The Chinook Salmon Fly Box 4
In the past when it comes to salmon fishing, I’ve talked about reading the water and presentation of flies - two skills I consider key for successful salmon fishing. However, I have been reminded that is probably time to talk about something a little more interesting — what flies I like for salmon fishing. At this point I must make a disclaimer. I will be talking in general conditions and situations. Often fly selections are based on what and how I like to fish and what has proven for me to be successful over the long period of time. Please keep in mind no matter what I say there’s always a fish or two out there that will make a liar out of me. I will most likely say this at the end of the article, no matter what — never stop experimenting.
I want to start out by describing what I do when I change flies. When I decide to change a fly, I do more than just look in the box and see what happens to fancy my intention. When I do change a fly I want to give the fish a completely different look. Not just color but size and movement is also taken into consideration. For example I might consider changing from an intruder style fly to a hair wing style fly. Doing this will change the profile of the flies. Going from a large profile fly to a long narrow profile fly. I may also choose a fly that is designed to be fished with a different style of presentation for an example changing from a fly that is designed to be fished on a swing to a fly designed to be fished with a dead drift. The whole idea is to change is much of the look as you can. The mood of the fish can change daily and sometimes within the day. So we often have to adjust by changing not just the color of the flies. Often we need to change the style of the fly and the type of presentation that we are using to get the fish going. Where just the color change might be all that is needed would be light conditions and water clarity. Keep in mind often this is not the particular color that makes the difference. But how visible that fly is to the fish in any given conditions we could be fishing. A good example where just a color change to the fly can make a difference is with water clarity. A typical rainy November in Western New York will turn our rivers and creeks to mud. This is a classic situation where florescent colored egg flies will turn a situation that looks on fishable into hot fishing. Fly design and fly color is where we do a lot of our experimenting. I have said it before, never stop experimenting.
Even though all Pacific salmon stop feeding when they enter their prospective rivers, they are still predators and their predator instincts are still turned on. There is also a natural aggression that salmon have towards each other and other things within the river. Often what we are trying to do is trigger that natural territorial aggression and their predatory instincts. Depending on the mood of the salmon they may only have to trigger one of these stimuli or we may have to trigger both. This may explain why salmon respond to flies that have a lot of built-in movement. What I am looking for in salmon flies, is a fly that will come alive while being fished. This can easily be achieved through fly design and selecting appropriate fly tying materials. Look for flies tied with soft hackle, marabou and rabbit. All of these materials will easily come alive even in the slowest flowing water. This is why, when it comes to fishing salmon, I am a woolly bugger fisherman for the most part. The main reason I like these flies, these flies will come alive with a natural look of movement. You can achieve this look even then the slowest moving water. This is an important consideration because you can often find salmon sitting in the tales of pools with the water flow is at its slowest.
It is not unusual in the early stages of the salmon run to find Chinook salmon schooled up in deep slow flowing pools. The salmon will often be suspended mid-depth and slowly circling around in the pool. These salmon are definitely catchable fish. Try fishing to the salmon with no weight other than the bead on the fly. As for flies larger the better, Size to woolly buggers in leech patterns will be the most productive patterns. Start by casting of flies close to the salmon, allow the fly to slowly sink to the same depth of the fish. After that play around with the retrieve, often slow twitchy strip works the best. Do not expect a hard take, often the salmon will swim up to the fly and just grabbed it.
Along with these characteristics, is that you cannot fish the flies wrong and they are easy to tie. These fly tying materials are relatively inexpensive and easy to obtain. This is an important consideration when you consider that sometimes you can go through large volumes of flies. Other fly patterns that fall in to this category are Bunny Leech and zonkers. These fly patterns will also give the salmon a slightly different physical look to the fly, however still maintaining that look of life. The larger sizes work best with the best sizes being 4 and 6 and with high water flows and fresh run salmon, size 2 leach patters work really well. You often need a fly big enough to get the salmon attention. With fly colors, keep it natural, using earth tones such as black, brown, and dark olive. With the fishing pressure and clear water we experience on the Salmon River. Bright colors are often too much for the salmon. I have seen a size 6 chartreuse woolly buggers, chase salmon out the back of their pool. This category of flies is what I personally use for most of my Chinook fishing.
