Steelhead and Salmon fly fishing is a little different from regular trout fishing and requires a different mindset, different gear, and different techniques, all of which we’ll discuss below. The great thing is you don’t have to travel too far away from home to find them.
Most fly anglers, myself included, start their fly fishing career focusing on trout fishing. They are by far the most accessible and inexpensive species to target with a fly rod and provide a great training ground to get started on. But, one can’t help but think of other species.
With so much media showcasing fishing around the world, it’s hard not to dream of the flats or get excited about swinging flies for a bigger fish than a trout, and the most logical next step is often to go after your first salmon or steelhead.
Salmon species and where to find them
There are five main salmon species to target on the fly and luckily, they can all be found within North America.
King salmon are a type of Pacific salmon and are also referred to as chinook. They are the biggest salmon in the world and can grow in excess of 100 pounds. You can find King Salmon in Alaska and as far south as California plus they have been stocked into the Great Lakes and can be targetted in the many tributaries surrounding them.
Atlantic Salmon are prized by salmon fishing anglers all around the globe, most likely because their smaller population makes them harder to catch plus they look pretty gorgeous and are the iconic salmon in the fly fishing world.
Atlantic salmon are found all over Europe from Spain to Russia and on the East coast of North America from Maine up to Labrador in Canada. Atlantic salmon grow up to 50lbs, but a fish this size is rare and a fisherman should expect anything between 6-15lbs to be the average size.
Silver Salmon (Coho)
Silver salmon, also known as silvers or coho are one tough cookie and pound for pound, fight harder than any salmon out there. Silvers are a type of Pacific salmon and can be found on the Pacific North West all the way from Washington State to Alaska and in the Great Lakes too. Their average weight is 6-12 lbs but they can reach sizes of 30lbs.
Sockeye salmon are another type of Pacific salmon found from Washington up to Alaska plus they have been put into the Great Lakes as well. You’ll have seen them before in every nature documentary about bears in Alaska. They are red with a prehistoric-looking head and the bears feed on them in abundance during the salmon run.
Pink salmon are only found in the Great Lakes and they spawn in abundance every year around July and August in the nearby streams. Pink salmon are the smallest salmon around and max out at about 30 inches.
Are Steelhead Salmon?
A common mistake a novice fly fisherman can make is thinking that salmon and steelhead are the same, but they are not. Steelhead are pretty much sea-run rainbow trout whereas salmon are their own species and are closely related to brown trout. Steelhead are great fun to catch and you can find steelhead all along the Pacific North West along with the pacific salmon mentioned above.
Fishing for steelhead does require similar tactics and dedication as salmon fishing, so you may as well add them to your bucket list too.
When to go salmon fishing?
Salmon are an ocean fish and they spend most of their time feeding in the ocean until it’s time for them to spawn (make babies). In spawning season, the fish will leave the ocean and return to the river they were born in making their way upstream to lay their eggs, known as a salmon run.
The best salmon fishing can be found when a large number of salmon have entered the rivers and are making their way upstream to the spawning grounds. This can happen in any season from early spring to summer and even autumn and winter, and the timing is different on each river.
If you had to pick a time of year to go salmon fishing, July and August would be your prime months as salmon tend to enter the streams and rivers when it’s a bit warmer, especially in northern locations like Alaska, Canada, Iceland, Norway, and Russia.
How long will it take to catch a salmon fly fishing?
It could be a matter of hours on a lake or river, a week, 3 weeks, even months and years until you catch a salmon. There is a huge amount of ‘lucky timing’ involved in salmon fly fishing, as the fish don’t actually feed when in streams and rivers, but have momentary blips where they can’t help but attack a fly.
I have been salmon fly fishing for about 4 weeks in total and have lost 2 fish and landed none. But I was fishing for Atlantic Salmon in Ireland and Scotland, so the rivers we not full of fish.
The key is perseverance and to enjoy the surroundings and your casting, catching a salmon is the bonus part.
