Complete Salmon River Fishing Setup

Fishing for salmon, particularly in rivers, requires a little more know-how than fishing for species like bass or walleye.  In order to be successful on your next river trip, you will need to make sure that you are equipped with the proper gear to reel in these ferocious fighters.

Salmon fishing gear tends to be heavy-duty compared to tackle for smaller species.  You will need a capable rod, reel, line, and lures in order to lure this species in.  The exact specifications of your gear are going to depend on your technique and target species.


Salmon River Fishing Setup

Since salmon are one of the larger freshwater species out there, and they put up quite the fight, you are going to need a longer rod with a heavier weight than your typical bass or walleye setup.  

Rod Weight

Choose either a medium or medium-heavy-weight rod for smaller salmon species like coho, pink, and sockeye.  This will provide enough backbone to prevent blank breakage while still offering some sensitivity and control.

For larger salmon species, go with a heavy-weight rod.  Chinook and Atlantic salmon grow considerably larger than some of their other freshwater counterparts, so you will want to make sure that you have a strong enough rod when you hook a big one.

Rod Action

Ideally, you should go with a fast action rod, though one with a moderate action will work as well.  This will allow you better control and finer movement of your bait without spooking the fish.

Rod Type

Both spinning and bait-casting rods will work great for river fishing, but depending on the situation one may work better than the other.

Spinning setups are easier for beginners to use because the reels don’t have a tendency to bail up if cast incorrectly.  Only more experienced anglers should use a baitcasting setup.

Rod Length

Even though spinning and baitcasting rods will perform just fine for river fishing, their lengths will differ slightly depending on which one you choose.

If you are going to use a spinning setup, shoot for a rod in the range of 8 to 9 feet. This will allow you to cast with enough distance and accuracy to get your bait to where it needs to be. 

Shorter rods excel when overhead vegetation gets in the way, and a longer rod will cast further.

For a bait-casting set up you will want to go a little longer, think 10-11 feet.  As with a spinning rod, longer means better casting and shorter is easier to maneuver. 


Salmon River Fishing Setup

Just like the rod, the best reels for salmon fishing are going to be larger as well.  This is because salmon fishing requires a heavier line, and you will need a larger capacity reel to accommodate this.

Spinning Reels

The exact size of your reel will depend on the weight and type of line you decide to use, but anywhere from 2500 to 4000 will work best

The smaller reels are nicer for casting because they are lighter, and the larger ones will hold more line should you decide to go heavy.   


Baitcasting reels should be a litter larger than their spinning counterparts because of how you will be fishing them.  Go with 4500 to 5500 to ensure maximum line capacity with a heavier braid.

Fishing Knot
Pocket Guide

This handy pocket guide can go anywhere you fish so you will always be able to tie any knot you need.



Braided and fluorocarbon lines are preferred when river fishing for salmon.  Braided lines don’t stretch like monofilament, which is paramount for quick hook sets, and fluorocarbon is much less visible than mono.

Line Visibility

Fluorocarbon lines should only be used as leaders because they aren’t as strong as braided, but they will be much less visible to picky salmon who are easily spooked.  

Use a fluorocarbon that is about half as heavy as your mainline to make sure it breaks before the braided.  Make sure to use a longer leader in high visibility (clear water) situations to avoid the fish from spotting your mainline and other tackle.

Line For Spinning Reels

For a spinning setup, go with a 30 or 40-pound braided line.  This will be more than strong enough to catch just about any species of salmon on a medium or medium-heavy rod.

Line For Baitcasters

For a baitcasting setup, use a slightly heavier braided line in the range of 40-50 pounds.  This will allow you to catch virtually any sized species of salmon without worrying about breakage if you are after Chinooks or Atlantics.

Lures And Bait

Salmon River Fishing Setup

There are many different techniques for salmon fishing in rivers, and each of them will require slightly different types of bait in order to be successful.

Casting And Jigging

Casting spoons, spinners, and jigs are is always a favorite approach to salmon fishing.  They come in a myriad of different colors and sizes, which elevates your chances of being able to match the look of the local baitfish within the stream.

