Fly Fishing For Salmon: Tactics Used By Guides For More Salmon

Fly fishing for salmon

One of my favorite ways to fish for salmon is with a fly rod and I have many clients that prefer fly fishing for salmon over other methods. As a guide, I teach my clients how to fly fish for salmon effectively and that is what I will share with you in this article.

When fly fishing for salmon you can either nymph fish, cast streamer flies, or you can Spey fish. Using the right method and the right setup combined with the best flies for salmon fishing will greatly improve your success.

I will go over these three methods and how to do them properly and more effectively so that when you hit the river and you are fly fishing for salmon you will be able to catch as many salmon as possible.

I will also include some of my favorite fly patterns and tips on where and when to go salmon fishing.

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Types Of Salmon

great lakes king salmon
Our team photographer Ryan with a nice great lakes king salmon. Check out more from Ryan on Instagram @neohioanglers, or click the picture for more.

I have had the opportunity to fish for almost all species of salmon, from king salmon, coho salmon, pink salmon, and Atlantic salmon, and I have used many methods to catch them.

Chinook salmon, also known as king salmon, are the largest and most sought-after Pacific salmon. Even these large aggressive salmon that can sometimes reach sizes over 50 pounds can be caught on flies.

In the Great Lakes region, anglers have the opportunity to fish for almost all salmon species except for Chum Salmon and Sockeye salmon. West Coast anglers won’t have Atlantic salmon, and east coast anglers will only have Atlantic salmon.

These salmon will often run up the rivers at different times and under different conditions. How effective your flies will be can also depend on what stage the salmon are in.

All salmon can be caught while fly fishing, but different areas and different species might use different fly fishing methods.

If you aren’t sure when the salmon run or what triggers the salmon runs, I discuss this on my page, How To Fish For Salmon In Rivers.

Methods For Fly Fishing For Salmon In Rivers

Ryan and Matt fly fishing for salmon.
Our team photographer Matt from @neohioanglers with a nice fly-caught salmon.

This whole article is about fly fishing for salmon in rivers and the methods that I will describe can be used for small creeks to extra large rivers that are big enough to boat across.

I have fished for and caught salmon in small creeks that were 10 feet wide and I have fished for salmon on very large deep wide rivers that are hundreds of feet wide.

It’s important to know which methods work best in all types of rivers, or you should at least know how to adapt your method of choice to make it work in different rivers.

In some cases, on some rivers in Atlantic Canada, you are only allowed to swing flies for Atlantic salmon, but there are other rivers where you can use all methods of fly fishing for salmon.

West Coast fly anglers have multiple salmon species and have small to large size rivers where you can use all methods of fly fishing. Spey fishing for salmon is probably the most used method by west coast anglers.

Great Lakes fly fishing anglers are able to use all the methods of fly fishing for salmon and I have found that Spey fishing for salmon is the least used method, and fly anglers in the great lakes area prefer to nymph fish for salmon using strike indicators.

Fly Fishing For Salmon In Small Rivers and Creeks: Best Methods

Fly Fishing For Salmon on small creeks and rivers
Some salmon will run up small creeks, some as small as a few feet wide. Fishing For Salmon on small creeks and rivers is possible using methods like nymphing or streamer fishing.

The upside to fly fishing for salmon in these very small rivers that are less than 20 feet wide is that the salmon can concentrate in small pools and pockets, and you can often see them.

The downside to these small rivers is that because the salmon can easily see you they can be very nervous fish which can often make them go lockjaw, and that can make them almost impossible to catch at times.

When fly fishing for salmon in small rivers that are 20 feet wide or less I think the best method is to nymph fish for them. In these types of rivers, the salmon will often shoot through the shallow fast water ignoring any bait or fly that is thrown at them, and then hold for a period of time in the deeper pockets and pools.

It’s in the smaller pockets and pools that nymphing works so well. Since salmon are born in the river and feed and grow eating nymphs, eggs, and even chunks of rotting salmon flesh, the larger adult salmon might instinctively eat these same food sources once they return to the river to spawn. We can imitate these natural food sources with flies.

Streamer fishing is another method that can work very well in smaller rivers. The smaller pools and pockets can be fished using a standard cast and retrieve of a streamer. Streamer fishing can also be best because you can cast far enough to stay out of sight of the salmon.

