Choosing the best salmon flies really comes down to ticking a few boxes in order to attract salmon to the fly. Salmon flies come in many patterns, but in this post, I’d like to share with you some of the most productive salmon flies I’ve found to work over the years.
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Although primarily a trout and grayling fisherman, I have fly fished for salmon since 1972. In that time there have been some interesting changes in both the rods and fly patterns for the mainstream salmon fisherman. For others, arguably nothing has changed the ‘best salmon fly’ for many years.
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What Makes A Great Salmon Fly?
I subscribe to GISS theory – flies should reflect the ‘General Impression, Shape and Size’ of the fly they imitate. Salmon flies however are more in the nature of lures and do not represent any specific fish fry or subaquatic life.
We are probably judging top Salmon flies by simpler standards of ‘what do the salmon like‘ based on experience rather than GISS principles.
Let us review our basic criteria for judging the effectiveness of the most productive salmon flies.
This remains one of the key elements in my view – even though we are now thinking ‘lure’ rather than an imitative pattern. The objective here is to put something mobile in front of the Salmon and provoke a ‘take.’ Hairwings are probably to the fore to achieve some ‘wiggle.’
As noted above we are less in the realms of imitation with Salmon though some of the best flies for Salmon – the more modern ones anyway – probably offer a fish fry suggestion.
Usually, I put this last in my list – in discussing best Salmon fly patterns I was tempted to move it to the top.
Many of the most productive Salmon flies, historically anyway, have a significant attractor element using bold feather and silk combinations in the classic Scottish patterns of a hundred years ago.
Modern hairwing patterns may lack some of the vivid patterns of the feather versions but still offer some bold wool, hair, and tinsel wrap combinations.
Tube flies and double treble or single hooks are all in the salmon fly fishers armory – relevant to hooking larger fish species or casting larger flies on bigger rivers with double-handed rods.
We could spend a long time discussing salmon species and their distribution so I will try and keep this one simple for a quick overview. The species broadly depend on which side of the pond you live, but local stocking variations make this a general guide.
If you are reading this in Western North America and Western Canada, then Pacific Salmon will be your primary fishing target subdivided into the following main species:
The largest and most widespread salmon species in North America, also known as ‘blackmouth’ salmon for hopefully obvious reasons. Found in the rivers but introduced to lakes too and achieving some prodigious weights.
These fish have a reputation as the hardest fighting salmon species. Anglers from around the world always hope to hook into a feisty Coho and feel the power of these impressive fish.
This species is generally less popular and considered less sporting though the roe is highly regarded. If you’re going for chum, you’ll likely want to head to Alaska for some of the best Chum fishing.
This is the smaller salmon species but still a very edible and tasty option if you are going to cook your catch. Pinks tend to go after short, striking-looking flies that stand out in any water.
Sockeye or Red Salmon
Regarded as the best-tasting fish as vouched for by fly fishers and brown bears everywhere! There are plenty of salmon flies particular to Sockeyes and reds including the Sockeye Killer, Sockeye Lantern and Montana Brassie flies. There are plenty of great Sockeye Salmon fly fishing destinations in the US.
The Atlantic Salmon
This is the salmon I am most familiar with and the traditional quarry of the Speyside Scots fly fisher though we do see salmon in the southern English rivers too. Atlantic Salmon are equally at home in much of northern Europe, as well as the eastern United States and eastern Canada.
These fish can grow to prodigious sizes and weights – four feet in length and eighty pounds perhaps – and hence the term ‘It was like hooking a bag of concrete’ when you have a good-sized fish on and bending your rod.
There are still more ‘salmon’ species, but these are unlikely to form key target fish except for the very well-traveled fly fisher. I shall leave you to research these as your skills and knowledge grow; we have covered enough to get you started.
Salmon Feeding Habits
As suggested above we are not looking at a conventional ‘fly hatch’ with salmon so there are no imitative stages such as ‘nymph’ or ’emerger’ found in trout fishing.
The salmon fisher is most times concerned with catching a fish that is returning home from the sea to freshwater habitat to spawn – and these fish feed very little or not at all during this annual phase of their life.
I am not sure whether they regard the fly as food or an aggressive reflex instinct triggers the ‘take.’
What Do The Best Salmon Flies Imitate?
I suspect no one has the definitive answer to this question. The pithy answer may be ‘fish fry, or nothing at all’, and the fly patterns are simply attractor patterns to trigger a bite reaction from the fish.
The modern salmon fly tier and fisher have some further choices. Firstly do you wish to imitate a traditional fly pattern? If so then some of the old fly tying materials may be rare and hard to come by, or banned as bird species are protected.
The second alternative is to consider a modern hairwing approximation of an old pattern; whilst not for the dyed in the wool traditionalist these patterns can be perfectly effective.
The third option is to use one of the more modern generations of flies which share little of the Victorian heritage of some of the colorful feather patterns. Some of us choose a mix of all three styles depending on how the mood takes us.
Basic Types of Salmon Flies
Essentially all salmon flies are ‘wet’ flies and fished in the water – no dry or emerger patterns here, though some patterns are designed to fish at or close to the surface.
The fly size may be as important as the pattern. Typically I use single-handed rods for salmon rather than longer traditional double-handed rods – I no longer fish for salmon frequently enough to maintain double-handed skills.
Smaller fly patterns may better suit a nine-foot rod casting style – this may be as important as the actual pattern.
Patterns which are easy to change quickly also rate highly with me – small tube patterns for example can be very useful. As a result, I tend to fish the more modern fly constructions.
A quick review shows the main options available are as follows:
Traditional Feather Patterns
These are the feather patterns with jungle cock feather eyes and bright plumage and golden pheasant tail toppings.
