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 river 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.
Keep an eye out for my GUIDE TIPS . . . . Which I’ve scattered throughout this page.
Get Set-Up Right For More Salmon
Some guys catch the occasional Ontario salmon if they are lucky, and some guys catch a lot of salmon, and they do it easily and regularly. Why is it that some guys just don’t catch many Ontario salmon and some do?
Knowing when, where, and how to catch Ontario salmon is important, but I assure you that the guys that are catching all the salmon are also using the right gear and the best gear for great lakes river salmon.
If you want to start catching salmon like the experts and the guides do you should also be using the best gear for great lakes salmon too.
I don’t know why guys think catching salmon on their 7-foot multipurpose rod is a good idea? If you watch the best Ontario salmon anglers they don’t use these rods.
I also see anglers using 13-foot surfcasting rods that are as thick as a baseball bat. Then they use a golf ball sized chunk of lead and a float that’s as big as my foot, and a giant treble hook? These guys rarely catch a fish.
This article discusses all the best gear for great lakes salmon that I and other great anglers use. The simple truth is that using the wrong gear is a great way to NOT catch any salmon.
For information on the when, where, and how to fish for great lakes salmon in rivers check out my page on How To Fish For Salmon.
Table Of Contents
- 1 Get Set-Up Right For More Salmon
- 2 The 4 Best Spinning Rods For River Salmon
- 3 Baitcasting Reels For Great Lakes Salmon
- 4 4 Best Spinning Reels For Great Lakes River Salmon
- 5 Best Line For River Salmon
- 6 Braided Lines For Salmon and Steelhead
- 7 Monofilament Line For Salmon Fishing
- 8 Best Terminal Tackle For River Salmon
- 9 Best Leader For Salmon
- 10 Best Hooks For River Salmon
- 11 Best Lures For Salmon In Rivers
- 12 Best Nets For River Salmon Fishing
The 4 Best Spinning Rods For River Salmon
Spinning rods can be a good choice for great lakes salmon in the rivers and I discuss the best rods for throwing lures and the best rods when float fishing for salmon and when bottom bouncing for salmon.
There are also rods that are suitable for both methods.
Part of having the best gear for great lakes salmon means starting with the right rod.
For casting lures, rods in the 8’6″ and 9’6″ range are good and can also be used if you occasionally do float fishing or for bottom bouncing.
Rods in the 10 foot to 11-foot range are my preferred choice for an all-around rod when float fishing is the preferred method but can also be used when you want to occasionally cast lures for salmon. This length is also a great size for pier and shore casting into the great lakes for Ontario Salmon.
Rods in the 12 to 14-foot range are best for guys that just want to float fish or bottom bounce for Ontario salmon and not for using lures.
I recommend rods rated between 8lb to 20lb line for Great lakes salmon because they will have enough backbone to handle big salmon without breaking.
However, going heavier than 20 pounds is not recommended because even though many of the salmon are over 30 pounds, the leader down near your bait might need to be as low as 8lb to 10lb test when float fishing. We use light leaders to catch those skittish salmon in gin-clear water to bite.
Having a super heavy rod rated for 30 or 40 lbs is useless when you are fishing with a 8-pound test leader. You just can’t put all that power of the rod to use or you will just keep breaking leaders or bending hooks, so all that power in the heavy rod is useless.
Also, an advantage to the longer softer 8 -12 pound rods is that they act like a giant shock absorber that will protect lighter leaders on the hook set and when fishing big salmon.
I buy and recommend rods based on the leader break strength and not on the size of the fish.
Lamiglas X11 Salmon & Steelhead Spinning Rod
BEST ROD- This is one of the best all-around salmon and steelhead spinning rods on the market and one I use myself for both casting and for float fishing for salmon in small to medium-sized rivers.
Lamiglas X-11 Salmon and Steelhead Spinning Rod – The 9 foot 6 inch medium or the 10’6 Medium fast rod – Model LX 106 MLS are good options for float fishing with a spinning reel for salmon fishing around the great lakes. Approx. $99.00
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 – The 9 foot 6 inch medium is also great for guys that want to cast more than float fish.
