Salmon Fly Fishing: An Angler’s Guide

An angler's guide to salmon fly fishing including the best destinations, techniques and flies to use on different species of salmon in the US & worldwide.

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If you want to start salmon fly fishing, you’ve come to the right place. There are certain fish in this world that are best targeted on the fly. Traditional anglers will argue that they catch more fish with spin gear, but it’s not always about catching more fish.

Fishing is meant to be a challenge and the more of an equal playing field you can create, the more rewarding it is to land a fish. Salmon are one of those fish that are amazing to catch on the fly.

I’ve fished for salmon with spin and fly gear and the entertainment value that fly rods provide doesn’t compare. Yes, accomplishing a perfect drift or swing with a fly is challenging, but as soon as you hook up you’re in for one of the best fights possible.

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What is Salmon Fishing?

Salmon can be found on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States as well as the rivers and tributaries that flow out of the Great Lakes. They run every summer and fall out of the oceans and lakes to the rivers in an attempt to spawn.

Fisherman Catches and Holds Salmon on Fly Rod

They often strike your flies out of aggression more so than hunger. They’re a territorial fish and when they’re spawning they will do their best to keep predators away from their eggs.

Best Salmon Flies

When choosing the best salmon flies, research is vital. There are in depth articles for every area of the world that has salmon. Experts have spent hours researching and tying flies that will work for their region.

Here are a few flies that have proven to work on all salmon.

Egg Sucking Leech

The Egg Sucking Leech is a legendary fly in the world of salmon angling. It provides an appearance of a leech eating a fish egg. They’re able to be purchased with and without a bead head depending on the depth of water you are fishing.

Egg Sucking Leech Fly on a fly rod in a river

How to Fish With An Egg Sucking Leech

The beauty of Egg Sucking Leeches is that they can be fished in a variety of ways and have success. Depending on the speed of the water you’re fishing, you can dead drift or swing it.

If you’re dead drifting through slow and deep water, tie on an egg sucking leech with a smaller split shot and sinking line. You want these flies to hover right near the bottom so it looks like a fish egg drifting along the bottom.

If you’re swinging it, remember that this fly is going to sit higher in the water column unless you are using a bead head or split shot. Cast upstream or river, let it drift past you and start stripping.

Glo Bug

The Glo Bug has proven itself in being able to catch fish all over the world. They’re a simple fly that represents an egg. The advantage that these flies have is that they can be found in multiple colors and entice aggressive strikes from the salmon.

Pink egg great fly for steelhead fishing

How to Fish With a Glo Bug

Similar to the Egg Sucking Leech, you may need to attach a split shot to the leader in an attempt to lower the fly in the water column. They’re on a size 10-14 hook so you have to be a bit more forceful with your hook set.

These flies are best used when dead drifting. Cast the fly upstream at about a 45 degree angle and let it work itself along the bottom through the lower portion of the water column.

You’ll likely have to continuously mend to keep the natural drift on this fly. Keep your mends small and work them both up and downstream. These are going to be pulled heavily by the current so pay close attention and try to keep up.

Bunny Leeches

Bunny Leeches are one of the more obnoxious looking flies in the world of salmon fishing. They’re upwards of 2 inches long with quite a few feathers and material dragging behind them. They have a delayed size 10-14 hook.

How To Tie a Bunny Leech Tutorial With Video

How to Fish with a Bunny Leech

Bunny Leeches are perfect for dead drifting as well as swinging. They have enough material on them that they will properly absorb water and stay low enough in the water column.

If you are swinging these flies, they’ll sit mid-level so if you see salmon tailing, it’s a great option. You’ll know that you don’t have to be on the bottom, but they aren’t necessarily feeding on the surface.

If you’re in fast and deep water, tie on a 3 mm tungsten weight to ensure that you’re low enough for these fish to find it. Also, be sure to fish this fly with natural colors before you make the decision to go extreme.


Intruder flies are going to be the most obnoxious flies in your box. They’re large, colorful and can anger the salmon. If you’re not having success and can’t figure out what to use, tie on the intruder. They’re often found in size four or six.

Intruder Salmon Fly on a Rod

How to Fish with an Intruder

If you know salmon are stacked in a pool, use the Intruder. Cast upstream, let it drift into the pool and see what happens. Stand a bit above the pool so your fly almost swings itself into the pool.

It also works great if you’re swinging flies through a seam. It has a set of dumbbell eyes so there is plenty of weight to make it fall in the water column. Be patient with these flies. Just because they’re colorful and aggressive doesn’t mean they don’t need some finesse work.

Best Gear For Salmon Fly Fishing

Salmon are going to put all of your gear to the test. Any die hard salmon angler has multiple stories of rods snapping, reels spooling and expensive flies lost. It’s all a part of the game.

When fishing for salmon, it’s better to have too much power than not enough.


Choosing the correct rod for salmon fishing can be quite confusing. Some anglers use single handed rods, others use switch rods and some use spey rods. What is the correct option?

