May 4, 2020
Early spring means some of the best fishing of the year for landlocked salmon on Lake Winnipesaukee. Here’s how a veteran guide takes advantage of this productive bite.
By Tom Richardson; Photography by AJ Derosa
The spring salmon fishery on Lake Winnipesaukee is celebrated by winter-weary anglers throughout the region, for many reasons. Not only are the fish hungry and feeding closer the surface at this time, 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.
Last spring, Jason, along with his teenage son Hayden, showed me some of their time-proven techniques for targeting spring salmon on the big lake. We met at Fay’s Boat Yard in Gilford on an overcast, early-May morning a few weeks after ice-out. The lake was warming up fast, with water temperatures already approaching the 50-degree mark. Jason explained that the ideal water temperature for salmon fishing is 54 degrees, although most spring salmon fishing takes place in cooler water.
Weather can play a big role at this time, with low light and overcast conditions keeping the salmon feeding closer to the surface. Jason’s ideal conditions include a southwest wind and low, dark cloud cover prior to a major front pushing in. If a bright day is forecast, you’ll want to be fishing just before dawn, as the fish tend to move deeper as the sun rises.
Live Bait Technique
With fog hanging low over the surrounding shores, we cast off and headed deep into the lake to begin our search. 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, which makes it hard to pin down an exact spot. However, the presence of bait makes a big difference, so if you see the dimples of smelt schools on the surface, and especially the swirls of feeding salmon, you’d be well advised to stick around.
Wind direction can offer a clue 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.
With Hayden maintaining a steady course and speed, Jason set a trolling spread consisting of live shiners and smelt fished 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, and to slow the boat Jason deploys a pair of drift socks, one off each side of his 25-foot inboard Sport Craft. Five-gallon buckets can also be used to slow the trolling speed if you have a smaller boat.
It seems we had found the right spot, as it wasn’t long before one of the downrigger lines popped free of the release clip and I was playing my first salmon of the day. After a brief fight, during which Hayden was careful to maintain our course and speed, Jason deftly scooped up the fish with a long-handled landing net. After measuring the fish at 15 inches, Jason explained that the landlocks in Winnipesaukee are all stocked fish—and they grow quickly. The fish I had just caught was a one-year-old, stocked the previous year. We’d catch bigger ones, he assured me.
Jason quickly reset my downrigger line with a fresh shiner and we were back in business. 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.
Spoons & Flies
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. His typical reel is a Daiwa AccuDepth model, which features 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.
After catching a few more yearlings in the 15-inch range, one of the flat-line rods doubled over with the weight of a much better fish. This one took line on several runs and chose not to jump, which Jason said usually indicates a bigger salmon. However, as I eased it closer to the boat, the fish suddenly burst through the surface, thrashing and rolling in the wake. When he saw it, Jason couldn’t contain himself.
“That’s a monster!” he shouted. “That’s a big one! That’s the one we want, right there!”
When the guide gets excited, you know you’ve hooked something noteworthy! In this case, the salmon turned out to be a four-pounder, a career best for this writer.
While the spring fishery is certainly productive, Jason revealed that his favorite time to target salmon is August. “That’s because you only have to fish half the lake,” he explained. “In the spring, the fish could be 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.”
Thanks to the efforts and expertise of Jason and Hayden, I enjoyed a productive morning of salmon fishing on Lake Winnipesaukee, one that included my personal best landlocked. But best of all, I got the chance to see what spring salmon fishing is all about, and why the period following ice-out is celebrated by so many New Hampshire anglers.
Setting the Spread
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.
Salmon Patrol Charters
Book a trip with Capt. Jason Parent and Salmon Patrol Charters, (603) 387-4626. Jason targets salmon from spring to early fall on Winnipesaukee, before switching over to guiding hunting trips in Maine.