Why Salmon Bite

Having a better understanding of our quarry is always beneficial, and can often improve our success. Even though this topic has probably been beaten to death many times over, a recent debate on one of the forums I post on got me thinking about it…Why do salmon bite?

Chomped down on a Kwikfish (Photo by Rob Yuen)

It’s fairly common knowledge, with lots of science to back it up, that salmon stop eating during their spawning runs. Their throats swell shut, and their digestive system shuts down. So why do they then continue to bite our offerings up until they die?

Every fish is different, and not all salmon will go through the changes that take place at the same time or rate. Salmon fresh from the ocean are generally still eating. They will readily attack baits such as herring, anchovies, and sardines in tidewater, and even into the lower stretches of fresh water. There’s no doubt that these fish are still feeding, and are basically going through one last buffet line before they rely solely on their fat reserves. At some point on their journey upriver this feeding stops, however, any angler that pursues these amazing fish knows that they will continue to bite.

So why do salmon continue to bite if they aren’t feeding? I’ve heard plenty of different theories, and there are 3 basic ways to get a spawning salmon to strike:

Curing salmon eggs
    1. Irritate and aggravate – Using hardware such as Kwikfish, spoons, spinners, and corkies to irritate and aggravate a salmon and inducing a strike.


  • Exploit feeding instincts – Salmon have been doing nothing but feeding for all the years they’ve been out in the ocean. They are programmed to eat, and when they pick up the scent of a baitfish their brain tells them to bite it, even if they aren’t trying to eat it. It’s all instinctual, and basic muscle memory. It’s also believed that salmon have cravings for different minerals as they go through the physical changes. That’s why some cure manufactures use different minerals and amino acids depending on how far from salt water they are going to be fishing.



  • Exploit competitive survival instincts – A theory often stated for why salmon bite roe. They are trying to improve the odds of their offspring surviving over another fish’s.


What’s it all mean for us fishermen?

Knowing what stage of their life cycle the salmon are in can help determine what bait we use. If you are fishing for fresh coastal salmon, you’ll want to exploit the feeding instincts. These fish may also still be in  an eating mode so using baits such as herring, anchovies, or smelt will be highly productive.

If you’re going to be fishing inland for salmon that have been out of salt water for a few weeks, you may possibly need to try all the methods. If you know fish are in a hole, but haven’t been able to produce a bite with eggs, switching up to a Kwikfish could aggravate one into striking.

Most fishermen have also learned to combine these strategies. Wrapping Kwikfish with sardines, or curing roe with different scents are two very popular, and productive examples.

We may never know exactly why salmon continue to bite well after they quit feeding. However, trying to understand what does provoke a strike will help us to be  more successful fishermen.

I’d love to hear your comments about the subject in a comment below. I’m always up for a good discussion.

Tight Lines…. 

3 thoughts on “Why Salmon Bite

  1. @ WDSTK3 – Some and maybe even most fishermen are happy in just figuring out “what” works. If we can figure out “why” then we can only become more successful. It may be a futile endeavor because we can never know exactly what a fish is thinking, but even breaking it down like I did can help us with a basic understanding. Maybe trying to trigger an aggressive bite isn’t working so instead of switching from a Kwikfish to a spinner, you switch over to eggs to try and trigger a different type of strike.

    @ Jeff – I definitely agree, and think it falls under the same category as aggravate.

  2. I’d add “defensiveness” to the list. It may fall under “agitation,” but I think some salmon will strike (especially when spawning in rivers) if they see something coming into their space. I think they like to tell intruders to stay the hell away.

  3. It’s a question that can be asked about many species of fish. Why do plankton feeders like Kokanee bite Wedding Rings and any number of other lures? The same can be asked of Trout. I think it comes down to finding “what” works. Finding an answer for the elusive “why?” can be anywhere from an interesting endeavor to a frustrating exercise in futility.

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