Fly Rods with Reels on Rack

The most important aspect of salmon fishing that should influence your decision is the size of water that you’re going to be fishing. You’re going to be able to predict the speed of flow more than the size of fish.

If you’re fishing water that is wide and fast, a switch or two-handed rod is going to work well. These will help you cover quite a bit of water, but they’ll also have enough power to land some of those larger fish you catch.

If you’re fishing a tributary off of the Great Lakes or a smaller salmon river in northern British Columbia, an 8-weight is enough. It will allow you to be accurate with your casts and provide enough power to not let these fish run you all over the water.

If you want to only use a single handed rod, purchase a 9 or 10-weight. These will work in all types of water and give you peace of mind that any fish you catch won’t break you.


There is no specific type of fly line that works better than others when fishing for salmon. The line is always going to depend on the type of water. Some salmon rivers and streams are slower moving and shallow.

fly line for salmon fly fishing

At this point, you’ll likely want to use floating line. Tie on a bit longer leader and let the fly do all of the work. The line will stay on the surface and your fly will drift directly below it. This will ensure a natural drift and no impact from your line.

If you’re fishing fast and deep water, you’ll want sinking line. Many of the flies you use are going to require that you’re as close to the bottom as possible. Sinking line will stay low in the water column regardless of what type of fly that you’re using.

Be careful that there aren’t too many snags in the bottom of the river when you do choose to use sinking line. It will get hung up on quite a few things to be sure that you have a free drift.

If you’re looking for the perfect in between for salmon fishing, weight forward line is a wonderful option. You won’t stay completely on the surface or far in the depths. The fly and your mends will determine where you sit in the water column.

Weight forward line allows you quite a bit of freedom with your fly choice and peace of mind that you’re in control.


When fishing for salmon, you need strong leader. 0 or 1x leader is what you need. These fish are often caught upwards of 30 pounds so you need to be prepared with strong leader.

fly line leader

You can purchase salmon specific leaders as well. Many are around 12 feet long and have a tapered finish to help hide your identity a bit more than usual. Your leaders need to be long and capable of withstanding aggressive head shakes as well as leaps from the water.

When in doubt, choose a heavier leader. You never know what size of fish is swimming in the depths. I’ve had too many salmon lost because I was confident that my leader was plenty strong.


Of course, you’ll want to match your fly reel with your line and rod to ensure you have a balanced set up. You’ll want a larger fly reel like a 9 weight or a 10+ weight fly reel to go along with the matching rod.

Salmon Fly Fishing Conditions

Salmon are going to live in cold water in rivers and tributaries that flow out of the oceans or the Great Lakes. They enjoy gravel bottoms, pools and riffles. Salmon aren’t difficult to find in the water. If you see them tailing, you know they’re eating.

Fly Fishing Salmon in Shallow Water

When you see numerous salmon in shallow water, that can mean a few things. One, they’re spawning and laying some of their eggs. The second possibility is that they’re eating and waiting for food to drift towards them.

Chinook Salmon Jump River

These salmon are likely sitting at the front or back of a pool in shallow water. Shallow water is a quality sign. They’re willing to dart away from their holding location in search of food.

Fly Fishing Salmon in Pools

Pools are always going to hold fish. No matter what type of fishing you find yourself doing, if you’re in a river and see a pool, fish it. Salmon will often sit on the front edge of the pool and wait for the food to drift into it.

Cast far enough upstream that the drift looks natural as it enters the pool. Stand a few feet in front of the pool and let your fly swing into it.

Fly Fishing Salmon From Shore

When fishing for Salmon from shore, it’s tempting to make long casts as far out into the water as you possibly can. This doesn’t have to be the case. Salmon will often hug the banks especially if the rivers are full.

A fly fisherman fishing for Atlantic Salmon on the Margaree River in the fall.

Cover water closest to you and then begin to branch out. You don’t want to blow spots that are 15 or 20 feet away from you in an attempt to make a 60 foot cast into a fast-flowing river.

Best Time For Fly Fishing For Salmon

You must fish for salmon during their run. Salmon run at different times across North America. The most common time, however, is late summer through October. These are when the most fish are going to leave the ocean and head towards their rivers.

If you can target salmon early in the morning on an overcast day, you’ll have success. The saying “first one in the pool” is extremely accurate. These fish are waiting to eat and the first fly that they see is likely what they’ll eat.

Salmon Fly Fishing Tips & Tricks

Fly fishing for salmon isn’t something that is learned over night. These fish are picky, stubborn and require quite a bit of work to get to eat. My first two days spent targeting salmon were extremely frustrating.

King Salmon Coho Salmon Jump River Canada

I was seeing salmon, but no matter what I did, I couldn’t get them to eat my fly. Dead drifting, swinging, nymphing, you name it, I tried it. It took two days of all error to learn what the fish wanted and how they wanted the fly presented.

Swing, Swing, Swing

Swinging streamers is perhaps the most common way to catch salmon. To accomplish this, cast up and across stream. As long as you make a solid cast, your fly should be able to do the work.

