How to Fish Divers and Bait for River Salmon

Diver 2
Headed for a river that has salmon in it this summer and fall? Take some diver & bait rigs with you – it’s a super easy and extremely deadly technique that you can pick up in no time!

While there are several good ways to get a big, juicy glob of hot red sulfite eggs (or sand shrimp) down in the faces of river salmon, the ol’ diver and bait is often the first one to which I turn.

Salmon Candy

Salmon Candy

Divers give me piece of mind that the bait is always in the strike zone – when properly rigged up, your hooks will always be anywhere from 6 inches to a few feet off the bottom, so snags aren’t a huge problem, which is another attractive attribute. I also like the smooth and steady presentation of eggs tracking along behind a diver.

Sometimes, I think the bait bounces up and down too much when it’s back-bounced, which can turn fish off. Another cool thing about fishing this way is the bite. It’s just so frigging sweet to see that first thump on the tip, followed by several good pumps and then the rod tip gets ripped down. Fish on…yahoo!

Now, let’s take a look at rigging up:


Well, first I guess we better take a look at the major component of this whole deal: the diver. There are a couple ways you can go, here: either run hookless plugs like Mud Bugs painted black or metallic green or clear Brad’s Bait Divers (looks almost identical to the old STORM Hot-N-Tots) or go with Luhr Jensen’s Jet Divers.

Jet Diver (top) and a Brad's

Jet Diver (top) and a Brad’s

I run Jet Divers almost all of the time. They’re much more stable than most plugs, so they get down deep and stay there. On my home waters, the size No. 20 (dives to 20 feet) is the staple, though there are certain spots that require me to bump up to the No. 30. On rivers like the Kenai and Columbia, the size No. 40 and even the 50-foot Jumbo Jet models are popular.

Though Luhr Jensen manufacturers Jet Divers in a wide array of exciting colors, I prefer the boring, plain-jane clear ones most of the time (pink crystal is Plan B if I can find the transparent ones). I just think that the less junk the fish see, the better off you are. I do have friends, however, who swear that they get more bites when using metallic blue divers.

Smoke 'em if you got 'em...a diver caught king!

Smoke ’em if you got ’em…a diver caught king!

Jet Divers don’t need tuning and generally run great right out of the box. There are a couple things you can do however, to make them even run better. As soon as I get a new one, I’ll flip it belly up and twist off the plastic tab and crane swivel with a set of needle nose pliers. I always run divers off a dropper, so there’s simply no need for that extra stuff hanging off the bottom. There are also times when I’ll carefully take a file to the top edge of the diver’s wings to give it a little steeper diving angle – for those tight spots when I need to get my gear as straight down as possible.

Since Jet Divers don’t snag all that often, I wear more of them out than I lose. The biggest problem that I encounter is a crack in one of the wings. Unless you’re looking specifically for a crack, you may not notice it – until your driver starts doing corkscrews in the water and tangles up all your other lines. When you find you have a cracked wing, toss the entire unit it in the garbage.

Occasionally, you’ll also find water seeping into your diver’s body, which is often caused by a hairline crack (from the diver smacking the side of the boat or a fish flopping on it in the net). It’s hard to get he water back out of such a thin fracture, but you can take a tiny drill bit and make a hole towards the back of the diver to drain it. After everything dries out, hit the drill hole with epoxy and cover the crack with crazy glue.

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Rigging the Diver

As I noted earlier, it’s best to run divers off dropper lines. I’ll make my drop line 12 inches to 3 feet in length, depending on the conditions. As a basic rule of thumb, go with a shorter length in fast water; longer when you’re fishing slower, deeper water.

Diver rig
The next step is to decide how to tie your dropper leader to your main line and you have two choices: hard-tied or on a slider. In most cases, I run my divers on sliders – in other words, I’ll tie the opposite end of my dropper line to a crane swivel and then run the main line through it. Next, I’ll slide 2-4 plastic beads up the mainline and then tie another crane swivel to the tag end. To the opposite end of that swivel, goes the bait leader. The swivel and beads between the main line and leader keep the diver from sliding down to the bait but it is free to move up the line (towards the rod).

When a fish grabs your bait, he’ll feel less resistance when the diver’s free-sliding. A sliding rig is also a good thing if you happen to get your diver caught in the net while attempting to scoop the fish. Though your diver’s tangled up in the mesh, the fish can still run without the hooks getting ripped out of its mouth.

