Fly Fishing for Salmon: A Beginner's Guide
Sep 2, 2021 | 8 minute read
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Many anglers would argue that fly fishing for Salmon isn’t just a way to cast a line. It’s a way of life. As one of the oldest forms of angling, what attracts many fishing enthusiasts to this technique is the tradition, enthusiasm, and pure challenge surrounding it.

A man casts his fly line for Salmon in a freshwater fishery

Okay, it may involve less back-to-back rod-bending action than other conventional techniques. However, fly fishers are happy to swap this for a day meandering down Salmon-filled waterways, immersing themselves in nature and trying out new ways of presenting their flies.

If fly fishing has always felt a little out of reach for you, then Salmon are the perfect starter fish. They’re more beginner-friendly than almost any other species. Our beginner’s guide to targeting ’em on the fly will help you identify the Salmon species near you, get to grips with the gear, and make that magical first cast. Let’s dive in…

Where can I fly fish for Salmon?

You can target pretty much any Salmon species on the fly. The varieties you’ll be able to target depend on what’s available in the body of water you’re fishing in. Get to grips quickly with all the options open to you by checking out our in-depth blog on all things Salmon.

A man crouches in an Oregon river holding a large Chinook Salmon

Chances are you probably aren’t far from a river, lake, or bay where you can practice fly fishing for one (or more) of these fish. If you’d like some extra guidance as you begin your journey, check out our “Fishing Near Me” feature to see if we have any local guides in your area. Otherwise, here’s a brief overview of some places to check out…

North America

An aerial view of the Kenai River on a cloudy day

It really would take a book to nail down the many, many Salmon fly fishing locations in the US and Canada. Take this as a taste of what’s available!

The vast waters of the Great Lakes, especially Lake Ontario and Lake Michigan, see Coho and Chinook varieties, with the tributaries being especially suitable for fly fishing. On the US Pacific Coast, the states of Washington and Oregon offer up Salmon-filled waterways such as the Columbia River.

Alaska is something of a fly fisherman’s dream, with the famous Kenai River seeing runs of Chinook, Coho, and Sockeye Salmon. Cook Inlet, which feeds into the river, sees all five varieties of Pacific Salmon. Elsewhere, head to Homer and you’ll have the chance to target ocean-going Salmon.

Continue over on to the Canadian side, and you have a wealth of options. British Columbia boasts a variety of rivers, stunning scenery, and all five varieties of Pacific Salmon. Toronto isn’t just a bustling cityscape – it’s a Salmon fly fishing locale. Eastern Canada, especially Newfoundland and Labrador, has rivers that hold the rarer Atlantic Salmon.

Europe

A view of a tundra and river in the Kola Peninsula

Again, we’re talking a book-length list of locations when it comes to fly fishing in Europe! Again, take this as a primer. Russia’s mighty Kola Peninsula boasts excellent Atlantic Salmon fishing, with plenty of rivers and lakes to explore.

Norway offers up plenty of rivers perfect for fly fishing, with the Guala being an especially popular Salmon spot. Sweden’s Mörrumså, Torne, Lanio, and Emån Rivers all hold Atlantic and “Baltic” Salmon varieties.

Then there’s the UK, where fly anglers have an almost-unmatched enthusiasm for the sport. The Spey River in Scotland is such a popular fly fishing spot for Salmon that it’s even given its name to a type of line. The Wye River in Wales and the Tyne in Northern England are also popular Salmon spots for fly fishers.

How can I fly fish for Salmon?

Now, let’s get down to the technical stuff. If you’re familiar with fly fishing, you’ll be pleased to know that targeting Salmon doesn’t require any specific additional gear or know-how. Even if you’re pretty new to the sport, all you really need is a Salmon-suitable tackle setup, which we’ll cover below, as well as picking a fishery that houses Salmon.

A man fly fishes for Salmon in a freshwater river with his back to the camera and his line out

What setup should I use?

Salmon fly fishing gear is constantly evolving, which means there’s a wealth of options out there. It can all seem pretty daunting at first! For beginners looking for good “all-around” Salmon fly fishing equipment, here’s what we’d recommend:

