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.
Get Set-Up Right For More Salmon
Some guys catch the occasional Ontario 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 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 best gear for great lakes river salmon.
If you want to start catching salmon like they do you should be using the best best gear for great lakes salmon to.
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 as thick as a baseball bat combined with a dumbbell-sized chunk of lead and a float that’s as big as my foot, and a giant treble hook?
Seriously guys, the best gear for great lakes salmon is not that hard to figure out, and using the wrong gear is a great way to NOT catch any salmon.
The right gear is like the right tool for the job and it can significantly help you catch more Ontario salmon.
For information on the when, where, and how to fish for great lakes salmon in rivers check out our Fishing For Salmon Page
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
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.
Part of having the best gear for great lakes salmon means starting with the right rod.
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 for Ontario Salmon. This is also a great size for pier and shore casting into the great lakes for Ontario Salmon.
Rods in the 11.5 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 10lb to 20lb line for Great lakes salmon. Going heavier is not recommended because even though many of the salmon may be over 30 pounds, the leader down bear the bait may need to be as low as 10lb to 14lb 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 when you are fishing with a 10-pound test leader. You just can’t put all that power of the rod to use or you will break leaders or bend hooks, so all that power in the rod is useless.
I buy and recommend rods based on the leader break strength, not the size of the fish.
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 in small to medium-sized rivers.
The 10’6″ Medium 8 – 12lb, would be great for both casting lures or using floats. Model # AVS106MF2
Get It At These Great Retailers
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
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.
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 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 12 pound mono or copolymer line. Braided line is also good for great lakes salmon and you can go up to 20 ro 30-pound line since the braided line is so thin.
If you plan on float fishing sometimes or most of the time, the thinner diameter 12lb line will come off the reel better and won’t be too 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 or 16lb fishing mono fishing line. I recommend braided lines of 20 to 30lbs if you are just going to throw lures.
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 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
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.
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 I use Raven 12lb mainline.
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 12lb if I am mostly float fishing for salmon and casting lures but if I only want to cast lures I use 14lb for salmon.
I use green or clear colors for multipurpose and I use high-viz yellow for float fishing.
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 float 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.
The 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 and it’s my go-to float when guiding.
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 in 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 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 fluorocarbon leader because it has better knot strength, is more invisible and is more abrasion resistant.
There a few good brand that have been tested and proven by myself and other great river guides.
This is one of the most popular leaders in my area.
For most salmon, I use the 6lb 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 5lb test. The 6pound test is closer to 12-pound test. 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 but the cheap silver shinny ones and don’t put on two or 3 giant ones.
For 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.
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
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 sometime.
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 do 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
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