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.
(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, aggressive, and hungry 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. Another favored approach is to use sown bait.
(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 your trolling depth: Landlocked Atlantic salmon cruise in the top 2-15 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 30 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 trolling speed for lures is around 2 to perhaps 2.5 miles per hour, but slow down to a crawl (1.5 or even 1 mile per hour) 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. In my experience, an outboard engine paired up with the right boat size, and running at its lowest setting, will move you at between 1.5 and 2 miles per hour. Because I’m cheap, I use a 5-gallon bucket attached with a rope to the back of my boat to slow me down, when needed. A more expensive “drift sock” will accomplish the same goal. Both the bucket and the sock will also help control boat drift when trolling slowly under high wind.
(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! I talk from experience, and I was using a depth finder when my cannon ball got stuck on the bottom!
(11) Switch lures often: Don’t fall in love with one lure. Conditions (e.g., water temperature, time of day, light levels) continually 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 an hour or so. Try different kinds, 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) Use lead core line: I just LOVE trolling for salmonids in spring and fall, when the fish are higher up in the water column, using my eight-weight fly fishing rod teamed up with lead-core line and streamer flies or lures. It is so exciting to feel the power of a salmon when it pounces on your lure. It’s like a truck running into a wall: there’s nothing subtle or gentle about it! You simply cannot get that experience fishing with a downrigger where the rod is placed in a rod holder and the line is clipped to the weight down below. An important trick when fishing lead core with streamer flies or spoons is to constantly “rip” the line to make the lures flash and move erratically. This added action will definitely attract the attention of the fish in a way that a lure clipped to a downrigger can’t. In fact, when I troll with both lead core and a downrigger (i.e., most of the time), I’ll get around three quarters of hits and hook-ups on the lead core line because of the extra action I add to the lures.
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.