Trolling for landlocked Atlantic salmon on lakes: 13 tips to increase your catch

Many freshwater anglers view the landlocked Atlantic salmon as the King of Fish. And for good reason: pound for pound, no other species has the power, strength, and stamina of this beautiful creature. Seeing a 24” landlock arch high into the air after it is hooked is a heart-stopping experience! This subspecies of Salmo salar is a dwarf variety of the mighty sea-run Atlantic salmon. Even though the landlocked salmon remains relatively small in size, it has lost none of the superb fighting and jumping qualities of its larger anadromous cousin.

Here are some proven tips to increase your chances of catching these magnificent fighters.

 

Landlocked Atlantic salmon are strong, gorgeous and wild!

Your blog author with a landlocked Atlantic salmon. These creatures are powerful, gorgeous and wild!

(1)        Think “smelt”: Smelt are the main food source for salmon. Find the smelt to catch the salmon! Smelt have predictable behaviors, particularly in the spring. Be aware of those behaviors and hook more salmon (see below for details).

 

(2)        Troll as soon as possible after ice-out:  Landlocked Atlantic salmon chase smelt at ice-out. Be ready to troll with live bait or smelt-imitating spoons or wet flies as soon as your target lake is ice free.

 

(3)        Troll early in the morning: The best time for trolling is during twilight hours from first light until the sun peaks over the horizon. That’s not to say that salmon won’t bite during the rest of the day. It’s just that they are most active and aggressive at the crack of dawn.

 

(4)        Live bait or artificial lures? Smelt-imitating artificial lures are great to catch salmon, but use live bait when possible. Let’s face it: live bait looks and swims like the real thing! A good live-bait rig consists of a 3-ft long piece of monofilament with a small terminal treble hook and a sliding single hook above it (called a “sliding minnow rig”). These rigs are sold pre-made. Or you can make your own by searching YouTube for “sliding snell knot”. Place one of the hooks of the treble hook into the baitfish’s anal vent and use the sliding hook to pierce its upper lip. Adjust the distance and tension between the two hooks such that the baitfish swims straight when pulled through the water, although some anglers like their baitfish to do a slow roll, or even a tight spin (I like the natural look). Regardless, use a high-quality swivel to control line twist.

 

(5)        Troll around smelt-spawning tributaries:  Smelts gather in great numbers around lake tributaries in early spring, waiting to start their spawning migration. Landlocked Atlantic salmon congregate in those areas to gorge themselves. Increase your catch rate during that short window of time by trolling in those prime areas. Inquire with local bait dealers about the timing of the smelt migrations. These folks are in the know because of their daily interactions with other anglers.

 

(6)       Cherish awful spring weather: Weather in April and May can still be dreadful:  a combination of rain showers, snow squalls, freezing wind, and white caps keep most reasonable people off the water, but not wise salmon anglers! They pray for these conditions which create a classic “salmon chop”. Salmon love cold water, low light, and a churning surface, so make sure to troll when these conditions prevail.

 

(7)        Adjust trolling depth: Landlocked Atlantic salmon cruise in the top 2-10 ft of the water column in early spring. Late spring will push the fish into deeper, colder waters until they remain below the thermocline (i.e., the layer of water that separates the warm surface from the cold bottom) in 25 to >40 ft of water for the summer.  However, don’t forget to adjust the trolling depth during a given day. Salmon, like most other fish species, have “fixed” pupils. They respond to different light intensities by physically moving up or down the water column. Hence, overcast conditions bring salmon up, whereas bright sunshine drives them down. Troll higher in the water column in early morning and bring your lures down deeper as the day progresses.

 

(8)        Troll at the right speed:  Troll faster when fishing with lures in order to generate a “reaction strike”, but troll slower when using live bait. A good speed for lures is between 2 to 3 miles per hour, but slow down to a crawl (1 to 1.5 miles per hour maximum) when using live bait. The GPS on a cell phone is a great way to check trolling speeds! Follow another trolling boat and maintain a constant distance from it if you’re unsure at what speed to troll.

 

(9)      Vary trolling speed, and zigzag: After considering the previous tip, keep in mind to vary trolling speed and to zigzag. A salmon may follow a bait or lure for quite a while, but will not bite for reasons known only to the fish. The action, flash, or direction of the bait or lure will suddenly change when you speed up or slow down, or when you slowly zigzag. That small difference may be all it takes to set off the killer instinct in the salmon.

 

(10)      Locate “bait balls”: Use a fish finder to locate schools of smelts in the summer. They will appear as round “bait balls” on your screen. Invariably, the fish finder will also mark one or more larger fish swimming above or below the school: those are likely landlocked Atlantic salmon. Adjust the depth of your lure or bait to match that of the smelt school. Note that a fish finder is not an option when using a down-rigger. Not only will it reveal at what depth the fish are feeding, but it will also let you know when to bring up the down-rigger weight (the “cannon ball”) so that it doesn’t drag on the bottom or, worse, gets wedged between boulders!

