Nymphing for salmon is one of the most effective ways to catch salmon when fishing small to mid-sized rivers or when salmon are holding in pools, pockets, or riffles. Most of the river guides I know use nymph fish for salmon as their primary method and so do I.
Nymphing for salmon can be done in two ways. The most common method is indicator fishing where you suspend your flies under an indicator and this works on most water. Euro nymphing is a newer method and is extremely effective in shallow runs and pocket water.
This article is by far the most comprehensive article on nymphing for salmon and it is written by salmon guides (some with over 35 years of experience). It will provide the same nymphing tactics that myself and my guides use to put our clients onto more salmon.
I will also include some exclusive tips you won’t find anywhere else.
Nymphing For Salmon
Once salmon enter the river they will almost exclusively eat food below the surface, so if an angler is good at presenting their fly below the surface they will have a much better chance of catching salmon in any river.
Do Salmon Eat Nymphs?
The question is not just do salmon eat nymphs once they enter the river, often, the question is “do salmon eat at all once they enter the river to spawn? “
The answer is yes, almost all salmon will eat once they enter the river.
This has been proven in recent studies and in those studies, it was determined that spawning salmon, at all stages of the spawn will occasionally eat eggs, nymphs, worms, and even baitfish if it drifts past them.
The salmon are not actively hunting for food, but they will eat if something drifts close enough to them, and the stomach contents in the studies prove this.
This is because on some rivers the baby salmon devour these types of food and when they return as adults they still recognize them as food.
Whether they feed on nymphs out of hunger, aggression, instinct, or habit, they will often take a well-presented nymph.
What Is Nymphing For Salmon?
Nymphing for salmon is a fly fishing technique that is used by anglers to drift small imitation fly patterns known as nymphs, or it can also be fish eggs, worms, and other food sources known to salmon, in a way that looks natural to the salmon.
How To Nymph For Trout
There are many ways to nymph for salmon, in fact, I teach 7 nymphing methods in my Advanced Nymphing Classes and all of them can be used on salmon, however, 2 or three of them are all you need.
When and Where to Fish Nymphs
You can nymph fish for salmon on any river, big or small, fast or slow, deep or shallow.
Nymphing is often best done on rivers or sections of rivers with medium to fast current speed and it excels in pocket water and shallow riffles, and pools.
Slow water and deeper water over 10 feet can be difficult but not impossible.
What Is A Nymph?
Technically speaking, a nymph is an immature aquatic insect before it emerges, grows wings, and flies off as a winged adult.
Not all nymphs mature and leave the water as winged adults and nymph anglers also consider any type of free-drifting salmon food below the surface to be part of Nymphing.
Nymphs could also be worms, fish eggs like salmon eggs or steelhead eggs, flesh from rotting fish, crustaceans, minnows, and leeches. Common nymphs that work well for salmon are also ones that work for trout and steelhead, like Mayflies, Stoneflies, and Caddis.
These insects are found in the river year-round making nymphing for salmon an effective method any time the salmon are in the river.
Best Nymphs For Salmon Fishing
There are hundreds of good nymph patterns that imitate eggs, worms, mayflies, stoneflies, and caddisflies.
Most anglers and guides will have plenty of sizes and shapes of these nymphs.
You will see many egg patterns with some being very flashy and bright to attract the salmon.
Even some of the nymph patterns that I use will do better with extra flash. In my experience, I have found that a little flash goes a long way for salmon so gold or silver ribbing or some sort of flashy material on a nymph can be the difference between them smashing your fly or not.
At times, I have found that fly patterns with flashy material like peacock herl will outperform all other flies.
For most nymph patterns for salmon, you want these two things.
- A strong hook: Unfortunately some of the cheaper flies you find on Amazon or online use cheap hooks that will bend or break on large salmon. Even well-known competition hooks that are not cheap will also bend or break. Therefore I recommend tying your own flies on Kamasan or Daiichi hooks or have someone custom tie your flies on good strong hooks.
- Use the right size: Most of my salmon nymphs are size 8 to 12. I have some in size 6 as well. Go bigger in fast water or stained water. Go smaller in gin clear slower water, or when fishing nervous fish.
