Few fish are more sought-after than king salmon. Inhabitants of Pacific Ocean waters, king salmon, also known as chinook salmon, return at the end of their lives to spawn in the same rivers where they were first hatched.
Difficult to hook and even more difficult to land once hooked, king salmon are known for their exceptionally strong fighting skills, and for their ability to shake a hook free from their toothy jaws. To catch them, you’ll need to not only be in the right place at the right time but have strong tackle and high-quality bait rigs.
King Salmon Identification
King salmon are the largest of the six Pacific salmon species and the most prized by anglers. Adults typically weigh 25 to 40 pounds, but they can also get much bigger, occasionally topping 100 pounds.
King salmon are silver in color in the open ocean, with small dark spots on the back as well as the upper and lower parts of the tail. Adult kings take on an olive or purplish color when spawning, and young individuals can be identified by their black inner mouth and gum line, which sets them apart from other Pacific salmon species.
Where to Find King Salmon
King salmon inhabit Pacific waters as far north as the Chukchi Sea area of Alaska and as far south as California’s Monterey Bay area. They are most abundant in the northern part of their range.
Young king salmon travel a lot, typically going wherever the smaller fish they eat go, and it’s common to find them close to the bottom in open waters between 30 and 60 feet deep. Adult king salmon often feed at depths over 100 feet but also approach the shore as they prepare to spawn. Sounds and mouths of rivers are prime areas.
Some of the best rivers for king salmon fishing include the Kenai River, Kasilof River, Nushagak River and Alagnak River in Alaska, the Skeena River and Frazer River in British Columbia, and the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon.
Washington’s Puget Sound is also a king salmon stronghold. Salmon inhabit Puget Sound year-round and spawn in tributaries that drain into the sound, including the Nooksack, Samish, Skagit, Cascade, Snohomish, Green, Puyallup and Deschutes rivers.
King Salmon have also been introduced into the Great Lakes, where they thrive through a combination of stocking and natural reproduction. Lake Michigan, Lake Huron and Lake Ontario are especially known for excellent salmon fishing in freshwater.
King Salmon Fishing Seasons & Migration
The best time of year to fish for salmon depends on many factors. King salmon hatch and spend their first year in freshwater rivers before returning to the ocean. Once they reach maturity after several years in saltwater, they return to the river where they were born to spawn. In between, they may migrate distances up to 7,000 miles.
Young king salmon—ocean-dwelling fish that are 2 to 3 years old and have not yet spawned—are most often targeted by anglers during the winter months. These fish are often referred to as ‘feeder kings’ in Alaska, or ‘blackmouth’ salmon in Puget Sound.
Adult salmon spawn when they reach 4 to 7 years of age. They do so during different seasons in different parts of their native range.
In Alaska, where some of the best king salmon in the world is found, the months of May and June are when kings run in coastal rivers. But some rivers, especially those farther south, actually support multiple king salmon runs each year, with distinct populations that run in fall, winter and spring.
King Salmon Baits & Lures
King salmon have a varied diet that includes bait fish like herring, anchovies, sardines and sand lance, as well as squid and crustaceans such as shrimp and prawns. They are caught using any of the above as live bait, but will also strike artificial lures that imitate them.
King salmon are unique because they feed actively in the ocean, but stop feeding once they enter rivers to spawn. Spawning salmon will often strike lures out of aggression, but not out of hunger. Some of the best lures for king salmon in both fresh and saltwater environments include:
Spoons are some of the simplest and most effective salmon lures. They can be cast or trolled at a range of depths. Bright-colored spoons between 3 and 4 inches are most widely used for king salmon. Pro King Magnum Spoons, McOmie’s Custom Glow Spoons and Dreamweaver Salmon Spoons are popular.
Effective for deep ocean fishing as well as casting in rivers, plugs are versatile and effective. Most are solid, rigid plastic lures painted to look like bait fish, though jointed plugs are also available. Luhr Jensen Kwikfish and Dreamweaver Captain’s Cut Plugs are popular models. They are usually fished by themselves rather than behind a flasher.
Plastic, squid-like lures, and hoochies can either be attached as a trailer to a spoon or plug, or they can be fished on their own behind a flasher. Pre-tied hoochie rigs are also available, and it’s common to tip the hook of a hoochie with live or cut herring.
