bait Cast Rod

BEST BAIT-CAST ROD – Some anglers prefer to cast lures and run their floats using bait-cast reels. This is a great rod for casting lures, bottom bouncing or it could double as a short float rod.

The 10’6″ Med-Heavy would be great for both casting lures or using floats. Model # WRC106MHM2

The 8’6″ Heavy rod would be great for casting lures. model #WRC86HF2

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Daiwa Tatula 100 Baitcast Reel


Some anglers like to use bait cast reels on larger deeper faster water. The bait cast reel can be used to float fish or for casting lures. The Daiwa Tutula 100HS or HSL (Left Hand) is the prefered option.

Get It At These Great Retailers

4 Best Spinning Reels For River Salmon

The right spinning reel can make all the difference. A bad drag will loose you fish. A smooth drag can make all the difference.

Large salmon can make long fast runs that can burn-out the bearing and drags of cheap reels. Getting an mid-range to high-end reels is the best idea.

You also need to consider how the line comes off the reel if you plan to float fish a lot. I have had many clients bring out reels that they struggle with all day either because it’s not a great reel or because they have the wrong line. Some reels are just not as good as others for this but these ones I have tried and liked.

Shimano Stradic CI4+ FB

Best Reel – The Shimano Stradic is the reel that I have used for years and is one of the best rated reel for great lakes salmon and steelhead.

This reel is great for casting and for float fishing.

You want the 6:2:1 Gear ratio – Model # Model STCI44000XGFB

Pflueger Supreme XT Spinning Reel

Another Great reel with great drag system capable of handling the big salmon.

The SUPXTSP35X model holds up to 155 yards of 10lb test so it may be best to get the SUPXTSP40X model which will give you 195 yards of 12 pound test. The 40x model holds more line and may be best if you do any casting from shore into the lake.

Abu Garcia Revo SX Spinning Reel

Another good reel for salmon fishing at a more affordable price. Get the REVO2SX40 model which holds the most line at 12lb test. If you fish mostly smaller rivers where you can easily walk with a running salmon the smaller REVO2SX30 model should work.

Pflueger President Spinning Reel

Best Economy Reel – A very popular and well rated reel that can still handle great lakes salmon. This reel comes in under $100 at some retailers.

For smaller rivers the  
PRESSP35X model will be good and for bigger rivers or for shore casting into the lake go for the PRESSP40X

Best Line For River Salmon

When it comes to the best gear for great lakes river salmon it really doesn’t matter if you have a great rod and a great reel if you have crappy line or the wrong size of line. The best all-around line for river salmon is 12 lb test unless you are using a braided line.

If you plan on float fishing sometimes or most of the time the thinner diameter 12lb line will come off the reel better and wont be to heavy to sag the line when you hold the rod up high.

If you are going to be throwing just lures and not doing any float fishing then you can go up to 14lb. I recommend braided lines 20 to 30lbs if you are just going to throw lures.

Braided Lines For Salmon and Steelhead

Some guys love braid and some guys hate it! It does take some getting used to but it has a lot of benefits.


  • No stretch gives you better hook sets at longer distances and better hook sets in general.
  • More sensitive so you may feel every rock and bump on your lure.
  • No line twist.
  • Thinner diameter for a heavier line so you can get more on the spool.
  • Many braids will float which is better for line mending with floats
  • Super strong and tough.
  • Somewhat abrasion resistant


  • More line tip wrap issues.
  • No stretch to cushion hard hook sets on light leaders – PRO TIP – Adding a mono leader when casting lures or float fishing can help with shock absorption on the hook set.
  • May freeze into a solid block if you get it wet below freezing
  • Some braids may absorb water and sink or are more likely to freeze.
  • May expand and slip around reel spool if gets wet and then dries – PRO TIP – Add 20 feet of mono at the base of the reel before adding the braid and use and mono-to-braid knot to connect the lines.

SpiderWire Braided Line

Braided lines have no stretch and often float. You’re hook set’s will be better and you will feel more bumps on you lure because it is more sensitive.
Braided lines like this one can be good for both float fishing and casting lures.

Sufix 832 Advanced Superline Braid

A popular braided line for the float and lure guys that fish great lakes salmon and steelhead.

I usually run 30lb test.

Using braided lines on very stiff rods may mean more leader break-offs on the hook set.

Raven Mono

My favorite line for centerpin reels but I also use it on many of my spinning reels for both float fishing and casting lures.

For salmon I go with 12lb.

For float fishing only I go with the high viz yellow but for mixed casting and float fishing the green line is best.

Sufix Elite Premium Mono

A very popular mono line for both casting lures or float fishing.

I use 12lb if I am mostly float fishing and casting lures and if I only want to cast lures I use 14lb for salmon.

I use the green or clear for multipurpose and use the high-viz yellow for float fishing.

Best Terminal Tackle For River Salmon

Other Gear For River Fishing - Waders, Vests, Jackets and More

There is a lot of river fishing gear that is not salmon specific, like waders, boots, vest, packs etc.

