Every fly angler has their ideal fish they target. Some are traditionalists and spend all their time searching for trout. Others spend time on the ocean fishing the flats to see what they can find. There is one fish, however, that every fly angler must target in their lifetime: salmon. Hooking into and landing a salmon is an experience that refuses to get old. As soon as you think they’re beat, they have another run in them.
Many people believe salmon can only be caught on the coasts and guides are needed to have success. This isn’t true. Yes, salmon can be found on both coasts, but they’re also plentiful in the Great Lakes. With a little research and willingness to fail, anyone can catch a salmon on a fly rod.
Types of Salmon to Catch on a Fly
The first thing to understand are the different types of salmon available to be caught. There are six types of salmon that you can find in rivers across North America.
The first and perhaps most popular is the King Salmon. The King Salmon, also known as the Chinook, is the biggest salmon you can find. They can reach up to five feet long and weight over 100 pounds. King Salmon are also popular because they’re so widespread. They’re in the Alaska Rivers, but they can be found in water in Southern California. These fish have also been placed into the Great Lakes and can be found in the tributaries surrounding them. King Salmon are easy to identify. Their gums are black and as they develop, they become dark brown/maroon.
A second type of salmon necessary to know is the Coho. Coho salmon are the fighters of the bunch. What they lack in size compared to the King, they make up for in their aggressiveness. Some call them “Silvers”. They aren’t able to be found as far south as King’s, but they’re plentiful in the Pacific Northwest and the Great Lakes. Identifying Coho is best done by the color of their gums. They’re all white and as they age the become bright red with a dark back and tale. They also have a hooknose that helps them catch food.
Alaska is known for its incredible salmon fishery. Learn exactly where to go in an article I wrote. 15 Best Places to Fly Fish in Alaska (Maps Included)
The most flavorful salmon is the Sockeye salmon. Most will call them red salmon. They can be found from Washington all the way up to Alaska. Every single Great Lake except Superior holds them. There are also going to be landlocked salmon called a Kokanee, a similar fish to the Sockeye, that are stocked in different United States lakes. Sockeye salmon can be identified by the gold color of their eyes.
There are a few other common salmon types you will find in the United States. The first is the Pink Salmon. The Pink is only going to be around 30 inches at its biggest and is the smallest salmon on average in the United States. They spawn every year in the Great Lakes and are a great tasting fish.
Another salmon found on the Pacific Coast is the Chum Salmon. It’s the least desirable of all salmon, but their roe is used in sushi. These were never introduced to the Great Lakes. These salmon have white mouths and have larger teeth than many other salmon.
The final salmon you’ll find in the United States is the Atlantic Salmon. They’re the most rare of all salmon due to their seclusion on the east coast. They can be caught in Lake Ontario and along other Northeast Atlantic coast rivers. These salmon have large spots on their gills.
Challenges of Fly Fishing for Salmon on the River
Salmon head into the rivers to reproduce and make sure their offspring have the highest chance of survival. Before they reproduce, they return to their river where they spawned. They do this by use the magnetic force of their earth to find their way home. They also use their sense of smell to help guide their way back to their birth stream. This migration process is called the salmon run and is an amazing event to witness.
Salmon are interesting fish to target. They are unlike many of the fish you find in freshwater across North America. When salmon first enter freshwater, they don’t only have spawning in mind. They have a strong desire to hit your fly and haven’t lost all of their energy from the migration. When targeting a salmon on the river, look for obstruction and slower moving water. The salmon don’t want to expend too much energy if it isn’t necessary.
While they love the current, there will always be salmon in large pools. Depending on the size of the run, you may see them stacked on top of each other in pools. As a result, fish the staging areas. These areas are the points of the water right before or after the pool. Food is funneling into the front of the pools and the salmon are stacked in anticipation. It doesn’t have to be an extremely large pool, but any sort of obstruction causing a pocket will likely hold salmon.