Get It At These Great Retailers
St. Croix Triumph Salmon & Steelhead Spinning Rod
Okuma Celilo Salmon & Steelhead Spinning Rod
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
Get It At These Great Retailers
Baitcasting Reels For Great Lakes Salmon
If you are fishing very big rivers with lots of fast currents, baitcasting reels can be a good idea.
Daiwa Tatula 100 Baitcast Reel
4 Best Spinning Reels For Great Lakes River Salmon
Having the best gear for great lakes salmon includes the spinning reel that you use. The right spinning reel can make all the difference and a spinning reel with a smooth reliable drag is really important for great lakes salmon fishing. Simply put, a bad drag is going to make you lose some salmon.
Large great lakes salmon can make long fast runs that can burn-out the bearings and the drag systems of cheaper reels. Therefore, getting a mid-range to a high-end reel 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 on it.
Some reels are just not as good as others for great lakes salmon 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 reels for great lakes salmon and steelhead.
The CI4 or the beefed-up FX model reel is great for casting and for float fishing.
You want model # STC3000XGFL or for bigger rivers go with the ST4000XGFL
Pflueger Supreme XT Spinning Reel
Another Great reel with a 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.
Check them out at:
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 at a good price. 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 a bad line or the wrong size of line.
The rod, the reel, and the line all work together and they all need to be good for great lakes salmon.
The best all-around fishing line for great lakes salmon is 10-pound mono or copolymer line. Braided line is also good for great lakes salmon and you can go up to 20 or 30-pound line since the braided line is so thin.
If you plan on float fishing most of the time, the thinner diameter 10lb line will come off the reel better and won’t be too heavy so it won’t sag the line when you hold the rod up high. To learn how to float fish for salmon check out my page Float Fishing For Salmon.
Even though the line is pretty light at only 10 pounds the long rods that you should be using when float fishing will protect your line. Also, on most Ontario and great lakes rivers, you can always walk the bank and follow a big running salmon.
If I fish huge rivers like the Niagara River or river that I can not easily walk the banks to chase a fish I will up-size to 12lb test line.
GUIDE TIP: 10-pound line is rarely actually 10 pounds. Most brands underrate their lines and many 10-pound lines will break closer to 15lb to 20lbs so even though you might be reluctant to go with a light line like 10 pounds for 30-pound salmon your 10-pound line is stronger than you think.
The exception to this might be with braided lines.
If you are going to be throwing just lures and you are not doing any float fishing then you can go up to a 14lb or 16lb fishing monofilament fishing line. I do recommend braided lines of 20 to 30lbs with a short 12 to 14 pound, 2 to 4-foot mono leader if you are just going to throw lures for salmon.
I will discuss the best mono lines for float fishing and casting below.
Braided Lines For Salmon and Steelhead
Some guys love braided lines and some guys hate it! Braided line for salmon fishing does take some getting used to but it has a lot of benefits.
Pro’s of braided line for salmon fishing:
- No stretch lines give 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
Con’s of braided lines for salmon fishing:
- 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.
Guide Tip: You must secure the braided line on the spool properly because it can expand and slip and not reel in properly or reel in at all. You must add about 20 feet of mono to the base of the spool before you add the braid to prevent any issues. I add the mono and then use a good mono to braid knot.
SpiderWire Braided Line
Braided lines have no stretch and often float.
Your hook sets will be better and you will feel more bumps on your lure because it is more sensitive.
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 the 20lb test line which is the diameter of 6pound test. The 30lb test line would work to.
Using braided lines on very stiff rods may mean more leader break-offs on the hook set.
Monofilament Line For Salmon Fishing
Many guys use mono or copolymer lines for great lakes salmon fishing and it works well when float fishing or when lure fishing. I use mono on both spinning reels and on my Centerpin reel.
Raven Mono Mainline
My favorite line for Centerpin reels is the Raven Mainline. I also use it on many of my spinning reels for both float fishing and for casting lures.
