I’ve been a river guide for over 20 years and have been fly fishing for salmon for over 37 years. During that time, I’ve had the opportunity to learn the best methods, setups, and flies from many other salmon guides, and I’ll share them with you here.
Catching salmon with fly fishing methods requires the right fly rod and reel, the right fly lines, leader, and flies suitable to the method and conditions. You also need to know when and where to fish for salmon once they enter the rivers to spawn.
- Understanding The Salmon Species: Salmon are found around the world, and I target five species with a fly rod when the salmon migrate up rivers to spawn.
- Best Flies For Fly Fishing: Different salmon species will prefer different flies, fly sizes, and they can even have color preferences. Using the hot local flies that guides use to catch salmon can greatly improve your success.
- Salmon Fly Fishing Gear: Your gear is critical to catching salmon in the rivers. You will need 8 to 10 weight single-hand rods in the 9 to 10 foot range, unless you use two-handed rods which is when the preferred size is 13 to 15 feet long.
- Best Times To Fly Fish For Salmon: Depending on where you are fishing for salmon and the salmon species you are targeting, salmon can be caught with a fly rod in the rivers from May to November. On the East Coast and West Coast, June through October is the best time. Around the Great Lakes region, September to early November are the best times.
- Choosing the Right Method: There are three main methods to fly fish for salmon. My specialty is nymphing for salmon, but I really enjoy spey fishing for salmon, and streamer fishing for salmon. Some methods are more effective.
- Where to Fly Fish For Salmon: I discuss many of the best areas and best rivers.
Types Of Salmon You Can Fly Fish For
I have had the opportunity to fish for all species of salmon, from king salmon, coho salmon, pink salmon, and Atlantic salmon. You can also fly fish for Chum, Sockeye, and Kokanee salmon. The great thing is that all salmon can be caught while fly fishing.
Where To Fly Fish For Salmon
Salmon are found worldwide and the methods, setup, and flies used to fly fish for salmon are the same.
West Coast Salmon: USA and Canada
The west coast of North America is arguably the best place to fly fish for wild salmon, with five species of salmon migrating into rivers starting in May and ending in November. The salmon runs will depend on the area, with Alaska getting earlier spring runs that continue into the fall, while some lower states like California see salmon runs starting later in July and August.
Many anglers here will Spey fish for salmon because of the larger wider rivers, but Nymph fishing and streamer fishing can be very good.
Top West Coast Salmon Rivers Include:
- Kenai River, Alaska: Famous for its large King salmon, the Kenai River is a top salmon fishing destination for Alaska salmon fly fishing anglers. It also has runs of Sockeye and Silver salmon.
- Columbia River, Oregon/Washington: One of the largest rivers in the Pacific Northwest, the Columbia River is known for its Chinook, Coho, and Sockeye salmon runs. The best areas to fly fish are found in the smaller tributaries.
- Klamath River, California/Oregon: The Klamath River is known for its runs of Chinook and Coho salmon. It’s a vital river for wild salmon fishing in both Northern California and Southern Oregon and is a great river for fly fishing.
- Rogue River, Oregon: The Rogue River is famous for its Chinook and Coho salmon fishing, offering great fly fishing river experiences.
- Sacramento River, California: The largest river in California, the Sacramento River, is known for its King (Chinook) salmon runs.
- Skeena River, British Columbia: Although technically in Canada, the Skeena River is a world-renowned river for its wild salmon fishing, particularly for Chinook and Steelhead.
- Yukon River, Alaska: Known for its Chinook salmon, the Yukon River is one of the longest rivers in North America and offers a unique fishing experience.
- Nushagak River, Alaska: This river is famous for its large runs of King salmon and is considered one of the best places in Alaska for King salmon fishing.
- Fraser River, British Columbia: Another Canadian river, the Fraser River, is known for its large runs of Sockeye salmon and also has Chinook and Coho salmon.
- Russian River, California: Located in Northern California, the Russian River is known for its Steelhead and Chinook salmon fishing.
Many of these rivers will also have trout fishing for freshwater fish like rainbow trout.
Fly Fishing For Great Lakes Salmon
In the Great Lakes region, anglers have the opportunity to fish many excellent fly-fishing rivers for Chinook salmon, coho salmon, Atlantic Salmon, and pink salmon.
Chinook and Coho salmon are the predominant salmon species in the Great Lakes Region, and this is the area that I guide and fish the most.
You may see an early run of Atlantic salmon starting in June that continues into the fall. The chinook and coho salmon runs start in September and end in November.
Most anglers will nymph fish for salmon on the smaller and mid-sized rivers, but on the larger rivers, swinging flies with spey rods or streamer fishing are good methods.