As the fly drifts downstream, don’t be afraid to mend it so that the fly continues to lead the charge. As it drifts past you, let it begin swinging across the current until your line becomes tight.

At this point, go ahead and strip towards yourself and cast again. Trout like quite a bit of action on the retrieve, but this doesn’t have to be the case with salmon. Swinging flies is essentially a form of dead drifting, but you’re casting up and across stream instead of just upstream.

If you see your fly line pulling downstream, it is time to mend. You’ll see the “u” shape that it is making and at that point it is time to fix it. Mend upstream so the fly continues to lead the charge.

Strip Away

Another fun way to fish for salmon is by stripping streamers. Find a nice deep pool with riffles that bookend it and you’re in business. Cast your streamer into the riffles, let it float towards the middle of the pool and begin stripping.

Fly Fishing Line for salmon fishing

The stripping motion will emulate a fleeing baitfish and salmon don’t enjoy watching a meal swim away. When stripping, don’t be afraid to manipulate your retrieve. If one style of retrieve isn’t working, try something new.

Sometimes the fish want a jerking motion, other times they want a more smooth retrieve. It’s all trial and error.

It’s also important to remember to not blow an entire pool when you’re stripping streamers. Section the pool into thirds or fourths and spend time within each portion. If you let it swing through an entire pool and strip through it each time, you lower your chances of landing fish.

Dead Drift

Dead drifting is how I have had my most success landing salmon. I like to find a slow moving, deep portion of the river, cast upstream and begin mending. I enjoy nymphing and accomplishing near-perfect drifts so I will often dead drift.

fly fishing salmon

You will only have 15 to 20 feet of a natural drift so be sure you take advantage of it. As soon as you cast, your fly doesn’t look natural. As it drifts downstream towards you, begin mending so the fly line stays parallel with your fly.

A helpful tactic to use is to high stick your rod. This will take quite a bit of fly line out of the water and allow you to achieve some of those more natural drifts.

Best Destinations For Salmon Fishing

There are limited fly fishing destinations in the world where you can salmon fish. This means that many of these rivers and streams receive quite a bit of pressure. It’s important to do research and strive to find some of the more hidden locations.

British Columbia

British Columbia in Canada is perhaps the most renown place for salmon fishing. There are thousands of miles of rivers for anglers to visit that are filled with salmon. The Kalum and Skeena Rivers are two of the most popular salmon fishing rivers in the world.

Fly Fishing On The Campbell River in British Columbia

Since these waters in British Columbia are challenging, I would recommend fishing with a guide or at least a local person for your first time. Local knowledge is vital when it comes to salmon fishing. They’re going to put you on fish and give you a great idea of what to use.


Michigan is the best state to target salmon near the Great Lakes. The amount of tributaries that flow out of Lake Michigan is remarkable. Plus, the salmon numbers are continuously high.

Michigan has a nice amount of public access and anglers always leave a Michigan fishing trip pleased. Take along your 8 or 9-weight and see what you can find. Michigan also has some impressive trout populations so don’t only focus on the salmon.

Salmon River, Idaho

This river is on the list because of how unique it is. The Salmon in the Salmon River travel over 800 miles to reach these waters. They’re the longest traveling salmon in the entire world.

Salmon River Idaho

They travel through British Columbia and make their way down into the river where they spawn and eventually die. If you do have the chance to land a salmon out of the Salmon River in Idaho it is an experience you’ll never forget.

To imagine how far these fish travelled to lay their eggs is mind blowing. Give it a try and see if you can catch one of these heralded fish.


The western United States is a hot bed for Salmon fishing. The fish make their way out of the Pacific Ocean and into the rivers all along the Pacific Northwest. The rivers all along the coast hold nice populations of salmon as well as Steelhead.

Fly Fishing The Cedar River In Maple Valley, Washington

Many of the best salmon waters in Washington are private so don’t be afraid to spend some time at a lodge or hire a guide service to help you land some of these impressive fish.


No list of best salmon locations would be complete without mentioning Alaska. The waters all along the western coast are going to hold impressive numbers of King’s as well as Silvers. Again, a guide is necessary to help you land fish in this beautiful state.

That’s How to Fly Fish For Salmon

Salmon fishing takes time, effort and perseverance. Do your best to learn your local waters, put in the effort and see what you can find. They’re a beautiful fish that will surprise you during every fight.

Get out in the backcountry and test your limits. These fish will never disappoint.

Some images in this post are courtesy of Shutterstock.

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How To Fly Fish For Salmon: An Angler’s GuideHow To Fly Fish For Salmon

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My name is Danny Mooers and I’ve been fly fishing for five years. As soon as I went to college, I dove headfirst into my obsession for fly angling. Every spare weekend or long break was dedicated to finding fish. I’ve fished all over North America in search of trout, salmon, steelhead and everything in between. I currently write articles for Guide Recommended and Reel Adventure Fishing. Fly angling is one of the most challenging yet rewarding hobbies any person can have. Don’t be afraid to give it a try.  It’s an addicting activity that tests everything from your fine motor skills to your patience, but it’s well worth your time.

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