These are my favorite nymphs for trout are:
- Gold Ribbed Bead Head Hares Ear Nymph: A great nymph pattern that looks buggy and imitates nymphs well. Also, variations like the Hare’s Ear Tag Nymph are excellent.
- Bead Prince nymph
- Flash-Back Pheasant Tail Nymph: A great pattern because it has peacock herl in the thorax section and flash on the back just adds that little extra. Bead head or non-bead head, the pheasant tail nymph imitates nymphs of many species but if I had to say which is best I would say use a silver or gold bead. Size 8 to 10 is usually best.
- Bead Head Polish Pheasant Tail Nymph: Another variation of the Pheasant tail nymph that is good for salmon fishing. Try Silver and gold beads with silver and gold ribbing. One of my favorite flies when salmon are eating nymphs.
- Frenchie Nymph: A variation of the pheasant tail nymph with a hotspot collar which can be orange, pink, yellow, or peacock herl. Add silver or gold ribbing for added flash. This is a top fly for salmon, steelhead, and trout.
- Flash Wooly Bugger: Standard woolly buggers are good but add some silver or gold tinsel flash to the tail and the salmon will love it even more. This has always been a very effective fly for me.
- Woolly Worm: I’m not going to say it’s my favorite fly but at times I’ve done well with this pattern with a black body or bright colors body like chartreuse, orange, and pink.
- Egg Sucking Leach: Basically a Woolly Bugger eating an egg, Yes it works pretty damn well.
- San Juan Worm: Every salmon angler should have a good worm pattern in brown, red, and pink in their box. I have caught a lot of salmon on worm flies.
- Egg Fly: A good egg pattern is a must when nymphing for salmon. I would guess egg patterns are the number one go-to fly for salmon anglers and for good reason, Eggs work very well. I like 8mm size in clear water but will go up to eggs that are almost the size of an American quarter. Chartrues, pinks, oranges, and yellows are best bets. Some egg patterns with flash like the Eztaz Egg can be even more effective for aggressive salmon or in dirtier water.
Bead Head VS Non-Bead Head Nymphs
I get this question from most freshwater fly fishermen a lot. When someone sees a shiny gold or silver bead on my fly they wonder if that really works.
Metallic bead head flies tend to work better than nymphs with no beads. Some anglers will also add colorful beads but I have found the shiny metallic silver, copper, and gold beads to be the best.
Beads work for two reasons. The beads actually attract the attention of the salmon better than non-bead head flies.
Beads also add weight to the fly so it gets down faster and it stays down deeper which are good things.
However, there are times when the salmon are nervous or less active which is when bead head flies won’t work and they might even spook the salmon.
For this reason, in low clear rivers, or tiny rivers, or on pressured salmon, and even just due to high sun, the salmon will prefer flies that are not shiny with beads, so make sure you have some nin-bead head nymphs.
Also, something to consider, most bead head flies you buy online are usually made of brass which is fairly lightweight and the bead is primarily there as an attractor. Some beads are made of tungsten which is heavier than lead and these are the ones that will get your fly down fast and get it deeper and these are often better.
So be careful when buying flies so you know which type of bead you are getting.
Fly Fishing Gear For Nymphing
If you are planning on Nymphing for Salmon use gear that will handle these big hard fighting fish.
Some salmon like pink salmon are relatively small and a 6-weight fly rod will work.
Other salmon like Chinook salmon and Atlantic salmon that can reach sizes over 50 pounds require bigger 8 and 9-weight fly rods.
Regardless of the size of the salmon, I use longer fly rods over 9 feet long, and a 10-foot or even an 11-foot rod is preferred. All my salmon fly rods are 10 feet long except for the salmon rods I use for casting lures. See Lure Fishing For Salmon.
Rod Weight: For great lakes salmon nymphing for Chinook salmon, a 7 or 8-weight fly rod is ideal. For west coast Chinook salmon or when fishing large fast rivers, an 8 wor 9-weight fly rod is better.