Many of the rivers also have good trout fishing for brown trout.
Top Great Lakes Salmon Rivers Include:
- Salmon River NY
- Ganaraska River
- Credit River
- Niagara River
- Muskegon River
- St Mary River
- Manistee River
Fly Fishing For East Coast Salmon
East Coast anglers will only have Atlantic salmon to fly fish for.
The Atlantic salmon fishing usually starts in June, peaks in July and August, and continues into November.
Most anglers on the East Coast swing flies with two-handed spey rods to salmon in gin-clear rivers.
Atlantics will often run up the rivers at different times and under different conditions and your flies will depend on what stage the salmon are in.
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.
Best Areas For Salmon Fishing
- Great Lakes (Lake Ontario and Lake Michigan): Notable for Coho and Chinook salmon, with tributaries being especially suitable for fly fishing in early fall.
- Pacific Coast (Washington and Oregon): Salmon-filled waterways such as the Columbia River.
- Kenai River: Known for runs of Chinook, Coho, and Sockeye Salmon.
- Cook Inlet: Feeds into the Kenai River and sees all five varieties of Pacific Salmon.
- Homer: Offers opportunities to target ocean-going Salmon.
- British Columbia, Canada: Features a variety of rivers, stunning scenery, and all five varieties of Pacific Salmon.
- Toronto, Canada: A notable salmon fly fishing locale with small river systems.
- Michigan: Ask any fly fisherman and they will tell you that Michigan rivers are loaded with salmon in early fall.
- New York: Fly fishers know most rivers are full of salmon in the fall in upstate New York.
- Eastern Canada (Newfoundland and Labrador): Rivers here hold the rarer Atlantic Salmon.
- Russia (Kola Peninsula): Boasts excellent Atlantic Salmon fishing with many rivers and lakes.
- Norway: Numerous rivers perfect for fly fishing, with the Guala River being especially popular.
- Sweden: Rivers like Mörrumså, Torne, Lanio, and Emån hold Atlantic and “Baltic” Salmon varieties.
- United Kingdom:
- Spey River, Scotland: A popular fly fishing spot for Salmon.
- Wye River, Wales: Known for salmon fishing.
- Tyne River, Northern England: Another popular spot for salmon fly fishers.
Methods For Fly Fishing For Salmon In Rivers
I guide with fly rods for salmon in small creeks that are 10 feet wide, but I also fly fish for salmon on very large deep, wide rivers that are hundreds of feet wide and I change tactics based on the type of river, and the conditions.
It’s important to know which methods work best in all types of rivers, and you should know how to adapt your methods and flies accordingly if you want to consistently catch salmon.
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 to fly fish salmon.
West Coast and Great Lakes fly anglers can use all methods of fly fishing.
Nymph Fishing For Salmon
Nymph fishing for salmon can often be the most productive method of fly fishing in most small to mid-sized rivers.
When nymph fishing for salmon, I do very well dead drifting small flies known as nymphs in a way that imitates the natural movement and drift of an aquatic insect, salmon eggs, or other known food sources.
In fresh water, young salmon mostly eat small insects such as mayflies, stoneflies, caddisflies, blackflies, and riffle beetles. Sometimes they eat small amphibians and fish.Fisheries NOAA
When they return as adults to spawn they still recognize a smaller fly as food and recent studies now show they will eat these insects or eggs out of hunger, aggression, or instinct.
On small to medium-sized rivers, you can present a small fly nymph under an indicator or with a tight line method. For more detailed information, check out my page, Nymphing For Salmon.
Streamer Fishing For Salmon
I have seen salmon swim 20 feet across a pool to grab a well-presented streamer fly that is being stripped in with an erratic retrieve.
There are times when aggressively stripping streamers is the only way to get some salmon to bite when they otherwise have no interest in feeding.
Whether it be an instinct to feed, or an agressive bite to remove the fly from its territory, at times, salmon will crush streamers.
Be sure you get down to their feeding zone by using floating lines in shallow waters or a sinking line in deep water.
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 is another method that guys use to catch salmon when when fly fishing. Spey fishing is excellent on mid-sized and larger rivers with moderate currents.
Anglers can cast long distances and cover a lot of water with Spey rods and a good spey fly like the Intruder or Hoh Bo Spey.
Fly Fishing Salmon In Small Rivers and Creeks: Best Methods
Fishing For Salmon on small creeks and rivers is possible using methods like nymphing or streamer fishing.
When fly fishing in small rivers 20 feet wide or less, I think the best method is to dead drift nymph fish for them. In these types of clear water 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 dead drift nymphing with small flies and split shot works so well.