 

(11)      Switch lures often: Don’t fall in love with one lure. Conditions always change such that yesterday’s winning lure may be today’s looser. Switch to a different lure if the current lure doesn’t produce a hit after trolling for 30-45 minutes. Try different colors, sizes, and shapes until the salmon tell you what triggers their interest. As a general rule of thumb, use bright/flashy lures on sunny days, but darker/more subdued lures on overcast days.

 

(12)      Use a “flasher” to attract fish: Consider connecting a Dave Davies Lake Troll, or similar contraption, to 15 yards of heavy monofilament attached to your cannon ball on the downrigger. This device consists of a set of (hook-less) spinner blades which create much flash and vibration when pulled through the water, thereby simulating a small school of smelt and attracting nearby salmon. Attach your lure or bait to a second release mechanism placed two feet above the cannon ball. Make sure that the lure or bait trails the Dave Davies spinners by about 5-10 ft to simulate a vulnerable straggler.

 

(13)      Run a lure in the prop wash: This tip works in early spring when the landlocked Atlantic  salmon are feeding high in the water column: troll your lure or bait in the prop wash just below the surface about 30-40 ft behind the boat. The bubbles and surface mixing caused by the propeller attracts the curiosity of salmon.

 

Was the information in this blog useful? I invite you to share your thoughts and opinions by posting a comment. Also, feel free to tell us about the strategies you use when trolling for landlocks.

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30 thoughts on “Trolling for landlocked Atlantic salmon on lakes: 13 tips to increase your catch

  1. Thanks for the tips…very good stuff. Getting ready for a spring chinook derby up here this weekend in Coeur d’Alene, ID 4/13-14. I liked the weather tip, because it is supposed to be nasty….sure would be fun to catch one or two…they are tricky. The fish have to be at least 26 inches to even qualify for weigh-in. Anyhow, thanks again and take care.

    • Glad to hear that the blog info was useful. You’re right that these creatures are tough to catch, which is why they’re worth the effort going after, of course. Good luck with the derby. Drop a line to tell us how you did.

        • A good way forward would be to read through the various comments associated with this blog. The only game in town to fish for landlocked Atlantic salmon in the summer is to place your lure/bait BELOW the thermocline, which should be at around 30 ft deep. Use a fish finder to located schools of bait (a.k.a. “bait balls” because they look roundish on the screen), identify their depth, and lower your lure/bait down to that depth using a downrigger. Best of luck. Stan

        • Hi Ty,
          I spent a day on Sebago last year about this time. We had non-stop catching all day; salmon early and lake trout once the sun came up.
          There is a kids camp on the nothwest corner of the lake. We fished about 1/4 mile offshore of that pulling sewn shiners and lead core; I think we were fishing three or four colors at 1 mph. We took a bunch of cookie cutter salmon, all just about the legal size and all released. Not bad for first day on the pond. Lakers were easy as well, down 70-100′ if I recall, trolling blue flatfish behind dave davis right on bottom. Caught a lot of lakers. All in all four or five salmon and maybe 10 lakers. Salmon until the sun hits the water, then they stop playing. Lakers after that. Have fun.

    • I agree, Butch. Few freshwater fishing experiences can beat the excitement of hooking into a landlocked Atlantic salmon after it sipped your mayfly imitation off the water surface!!! The initial reaction is explosive and the runs are powerful and long. The mayfly hatches here in southern Maine reach their peak towards the end of May. I’ll be out on my favorite salmon lake in western Maine for four days over the long Memorial Day weekend trying to outwit these gorgeous creatures. I wish you the best of luck too.

  2. which is the best lake in western maine for land locked salmon ? Renting a house on west side, southern end of Thompson Lake in the last week of june. have boat will travel… are LL Salmon good eats ?

    Thanks,

    • Hi, thanks for your question. A number of lakes in southern and western Maine are regularly stocked with landlocked Atlantic salmon. It would be best if you could obtain a Maine Atlas and Gazetteer and then query my website (www.amazingfishametric.com) for “landlocked salmon” to identify those lakes and see where they’re located in relation to Thompson Pond.