Raven FM Floats

The FM Model is my go to float in almost all water conditions for salmon and steelhead and I have been using it for about 10 years. You can not go wrong with this float.


  • 4.2g for smaller shallower rivers.
  • 5g for small to medium sized rivers with shallow to 8 feet foot depths.
  • 6.2g is my go-to size for most rivers and with a slightly bigger profile it can be easier to see at longer distances
  • 11g (FD Model) for faster deeper and bigger rivers.

Float Caps

These are the best float caps for multiple brands of floats. I use them for Raven and Drennan floats seen here.

Raven FX Slip Float

Some guys like to use slip floats. Use the SX float for shallower water and the FX 10g and 16gm for very deep water.

 I only use these on really deep rivers like the Niagara River.

You will need float stops when using a slip float.

Drennan Loafer Floats

A very popular and great float for stealth in super clear water.

I use the 6.4g for most rivers under 6 feet and go to the 8g for deeper water. I use the 4.4g for super low clear water.

Best Leader For Salmon

Drennan Leader

This is one of the most popular leaders in my area. For most salmon I use the 6lb – Don’t let the pound test fool you, this line is not properly rated, I can lift a 10lb dumbell with this, it;s closer to 12lb test and used by most of the people I fish with and has been my go-to for steelhead and salmon for many years.


6lb for most salmon rivers.

5lbs for gin clear water for nervous salmon.

4lb for most steelhead conditions.

3lb for gin clear steelhead water.

Seaguar STS Fluorocarbon Leader

A well rated popular leader for steelhead and salmon


  • 6lb for steelhead.
  • 8lb for salmon/super clear water.
  • 10lb most salmon river conditions.

Raven X-Small Swivels

Swivels are important for connecting your leader to your main line. I have been running raven XS swivels for steelhead and salmon for over 10 years. Stick with the XS size for salmon.

Option #2

SPRO is a super strong swivel with a 65lb rating and is great for salmon.

Split Shots

Split shots are an important part of your rig.

Don’t but the cheap silver shinny ones.

These are made out of lead.

Option #2

Non-Lead Split shots for those areas that have banned the use of lead. Use the AB size for salmon.

Best Hooks For River Salmon

Raven Specialist

This has been one of my go-to hooks for salmon and steelhead for many years.

I use size 8 or 6 for most salmon and size 8 or 10 for steelhead.

Gamakatsu Octopus Hooks

Gamakatsu hooks are some of the strongest and sharpest hooks and are known around the world for performance, durability and reliability.

Use them for roe, worm, and plastics.

Color: Black Nickel


  • size 10 for low and clear and small roe bags
  • size 8 and 6 for bigger water and most conditions.

Blackbird Sabretooth Premium Hooks

Blackbird Sabretooth Premium Hooks by Redwing Tackle are the hooks of choice for salmon, steelhead and trout anglers around the world. These chemically sharpened are manufactured from the finest quality high carbon steel, producing unparalleled strength. These hooks are great for use with egg sacs and skein.

Use size #8 or #6 for most situations.

Best Lures For Salmon In Rivers

Salmon Like flashy erratic moving lures. These lures below are some of my most productive lures. Read the description for tips on how to best use them.

Kwikfish X-Treme lures

One of my Favorite salmon and Steelhead lures.

Cast straight across the river and retrieve super slow. The current will make this lure wiggle like crazy enticing some seriously hard hits.

My Best Colors:

  • MJ-Black-Holo Glitter
  • Slammer
  • Blazin’ Green UV
  • Gold Digger
  • Silver-Blue Scale
  • Silver

Best Sizes:

  • 2 3/4 in. – Small to Medium sized rivers
  • 3 13/16 in. – Small to large sized rivers
  • 4 1/14 in. – large sized rivers and Pier fishing

Vibrax Spinner

My Favorite spinner for salmon and steelhead.

Good for shallow to medium depths of up to 8 feet.

Cast straight across the river and retrieve super slow. The current will make this lure spin. keep the rod tip up for shallower water and lower the tip for deeper water. Try to get this 1 or 2 feet off the bottom.

My Best Colors:

  • Silver Shiner
  • Fluorescent Red-Fluorescent Yellow-Silver UV
  • Hot Pepper
  • Gold Shiner
  • Rainbow Trout

Best Sizes:

  • #3 – Small to Medium sized rivers
  • #3&4 in. – Small to large sized rivers
  • #4. – large sized rivers and Pier fishing

Vibrax Bullet

I use this spinner the same way as the other Vibrax but in deeper faster water and in bigger rivers. The blade on this spinner is better in this type of water.

Rapala Shad Rap

The 2 3/4 inch shad rap retreived slow to medium with added twitches and pauses has caught a lot of salmon for me.

Best Colors:

  • Shad
  • Clown
  • Silver
  • Silver Blue

Little Cleo Spoons

In slower moving water spoons can be a great bait for salmon and steelhead.