Spey fishing on these small streams is often difficult and not recommended, however, it’s not impossible for die-hard Spey guys.

Fly Fishing For Salmon In Medium Sized Rivers: Best Methods

Fly fishing for salmon on medium sized rivers.
If possible, I prefer to fly fishing for salmon on medium sized rivers like this one because the pools are easy to find and the salmon will concentrate in recognizable spots.

Medium-sized rivers that range from 20 to 60 feet wide are my favorite rivers to fish. The salmon in these rivers will concentrate in predictable spots and this makes it easier to catch them. I have had days of hooking over 50 salmon on these types of rivers and these are the rivers that I recommend new anglers try to fish first.

The salmon in these larger rivers tend to feed more aggressively and are less line shy and less nervous which often makes them easier to catch.

These rivers also tend to have larger runs of salmon compared to small creeks.

All methods of fly fishing can be used in these rivers and you will often find me guiding clients using nymphing and Spey fishing the most.

Fly Fishing For Salmon In Large Rivers: Best Methods

Alaska River fly fishing for salmon
It is possible to effectively do fly fishing for salmon on large rivers like this one if you know which methods work best and how to find fish on bigger water.

Very large rivers like what you would find on the west coast or rivers like the Niagara River that are hundreds of feet wide, fly fishing for salmon can be more of a challenge because they can spread out and it’s harder to read the water.

Finding the areas that are narrow or fishing below shallow areas can be done using all the fishing methods described in this article.

When fishing sections of the river like in the above picture that is almost featureless, you can often cover more water when swing flies with Spey rods or when streamer fishing.

Fly Fishing For Salmon Setup

An angler fishing with all the the right size gear For Alaska Salmon Fishing
An angler fishing with all the right size gear For Alaska Salmon Fishing

The best fly fishing setup for salmon around the great lakes region is a 10-foot 8-weight fly rod with a good fly reel that had a good drags system and a standard floating fly line. You then add a tapered leader, tippet, and fly and you have a salmon setup.

From there you will want to determine if you want to nymph fish for salmon, or streamer fish for salmon, and then set up your line accordingly. I discuss those methods below.

I get asked about which rods and fly reels are good for salmon which I discuss below.

Salmon Fly Rods

An angler holding a fly reel and rod.
A good salmon fly rod can make a huge difference.

The best salmon fly rods for great lakes salmon are between 9 and 10.5 feet long and are heavy enough to handle large fish up to 40 pounds which means that an 8-weight or 9-weight fly rod is what you need.

Some of the best fly rods for salmon are:

Jeff Blood Premium Fly Rod 10’3, 8 Weight

Designed by famous great lakes river guide Jeff Blood for steelhead fishing, this is a rod that would be perfect for both great lakes salmon and steelhead. This would be the rod that I would buy if I was looking for a new rod specifically for nymphing.

Temple Fork Outfitters LK Legacy Fly Rod – 10 foot, 8 weight

I have guides with Temple fork rods for steelhead and salmon and I have had plenty of clients come out with these rods. This is a 10 foot 8 weight rod that you could use as a salmon or steelhead rod. It sells for around $279.99 – $299.99

Douglas LRS Fly Rod – 10 foot, 8 Weight

Another rod to consider that is meant for big fish, and one for those anglers on a budget is the 10 foot 8 weight LRS which a good rod for salmon and steelhead. For a dedicated salmon-only rod, consider the10 foot 9 weight which is great for nymphing, or the 9-foot 9 weight as an all-method rod. Sells for around $223.00

Switch Fly Rods For Salmon – A Great Choice

Matt Martin From Smooth River Guiding Co.
Matt is a friend and fellow guide as well as a contributing guide on this website. Look for Matts’s tips and articles.

Another option for a good great lakes salmon rod, and one that I have owned, fished with, and guided with, is the St. Croix Imperial USA Switch Fly Rod 10 foot 7 weight or 8 weight fly rod.

I actually really liked this rod for steelhead and salmon fishing and only sold it because I got pro-staffed with a company.

My rod was the 11 foot 7 weight rod I liked this rod a lot because it was an 11-foot rod that made nymphing very easy, yet was still light enough to fish all day and it handled hundreds of steelhead and salmon with no issues.

I also had a switch fly line on it so that I could also swing flies for salmon and steelhead.