For Great lakes, Coho, sockeye, and cum salmon fishing, a 7-weight fly rod is good, unless you are fishing a very large fast river, then an 8-weight might help you fight the fish and get better casting in the wind.
For Pink salmon, a 6-weight fly rod is a good rod.
Remember that when nymphing you do not need to cast extremely long distances so the weight and length of the rod are most to aid in the presentation and to fight fish whether they be small pinks or big king salmon.
The Fly Reel
A good large arbor fly reel with an enclosed disc drag system is best for most salmon anglers. Some anglers refer to the reel as just a fly line holder, however, I highly recommend a good quality reel with a strong drag system just in case you hook a 50-pound king salmon.
Any general-purpose weight-forward fly line that matches your rod will be good for salmon nymphing.
There are specialty nymphing lines available but I only recommend them if you are putting it on a dedicated nymphing rod or reel.
Make sure you have at least 100 yards of fly line backing.
I do not recommend a sinking line unless you plan to swing flies which is a whole other
A standard tapered leader of 9 feet and usually 0x to 1x will work for nymph fishing salmon and the fly line is directly connected to the leader with a loop-to-loop knot or a nail knot.
For some of the specialty nymphing methods below you will need to make your own leader.
I always go with as light a tippet as possible but that size will depend on many factors. Factors such as the size of the salmon, the size and speed of the river, and any obstructions or hazards such as log jams or rocks and rapids you might encounter when fighting fish.
My rule is to go with the lightest tippet possible without breaking off regularly because thinner tippets have a lot of advantages when it comes to getting a better presentation.
Thin tippets allow your fly to sink faster and get deeper, they won’t get pushed or dragged by the current as easily which enables your fly to move at a slower and more natural speed. Lighter tippets are also not as easily seen by the salmon.
Indicators are mini bobbers that help the angler detect a bite more easily. Advanced anglers will also use certain types of strike indicators to control the speed of the fly and the angle of the leader which provides a better presentation and often results in more salmon hooked.
For salmon nymphing, I prefer the 1 to 2-inch bi-color football-shaped indicators.
Check out my article The Best Indicators For Fly Fishing.
Other fly fishing gear you should have to make catching, landing, and releasing salmon easier are:
- Vest Or Packs
- Fly Box or multiple fly boxes
- Polarized glasses: I would catch far less trout without polarized glasses and I believe they are an essential tool for river fishing.
There are so many benefits to polarized glasses and I believe they are an invaluable tool that will help you find fish and catch more salmon. There is a reason why all river guided wear polarized glasses.
Benefits of Polarized Glasses
- Cut the glare on the surface which allows anglers to see underwater holding spots, bottom contours, rocks, and snags like branches or logs.
- They enable you to see big fish holding or feeding.
- They help you detect feeding lanes due to less glare on the water.
- They enable you to see the bottom in fast water so you can cross safely.
- I scan the river from bank to bank to determine the safest route to get across the river.
GUIDE TIP: Do NOT cross in high water unless you are experienced.
To see all the fly fishing gear I and my guides recommend, check out Fly Fishing Gear: Everything You Need To Fly Fish and River Fishing Gear: Everything You Need To Succeed.
There are 7 nymphing techniques that I teach in my advanced nymphing classes that all catch fish, but you really only need to know and be good at Indicator Fishing and TightLine Nymphing, which is also known as Euro Nymphing, or Modern Nymphing.
The 7 Nymphing Techniques Are:
- Indicator Nymphing – Best in bigger deeper sections and good for beginner fly anglers.
- High Sticking or High Stick Nymphing – an old-school method of nymph fishing when you maintain a semi-tight line and drift your flies without an indicator.
- Bounce Nymphing
- Czech Nymphing – A short-line method used in deep fast water with no indicator. You fish close t the fish so this is not good in gin-clear water with pressured salmon.
- Polish Nymphing – This is a very short line method with heavy flies which is great in deeper fast water. It’s very similar to Czech Nymphing.
- Spanish Nymphing – An up-and-across method that is very effective and used by top competition fly anglers.