Salmon Fly Fishing Gear
Having the proper gear is necessary for salmon fishing. With certain fish, anglers can get away with inadequate gear, but it’s best to be properly equipped for salmon fishing. As far as rods are concerned, anglers have two options. You can purchase a single-handed or two handed rod. It’s important to use the size of river you’ll be fishing as your guide instead of how big of fish you will catch. It’s easier to predict the speed and size of river over the size of salmon you may find.
These fish will put up a fight so it’s better to have too much power than not enough. Also, you may be fishing faster current and need to strip your flies through debris.
If you opt to use a single-handed rod, be sure to have at least an 8-weight. These are going to just fine on the tributaries off the Great Lakes and some of the smaller rivers along the west coast. It’ll require a bit more finesse, but it’s more than possible to land a salmon. Ideally, you’d like to use a 9 or 10-weight rod. These rods are long enough to get line out to cover the river and have enough power to wrangle a 15-pound salmon.
With salmon, you aren’t required to be as accurate with your casts, but you need to cover water. Salmon strike out of aggression so they’ll travel an impressive distance to hit your fly. You’ll see their dorsal fin sticking out of the water as it charges towards food.
Your other option is to use a two-handed spey rod. You’ll want a 7 to 10 weight if you choose this method. With a two-handed rod, you’ll be able to cast much further than you would with a single hand rod. You don’t want one of these rods if you have a lot of vegetation surrounding you that could cause some issues with your cast. Ideally, you’d be standing in the river with an open casting lane to cover as much water as possible. Also, the power you receive from these rods is awesome. There’s no need to worry about having enough to land the fish.
You want to match your reel to your rod. Never choose a smaller reel than your rod weight. If you’re going to mismatch, make sure you have a larger reel on a smaller rod. It’s a bit clumsier, but it still works fine.
There are numerous types of fly line to use for salmon. In the summer and early fall, a floating line is okay to use. Fish aren’t going to be as deep. Also, a floating line or Weight Forward line is okay to use if the water level is low. If you use a heavy fly, it’ll still get to the necessary depth.
For deeper water, go ahead and use a sinking line. The fish are going to be low and your fly needs to get there quickly.
There are also multi-tip lines that will work well for salmon. They have a short head that’s only about 30 feet long that’s followed by a 90-foot running line. The tip of the line has a loop on which you can attach several types of line. You can choose floating, fast sink, etc. All it requires is a simple loop-to-loop connection. While they are not cheap, they make switching setups extremely easy.
Your final option is to use a shooting line. These lines are most commonly used on spey rods. These lines are awesome if you’re trying to cover a lot of water.
Salmon Fly Fishing Techniques
Practice, practice, practice. It’s necessary to be a proficient in your casting and fishing abilities to be successful with salmon fishing. Since the fish count is lower than trout or other freshwater fish, they’re harder to find and more difficult to catch. Do your best to spend a few days on a salmon river. It’ll give you a chance to not only read the water, but also see what the salmon are hunting. A one-day unguided salmon fishing trip is difficult, but these techniques will give you the highest chances to find fish.
The first thing to plan is the time of year. Salmon are going to enter the rivers in the fall and spring. Be sure you do research on the river you are fishing and see when anglers have the most success.
The first technique is to swing streamers. This is sometimes known as wet-fly swinging. To do this, start by casting across and upstream. From here, let your fly do the work. Let your fly swing across the current and drift below you until it becomes tight. If you’re streamer fishing for trout, you may give the fly a few jugs and jerks. With salmon, you want to be as slow and deep as possible. It’s almost emulating a dead drift. If you’re doing this, be sure you have a sinking tip or weight forward line.
Like any fly fishing, you don’t want your fly line to inhibit you. If you see it making a “U” shape below your fly, mend it. To do this, lift your rod tip and do a quick wrist turn up stream. This will put your fly back in charge and make your presentation more believable. This technique is great for larger water. It doesn’t necessarily have to be fast moving water, but it’s best used if the river is wider.