  • Rods: A double-handed 8/9 or 9/10 wt (weight) rod measuring between 13–15 feet is a great starter option. If you know you’ll generally be fishing one particular stream or river, you can use the size of your chosen waterway to help you select a more specific rod. Fishing a small river or stream? Go for a 7/8 or 8/9 wt rod measuring 13 feet. For medium rivers, 8/9 or 9/10 wt rods between 13–14 feet work well. For large rivers, opt for a 9/10, 10/11, or 11/12 wt rod around 14–15 feet.
  • Reels: You’ll want a reel that is matched to your rod, e.g. a 8/9 reel for 8–9 wt rods. A reliable drag system is important – the drag is essential a braking system on the reel that slows the rotation of the spool in order to control the fish on your line and prevent breakage. Single-action reels, with plenty of line capacity and few moving parts, are popular with Salmon fly fishers.
  • Lines: A shooting head line (a length of heavy fly line that is suitable for making long casts) is a great option for novice Salmon fly fishers. It’s stable, easier to cast than other lines, and can withstand the elements. When it comes to density, opt for a floating line – Salmon generally attack flies in shallower waters. Finally, remember to purchase “backing.” This is a thin but strong section of line that is secured directly to your reel.
  • Leaders and Tippets: Bring along a selection of leaders with anywhere between 10–20 pounds of breaking strain. That way, you’ll have options for a variety of Salmon sizes that may shop up. Tippets are a matter of personal preference, with some anglers choosing to forgo using one, but you can’t go wrong with 12–15 lb monofilament line.

What flies should I use?

Unlike some other fly fishing targets, Salmon aren’t picky. Especially voracious varieties such as the Chinook, Coho, and Atlantic Salmon will attack pretty much anything that’s presented to them. We still have some tips for you, though:

A man casts his line towards the camera with the water in the background and the fly in the foreground
  • Match the color of your fly to the river you’re fishing in. On sunny days when fishing in clear rivers, opt for discreet flies that aren’t bright or flashy. If your chosen fishery is muddier, though, the brighter fly, the better!
  • Opt for bigger flies in the winter, and smaller ones in the summer. This reflects seasonal changes to aquatic insect life, and will make your fly better fit in with the local nature.
  • Have some streamers handy. These are traditionally bigger than normal flies and more closely resemble aquatic life such as leeches. They’re especially popular with anglers looking to target big Salmon.
  • If you’re presenting your fly on the surface of the water, opt for dry varieties. Fishing underwater? Wet and weighted flies are best. 
  • And lastly, here are some common fly patterns to have in your tackle box: woolly buggers, hex nymphs, egg sucking leeches, intruder flies, and bunny leeches. There’s a wealth of other options out there, of course! We’d recommend always having a large variety to choose from.

How should I set my gear up?

Choosing your Salmon fly fishing gear can seem pretty daunting. Once you have it all to hand, though, the setup itself isn’t too tricky. Basically, you’ll want to make sure that your reel and rod are balanced by selecting matching weights. Additionally, your fly line should be matched to the size of the fly you plan to cast. Your backing, fly line, leader, and tippet can all be tied together using a variety of fly fishing knots. Take a look at our diagram, which shows a basic fly fishing for Salmon setup:

An infographic showing a Salmon fly fishing setup for beginners

What techniques can I use?

While the majority of anglers agree that every stream or river requires a slightly different approach, here are some general fly fishing techniques to get you started:

  • Swinging: Especially popular with anglers targeting Chinook Salmon, swinging is pretty self-explanatory. It involves making a 45-degree cast that allows your fly to “swing” downstream with the current. Your fly will enter the water (hopefully filled with Salmon), sink to the bottom, and then rise again towards the surface. If you’re new to fly fishing for Salmon, this is a great starter technique. Even the most experienced of fly fishers often rely on it. “Swinging for the King” is a common saying for good reason!
  • Stripping: Targeting feeding Salmon? Give stripping a go. You’ll cast above a pool of feeding fish, let your fly (usually a streamer) drift into the water, and start “stripping” it towards yourself with quick little jerks of the rod. The actual movement you’ll use when stripping involves pulling your line towards yourself to imitate a frantic bait fish. Some fly fishers even study the patterns and movements of specific bait fish to make their stripping movements as accurate as possible.
  • Nymphing: Also known as “dead drifting,” nymphing is when you present a specific fly (made to resemble an aquatic insect in its nymph stage of development) to your target fish. These flies are always wet and often weighted slightly, as they’re fished entirely beneath the surface of the water. There are various ways you can actually present your nymph to your Salmon. The most common technique is to simply swing your wet nymph across the current and let it swing below you and down to the fish.

Fly fishing for Salmon is the perfect way to master this technique “on the job.” Unlike other species, these fish don’t require extreme precision. They’ll travel a pretty impressive distance to attack your fly. This means you can get plenty of practice in, hone your technique, and hopefully land some fish at the same time!

Fly Fishing for Salmon: A New Adventure

An angler holding a Chinook Salmon on a lake in Canada

As we said before, for many anglers, casting a line on the fly for Salmon isn’t just a way of fishing. It’s a way of life. Whether you’re looking to start a new hobby, finesse your skills, or get your name in the fly fishing hall of fame, the much-loved Salmon family is the perfect way to discover your love for this spot. The magic only grows with time, too – there are so many ways to fly fish for Salmon and as you grow as a fly fisher, so will your technique. Now it’s time to get started!

Are you a fly fisher who loves targeting Salmon? Any special tips or techniques to share with us? Let us know in the comments below. We love hearing from you!

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