- French Nymphing – A straight-upriver casting method that uses a long french leader and is good for sensitive fishing and pressured fish. used by world class competition fly anglers.
An indicator is basically and mini bobber and with this method, you will be drifting your flies below it as the strike indicator floats down the river on the surface. The indicator is used as a strike indicator or as bite detection.
It can also be used to gauge your depth and help you determine if your flies are too deep and dragging on the rocks or river bottom.
Indicator fishing is the most popular method used to nymph for salmon and I would say 99 out of 100 anglers that nymph for salmon will use this method.
However, it is not always the most effective method because it is hard to get a true dead drift of the fly.
Indicator fishing is the best nymphing technique when distance is required, for long drifts, for slow currents, in deeper water, or when fishing large sections of the river. Indicator fishing is also the best method when fishing in heavy winds.
Indicator fishing is best for new fly fishermen or less experienced fly anglers.
You can also fish indicators downstream or upstream which also makes this method versatile.
Most anglers will cast their indicator nymphing rig up the river on a 45-degree angle out, let it drift past them, and either pull it out when the line tightens or they will feed the fly line out and try to extend the downstream drift.
Detecting a bite is easier with an indicator. If the indicator stops, twitches, or pulls underwater set the hook.
Indicator nymphing is usually done with non-weighted flies and anglers use added weight known as a split shot to get the flies down fast and down deeper. The deeper and faster the water the more weight is required.
The indicator can be adjusted and slid up or down the leader to get the flies at the proper depth so you can fish from 3 feet deep to over 10 feet deep, however, the best water to fish is 3 to 7 feet deep.
You will use floating fly lines and a 9 to 11-foot tapered leader when Indicator fishing
Beginner and intermediate salmon anglers will only use the indicator to adjust the depth and to detect a strike. But, advanced salmon anglers will also use the strike indicator to help them control the speed of their flies which can result in catching a lot more salmon.
To do this you will need to use the right type of indicator.
Advanced anglers are also very good at not dragging the fly with the indicator or the fly line and they learn to control their drifts better which also means more salmon hooked.
If you want to learn how to do this and become a better indicator angler, check out my article Indicator Fishing: How Guides Do It.
Tight Line Nymphing
Tight line nymphing which is also known as Euro nymphing and modern nymphing is a new and lesser-known method that is growing in popularity.
You will likely only see guides, advanced anglers, and competition fly anglers using this for salmon.
The tight line method allows the fly angler to get a better dead drift and is better in shallow water situations.
Tight line nymphing is also known as Euro Nymphing, but Euro nymphing is a vague term since there are multiple fly fishing methods considered Euro Nymphing, such as the French Nymphing technique and the more popular Czech Nymphing technique.
Euro nymphing is similar to traditional high stick nymphing using a high rod and short fly line or no fly line and just the leader, except with Euro Nymphing you add a 12 to 24-inch colored piece of mono line added about 4 to 6 feet up from the flies and situated in the mid-section of the leader.
You can buy a Sighter which is often known as two-tone fluorescent tippet material and many fly shops will now sell it.
This tight line method is different than other nymphing because you use weighted tungsten flies to get your flies down to the salmon and you don’t normally add split shot weights on the leader or tippet. This can help you catch spooky fish that might shy away from weights on the line.
The added colored line which is used as a strike indicator is called the “Sighter”. Unlike a traditional indicator, often the Sighter doesn’t even touch the water.
The Sighter provides the angler the advantage of controlling the depth of the flies, controlling the speed of the flies more effectively, and it can detect subtle strikes far better.
The addition of the weighted flies is to get your flies deeper, but it also keeps the line tension tighter from the fly to the Sighter which greatly improves strike detection.
This tight line method is more effective than indicator fishing when used in shallow water, pocket water, smaller spots, and when indicators are scaring spooky fish.
This is by far my preferred method on smaller rivers to mid-sized salmon steams and I tell my clients not to use an indicator unless they need to.
When fishing larger rivers with this method I will seek out smaller sections that will hold fish and try it there, otherwise, I’ll switch to indicator fishing which allows me to drift extremely long distances if I need to and is better in deep pools.