Such flies are beautiful creations – but they are time-consuming to tie, cost a fortune every time you lose one, may be tied with difficulty to acquire materials, and don’t catch more fish than the other patterns.
Great fun to fish with if you have a cane rod and an old Hardy reel though, as you step back in time.
Hairwings frequently interpret the old patterns using more modern and accessible tying materials – usually wool bodies and tinsel or wire wraps or ribbing as well as the hair wing itself of course.
There are some modern hairwing patterns too and in my view, these are some of the most effective; some are evolutions of classic hairwings but simplified to key elements.
This is a concept which developed just after the Second World War and was rapidly popularised in fly tying books such as the fly dressing ‘manuals’ written in the 1960s and 1970s by John Veniard, of the Veniard fly tying materials company fame.
The fly is more robust, less likely to be chewed up by the fish and hopefully extends the hook to a more effective hooking position clear of the main dressing materials. The pattern has now developed into a broad range of tyings for an equally broad range of toothy critters.
Singles, Doubles, or Trebles?
Not a new form of social tennis but the number of hooks combined into a single element. Some folk will swear a treble has more hooking power on a large fish. It may do, but I usually find a treble has increased hooking power on my fingers and I stick to singles or doubles.
A large measure of personal preference comes into play here. I reckon if you sharpen your hook points (I use one of those diamond-impregnated honing sticks with a ‘vee’ groove) then you should have no problem setting a hook on a single or double.
The Best Salmon Flies For Fly Fishing
With salmon fishing in particular I think this is the most fun part – selecting what will be the most productive flies for catching Salmon and there seems to be some added local mystique to this process.
Local knowledge or from experienced guides may be more than usually useful in this respect, but there are some classic patterns (some of them relatively modern, but classics nonetheless) which we might consider for a days salmon fishing.
Low Water Flies
In the height of summer with lower water conditions, you may well need to fish a fly with a less bulky dressing.
This will help the fly to ‘get down’ to the fish quickly, look mobile in slower flowing waters and allow you to drift a line in an arc to the fish’s nose relatively swiftly.
It can also help allow the angler to retrieve past the fish and makes the fly look suitably tantalizing.
It won’t actually catch all fish everywhere all the time, but it is usable in a wide variety of mainly predator fishing situations and is also one of the best Salmon flies.
The simple dressing is fairly sparse and less prone to tangles which helps maintain ‘action’ and movement in the water.
Stoats Tail Tube Fly
An alternative to the Sunray might be this modern take on a traditional pattern – black hair, usually with a jungle cock feather eye – or modern substitute – on a short tube with a single or double hook which should reduce the chances of hooking the river bed and increase the prospects of hooking a salmon instead.
Now to the opposite end of the spectrum; deeper faster water calls for a heavier dressing. Why not consider Cone Head Tubes? These maintain a simple profile whilst getting down to the fish quickly.
Cascade Shrimp Gold Conehead
Frankie McPhillips is an Irish salmon master. I have Irish friends who fish the loughs and regard him with awe, so his patterns must be worth a shout. This is a colorful version which has a flavor of the traditional in a modern interpretation.
This bulky fly epitomizes the traditional approach and is possibly the most productive salmon fly – whether that is because it is so widely used and so catches more fish, or because of its innate qualities, I am unsure.
Named after its inventor this fly dates from the mid-1800s. If you purchase a modern tying it will be an interpretation of the original – materials such as Toucan or Macaw feathers would now be from protected species.
The Olsen is a Norwegian pattern, a good all-rounder, and simple to tie with a colorful red and yellow wool body and gray squirrel tail wing. In smaller sizes, you might also fish for trout or grayling with this, and it remains one of the best Salmon flies.
Jacques Bug – Green Machine Series
And now for something completely different – how about one of the series of Green Bug salmon flies? These have an excellent reputation as one of the new generation of ‘best Salmon flies’, designed by Canadian Jacques Heroux. I have yet to try one, and they are on my list…
Best Salmon Flies Pre-Tied
If you’re looking to buy a pre-tied box of quality salmon flies, you can get them on Amazon for much less than at your local fly shop. Be careful when shopping on Amazon for flies though!
There are plenty of substandard-tied flies on the platform for some reason. We’ve done the shopping for you and here are some of the best value salmon flies currently for sale.
Bassdash Trout Steelhead Salmon Flies
- Pieces: 100
These Bassdash Salmon Flies are actually well tied and they come with an assortment of bass flies and trout flies as well, but there are plenty of great salmon flies included in the box.
Focuser Flies For Bass, Trout & Salmon
- Pieces: 100
These Focuser Flies for Bass, Trot & Salmon are another great set of all-around flies with enough salmon flies to fish for a season or two. These flies are well tied and overall, Focuser has some of the highest-reviewed pre-tied flies on the market these days.
Tigofly Cone Head Tube Fly 5 Assorted Colors
- Pieces: 40
Tigofly is another well-known and highly respected fly tying company and the Tigofly Cone Head Assorted cone flies are all perfect for fishing salmon. You’ll find 5 different colors with a total of 40 flies (no box included).
I hope this article has provided an eye-opener to the world of Salmon fly fishing, and what constitutes a productive Salmon fly pattern – whether a classic design nearly two hundred years old or one of the new styles.
Obviously the modern patterns no longer rely on hard to get materials that are controlled due to conservation issues, so if tying your own these are a good place to start.
The ‘oldies’ still work, as they are often harder to tie buying in a few is usually a good place to start. And you must have at least one ‘Jock Scott’ if only as a nod to the history and traditions of the sport.
Some images in this post are courtesy of Shutterstock.
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