The other great thing about this rod is that is it made in the USA and the warrant and service from St. Croix are excellent.

If you are considering a switch rod, check out my switch rod recommendations and reviews.

Salmon Fly Rod Combo

Some anglers are going to want a complete salmon fly rod combo and one of the best salmon fly rod combo kits is the Redington Salmon Field kit or the Temple Fork Outfitters NXT Prespooled Fly Outfit.

The is a ready-to-use fully rigged salmon fly rod and reel combo suitable for big great lakes salmon and it will also work for large steelhead. Just add a fly and you could be fishing.

Redington Salmon Field Kit 9, 8 Weight

Redington Salmon Field Kit Outfit is designed for salmon fishing and is one of the best salmon fishing combos available. It sells for around $389.99 for the kit.

Temple Fork Outfitters NXT Prespooled Fly Outfit – 9 foot, 8 Weight

The Temple Fork Outfitters NXT Prespooled Fly Outfit is the most affordable outfit for salmon fishing.

Fenwick Eagle X Fly Outfit

For anglers on a budget, another rod and reel combo for great lakes salmon that you can find under $170.00 is the 9-foot, 8-weight Fenwick Eagle X Fly Outfit.

Fly Reels For Salmon Fishing

The finest salmon fly reels typically feature a wide arbor design, which offers several advantages. Firstly, it allows for a greater capacity of fly line and backing, ensuring you have ample line for your fishing needs.

Additionally, the wide arbor design facilitates a quicker retrieval of the line. Another crucial aspect of top salmon fly reels is a smooth sealed drag system. This feature is essential in helping you successfully battle and land large salmon without the risk of losing them.

As a salmon guide, I frequently accommodate my clients’ preference to use their own reels. Consequently, I have gained experience with a diverse range of salmon fly reels spanning a wide price spectrum, from $79.00 to over $600.00.

While all these reels can be utilized for salmon fishing, their performance varies. Allow me to elaborate on the factors that I deem important when selecting the best fly reels for salmon fishing.

These are the three most highly recommended fly reels for salmon fishing that are sure to fulfill your needs:

  1. Waterworks-Lamson Guru S HD Fly Reel – The Ultimate All-Around Salmon Fly Reel
  2. Redington Behemoth Fly Reel – An Excellent Budget-Friendly Salmon Fly Reel
  3. The Nautilus CCF-X2 – A Superb High-End Salmon Fly Reel

See all the best salmon fly reels that I and other guides use. Some angler will also use click and pawl fly reels but before you do, you should know about the potential issues of these reels.

The Best Flies For Salmon

Salmon Fishing On The Salmon River Header

There are many different flies used for salmon. The flies will depend on the methods and the conditions, as well as where in the spawning cycle the salmon are in.

What I mean is that salmon that have just entered the river and are in the lower river will likely be more interested in bigger brighter flies and streamers since they have been feeding for so long on baitfish in the ocean or great lakes.

flies for Pa Steelhead

Once they have been in the river for a while, it’s very likely they will eat smaller egg patterns and nymphs, as well as darker streamers, since these are the more natural food found up the rivers.

Nymph Flies:

  • Egg Patterns
  • Stonefly nymphs
  • Woolly Buggers
  • Egg Sucking Leaches

Streamer Flies:

  • Bunny Leach
  • Large Zonkers
  • Large Mudler Minnows
  • Zou Cougars

Guides Best Salmon Flies

Big salmon with egg fly in its mouth.
This big salmon was caught using a single egg salmon fly in one of my favorite colors. Image from @neohioanglers.

This is often the number 1 question I get from new salmon anglers or guys that I meet on the river, they all want to know what my best salmon flies are, or what flies guides use.

My best salmon flies when nymphing will be different than my best salmon flies when swinging for salmon or when streamer fishing for salmon.

There are also different salmon flies that work well for Atlantic salmon than there are for Pacific Salmon.

Since there are so many flies that I and our guides use, I will discuss all the best salmon flies for each method at Best Flies For Salmon: COMING SOON page.

Nymph Fishing For Salmon

fly fishing

Nymph fishing for salmon can often be the most productive method of fly fishing for salmon in most small to mid-sized rivers and on most rivers around the great lakes.

