Spinners for Salmon

by JD Richey

Venture down to the banks of just about any popular Alaska salmon stream this summer and you’re bound to see a lot of people tossing spinners. Of course, there’s a very simple reason this form of hardware has such an enthusiastic following—it works. 

Kings, silvers, doggies and pinks all seem to have a sweet spot for spinners (not to mention you can also catch rainbows, Dollies, Arctic char, lakers, grayling and cutthroat on them as well). Effectiveness aside, many folks are also drawn to the inherent simplicity of spinner fishing—all you need is a rod and handful of lures and you’re in business. 

But, there is a lot more to this technique than mindlessly throwing a lure out and reeling it back in. Master the basic concepts of this method, and you’ll be one of those “ten percenters”—that small group of people who seem to always be doing most of the catching. So, this time around, let’s take a look at how to take your spinner fishing to the next level…

The Swing is the Thing

The most common error I see beginning spinner-tossers make is in the retrieve. It happens all the time—a guy will come down to the bank, randomly cast his lure out and then start burning it back to the rod tip. You will catch the occasional suicidal salmon that way, but you’re really missing most of the fish by not being in the strike zone.

As a general rule, salmon hold near the bottom and that’s where your lure needs to be as well. The angler who casts and reels quickly back in is totally missing the boat—the faster the retrieve, the higher in the water column the lure runs. Instead, you want the spinner to run deep and stay there as long as possible, which is best achieved by fishing it “on the swing.”

To get a proper swing going, start by positioning yourself slightly upstream of where you think the fish are holding. Cast the spinner across and a couple degrees downstream of where you’re standing. Allow it to sink near the bottom and then engage the reel. All you’re trying to do here is to get the blade spinning so that it has enough lift to stay out of the rocks. Think slow RPM’s here—a spinner is much more attractive to salmon when the blade is slowly turning and throwing off a “THUMP… THUMP... THUMP” type of vibration as opposed to the hyper “BUZZZZ” you get with high-speed retrieves. 

The other advantage to the slowly revolving blade is the lure will stay deep for a longer period of time. As the current sweeps the lure downstream, keep just enough tension on the line to keep the blade moving. Again, throw the whole cast and retrieve mentality out and think more like the fly fisherman who’s swinging an Egg-sucking Leech. You’re letting the current move the lure and your job is to simply keep it from crashing and burning in the rocks. As the spinner works through the run on an arc-shaped swing, follow your line with the rod tip. 

Most bites will occur when the lure is somewhere between the apex of the arc—when it’s about 45 degrees below you—and the end of the drift. When the lure gets directly downstream of you, it will start to lift in the water column. A word of caution here: hang on to your rod! Some of the most savage spinner grabs happen right when the lure starts rising off the bottom. For that reason, let the spinner hang straight below you for a few seconds before you reel back in and cast again.

A Systematic Approach

You can thoroughly cover a piece of water with a swinging spinner by taking a methodical approach to it. Start with a short cast and allow the lure to swing. Toss the next cast a few feet farther out and go a little longer still on the next toss. Then, take a few steps downriver and repeat the process. It takes some focus, but if you continue working your way downstream in that fashion, there’s a pretty good chance that any fish in the run will get a look at your offering.  

Spinner Styles & Colors

When it comes to choosing the right spinner, you have to look at a few factors: Species of salmon you’re chasing and water conditions. Generally, the bigger the fish or the darker the water, you’ll want to go with larger and brighter spinners. Conversely, keep the size and flash down in smaller creeks and/or when targeting smaller varieties of salmon. 

Here are some basic suggestions to get you started: For kings, the old standby size No. 5 Blue Fox Super Vibrax spinner is tough to beat. These lures are extremely effective when fished on the swing and the only real knock on them is they can be a little too light if you have to fish in really deep water. When you can’t get your Super Vibrax down near the bottom, switch to a Mepps Long Cast spinner. 

In either case, silver/chartreuse or silver/metallic blue are two of the top color choices. 

When silvers are on the menu, the No. 4 pink or orange Super Vibrax is deadly—especially on fresh-from-the-salt salmon. I also really like the No. 4 pink Kodiak Custom Silicone Skirt Spinners. As the fish move upstream, they develop more discerning palates and the bright lures lose some of their effectiveness. At that point, you can switch to a spinner with a black or purple body.

You can catch chums on any of the lures listed above, but to specifically target them with hardware, a No. 4 pink, chartreuse or gold/Kelly green Mepps See Best has worked wonders for me. When the humpies are in, just about any spinner in size 2-3 works well in any color—as long as it’s fluorescent pink. 

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JD Richey is a contributing editor for Fish Alaska magazine.