I also use smaller wet flies, or what I refer to as small flies, for salmon fishing. These flies can range from classic Atlantic salmon flies such as a green butt black bear, silver rat and classic steelhead flies such as comet style flies to modified trout wet flies. There are numerous fly patterns, in this category that have been modified for fishing to Pacific salmon. Most of these flies will range in size from a size 8 to a size 4 and are tied on a shorter wet fly hook. This is where we find using the brighter color flies to be more productive. These flies tied in bright fluorescent colors are a favorite of Coho salmon. Another area where these traditional salmon wet flies come in handy is in heavily pressured low water conditions. This is a common situation that we often find ourselves fishing in on the Salmon River. Pacific salmon are sensitive to heavy fishing pressure. Think about it, you just came out of a deep lake with 100 feet of water over your head. Now you’re in 2 feet of clear water with the sun beating down on you. This alone will make the fish nervous, add fishing pressure to the equation and we have fish reluctant to play. Fishing wet flies will give the salmon a smaller target to focus in on and nipped at.
A few notes here about fly design and presentation. One of my favorite salmon flies is the green butt black bear an excellent example of a fly best fish best with a slow swing. An excellent of a wet fly for fishing small pools and pocket water are comet style flies such as the boss. These flies are tied on short shank hooks and have bead chain eyes. These flies are best fished with a dead draft presentation. This gives us two different styles of flies. Having two different styles of presentation, allows us to adapt to the conditions and the fish.
Most years on the Salmon River fall water flows are on the low side, somewhere between 285 CFS and 335 CFS. As results by the time the Salmon reach mid-River they have already experienced intense fishing pressure. Larger flies that are very successful in the lower river will now send the fish running. By dropping the fly size and silhouette down, we are now able to get the salmon to snap at these flies. This is where tying flies on traditional wet fly hooks in using a few of the modified traditional Atlantic salmon flies. We are able to get these pressure salmon to take on a consistent basis.
The next category of flies is very unique to the Salmon River. With both minimum water flows and the added nutrients from the carcasses of salmon, the Salmon River productivity has risen. Over the last several years the Salmon River aquatic insect numbers have exploded. We are still seeing the strength of our bug hatches grow and new hatches taken hold. As a result the Salmon River now has a huge population of stone flies. Most of these stonefly nymphs range from a size 16 to a 12. However there are a significant number of stonefly nymphs that are considerably larger. These bugs range in size from an 8 to 4 and color variations from golden, brown, dark olive to black. What all this means to us is that when all else fails, I fish a size 6 black stonefly nymph. It’s one of my favorite fallback flies. Stonefly nymphs are available to the fish year round. For the salmon this is one fly, a natural fly that they see all the time. The Salmon gets accustomed seeing these flies and reacting to them. We have all seen this situation, the salmon are not moving and they have been sitting in their particular spot for several days. They are not interested in biting anything, and will often shy away from whatever is presented to them. Fishing the pocket water with black stonefly nymphs is one of those flies that can solve the problem. The more traditionally tied stonefly nymph patterns that trout fisherman use will work just fine.
However migratory fish have a tendency to respond to flies that are jazzed up a bit. In this case stonefly patterns tied with some flash and rubber legs have always helped to get good bites. Also these flies perform best when tied with a bead head. Keep in mind this fly needs to be dead drifted, the rubber legs and flash help to give the fly life.
Daring Low water conditions the salmon located in the more traditional pools, can be far more reluctant to take flies. When the water flows get to low, it is often time to leave these fish alone and concentrate your efforts on fishing the pocket water. Salmon will often move into sections of the river referred to as pocket water. This pocket water often is not much more than just a soft piece of water behind a big rock. During low-water, the pocket water that we are interested in is located in and around the fast water. The type of water that we would normally not expect to find salmon to be holding in. These locations will provide the fish soft water to rest in and a broken surface overhead to provide cover. Often these pockets will only hold one or two fish at a time. The advantage of fishing these locations is that more than likely the fish holding in these pockets are going to be interested in biting. As I have said before my favorite flies for this condition is black stonefly nymphs. Because these pockets are relatively small compared to the normal pools we have been fishing in. I find the best presentation is dead drift the stonefly through the pocket. This would also be a good situation where a strike indicator will help control the drift. This will allow us to fish through the pockets more precisely and efficiently. Fishing pocket water is a coverage game, the more pocket water you can fish through the more bites you’re going to get.