When nymph fishing for salmon the angler is simply drifting the nymph fly in a way that it imitates the natural movement and drift of an aquatic insect, an egg, or other known food source of the salmon.

This is a typlical salmon leader for fly fishing when nymphing
This is an effective salmon leader for fly fishing when nymphing.

Baby salmon live on small insects and eggs while they are in the river.

When they return as adults to spawn they still recognize these as food and will eat these insects out of hunger, aggression, or instinct.

On small to medium-sized rivers, it’s hard to beat nymph fishing because all salmon will eat a well-presented nymph.

I nymph fish for salmon the exact same way that I nymph fish for steelhead.

For more details information, check out my page Nymphing For Salmon.

Streamer Fishing For Salmon

An Alaska Pink Salmon with a fly in it's mouth
An Alaska Pink Salmon with a fly in it’s mouth

Not many anglers use streamers when fishing for salmon in rivers, but they should.

I have seen salmon swim 20 feet across a pool to grab a well-presented streamer fly.

There are times when streamers are the only way to get the salmon to bite. At times, the salmon will have no interest in feeding, however, big male salmon can be very aggressive and will chase and bite anything that gets too close to them or in their territory and that includes streamer flies.

I use the same tactics that I use when I streamer fish for steelhead and trout.

I will discuss the best streamer flies and the most effective streamer fishing tactics on my page Streamer Fishing For Salmon.

Spey Fishing For Salmon

Spey Fishing

Spey fishing is another method that guys use when fly fishing for salmon. Spey fishing is great on mid-sized and larger rivers.

Anglers can cast long distances with Spey rods and they can cover a lot of water when they swing the fly from one side of the river to the other.

I will be covering more on Spey fishing for salmon in the future. To see more on Spey fishing for salmon, check out this cool video.

Everything You Need To Salmon Fish Properly

An angler wading across a fast river.

You are going to need some gear to help you fly fish for salmon.

River gear like waders will allow you to get into the water and position you in the best spots for better presentations. They will also keep you safer and dry.

You will also need stuff like vests, packs, nets, and release tools. I discuss all the best gear and everything you need on my page River Fishing Gear: Everything You Need To Succeed.

See, The Best Salmon Fishing Nets For Rivers, Boats, and Bank Fishing.

Using River Boats For More Salmon

Using inflatable pontoon boats to fish for salmon
Using inflatable boats designed for fishing rivers is a great way to access some great uncrowded salmon water. This picture shows one of my guides and our clients.

Salmon fishing can often mean big crowds and big crowds can make it difficult to catch the salmon.

I use river boats like pontoon boats or fishing Kayaks to get me to sections of rivers that other anglers can’t get to. It’s not uncommon for my clients to see hundreds of salmon on a boat trip and not see another angler.

I even use boats on salmon creeks that are barely 20 feet wide. River boats have been a great way to get me and my clients into lots of steelhead and trout too.

River boats come in sizes from 30 pounds that you can pack up and walk out with or they can fit 3 or 4 anglers and weigh hundreds of pounds.

To see my tactics and tips on how I use river boats that weigh less than 40 pounds up to large rafts and how to get to untouched water check out my page Best River Boats: Guide Tips and Tactics.

Salmon Anglers Use The Cool Fishing Gadgets

Frequently Asked Questions About Fly Fishing For Salmon

If you have a question or tip for us let me know in the comments section below and I or one of my guides will answer your questions here.

Tight Lines

Graham

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2 Comments

  1. Hey Graham,
    What rod would you suggest for euro nymphing Salmon? Would the 7wt 11ft st croix imperial be sensitive enough to euro nymph with a mono rig? I was also considering going for a longer rod like a 11.6 or 12 ft since I often fish for salmon in the lower sections of the river as the fish are fresher and the rivers are wider .
    Would love to know your thoughts on this

    1. Hey Durvesh,

      I don’t think they make a Euro Rod specific for great ales salmon fishing yet. I use a 7-weight 10-foot, and a 7-weight 11-foot, the same rods I indicator fish with and they work well. The 7weight 11-foot switch from St Croix would be fine but I don’t see a need or advantage for a longer rod than 11 feet, even for the lower river. Longer rods are just heavy and are usually meant for spey fishing which you keep your rod tip low. Euro nymphing is tip-up, so those long rods might get heavy when fished all day.

      Good luck

      Graham