Drift Fishing for Salmon 101

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If you are looking forward to the rarified pleasure of a day out on the water in your Jon boat to drift fish for salmon, you are definitely in for some good fishing and a better than average chance of a salmon supper. 

This classic angling technique is known for its accessibility and effectiveness and is a great technique to master if you want to catch your first salmon.

In this article, we’ll provide you with the drift fishing for salmon 101, covering just about everything you need to know to make a success of this easy-going approach.

What is drift fishing?

Drift fishing is a boat-based angling technique where you let your boat drift with natural wind and current conditions while you drag a weighted lure or bait along the bottom of the water, to attract fish. 

drift fishing for salmon

Drift fishing is thought to have been devised by witty Canadian loggers on the Skagit River who would set up a rig to be pulled along by the logs floating downstream hoping to catch a salmon or two. They called it boom dogging on account of the floating logs or booms used. 

Unlike bottom fishing, the more natural and sustained motion of your lure attracts salmon, giving you a good chance of a bite. You can drift fish on rivers, streams, lakes or the open sea.

You’re catching salmon in a boat?

Yup! You won’t need your waders this time and your gear can come with you as you float along. If you have ever been fishing for ocean salmon, drift fishing works along similar lines to trolling, where one or more weighted lines are dragged through the water to present the bait to the fish.

You can drift fish with waders and fight the currents but more often than not it’s from a boat.

If you cannot wait for nature to take its course and drift you down the waterway, you can use a trolling motor to practice controlled drifting.

This modified technique enables you to propel yourself slowly along the waterway at no more than ten miles per hour. This provides the control needed for trailing your bait in very weak or strong currents.

What kind of boat is suitable for drift fishing?

If you have a rusty old Jon boat that is gathering dust, this is the angling activity that it was made for.

Any flat-bottomed boat with an outboard (and perhaps a trolling motor) will get the job done as you are relying on wind and current rather than the motor. You can drift fish for salmon in:

  • Kayaks: drift fishing is a popular form of kayak angling and is well worth trying if you are confident staying upright in your kayak. 
  • Dorys: these small wooden, low-draft boats are ideal for drift fishing and are also known as drift boats. They are lightweight and easily moved by wind and current. The flat bottom provides stability for standing to cast-off
  • Coracles: this primitive canvas and tar boat, also known as a currach, is still used in Wales and southwest England as a traditional watercraft. Its simplicity, easy transport (you walk with it on your back like a turtle), makes it ideal for drift fishing in rivers and streams. In other parts of the world, fishermen use similar vessels for drift fishing and netting. 

drift fishing

What equipment do I need to drift fish for salmon?

To stand any chance of catching salmon, you are going to need the right tackle. Here is a list of the essentials, everyone has their twist but these should get you started:

  1. A lightweight spinning rod: Anything up to 10 pounds is suitable. A heavier rod is better if you are fishing in strong currents, with an 8 to 10-pound rod potentially giving you the upper hand in dealing with a large salmon. The rod should have a semi-soft tip as it can help you detect a bite and set the hook in the salmon’s mouth. 
  1. A spinning reel or baitcasting reel with line: Baitcasting reels are a little more technical, but for novices, a simple no-frills spinning reel will be easy to use and reliable when it counts.
  1. 140 yards of high visibility line with monofilament backing: The last thing you need is to lose the salmon of your life because your line is not up to it. Buy a decent line to catch decent fish!

When you are working with a spinning reel, a braided line has a tendency to free spin, whereas monofil backing gives you the grip and control you need. A base of monofilament also takes up space on the reel so you do not need as much of your more expensive line.

See some of the best equipment over on Amazon here

Visibility is vital when you are drift fishing with multiple lines so you can assess how you lines are drifting. 

  1. Pencil lead: Coils of pencil lead can be cut to size that works for your rig. Vary the size a little so you have various weighting options to keep your bait clear of the bottom. Any length between a quarter to and inch to 3 inches will do. 
  1. Size two hooks: These are some of the largest hooks on the market (the smaller the number, the larger the size). Big sharp hooks are a statement of intent in salmon fishing.
  1. Lures and bait: Live bait and flashy lures are an ideal combination for drift fishing salmon. Read on for some more tips and ideas on bait choices and lures. 

The key to a good drift fishing rod it that is has to be super sensative. It doesn’t need to be long, just very sensative.