      Two ponds in that general area that are known to produce good-sized salmon are Trickey Pond in Naples and Peabody Pond in Sebago. Keep in mind, however, that the salmon will typically be quite deep (> 25 ft deep) by the end of June to avoid the warm surface water. That means using downriggers or a whole lot of lead core… Also, Thompson Lake has great smallmouth and largemouth bass fishing, which is what many people will be focused on when you get there for your vacation. I wish you the best of luck. Stan

  3. I live in Maine and have recently turned to fishing Salmon as I am getting bored with Brook Trout The Brook Trout fishing is no longer a challenge to me because I have been fishing them for fifty years. And at my age it is easier to troll than walk a brook. I have to say Salmon are the King of fresh water fish. I prefer fishing them over Touge (Lake Trout) and Bass. The way they sky rocket out of the water when you hook into them is amazing. I would rather catch one Salmon all day than a hundred Brook Trout. Thank you for your tips. Maybe now I will catch 2 in a day.

    • Yes, I fully agree with you that landlocked Atlantic salmon are the Kings of freshwater fishing in Maine. They are much tougher to catch than brookies, mainly because landlocks are just more aware/smarter but also because they are typically stocked at much lower rates than brook trout.

      I troll a lot in early spring but must admit that it can be slow going and that getting skunked is always a distinct possibility. But then we live for the moment when the line snaps from the down rigger and strips off the spool as a salmon runs off before shooting 3-4 ft out of the water. These are precious moments we all savor. Best of luck.

  4. I will be heading up at the end of April and the beginning of May. Will the Touge and Salmon still be active at or near the surface or have they headed up stream to spawn?
    I also will be staying in Raymond for the first two weeks of July. Are the bait balls still something that can be found? If so are they typically deep, will the Salmon rise to them even in daylight or do I still need to fish at the depth of the fish spotted on the finder?
    I would imagine that a Smelt on a sliding rig would still be a great choice of bait even in July, no? Do you ever drift with a rigged Smelt at depth?
    Thanks in advance for any help, this is a great blog.

    • Lots of great questions! The salmon (and trout) will still be actively feeding on or near the surface of ponds and lakes until late May/early June. Keep in mind that salmon chase after smelt in rivers for only a few short weeks in early spring, after which both return to their lakes.

      The smelt schools (“bait balls”) remain active all summer long but they will be found deep underwater (> 30 ft deep), well below the thermocline. The salmon and lake trout will be feeding on those smelt throughout the summer. However, catching them requires a good fish finder and down riggers in order to locate the bait balls and place your bait/lure at the right depth.

      Live smelt on a sliding rig is a great approach, except that bait dealers typically don’t sell this bait in the summer. The reason is that smelt are delicate creatures that require cold water to survive. You can use a 3″ minnow as an alternative. They’re hardy, are easier to find, and will readily by taken by salmon. A DB Smelt spoon has also worked great for me in the summer.

      Finally, I have personally not “drift fished” for salmon with a rigged bait in the summer, presumably because I just want to keep on moving when I’m trolling. : )

      Hope this all helps. Tight lines.

  5. Thanks and good information. Went out and trolled mid morning last Sunday, but used a lake boat and at it’s slowest maybe too fast. Also good to know that maybe that there are days when even the experienced come up empty, because we did.
    Give it another go this weekend and incorporate some of your tips.
    Thanks!

  6. Headed to Sebec lake (Peaks-Kenny State Park) in two weeks, looking to catch a salmon or two with the kids trolling for the first time. We just got a 12′ boat with 2hp motor. Since this is our first time trying this, I will just be using lead core. Is there a website to get up to date, info on where the fish are feeding?

    • The salmon are below the “thermocline” (i.e., the boundary between the warm surface water and cooler deeper water) this time of the year. That boundary is typically between 20-25 ft deep in August. You’ll have to strip at least 4 to 5 colors on your lead core line to reach that low. That makes for tough fishing due to the drag and the weight of the lead core line. I like using a portable downrigger that I fasten to the side of my boat. You can find those at Kittery Trading Post, Cabela’s or LL Bean. The downrigger, weight, and rod holder together cost about $130. Also, don’t forget to bring a fish finder to keep track of depth. Otherwise, it’s really easy to get stuck on the bottom because the lure is so deep in the water column. Best of luck. Stan

      • Got a fishing finder and did a test trolling today on Long Pond on MDI. All fishing were below 50′ in 70 to 100′ of water. Stripped five colors no luck. Thanks for all the advice.

  7. I loved all the information! I found it all helpful to me, some of it was new and some of it was refresher which is just as good. So, thank you and please keep sharing your wisdom much appreciated.
    Barbara

  8. For those who would like to try Sebago (or most any other salmon lake) and do not have a depth finder or downrigger look at the lay of the land on shore. Sebago is a deep lake and you can pretty much tell if you are in deep water or a long shallow run just by the land on shore.
    July and and August (vacation time) plenty of salmon can be caught on 3-5 colors micro lead trolling db’s, top guns, speedy shinners etc…. even at mid morning.
    The micro lead has less drag and sinks about 7′ per color. try to keep your speed around 2.2- 2.7 mph with plenty of zig sagging with lures mentioned.
    So if you are vacationing with your family and would like to try catching these awesome fish try the inexpensive route first if you don’t have all the expensive equipment. Once you and your family catch one of those beautiful Sebago salmon you will be hooked and then you will need a bigger boat, electric down riggers, expensive fish finder/chart plotter and of course more time and money to spend on the lake…lol at least that has been my experience!

