When it comes to salmon fishing, many anglers put quite a bit of their money and worry into their rod. Yes, your rod is making the cast and bringing in the fish, but your reel is the unsung hero of the setup. I made the mistake of using a small-arbor reel in my first salmon experience, got spooled and lost too much money as well as the fish.

Selecting a Fly Reel for Salmon
Selecting a Fly Reel for Salmon

When it comes to selecting the perfect salmon reel, there are several factors that go into it. You have to understand the size of your rod, the arbor size and what sort of line that you’re using! By the time you’ve considered all of these, you’ll have a great idea of the exact type of reel that you’ll need.

What Style of Fly Fishing for Salmon?

The first thing to consider is what type of fly fishing you’re going to be doing. There are two main ways that anglers target salmon: streamers and nymphs.

Streamer fishing is done a couple of ways. The first option is to swing them! You cast up and across stream and let your fly drift downstream back towards you. As soon as your fly moves across your face, get ready. Your fly will begin to swing across the current and this is where fish love to hit it. Once it swings, make a couple hard strips back towards yourself. Fish are known to chase it as well!

Type of SalmonAverage WeightRod and Reel Size
Chinook10 to 50 lbs.10-Weight and up
Atlantic8 to 12 lbs.7/8 Weight
Sockeye5 to 15 lbs.7/8 Weight
Coho7 to 11 lbs.7/8 Weight
Pink3 to 6 lbs.5/6 Weight

The second way to fish streamers is similar to how you would fish nymphs. This method is called dead drifting! Dead drifting is where you cast upstream and make mends to ensure your fly leads the way. Since salmon are predatory fish, they aren’t above coming out of nowhere to smack your fly. Dead drifting isn’t easy to do well so make sure you’re paying close attention to your fly line. If it starts looping, make a mend to make sure your fly leads the way.

Arbor Size

The next consideration you need to make is the size of the arbor you’re going to use. In salmon fishing, you need to use a large arbor. These fish are known to run and run aggressively.

Anything smaller than a large arbor could get you in trouble. As soon as you think you have the fish landed, it’ll take off 25 yards downstream and extend the fights for a couple minutes. A large arbor reel is your best friend!

Capacity

Capacity isn’t necessarily a difficult issue either! Most large arbor reels 7 or 8-weight reels have a capacity of 200 to 250 yards. This is plenty of room for all of the line you’ll need. You’ll likely have a few yards of leader, 30 yards of fly line and 100 to 125 yards of backing. This will allow you to handle the majority of salmon that you find.

Finish, Machining and Durability

A fully machined fly reel is essentially corrosion proof. If you’re targeting salmon near saltwater or in harsh conditions, you’ll want a fully machined fly reel. It won’t allow water to seep into the necessary parts that could be damaged with an excessive exposure to water. Rust on an expensive reel can be a death wish for it! You don’t want to risk your reel being ruined. Salmon fishing is only a few months of the year so you could easily purchase a reel that could last one or two decades.

Durability is key!

How to Balance Reel, Rod and Line

When it comes time to balance your rod, reel and line be sure you’re paying close attention. If you make a mistake in this area, the balance of your setup could be greatly affected. A balanced setup should work as a unit. You won’t notice any part in general.

For example, you should likely use an 8 or 9-weight setup. If you’re using a 9-weight rod, then you’ll want to use a reel and line that lines up well with it. You can use a 9 or 10-weight reel with this type of rod. Depending on the weight of your rod, you can use a bit heavier reel to create a better balance.

Balance Fly Rod with Line
Balance Fly Rod with Line

When it comes to the weight of your line, you’ll want to use 8-10 weight line. A 10-weight line is going to be a bit heavier and can allow for longer casts. Keep this in mind if you’re going to need to cover quite a bit of water. However, a 9-weight line should definitely do the trick on a 9-weight rod, 9 or 10-weight reel!

Again, pay very close attention to your rod setup! It’s going to make a world of difference as you’re fishing. They need to work together closely!

3 Recommended Fly Fishing Reels for Salmon

High quality reels are so fun to use. They feel great, have a wonderful weight and can retrieve line at a wonderful pace. Numerous companies are well-known for their heavy duty fly reels, but the following three should treat you well.

Sage Spectrum C

If you know anything about fly fishing, you know how nice Sage fly equipment is. The Spectrum C model from Sage comes in a 7/8 option and a 9/10 option. Depending on the size of your rod, make sure you match it up well with your reel.