You can use these types of lures on spinning and baitcasting setups.  Smaller spinning rods will be easier to cast and retrieve all day long and when fishing around trees. 

A longer baitcasting rod may tire you out faster, but it will allow you to cast farther.

Floats And Drift Fishing

Drift fishing is a popular technique for fishing in rivers that involves casting upstream and letting the current of the river take your bait through the strike zone.  This is achieved by attaching a float to your line, followed by a weight, and your bait. 

You can use either type of rod and reel, although baitcasters will provide the smoothest drifts because of how they release line versus a spinning reel.

Using a 20-30 gram float will suffice for the majority of drift fishing situations.  They will provide a little extra weight for casting and prevent your bait from snagging on the bottom. 

This technique is great for natural baits like fish eggs which are sure to catch the eye of your target.


Plunking is an effective way to fish rivers that provide deep holes that salmon like to hang out in.  It is similar to catfishing in that you toss the bait and wait.  

Both spinning and baitcasting setups are great for this.  Using eggs, spoons, and soft plastics are great ways to pull big fish out of deep holes.


Weights aren’t necessarily needed when salmon fishing, but they have a couple of benefits that are ubiquitous to multiple fishing techniques.

Adding weights to a casting setup above the swivel, where your mainline meets the leader, will allow you to cast further which is especially helpful in windy conditions.

Adding weight to a float or drift rig can help keep the bait down in the strike zone within rivers that have a fast current.


River fishing for salmon can be done from shore or while in the water, so it’s always a good idea to bring a pair of waders along in case you need to get wet to better reach those areas that hold salmon.

As with any other type of fishing, make sure to dress appropriately for hot or inclement weather.  This will make fishing seem like less of a chore while maximizing the time you can stay out, ultimately leading to the possibility of catching more fish.

Basic Drift Rig

Salmon River Fishing Setup

Slip bobber rigs are very simple, yet effective, ways to use the river’s current to your advantage when fishing for salmon.

  • Attach a bobber stop, followed by a bead to your braided mainline.
  • Slide the bobber onto the mainline.
  • Thread a sliding weight onto the mainline.
  • Tie the mainline to a swivel.
  • Tie 24”-36” of fluorocarbon line to the swivel, this will be your leader.
  • Tie a single or double 1/0-3/0 hook to the leader, add roe, and cast away!

The angle of your bobber in the water will let you know whether or not your rig is perfect, the bobber should appear straight up and down in the water.  

If the bobber is angled downstream, then your bait is dragging the bottom.  If the bobber is pointing upstream, then you need to add more weight.

Basic Plunking Rig

A basic plunking rig is an easy setup that will work great for those rivers with deep holes full of slow-moving water.  

  • Attach a 3-way swivel to your braided mainline.
  • Tie 12”-24” of fluorocarbon line to the swivel with a snap swivel at the other end, this will be the leader for your weight.
  • Attach pyramid sinker to the snap swivel.  Using a snap swivel will allow you to easily interchange weights depending on current and depth.
  • Tie 24”-36” of fluorocarbon line to the other eyelet of the 3-way swivel, this will be the leader for your bait.
  • Attach single or double 1/0-3/0 hooks, and add roe, voila!

This rig can be modified by adding beads and glowing drift bobbers to the leader, to help them stand out in dark and murky waters.

Final Thoughts

Even though fishing rivers for salmon requires some special gear and can prove to be more technical than other types of fishing, it is well worth it.  The amazing fight that these fish put up is unrivaled when compared to most other freshwater species.

If you are new to fishing, stick with a spinning rod and reel.  They are designed for simplicity, can handle the size of most salmon species, and excel at multiple river fishing techniques.  

If you are an experienced angler, use a baitcasting combo to maximize your casting distance and ensure the best presentation of your bait. 

As long as you plan your day accordingly and bring the correct equipment, any day fishing for salmon will be a memorable one.

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