For salmon fishing on small to mid-sized rivers that are 80 feet wide or less, I use Raven 10lb mainline. On larger rivers like the Niagara, I will up-size to 12 pound line.
For float fishing only I go with the high viz yellow, but for mixed casting and float fishing, the green line is a good choice.
You can check out the Raven lines at Fish USA
Sufix Elite Premium Mono
Suffix Elite line is a very popular mono line for both casting lures or float fishing for salmon and steelhead.
I use 10lb if I am mostly float fishing for salmon and casting lures but if I only want to mostly cast lures I use 14lb for salmon.
I use green or clear colors for multipurpose and I use high-viz yellow for float fishing.
When Centerpin fishing I always use high viz colored lines. Colored lines allow you to see the line better so that you can control and manage your lines and float more effectively. This provides a better presentation which often results in more fish hooked.
Colored lines also make it easier for other anglers to see your line and find your float so they are less likely to cast over you. If you use colored or clear lines it’s very important to have a proper leader setup which I cover on my page Float Fishing For Great Lakes Salmon.
Best Terminal Tackle For River Salmon
The best fishing gear for great lakes salmon includes the terminal tackle. There is a lot of river fishing gear that is not salmon specific, like floats, hooks, weights, swivels, leaders, tackle boxes, etc.
Salmon are and strong and it can be tough to get them to bite so you need to be using the best gear for great lakes salmon if you want to catch the most fish possible.
Raven FM Floats
Raven floats are a go-to float for many river anglers around the great lakes for both salmon and steelhead.
Using a float that is made for river fishing is a must and these are some of the best floats. Using the wrong float will prevent you from getting a great presentation and that will limit the amount of fish that you will hook.
The Raven FM Model is my go-to float for salmon fishing in almost all water conditions. I have been using this float for about 10 years. It’s not the most durable float but it works well and it’s inexpensive compared to other custom floats. 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.
You can check out these floats at FishUSA.
For more great floats and tips on using them check out my page 5 Best Centerpin Floats For 2021
These are the best float caps for multiple brands of floats. You will need to pick some of these up if you are going to use the Raven or Drennan float.
These are the ones that I use but there are others and you can see these at FishUSA
Raven FX Slip Float
Some guys like to use slip floats but I’m not a big fan unless I am fishing very deep water. These are good floats if you fish big rivers like the Niagara River where it’s often deeper than 10 feet.
Use the smaller SX float for shallower water and the FX 10g and 16gm for very deep water.
You can check these float out at Fish USA.
You will also need to get a bunch of these float stops to make your slip float work properly, you can see them at Fish USA
A very popular and great float for stealth in super clear water.
Drennan Loafer Floats
Sometimes you will be fishing smaller clear rivers where the salmon are holding and are very nervous. If these are the conditions I’m faced with I will use a float that they won’t see.
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.
You can get these floats at FishUSA
Best Leader For Salmon
The best leader for salmon fishing is the fluorocarbon leader because it has better knot strength, is more invisible, and is more abrasion-resistant. These are all good things when fishing near rocks for big fish. I always use fluorocarbon leaders below a float and I use them when casting lures.
There are a few good brands that have been tested and proven by myself and other great river guides and good anglers.
This is one of the most popular leaders for salmon and steelhead around the great lakes area.
For most salmon fishing, with this brand of leader I use the 5lb leader but don’t let the pound test fool you, this line is not properly rated and I can lift a 10lb dumbell off the floor with just the 5lb test.
The 6-pound test is closer to 12-pound breaking strength and it’s strong enough for most salmon even on big rivers like the Niagara River. I use this brand all the time because it’s that good.
It has been my go-to leader for steelhead in size 3lb and 4lb.
- 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
Raven X-Small Swivels
Swivels are important for connecting your leader to your mainline.
I have been running raven swivels for steelhead and salmon for over 10 years.
Stick with the XS size for salmon. You can check them out at FishUSA
Another good option for strong high-quality swivels is the SPRO swivels. SPRO swivels are a very strong swivel with a 65lb rating which is great for salmon. You can check them out at FishUSA or at Amazon.