Egg flies are probably the most used fly pattern on the Salmon River for fishing for Chinook salmon. Egg flies do account for a lot of salmon being caught from early September on through to late fall. Egg patterns are not one of my more productive fly patterns for fishing for Chinook salmon early in the fall. I find egg flies to be much more productive once the salmon settle in and start to spawn. From my experience, there needs to be a large concentration of eggs drifting around in the river system for egg flies to be productive for salmon. Understanding what is happening during an egg drift will help us become become a more effective fishermen. An egg drift is much different than what most trout fishermen are familiar with. It is important to keep in mind that eggs are denser than water. This is why they will sink to the river bottom and then stay where they were deposited by the fish. On the other hand, nymphs have the same density as water this allows them to swim and crawl around the rocks to feed. What this means to us is, when a nymph gets washed into the current they can be several itches off the bottom as they drift. As for the eggs being heavier, they will stay in contact with the river bottom even when they are knocked loose and drifting in the current. The best way to describe an egg drift is that it is more of eggs rolling along the river bottom then drifting.
The best presentation for egg flies is to dead drift. We need to keep in mind that there’s a few differences between fishing egg flies and nymphs. First of all, we need to drift egg flies much slower and closer to the river bottom then nymphs. We do this by slowing down the drift. The secret hear is in setting up, with the leaders and tippits. I like to start with 10 foot tapered leaders and add about 3 feet of tippits. Using a quality tapered leader helps with casting accuracy. You need to get the fly in the right spot. I keep my weight above my tippit knot, so that the weight is about 3 feet from the fly. Close enough to control the drift but far enough away not to bother the fish. When it comes to the flies themselves it is easy to over-engineer an egg fly. This is where keeping it simple pays off. In the fall I fish two types of egg patterns, nuclear roe bugs and the estaz eggs. I use three colors Oregon cheese, orange, and chartreuse. When it comes to the size of the egg flies, stay between sizes 8 to a size 12.
As I’ve said earlier, I find egg patterns to be consistently successful for salmon when there is a lot of spawning activity going on. This usually means that we are fishing gravel beds where several spawning groups are located together. Despite the obvious there are a few unique opportunities happening here. Male salmon can get extremely aggressive during spawning time. I find the best approach is to go after them with large woolly buggers and leach patterns. Spawning male salmon spend a lot of their time fighting amongst themselves. Swinging a large fly, about the size 4 through their territory can result in quick hookups. Once the fish start to get fussy I will switch to stonefly nymphs and egg patterns. The peak of the salmon spawn is generally around mid-October. This also coincides with the front end of the Brown trout and steelhead run. This is also the time I am looking for brown trout and steelhead feeding on eggs around the spawning activity. In this situation definitely fish egg flies. Concentrate your efforts around the female salmon that are actively digging a spawning bed. The digging action from the female salmon acts almost like a dinner bell to the Brown trout and steelhead. If you do not pick up a trout immediately leave the spawning salmon alone, a trout could move in a later in the day.
You are now getting my main points. That is there is several different techniques they can use to successfully fish for salmon.
One of my personal favorite techniques is to swing flies for salmon. Once again this is why I am often using woolly buggers and big Bunny Leech patterns. Obviously they fish good on the swing. Over the last few years there has been a new style of flies that has hit the great lakes. These flies are referred to as intruder style. Intruders were designed to show the fish a large fly while minimizing the amount of material used in tying the fly. The purpose of this is so the fly will sink faster and stay at depth longer. Some intricate patterns can be as long as 8 inches. However experience has shown me that for salmon fishing keeping our intruder style lies to 3 to 5 inches is ideal. I personally prefer to keep mind about 3 1/2 to 4 inches long. When tying these flies I like to use soft materials. This will give the fly more life flies worked in the river. While keeping the volume of tying materials to a minimum needed to tie the fly. It is for colors, I’ve had my best results with dark backgrounds and fluorescent color foregrounds. However once again keep experimenting. A lot intruder style flies have a considerable amount of flash interpreted to the pattern. Too much flashy material can reduce the effectiveness of the fly.
There are several different techniques to achieve the presentation from custom-built sink tips to long leaders and split shot. It really does not matter how you do it what is really important is Control and controlling the speed of the swing.