Most rivers around the great lakes region can be fished with either method and small rivers on the west coast can also be fished with Euro Nymphing.
I do not have an article on Euro Nymphing for salmon yet, but the techniques are identical to what I do when steelhead fishing and you can see that at Euro Nymphing for Steelhead.
Upstream With No Indicators
These Euro and Modern Nymphing methods are usually an upstream with no indicators approach. There are no indicators to drag your fly faster than it should or to spook trout.
No drag gives you a better dead drift of the fly and you can improve the dead drift by using a lighter leader and really thin tippet.
Being behind the fish is also great for spooky fish since they are less likely to know you are there and the thinner tippet and smaller flies can be used which are less intrusive and spook fewer fish.
The Spanish and French nymphing methods require the angler to cast upstream which is partially why they are so effective when fishing for smaller brown trout.
The Spanish Nymphing method is generally an upstream and slightly across method with the possibility of letting your fly drift past you and downriver.
The nymphing rig can mean the entire setup which includes the rod, reel, a standard fly line, a leader, the tippet, and indicator, weights known as split shots, and flies.
The nymphing rig means the leader and fly setup, which I will discuss below.
Both the nymphing rig and the leader setup will vary depending on which style of Nymphing you want to do.
A good indicator nymphing setup or a tight line setup is critical to fly fishing for salmon with nymphs. These two rigs are good as a single-fly rig, or a mutli-fly rig (laws permitting).
A single fly rig is pretty basic and is best for a new fisherman and works well on a normal tapered monofilament leader of about 11 to 13 feet total.
If permitted by law, I will always use a two-fly. With the two-fly setup, the bottom fly is known as the point fly or dropper fly and it is usually the heavier fly and the fly I have the most confidence in. I change out these flies often when the fish are not biting to find out what they want to eat.
You can cover two levels of the water column by spreading your two flies out 20 to 36 inches apart.
Three flies are also permitted in some areas but I don’t recommend it unless you are very advanced. Three flies make it very easy to get a bad tangled leader if your casts or hook sets are not perfect.
Positioning and Angles
When stream fishing a salmon river it is best to approach the spot from downriver and work your way up. This keeps you behind the fish which can allow you to spot the fish before they spot you. This is critical for spooky fish.
The French Nymphing technique and a
Even if I’m walking downstream, I will often make a wide path around the spot I plan to fish, I will stay low, and enter the pool from below.
I generally cast upriver or up and across and fish downriver towards me.
The reason for this is to not let the trout see you and so you do not spook them.
Being stealthy when approaching a spot, or when wading in the pool and fishing is important, especially in small streams with gin clear water.
A benefit to the French leader technique is that there is no big indicator splashing down on the water which can spook fish.
The French leader is also extra long so you can fish further and stay further from the fish. The French leader consists of about 30 feet of mono before the Sighter and flies and is great for very sensitive fishing.
Presentation: The Four Elements To A Perfect Drift
I tell my clients that their goal for effective nymph fishing for trout is this: “Get your fly down and into the strike zone as fast as possible, keep it there for as long as possible, and control the speed of your fly when it’s in the strike zone”.
If you do this and you do this after you have entered the pool stealthily, you will catch more fish than other anglers.
Get the Right Drift
The goal of a perfect drift is this “Get your fly down and into the strike zone as fast as possible, keep it there for as long as possible, and control the speed of your fly when it’s in the strike zone”.
Most salmon will hold close to the bottom. Atlantic salmon can be the exception, but when the salmon are deep you want your flies also deep. I believe the closer your flies are to the fish’s mouth the better.
If possible keep your flies 6 to 16 inches off the bottom.
Fish Deeper With Heavier Flies
You can get your flies deeper if they are weighted so more and more anglers are using weighted flies now. You can also just add more weight if needed.
Atlantic salmon are known to rise or move upward in the water column quite a ways to take and fly, but other salmon won’t always move that far.
Atlantic salmon fishing is the exception to the rule of getting your flies deep.