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.
Fly Fishing In Medium-Sized Salmon Rivers: Best Methods
Medium-sized rivers that range from 20 to 60 feet wide are my favorite salmon rivers to fly fish. The salmon in these rivers will concentrate in predictable spots and this makes it easier to catch them with fly gear. I have had days of hooking over 50 salmon on these types of rivers and because they have lots of room to run they fight amazingly.
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 Large Salmon Rivers: Best Methods
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 can be more of a challenge because they can spread out, and because it’s harder to read the water.
Finding areas that are narrow or fishing below shallow areas or rapids where fish will concentrate are the best spots.
When fishing sections of the river like in the above picture that is almost featureless, you can often cover more water when swinging flies with Spey rods or when streamer fishing.
Pro Tips: Consider Sink tip lines, reels with a higher line capacity, and leaders with a higher breaking strain to manage fighting salmon. If the river is fast go with fast sinking lines for more fish. When running a fast sink tip line you may still need a medium or heavily weighted fly.
Setup And Gear For Fly Fishing Salmon
The best fly fishing setup for salmon includes a suitable rod weight from an eight to ten-weight fly rod with a good fly reel with a good drag system.
For most salmon fishing, you will need a floating line, a tapered leader, tippet, and fly.
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 reel and line accordingly.
You will also need fly fishing gear like waders, 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.
Salmon Fly Rods
A good salmon fly rod can make a huge difference.
The best salmon single hand 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.
Opt for salmon fly rods of 9 or 10 weight and 9 to 10 feet in length on the coastal rivers.
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.
Temple Fork Outfitters LK Legacy Fly Rod – 10 foot, 8 weight
I have guided with Temple fork rods for steelhead and salmon and I have had plenty of clients come out with these rods.
Douglas LRS Fly Rod – 10 foot, 8 Weight
For those anglers on a budget, consider the 10 foot 9 weight or 10 foot 10 weight which is great for nymphing, or the 9-foot 9 weight as an all-method rod.
Switch Fly Rods For Salmon – A Great Choice
Another option for a 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 eight weight fly rod, combined with a good switch fly line so that I could nymph and also swing flies for salmon and steelhead.
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.
- Redington Field Kit Salmon Fly Outfit – One of the best kits made for salmon fishing
- Redington Premium Salmon & Steelhead Fly Outfit – An Upgraded salmon fly rod reel combo
- Temple Fork Outfitters NXT Prespooled Fly Outfit, 9 foot, 8 Weight – A good all-purpose fly fishing combo for salmon and steelhead.
I discuss these combos and more on my page 17 Best Fly Rod and Reel Combos.
Fly Reels For Salmon Fishing
The best salmon fly reels typically feature a wide arbor design, which offers several advantages. Firstly, it allows for a, ensuring you have ample line for your fishing needs.
The wide arbor design facilitates a quicker retrieval of the line, andhas a greater capacity of fly line and backing. 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 with less risk of losing them.
These are the three most highly recommended fly reels for salmon fishing that are sure to fulfill your needs:
- Waterworks-Lamson Guru S HD Fly Reel – The Ultimate All-Around Salmon Fly Reel
- Redington Behemoth Fly Reel – An Excellent Budget-Friendly Salmon Fly Reel
- The Nautilus CCF-X2 – A Superb High-End Salmon Fly Reel
The Best Flies For Salmon
There are many different flies used for salmon. Weighted flies and non-weighted flies are used. The flies will depend on the methods and the conditions, as well as where in the spawning cycle the salmon are in.
Salmon that have just entered the river and are in the lower river will likely be more interested in brighter and bigger flies and streamers since they are aggressive.
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.
- Egg Patterns
- Stonefly nymphs
- Woolly Buggers
- Egg Sucking Leaches
- Bunny Leach
- Large Zonkers
- Large Mudler Minnows
- Zou Cougars
- Ally’s Shrimp – High water Atlantic salmon fly
- Stoats Tail – Atlantic salmon fly
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 other guides use, I will discuss all the best salmon flies for each method at Best Flies For Salmon.
Using River Boats For More Salmon
Salmon fishing can often mean big crowds and big crowds can make it challenging to catch the salmon so I use river boats like pontoon boats or fishing Kayaks to get me to sections of large and smaller rivers that other anglers can’t get to.
Check out my page Best River Boats: Guide Tips and Tactics.
In many areas, the salmon numbers are gradually decreasing, and it is alarming. Environmental factors, over fishing, and dams are often the cause. We recommend doing your part by practicing catch and release.