Various types of salmon jigs work in different situations, including fuzzy marabou jigs for river fishing and plastic jigs that are used for vertical jigging in deep open water. There are hundreds of variations, with the common feature being a lead “head” or weight moulded to the hook.
King salmon flies don’t look much like the small flies that are used for trout fishing. These big, bright, flashy flies can be fished using traditional fly fishing methods, but some are also trolled behind flashers. Commonly used salmon flies include the Chinook Intruder, Ace Hi Fly and A-Tom-Mik Salmon Fly.
Flashers are large, flat, rectangular pieces of metal or plastic that are typically rigged 30” to 45” ahead of one’s bait or lure when trolling. Most flashers for salmon fishing are 8” to 11” long. The flasher itself is not a lure but is intended to produce a flash that resembles that of an actively feeding salmon, which attracts other salmon and gets them to see the main lure or bait.
Various rigs are used to fish live bait fish and squid for salmon. Luhr Jensen Rogue Rigs, Krippled Anchovy Rigs and Franko Bait Rotator Rigs are all popular options for rigging herring or anchovies, but there are many more options. One of the biggest challenges is simply keeping one’s bait rigs organized so they don’t become a tangled mess.
Salmon Fishing Tactics
A wide range of tactics are effective for catching king salmon in various circumstances. Some of the most popular king salmon fishing techniques include:
The most common method of catching salmon in open water, trolling is simply pulling a bait or lure behind your boat. That being said, there are many, many variations on this method. Trolling is a great way to cover a lot of water as you search for fish.
The ideal trolling speed for king salmon is usually between 1 and 2 miles per hour, and depths of 30 to 60 feet are often productive (though big kings are often much deeper). Downriggers are used to get lures down to the appropriate depth, and it’s common to run four lines at once, each at a different depth.
Good areas for trolling include shoal areas, drop-offs and anywhere where strong currents and bait fish are present. Using your depth finder to identify likely areas is a good way to start, and it’s also common to see birds circling overhead, which indicate a school of bait fish that likely will attract salmon.
Jigging is a mostly vertical fishing method that is more effective once you know you’re in the general area where salmon are likely to be. It involves dropping various baits and lures straight down, usually all the way to the bottom, and using the fishing rod to create a sharp up-and-down motion.
Mooching is similar to jigging, but much slower and less active. With this method, anglers drop baits (usually dead herring on a mooching rig) over the side of the boat and let them fall all the way to the bottom before gradually bringing them back to the surface with a series of long, slow up-and-down movements.
A related method, known as drift mooching, involves letting the boat drift while the lines are out. This allows the movement of the boat to control the movement of the baits.
Casting bait and lures from the bank is an option any time king salmon are spawning in a river, though it can be challenging in large rivers because these fish typically stay in the deepest, middle part of the river. Casting from beaches and piers is also an option in some areas when salmon are staging for the spawn near river mouths.
In addition to casting lures like plugs and spoons, there are also a few different variations of bank fishing that work with live bait rigs. Options include drifting live bait with a drift fishing rig, suspending bait beneath a float on a float fishing rig, or “plunking” which is a still-fishing method with bait and weight on a three-way rig.
Drift Boat Fishing
Drift boats are employed in various ways for king salmon fishing on rivers. Many salmon guides and anglers use them like taxis to hop from one fishing spot to the next, either exiting the boat at likely-looking spots or fishing from the boat while anchored.
But it’s also possible to fish from the boat as it is carried downriver with the current. This is known as drift fishing, and there are multiple ways to go about it. The two most widely-used variations are known as side-drifting and boondoggling.
Boondoggling involves drifting downriver with the boat perpendicular to the current. The anglers cast directly upstream and let their baits drag as the boat moves. Side drifting involves letting the boat drift while oriented parallel to the current. The anglers cast off of either side of the boat at 45-degree angles upstream.
Catch More King Salmon
Preparation and persistence are the keys to success when it comes to salmon fishing. Although king salmon are some of the most challenging fish to catch, they are also some of the most rewarding. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of landing your first king salmon, and that excitement never seems to fade, no matter how many years you’ve spent fishing for them, or how many you’ve caught!