Split shots are an important part of your salmon fishing rig but not all spilt shots are good for river fishing. I like these split shots.
Don’t buy the cheap silver shinny ones and don’t put on two or 3 giant ones. Doing it right makes a big difference.
For my recommended float fishing leader rigs and how to put your split shots on more effectively, check out my page 2 Float Fishing Leader Setups From A Pro River Guide
Best Hooks For River Salmon
Hooks are an important part of salmon fishing gear. Salmon are big hard pulling fish and they can break or bend the wrong hooks. I use only high-quality strong hooks that hold onto the fish well.
It’s also important to use the right size. A hook that is too small might not hook the fish well and might not grab enough flesh and could tear out. A hook too big might be seen by the fish and they may avoid it. These are my 3 favorite hooks for salmon.
The Raven Specialist and the Rave Specimen hooks are great hooks for salmon fishing. This has been one of my go-to hooks for salmon and steelhead for many years.
I use size 8 or 10 the most for salmon and for steelhead. You can get these at FishUSA.
Gamakatsu Octopus Hooks
Gamakatsu Octopus hooks are some of the strongest and sharpest hooks and are known around the world for performance, durability, and reliability. These are great hooks for salmon fishing on small to medium-sized rivers. I use size 6 hooks for bigger baits, I use size 8 or 10 the most for spawn bags, beads, plastic worms, and most other smaller sized baits.
I only use the black hooks and avoid all the colored ones and gold or silver colors.
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 hooks are manufactured from the finest quality high carbon steel, producing unparalleled strength.
These hooks are great for use with egg sacs, skein, beads, and plastic worms.
Use size #8 or #6 for most situations.
Best Lures For Salmon In Rivers
Lures can be a great bait for salmon. You need to make sure you use the right ones that the salmon actually want to eat and also ones that won’t break or have the hooks bend on a big salmon. Cheap quality lures do not work well for big salmon.
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
The Kwickfish is one of my favorite salmon and Steelhead lures and they could be the best lure for great lakes salmon.
To use these lures you want to cast straight across the river and retrieve it very slowly.
The current will make this lure wiggle like crazy enticing some seriously hard hits. Reeling in too fast can make this lure pop out of the water and not work properly.
My Best Colors:
- MJ-Black-Holo Glitter
- Blazin’ Green UV
- Gold Digger
- Silver-Blue Scale
- 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
Spinners are one of the best lures for great lakes salmon and steelhead. These Vibrax Spinners are one of my favorite spinners.
This fat blade model is 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
- #3 – Small to Medium-sized rivers
- #3&4 in. – Small to large-sized rivers
- #4. – large-sized rivers and Pier fishing
Rapala Shad Rap
Little Cleo Spoons
- Hammered Nickel Blue
- Hammered Nickel Green
- 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
Jigs For Salmon
Some anglers are using jigs to fish for salmon with good success.
You can use jigs under a float or you just cast the jig 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 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
The best gear for great lakes salmon includes a good net that is big enough for a huge salmon but small enough that it’s not bulky and heavy.
If your net is too heavy to hang off the back of your jacket or fishing vest, you’re going to have to carry it by hand and that means you will need to leave it on shore while you wade out into the water.
The problem is, once you get that huge 25 or 35 pound salmon on the line and it decides to run a half-mile down the river your net isn’t with you, it’s on the bank way up the river. 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, this is a big problem sometimes.
The other option is to get 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 to do?
I have chosen to go with the smaller net and just use it to control the fish.
Once 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 its head is pushing straight into the net. This 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. This means 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 its 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 for a net that I can hang off my back.
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
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. This is also the net that I use when I need more reach when trying to land big salmon from steep banks or when pier fishing.
It’s big and often too heavy to hang off your back for long 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:
- MORE . . . . .
Be Sure To Check Out These Pages Next
Tips and Advice for fishing Great Lakes Salmon
All about Centerpin Fishing For Steelhead and Salmon
Tips and Advice for fishing Great Lakes Steelhead