And if you happen to break off on a fish or snag, there’s a chance your diver will float to the surface, where you can recover it – no small victory considering these things go for about $7 a pop these days!

A case can be made for fixed rigs as well, however, especially when you have inexperienced anglers on board. One of the downsides of a diver on a sliding rig occurs when the hooks get snagged. As the boat continues to back downstream, the diver keeps going, working on the bow between the rod tip and the snag. A trained eye can tell something’s amiss, but a rookie may not know anything’s wrong until his line’s upstream of the boat….arrrgh! You can fix this problem by tying your mainline, leader and dropper all to a three-way swivel.


  1. Samuel Gonzalez says

    Whats the nearest place to fish for salmon closest to milpitas ca?Sacramento and which city?It’s my first time and know your one of the best at salmon fishing.

  2. Brian says

    Hi, As Jet divers do not trip is there a lot of pressure when retrieving to rebait and what about playing a fish, is the diver working against you or does the slider rig aleviate this proiblem, Regards.

    • says

      Yes ther is a lot of pressure as you crank in. Basically anytime the swivel on the slider is in contact with the swivel between the mainline and leader, the diver works against you.

  3. John says

    Great info! What’s the best hook size for salmon? I live in Connecticut and the DEP here regularly stocks 3 rivers and some lakes. I’ve never fished for salmon before (nor caught one accidentally) Thanks, John. And have great holidays!

    • says

      Well, John, that’s a complicated question! Having not fished the East Coast, I’m not sure. Depends on what you’re doing. I generally run #2-2/0 depending on the technique. Good luck!

      • Mark Lynn says

        regarding hook size … #2-2/0 is a good range but doesnt it also matter about the size of fish and bait as well… i know here in washington out on the coast we will somtimes run baits the size of a golf ball or bigger and will use a 4/0 – 5/0 … Would it make a difference if we ran a smaller hook.. ie more hook ups or am i on the right line of thinking

  4. Daniel says

    From what I understand of Chinook salmon runs is once they enter freshwater their no longer feeding, so how do spinner lures and and baited hooks work? I’m new to fishing and never have fished for King Salmon but I wanna take full advantage of the open season on the Feather and Sacramento. Any suggestions for shoreline fisherman I heard something about using a bead and essentially snagging them but I also heard that’s frowned upon. Can you please shed some light on the Central Valley Chinook

  5. says

    What is the boat doing while you are using this rig? Are you anchored, trolling down current, back trolling. Thanks for all the great info. Heard you on Sep’s show a couple weeks ago and you did a great job!

  6. jameskramer says

    when do the salmon come up the america river and what month is the best of time to fish for them and the best bait or lure presentation .

    is drifting a bead allowed in the american river

  7. Ant Dog says

    Hello JD, are there good spots to fish from the banks of the feather or Sacrameto river for Salmon? Withen a hour and a half drive from Sac? Would the method mentioned above be good from shore? Thanks.

    • says

      There’s not much good bank access on the Sac but plenty on the Feather in the Oroville Wildlife Area. Diver and bait, however, is a boating technique. Instead, toss No. 5 Blue Fox spinners or drift roe. Good luck!

  8. says

    THanks for the info. I started guiding a few years ago on the Trinity, getting people to cast to the right spot and get the bait in the zone is hard and frustrating at times.I am going to figure this out and hopefully start getting people on more fish! Hope to see you out there sometime!!

    • says

      Yea, but it’s hard to fish off a kicker motor isn’t it? I mean, where do you sit….sorry! Just kidding. Until Nov. 1 the whole river is open to motor boats but you have to maintain a 5 mph speed limit. After Nov. 1, no motors are allowed above Ancil Hoffman Park.

  9. jameskramer says

    when do the salmon start climbing up the river to spawn. and what is the best way to catch them

  10. Edward Stevens says

    What type of lures would be best in the Rouge River in South West OR? The river is high and the water is cold. so they are not bitine much on roe or other lures that I have. What would be your reccomendation for catching springers with this weather and the river being so high?

    • says

      Well, high, cold water springers are tough. The best bet is to anchor up on the inside (soft) side of a bend in 4 to 6 feet of water and run a gold/green spinner straight out the back of the boat with a three-way rig and enough lead to keep it on the bottom.

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