I wrote an article on how to fly fish with streamers. What is a Fly Fishing Streamer
The next tactic to use is stripping streamers. This is similar to trout fishing. You find a deeper pool, cast above it, let it drift into it and start stripping towards yourself with quick little jerks. This is in an attempt to emulate a panicked bait fish. This technique is best used if you see the salmon feeding.
Be patient with your strips, let it fall for just a second when you strip. It’s not uncommon for the fish to hit on the fall. This is the most diverse technique and it doesn’t necessarily require a sinking tip line. As long as your fly has some weight, you can use a variety of lines.
The third tactic to use is nymphing. This is what many would call a dead drift. More often than that, you’ll use a smaller fly or even an egg pattern below some sort of weight. If you choose this method, be sure you have a floating line. You want your fly and leader to be the only things to entice the fish. Cast up current and let it drift free in front of you until it gets to about a 45-degree angle past you. It may also be necessary to tie on an indicator to see when a fish strikes.
Be careful with your mends while dead drifting. You don’t want to influence the drift of the fly if at all possible. You want the current to take care of your line. Do small little mends than don’t cause your fly to jerk. This technique is great to use for the fish that are static and holding. Your nymph will drift right next to them and they won’t be able to help but strike. You want your fly to be deep which is why a weight is necessary.
Read more about setting up a nymph fishing rig in this article I wrote. What is Nymph Fly Fishing
Best Flies for Catching Salmon
Ally’s Shrimp Streamer- Find this fly in a size 2, 4 or 6 and tie it on. It’s a great fly to use in all water conditions and is a tried and true fly that has always found fish. These are common salmon flies and are easy to purchase.
A Stoat’s Tail is another common type of streamer to use for salmon. This is a great fly to use when the water is low and sun is shining. These are great in size 6-10.
The Hex Nymph is another great fly. These flies are often all over in rivers where salmon spawn. This fly may be the first type of fly a salmon eats. These can be found in size 6-10.
An egg pattern is also a great option for salmon. These flies are best used with a weight and indicator. Let it drift deeply across some slower moving water and prepare yourself! Salmon can’t help but eat eggs.
Read my article on Salmon Flies – 15 Best Flies for Salmon
How to setup your rod for salmon fishing
For streamer fishing, you need to remember a few things. You want line that is going to get deeper in the water. Therefore, tie on a sinking tip or at least a Weight Forward line. You want your streamer to meet the fish at the low point of the water. Also, tie on a bit of a longer leader. A 12 foot at least 10-pound test leader is going to do the trick. The salmon have sharp teeth and are powerful. You need to have enough power to handle them.
For nymphing, you need floating line. You want to dead drift the fly along the bottom. Floating line with a 12-foot leader is going to be best. On the leader, tie an indicator as well as a smaller split shot to ensure the fly reaches the bottom. Make sure the indicator is almost like a slip bobber. You don’t want to have to guess the depth of the water. Let your fly find its way to the bottom and do the majority of the work.
Fighting Salmon with a Fly Rod
Here’s the fun part. Salmon are smart fish. They will bait you into thinking you’ve warn them out and give you a run to catch you by surprise. Be careful that your drag isn’t too tight. Let them run, but don’t let them get tangled. When they aren’t running, you can be more aggressive. Reel them in quickly to minimize their chances of getting you tangled. You want them out of the current, but if they’re in it, try to fight them upstream.
Landing Salmon Long Rods and Big Nets
Depending on where you are in the world, people land salmon differently. In northern Canada, anglers won’t use a net. They feel it’s necessary to fight the fish as fair as possible and will toss the salmon up onto the bank once they’re caught. However, a net makes life much easier. Be sure you try and fish with a partner so they can land the fish for you. It’s difficult to land a 20-pound fish on your own! But once you do, it’s one of the best feelings you can find.