Slow retrieve these just off the bottom the same way you would with a Vibrax Spinner.

Size: 2/5oz and 3/4oz

Favorite Colors:

  • Hammered Nickel Blue
  • Hammered Nickel Green
  • Nicke
  • Gold
  • Glow Green Splatter
  • Glow Blue Anchovy
  • Glow Green Anchovy

Luhr Jensen Krocodile Spoon

A favorite spoon among river anglers for salmon, steelhead and trout. 
Size: 3 1/4 for salmon

My Favorite Colors:
  • Chrome/Silver Prism-Lite
  • Hammered Chrome Neon Blue
  • Chrome Neon Blue Stripe
  • Chrome Green Mackerel
  • Brass/Gold Prism-Lite
  • Firetiger

Jigs For Salmon

Some anglers are using jigs to fish for salmon. You can use them under a float or just cast  it with no float and fish them with an up a down jigging motion across the pool as it slowly drifts down the river. I have used both these methods with success on both salmon and steelhead.

Use 1/2oz or 1/4 jigs for casting and retrieving and use 1/16oz , 1/32oz and 1/64oz for below your float.

I have done well with Olive, Black, White and chartreuse but other colors might work for you.

Jigs for Floats – HERE

Jigs for casting –HERE

Best Nets For River Salmon Fishing

Here’s the ting with salmon nets when you are walking and wading the rivers.

If your net is really big and is perfect fro netting, lifting the huge salmon out of the water and onto the bank it’s going to be big, bulky and heavy. Too heavy to hang on the back of your jacket or fishing vest so you’re going to have to carry it by hand and then leave it on shore while you wade out into the water.

There problem is that once you get that huge 3o or 40 pound salmon on the line and it decides to run a half mile down the river your net isn’t with you, it on the bank way up the river. And even if you managed to walk back to the bank while you were fighting the fish you would need to carry it in one hand and fight the fish in the other, but, how do you reel? This is a big problem sometimes!

The other option is a much smaller and lighter net that you can hang off your back so it goes where you go. The problem with these nets is that they are much smaller and often you can’t fit the entire salmon in the net and drag it out of the water.

So what do do?

I have chosen to go with the smaller net.

I get the fish as close to shore as I can and I use the net to just get the head and some or most of the body in the net . The salmon can’t swim away if his head is pushing straight into the net which allows me to subdue the salmon along or on the bank until I can get the hooks out and a quick picture.

Also, with big Chinook salmon they can be tailed. Meaning they can be picked up by the tail due to the hard tail bone so if i need to get the fish to shore once I get it’s head in the net I grab it by the tail.

I never lift the salmon up and out of the water with the smaller nets, I drag them. This has always worked for me and is what I recommend and you may be a little clumsy with it a first but you will get the hang of it.

Frabill Wading Net 19 X15"

I have been using this net for many years for steelhead and salmon when wading. This is my go-to net.

Truthfully it’s not the best net for putting 30lb salmon in, but it’s one of the only nets suitable for salmon and is still small enough that you can hook it to the back of your jacket without it weighing you down.

Get the 19″ x 25″ net for steelhead and salmon.

Ranger Salmon and Steelhead Net

This is another popular and great lightweight compact net that you can hang off your back with a deep 36″ net that can hold most salmon.

Ranger Big Game Net

If you want a net that you can put the entire salmon in and lift the whole fish out of the water then this is it.

It’s big and too heavy to hang off your back when wading so if you don’t mind leaving it on the bank this is a good net for salmon.

Best Waders, Boots, Vests and MORE . . . . .

Check out our Best Gear Page for all the river gear you would need for a successful day of salmon fishing. That page covers:

  • Waders
  • Boots
  • Vests
  • Packs
  • Forceps
  • Nets
  • Nippers
  • MORE . . . . .

Be Sure To Check Out These Pages Next

Best Salmon Guides In Ontario

Tips and Advice for fishing Great Lakes Salmon

Centerpin Fishing For Beginners

All about Centerpin Fishing For Steelhead and Salmon

Fishing for Steelhead in Ontario

Tips and Advice for fishing Great Lakes Steelhead

Best River Fishing Products

All About Fly fishing

Graham - Pro River Guide

Graham has been fishing around the great lakes region for over 35 years and is considered the top guide in his area. Graham was also one of the top Musky guides on Georgian Bay for 17 years but now only focuses on the river fishing. Graham specializes in Fly fishing, Centerpin fishing, and Float fishing for Trout, Steelhead and Salmon and was the first full-time guide to offer Centerpin fishing. Graham has appeared on TV, and in books and magazines, and has been a guest speaker for numerous events. Graham is known as an easy-going and patient guide and instructor who loves to teach.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Tal Cohen

    Hi Graham thanks for all the information! Me and my son are going first time river fishing for salmon and for sure going to use the information from the article !
    I would like to ask you if you doing and teaching on fishing? I’m here in Canada 10 years and love fishing but feel like I lack the knowledge.
    Any way good luck and will be in touch

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