Time To Sink
It often takes a few seconds or more for your fly to get down to the fish and this time is longer if the fish are in deep water or if there is a drag on the line.
This means of your spot some salmon holding, you want to cast much further up the river to allow the flies to sink to their level.
Also, a normal tapered monofilament leader is thick so the current will pull it and this slows your descent down further. Thinner leaders and tippets will improve sink time.
Competition fly anglers understand that the lighter and thinner the tippet the less water resistance it has, and therefore your flies will sink much quicker.
Your flies will also move slower because the current won’t push the thinner tippets as much as a thicker tippet. For this reason, I always try to use the thinnest tippet possible.
Adding more weights to the leader is another way to get your flies down faster. Only add as much as your need since over weighting your leader can cause problems like dragging the bottom with your flies and more snags.
One of the most important things when fly fishing for salmon is to get a natural dead drift and this means matching the speed of the current.
I believe that controlling the speed of your flies and matching the speed of naturally drifting food and particles is critical and can ten-times the amount of salmon you catch.
So control your speed by doing these things.
- Slack: Keep more slack in the fly line on the surface when fly fishing with an indicator to prevent the current from pulling or dragging the flies.
- Mending: mending the line upriver repositions the line so it doesn’t get caught in the current which will then pull the line and drag your flies too fast.
- Thin Tippet: Thinner tippets are less likely to be pushed by the surface current so your flies will move at a more natural speed.
- Don’t Use An Indicator: one of the biggest benefits to tight line nymphing methods like French Nymphing is that you cast upriver with no indicator so there is no indicator pulling your fly too fast.
- Trott The Indicator: If you use an indicator, try trotting it or some call it checking it. Trotting means you slightly hold the indicator back to slow it down a little slower than the surface current which will slow your fly down and move it at a more natural speed.
Covering The Water
Too many anglers just fish the bubble lines, or they just fish the middle of the river, but I recommend they systematically cover the water in lines and they cover every foot of each psot that a salmon could be holding.
How to Detect Nymph Strikes?
It takes seconds for a salmon to take a fly in its mouth and another second to spit it out. For this reason, I teach my clients to set lightning fast and to set on everything.
To improve your ability to detect nymph strikes or bites try this:
- A good indicator will detect strikes.
- A sighter used with light tension is often the most effective way to detect even the most subtle bites.
- When watching your indicator or sighter, any slow down, or any twitching, or bouncing, any pulling or sinking, just set the hook. Don’t even think about it, just set it.
- Prevent slack in the leader or tippet which can prevent you from detecting a bite.
Setting The Hook
Salmon have harder boney mouths and the flies are a bit thicker so a fast hook set is required. To hook more salmon, do this.
- Set the hook as quickly as possible.
- Set the hook on everything and anything that looks unusual.
- Set as often as possible and never hesitate.
Fighting and Landing Fish
Hooking and fighting big salmon can be very exciting and I often see guys panic, then make mistakes and then lose their fish. Once you set the hook, do this instead.
- Have a good balanced stance and be sure-footed.
- Relax, let them run, take your time, and play them gently.
- Be sure your fly reel drag is set properly and slightly lighter than the breaking point of hook bending pressure.
- Use a big net.
How to Cast a Nymph Rig
You need to cast differently when using a nymphing rig especially if you have what I call “junk on the line” which means indicators, multiple flies, and weights.
Short smooth casts, preferably lob or flip casts will prevent all that junk from becoming a tangled-up mess.
Roll casts suck when all that junk is on the line because a good roll cast requires the fly to be close to the surface which is hard to do with an indicator and lots of weights. So do NOT try to roll cast. In my experience with new anglers, roll casts usually end in a disaster.
Understanding The Water
Reading the water will greatly increase your ability to catch salmon in the river which means you need to learn to locate the deeper and often calmer sections in the river, as well as locate feeding lanes, migration lanes, and structures such as logs and boulders that the salmon will use to hide around.
Reading the water will also help you determine the best method of nymphing to use based on the water type.
Nymphing For Salmon Q&A
If you have any questions, advice, or tips about nymphing for salmon, let us know in the comments section below.