Along the East Coast of the United States and Canada, few fish are as revered as the Atlantic salmon. Known as fierce fighters and historically prized as table fare, a monster Atlantic salmon is the catch of a lifetime.
Atlantic salmon are a protected species in much of their range, but opportunities to catch them are still available. Here’s what you need to know about when, where and how to catch Atlantic salmon.
Atlantic Salmon Identification
Atlantic salmon have a torpedo-like shape and silver color with black spots on the back, gill covers, and usually on the tail. Mature adults often take on a yellow-orange or dark-orange color when spawning. Compared to brown trout, which look similar, Atlantic salmon have a more blunted head shape, smaller mouth and more deeply forked tail.
Adults typically measure 27 to 30 inches and weigh around 10 pounds. They are capable of growing much bigger, occasionally topping 4 feet and weighing 50 pounds.
Atlantic Salmon Range & Migration
Atlantic salmon are native to a wide area of the North Atlantic Ocean. Along the North American coast, populations exist as far south as Connecticut and as far north as Quebec. They are also abundant along European coastlines from Portugal all the way up to the Arctic Circle.
Atlantic salmon are anadromous fish, which means that they live most of their lives in saltwater, but spawn in freshwater. Every year, salmon make an epic spawning run up coastal rivers throughout their range. Timing varies, but Atlantic salmon usually start running from late summer and continue throughout the fall.
Salmon eggs are laid in rivers during the winter months, and the newly-hatched salmon spend their first one to three years in freshwater before migrating to the ocean. After about the age of four, they can return to their home rivers to spawn.
Unlike Pacific salmon, Atlantic salmon often survive the ordeal of spawning, and can reproduce multiple times. In North America, populations are much lower than their historic levels, and areas south of Maine see only limited spawning runs, though restoration efforts have helped.
Where to Catch Atlantic Salmon
At present, wild sea-run Atlantic salmon are a protected species in coastal waters and rivers of the United States, and it is illegal to target them for recreational or commercial fishing. There are, however, other parts of the world where Atlantic salmon fishing is permitted.
Canada still has some excellent Atlantic salmon fishing. Waters off the coast of eastern Canada have much higher numbers of salmon then the eastern United States, with good runs in rivers like the Gander River in Newfoundland and the Margaree River in Nova Scotia. The Gaspé Peninsula of Quebec is especially well known for excellent Atlantic salmon fishing, with rivers like the Bonaventure and the Cascapédia being among the best in North America.
Excellent Atlantic salmon fishing is also available in many northern European countries. Coastal rivers in Norway, Iceland, Scotland and Ireland support prolific annual spawning runs of Atlantic salmon, and coastal areas around those countries also have great fishing opportunities.
Landlocked Atlantic Salmon
In the United States, the only current opportunities to catch Atlantic salmon are landlocked populations. Landlocked Atlantic salmon are available in many large lakes in the Northeast and Midwest states, including some of the Great Lakes.
In some cases, Atlantic salmon migrated into freshwater lakes thousands of years ago and became trapped there, establishing long-term landlocked populations. Landlocked Atlantic salmon are also widely stocked in lakes and reservoirs to provide sport fishing opportunities.
Maine has the most extensive landlocked Atlantic salmon fishery; these fish are stocked in 300 lakes and 320 miles of Maine rivers and streams. Other New England states including Vermont and New Hampshire also have excellent landlocked salmon fishing. Lake Champlain, which straddles the border between Vermont and New York, is especially known for landlocked salmon. They are also stocked in several of New York’s Finger Lakes.
Atlantic salmon have been stocked in the Great Lakes with varying degrees of success. Some of the best Atlantic salmon fishing in the Great Lakes is in Lake Huron, where salmon stocked by the Michigan DNR run up the St. Marys River every summer. Lake Ontario and its tributaries have been heavily stocked as well.
Atlantic Salmon Fishing Tactics
Several methods are commonly used to catch Atlantic salmon, most of which can be divided into four basic fishing tactics. These methods are effective anywhere Atlantic salmon live and can be legally caught.
Trolling for Atlantic Salmon
Trolling is a method most often employed for catching Atlantic salmon on open water, including landlocked salmon in lakes. Anglers may troll one or more baits or lures behind their boat, often employing downriggers to get their lure down to the desired depth. Trolling is especially effective in summer, when salmon head deep in search of cooler waters. They prefer temperatures below 65°F, and often descend to 30 to 60-food depths in summer. Spoons are the most popular style of trolling lure.
Casting for Atlantic Salmon
Casting is an option whenever salmon are in relatively shallow water or close to the surface. Anglers often cast from the bank when salmon are running in rivers, or in lakes during the colder months when salmon are more likely to be near shore or high in the water column. Spoons and spinners are popular lures for casting, and natural baits are also effective. Try salmon egg sacs when the fish are spawning, or live smelt when they are actively feeding.
Fly Fishing for Atlantic Salmon
Fly fishing is a method most often used to catch Atlantic salmon when they are running up rivers and tributaries. Streamer flies that imitate smelt are often the best options, with larger, brighter-colored flies working best when waters are high and muddy. Nymphs and smaller wet flies work better in clear conditions, and dry flies known as Bombers are popular in some regions.
Ice Fishing for Atlantic Salmon
In areas where lakes freeze, there are excellent opportunities to ice fish for landlocked Atlantic salmon. Many anglers catch them using live or dead smelts, as well as ice jigs and jigging spoons that imitate them. It’s common to catch Atlantic salmon fairly close to the surface of frozen lakes, often within the first 15 feet below the ice.
Catch More Atlantic Salmon
Whether you’re fishing in a river, lake or ocean, Atlantic salmon are a fish that can put any angler to the test. And while they aren’t known for being easy to catch, there are few other fish in fresh or saltwater that are more enjoyable to battle with.