Recommendation: This reel is this best value for the money, rolling in under $200 the SAGE Spectrum C – link to Amazon to check current prices. Has plenty of capacity for a long run and the drag to slow fresh Salmon.

You’ll have a one revolution drag knob with numbered settings, easily convertible right and left-hand retrieve. A changeable drag system is ideal. You need to be very specific with how much pressure you put on these fish.

The unique thing about the Spectrum C is that it has a vented concave arbor that allows you to store about as much fly line as you need. You also receive a fully sealed drag system so you can take this out into those challenging conditions without having to worry about it falling apart after one or two seasons.

Pair this with shooting or sinking line and you’ll be in business. You’ll appreciate the indented knob. It won’t slip out of your hand during a challenging fight! Plus, it’s only going to cost you $150!

Redington BEHEMOTH

The Redington BEHEMOTH is a sneaky good reel. Redington has a phenomenal reputation in fly fishing and you can be confident in the power that it has. Choose between the 7/8 or the 9/10 option for your salmon setup. Redington claims that it has the strongest drag in its class! The carbon fiber drag system isn’t something to laugh at. It’s extremely powerful.

Also, you have the Die-cast construction and a soft touch ergonomic handle. It’s easy to operate!

Recommendation: For a reel to “get it done” for the short salmon season the Redington BEHEMOTH is a great option. A great drag system and the proven performance. Redington BEHEMOTH – link to Amazon for reviews and current prices.

The large arbor design reduces line memory and can hold all of the line you would ever need to fight salmon. If you ever take this reel to saltwater, you can use it! It’s able to fight fish like GT or Tarpon. Perhaps the best aspect of this reel is the appearance! The BEHEMOTH comes in green, black, gold and grey. They all have matte finishes that look wonderful.

Thankfully, this is another affordable option for anglers. You’ll only need to spend $140 or so to add it to your arsenal.

Waterworks-Lamson Guru S Series

Lamson makes beautiful reels. This is perhaps the best option for salmon on this list! The 9+ HD model is able to hold 8 to 10-weight lines. The versatility is great. You can buy an extra spool for this reel and switch out the lines depending on what fish you’re targeting.

Guide Recommendation Best: Fit and finish are exceptional, the sealed drag is amazing. The Waterworks-Lamson Guru S is what I call a “Lifetime Reel”. You buy it once clean and maintain it a little bit and it will last. Find this reel on Amazon with this link – Waterworks-Lamson Guru S

It’s a large arbor, fully machined and is anodized. Take this to freshwater or saltwater and it’s going to perform. It has a fully sealed drag system so you don’t have to worry about unnecessary materials getting in and ruining your reel. These reels are extremely light. Keep that in mind when pairing it with your rod! It only weighs around 10 ounces.

FAQ

When Should I Fly Fish for Salmon?

Salmon are known to run in the rivers around the USA between July and October. Depending on where in the country you’re targeting them, they’ll run at different times. It’s best to call a local fly shop or pay attention to forums online before you go after them! Most often, they’re going to run anywhere between late-August and September.

Is it Easy to Fly Fish for Salmon?

Fly fishing for salmon isn’t easy. There are many days that you’ll see salmon all over the place, but aren’t able to hook into them. Since you’re likely targeting them in the midst of their spawn, they’re striking out of aggression.

The best thing you do before you head to the water is ask questions of locals or fly shops. You need to know how the fish are feeding and what they’re striking. It’s hard to fish for these fish without any prior knowledge.

There are only two or so tactics to target these fish, but you’re going to do them well in order to land these fish! Odds are you’re fishing areas that receive quite a bit of pressure! Just like any type of fishing, it’s going to take some trial and error.

What is the Breaking Strength of Fly Line

Most fly lines have a 30-pound breaking point! Depending on the line you select, it may be a bit more since it’s quite a bit heavier. Feel free to apply tension to the fish, but try and identify the size of it as soon as you can.

Last Cast

Fly fishing for salmon is a blast. These fish are strong, acrobatic and test your gear to the limits. In order to target them successfully, make sure your gear is up for the challenge. Match your reel up directly with your rod and line and you’ll be good to go.


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Danny Mooers is a high school English teacher in Arizona with a love for fly fishing. Growing up in Minnesota gave him the opportunity to experience all types of fishing and grow his skills. After living out in the Western United States for several summers in college, his fly fishing obsession grew. Having the opportunity to share in his passion for fishing through writing is a dream come true. It’s a lifelong hobby and he strives to make it understandable for people of all skill levels