The spring salmon fishery on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee is celebrated by winter-weary anglers throughout the region, for many reasons. The fish are hungry and feed closer the surface at this time, and the lake is largely devoid of other recreational boaters. It’s a time that anglers like veteran guide Jason Parent of Salmon Patrol Charters look forward to in a big way.
Jason and his teenage son, Hayden, revealed some of their proven techniques for targeting spring salmon on the big lake on a late-April trip out of Fay’s Boat Yard in Gilford. Even though it was just a couple weeks after ice-out, water temperatures were already approaching the 50-degree mark. As Jason explained. the ideal water temperature for salmon fishing is 54 degrees, although most spring fishing takes place in cooler water.
Weather conditions can play a big role in the early-season fishery, with low light and overcast conditions keeping the salmon feeding closer to the surface. Ideal conditions include a southwest wind and low, dark cloud cover prior to a major front. On bright days, an early start (ie., pre-dawn) is required, as the fish tend to move deeper as the sun rises.
After a short run, we reached a protected cove, the glassy surface disturbed by the occasional swirl of feeding fish. Jason explained that the salmon could be virtually anywhere at this time of year, but to help nail down a starting point, look for the presence of bait, either on the surface or on your depthsounder. If you see the dimples of smelt schools on the surface, accompanied by the swirls of feeding salmon, you’d be well advised to stick around.
Wind direction can help narrow your search, as well. For example, if the wind blows hard from the south for several days, it will often concentrate bait in northern parts of the lake or along south-facing shorelines.
Trolling for salmon is a true art, and usually involves the use of “controlled depth” techniques to target different levels of the water column. Jason and Hayden typically start the day by trolling live shiners and smelt off a combination of downriggers and leadcore outfits. Live bait can be purchased at local tackle shops, and Jason likes to bring at least three dozen per trip if fishing a spread of four rods. The bait is hooked crosswise through the nostrils on a No. 10 Owner live-bait hook.
In this game, trolling speed is critical. Live baits must be trolled at 1.5 miles per hour. To slow the boat, Jason deploys a pair of drift socks (sea anchors), one off each side of his 25-foot inboard Sport Craft. Five-gallon buckets can also be used to slow the trolling speed on smaller boats.
While live baits are hard to beat, a variety of flashy spoons such as the orange DB Smelt and silver-copper Sutton 61, as well as traditional salmon flies such as the Grey Ghost, Pumpkin’ Head and Joe’s Smelt, all with No. 4 single hooks, also work well in the early season.
Jason often switches to artificial lures when the bite slows, so he can increase his speed slightly and cover more water. Note that spoons will often achieve a greater depth when trolled, given their weight.
Jason’s preferred rod for both leadcore and downrigger trolling is an 8- to 8 ½ -foot Shakespeare Ugly Stik, which features a limber tip that helps prevent the hook from tearing out of the salmon’s delicate mouth during the fight. His go-to reel is a Daiwa AccuDepth model with a line counter that makes it easy to reset the spread after a fish is landed. The drag is set light, again to keep the hook from tearing loose on the strike or when the fish makes a sudden run.
While the spring fishery is certainly productive, Jason reveals that his favorite time to target salmon is August. “That’s because you only have to fish half the lake,” he explains. “In the spring, the fish could be holding anywhere from the bottom to the top; however, in summer they’re going to be holding in the lower half of the water column, in the deepest parts of the lake. It makes finding them much easier!”
A typical early-season trolling spread varies according to the depth at which the fish are feeding on any given day and the number of licensed fishermen aboard (New Hampshire allows two rods per angler). However, a good spread consists of six lines staggered at different depths, to cover the water column from 5 to 25 feet below the surface.
First, two lines are set off downriggers, one 10 feet deep and 10 feet behind the boat, the other 8 to 15 feet deep and 30 to 50 feet behind the boat. Both lines are 10-pound-test mono with 8-foot, 4- to 6-pound-test fluorocarbon leaders.
Next, a leadcore line is run off a planer board. This line is let out at least two “colors” to achieve a depth of 10 to 15 feet, and fished off a 100-foot fluorocarbon leader. It’s important to note that the planer board lines must be set farther back than the flat lines, to prevent tangles when a fish is hooked.
A second planer board line is set off the other side at three to four colors (15 to 20 feet deep) and fished off a 100-foot leader.
The two flat lines are deployed from leadcore outfits, one on either side of the boat. The starboard line can be let out anywhere from one to four colors, to achieve a depth of 5 to 25 feet.
The leader is 75 to 100 feet. The portside line can be let out one to two colors for a depth of 5 to 12 feet, depending on whether a live bait or lure is used. The leader on this outfit is typically 50 feet. The spread should be tweaked according to the fish’s behavior and the depth at which they are feeding. If you haven’t had a strike after 30 minutes, make adjustments to bait and lure type, trolling depth, and speed until you find the combination that works.