  9. Around Fathers Day, up in Aroostook, namely Long Lake in Madawaska, try trolling a silver Mooselook Wabbler(spell?) that has been painted red and white, on the outside like a DareDevil.
    If anybody tells you, that your trolling too fast, don’t believe them.
    Set your rod in a rod holder and grab the line between the reel and the first line guide and jerk the line fast, often and hard.
    Works for me.

  10. Thanks for all the sage counsel. I’ve been fly fishing for trout for over 60 years. You have supplied the whys to many of the long observed whats. Headed to Lake Auburn early tomorrow. Anxious to deploy your tips.

  11. This is great info. Will be fishing a couple of Western ME lakes in mid June with new boat. We have 1 down rigger and lead core line and have had some luck with gold or silver Mooselook Wobblers in the past. We have a live well for the first time and would love to try smelt or minnows. Should we expect to fish at 25 ft or so? Any other mid- June tips?
    Thanks!

    • I troll 15-25 ft deep in mid June. Place your lure/bait closer to 25 ft deep during a bright sunny day, and a bit shallower on a cloudy day. Regardless, troll as early in the morning as possible, before sunrise if you can. In my opinion, live bait works better than lures. I like a “sliding-hook rig” (click here) because it is fool-proof, although others swear by “sewn bait”, which I find trickier to implement. Keep in mind that you may have trouble finding live smelt in mid-June because these baitfish are difficult to keep alive in warmer water. In my experience, a 3″ minnow works just as well and is also much hardier and livelier on a hook compared to a smelt. Good luck fishing in western Maine. It’s a gorgeous region! Let us know how you did.

  12. Trying to find the salmon and trout in Belgrade lakes at the end of June. I’m trolling around 30′. Do you suggest 25 or so feet or are they lower than that now?

    • Great Pond is no longer managed as a salmon fishery, but is stocked with brown trout. Long Pond, on the other hand, is still managed as a salmon fishery. Having said that, I’d troll 15-25 ft deep for browns, and 30+ ft deep for landlocks this time of the year (i.e., early summer).

  13. i am fishing at crescent lake maine where would be the best spot to fish for landlocked salmon and what should i look for

    • Hi Mike, If you’re fishing for landlocked Atlantic salmon in the summer, then the only game in town is to troll with lures/bait below the thermocline, which will be located around 30 or so ft below the surface. I assume that you are referring to Crescent Lake located in Raymond/Casco. Keep in mind that this lake is tricky to troll for salmon in the summer because it contains only a limited amount of water 30+ feet deep. However, that lake is a great smallmouth bass fishery! A better bet is to navigate down the shallow Tenney River which connects Crescent Lake to Panther Pond and troll the deep part of Panther. Check these depth maps for more details (you may have to copy and paste the link in your search engine). http://www.maine.gov/ifw/fishing/lakesurvey_maps/cumberland/crescent_lake.pdf; http://www.maine.gov/ifw/fishing/lakesurvey_maps/cumberland/panther_pond.pdf. Make sure to use a depth finder because both ponds contain submerged reefs and islands that will snag your trolling ball or lead core. Best of luck!

  14. When I use to fish Moosehead, Rangley Lakes in Maine, in the early 70’s, the old timers use to say “Wind out of the East fishing the least, wind out of the West, fishing the best.” These guys were old salmon fishermen from Maine. I was a young whipersnapper but learned a lot from them. I have never been able to find any info on line on why this saying is true or if it is at all. Any help out there?

  15. Heading to Moosehead lake and I would like to catch some lakers or landlocked salmon. Staying in Greenville. I will be fishing with lead core because I dont have downriggers. I do have a fishfinder though. Any advice would be appreciated.

    • Hi, take a look at this blog (amazingfishametric.com/blog/?p=4343) for suggestions on trolling depths. The lakers and landlocks will be hiding in the cold water well below the thermocline which will be located 30+ ft down. It’ll be a challenge to go that deep using lead core because it’ll take 8+ colors (a wild guess from my part…) to reach that far down. It’s do-able, of course, except that the friction on such a length of lead core makes for unpleasant fishing and requires a stiff rod. Nonetheless, I wish you the best of luck. Drop us a line if things work out for you.

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