Tell me about the drift fishing rig 

The rig is the most critical part of your drift fishing set up and with experience, you will develop a drift rig that is just right for you.

These are as many drift rigs as there are anglers but this basic setup should give you an idea of the basic principles:

What do I need for a drift fishing rig?

  • A medium clip swivel to tie your rig onto
  • Pencil lead cut to size or a slinky weight, which is made up of lead balls in a mesh tubing. 
  • A good-quality, strong fishing line known as a leader to tie to your hook. 
  • An octopus hook attached to the leader with a baitholder knot.
  • Your lures of choice
  • Coloured yarn, bait and floating beads

Here is how you put it all together:

  1. The swivel clip needs to be tied to the main line. 
  2. Attach your pencil lead or sink weight to one side of the swivel clip
  3. Thread one or two scented floating beads onto the leader
  4. The leader can be tied to the other end of the swivel.
  5. They can then be tied to your octopus hook 
  6. Attach lures and bait: either yarn with scent, or bait in a bait holder.

Success in drift fishing salmon lies in mastering the technique

Cast-off upstream at the top of the section of river or “drift” you will be working. Your rig needs enough weight to get down to the bottom of the river.  

Let the current move you downstream while you manually drift the lure through as much of the bottom as possible.

The line shouldn’t have any slack, or you find it difficult to detect a bite. You should be able to feel your lure bouncing along, without snagging. 

Brilliant spots for drift fishing for salmon include:

  • Current seams
  • Deep pools 
  • Around submerged structures
  • Tailouts

Why drift fishing is great for salmon!

Drift fishing doesn’t have all the drama of fly-fishing but it is one of the best methods for fishing salmon on rivers. Here are some of the reasons why you need a drift rig:

  • By casting your bait upstream and allowing it to drift downstream with the natural currents it will have a very natural movement and entice the salmon.
  • The salmon don’t come to your lure, your lure goes to the salmon. You bounce your lures along the bottom, and present them right in front of the fish!
  • Because you cover so much ground, you are much more likely to hit an area where the salmon are hanging out and get a bite on your line.
  • You can read a river with drift fishing and learn where the salmon are.
  • Your lure spends so much longer in the ideal bite zone. Make sure it’s a shiny one to get the full attention of the salmon. 

Other quick salmon angling tips

  • Overcast weather is ideal for salmon fishing!

Salmon are more active in low lighting (dawn and dusk), so a cloudy overcast day may be ideal to drift fish, especially in shallower water. 

  • Setting a hook is easier with salmon if your hooks are sharp

Dull hooks will lose you the fish of your life! They simply aren’t able to penetrate the thick jaw of a salmon. This is especially important when drift fishing as you want a definite bite.

  • Don’t scrimp on bait

When that slab of delicious pink flaky flesh is sizzling on your grill you’ll be glad you bothered to use decent bait. Push the boat out by using some of these excellent salmon bait options:

  • roe
  • cut bait like herring 
  • sand lance baitfish
  • pink worms

Give ’em a dance they can’t resist too with flashers and hoochies that give great movement and reflect light. 

  • Scent can be a useful alternative if you don’t have live bait

You can use sandshrimp scent on your lure, yarn or beads to attract a salmon and encourage it to strike.  

  • On open water, salmon will head into the tide

This is why drift fishing can be so effective if you just go with the flow.

  • With salmon, a red line might make all the difference

A red line becomes invisible when it is underwater at a depth of 15 feet or more, meaning your drift rig can move undetected through the water. 

If you have a bite, make sure you set the hook properly

Immediately lifting the rod every time you have a biter often prevents the hook from being properly driven in. Hold fire and give the salmon time to think it owns the situation and make an assessment of size before lifting the rod once the salmon is properly hooked. 

  • A bit of research on your location can go a long way in finding salmon

You can get a head start by checking out forums or contacting the local angling association for some ‘general’ advice on where you can expect salmon to be on the move to specific areas.

Know your tides, as peak fishing times for salmon are usually an hour before a high or low tide.

  • Keep it legal!

Don’t forget to have a licence and meet all legal requirements and regulations for the location where you fish salmon. Otherwise, you could risk a fine!

Rounding up

Drift fishing is a great angling technique to master and works well for catching salmon. As you get to move about, this is a great way of taking in the scenery by beautiful rivers.

Take your time, experiment and master your rigs and techniques, and hopefully, you will return home to a salmon supper!