Where is the best place to go on a salmon fishing trip?
If you’re looking to catch your first Pacific salmon fly fishing then a week-long trip to a lodge in Alaska in July or August is almost guaranteed to have you popping your salmon on fly cherry. The lakes, streams, and rivers are teeming with fish and you have a good chance of catching a range of types from chinook to sockeye and even steelhead.
For Atlantic Salmon, the best place to go is probably Russia or Iceland, but Canada is pretty awesome too. These fish require the most patience but in places like the Ponoi River in Russia, anglers can have 20 fish days but the lodgings are expensive.
Where to find salmon in rivers
When a fresh salmon enters the fresh water of their home river, their mind is consumed about getting to the spawning grounds. Their mission is to make their way slowly up the river while conserving their energy. This means the fish will run and pause, and it’s when the fish pause that you want to target them with your fly.
They will likely sit in mid to deep pools just outside of the strong current and you will often see them stacked up in the water on top of each other. This is when you want to cast and drift your fly in amongst them.
Deep pools near or under a waterfall will hold a lot of salmon as they recharge to make the leap over it. If fishing in a lake for salmon, fish mid-deep pockets next to the banks or the areas where rivers enter and exit as this is the path the salmon have to take.
What gear do you need for salmon fly fishing?
When it comes to fly rods for salmon fishing you have the option of using a single-handed, switch, or double-handed fly rod. Choosing which type of rod to choose depends on the water you’re fishing in.
A single-handed rod is ideal when fishing in a small river for salmon or steelhead and casting shortish distances of around 40 feet. The fly rod you choose should be at a minimum a 7 weight and you can choose rods with a higher wait if you’re going after particularly big salmon or steelhead.
They are also the ideal choice when the situation requires you to drift a nymph or a dry egg fly on the surface subtly as you can cast delicately without disturbing the water.
Switch Fly Rods
Switch fly rods are a middle ground between single-handed and double-handed rods. They can be used for overhead casts, spey casts or switch casting and are perfect for medium-sized waters or when you swing flies instead of drifting a nymph or a dry fly on the surface. Again, a 7 weight or above is the right choice depending on the size of the salmon or steelhead in the river.
Double-handed fly rods are made for big water where the river is up to 80 feet from bank to bank or more. These rods are made for Spey casting which allows you to send a line up to 100 feet without making a backcast, perfect when fishing close to cover on the bank.
With a double-handed rod, you’ll be using swing tactics to drift your flies into the deep pools and pockets where salmon or steelhead are holding. The rods are long, usually from 13-15ft, and it’s the extra length that makes the Spey cast so effective. Again, choose a rod that is a 7 weight and above depending on the size of the fish you’re after and the size of the river.
You can also visit our Best Fly Rod for Salmon Fishing here so you can see what’s the best fly rod for you.
When picking a fly reel for salmon fly fishing, you need to match the weight of the rod you’re using and make sure the reel has a good drag. When a salmon or steelhead eat a fly, they are going to run hard and without any drag, and angler is not going to be able to control them.
Look for a fly reel with a cork or sealed drag and make sure it can hold all your lines, particularly if using a Spey line as they are longer and thicker than a traditional trout line.
Line, Leader, & Backing
When fly fishing for salmon you’re going to be using a floating line 99% of the time. A floating line is going to hold your line high in the water while your flies drift into where the salmon or steelhead are holding.
If you’re fishing in water that is a bit deeper or on weeks with a lot of rainfall, you might need to switch to a fly fishing sinking line or add a sinking tip to your line to swing your bug/flies into the depth the fish are holding in.
Your leader should be a minimum of 10lbs and up to 18lbs to catch a salmon or a steelhead. These fish are strong and will probably break you off on anything lighter. You’ll also want to use a leader that is around 9-12ft long so that the salmon or steelhead don’t see your fly line.
Your backing should be around 25-30lbs, and you should have about 250 yards on your reel. Make sure it’s wound on correctly so it doesn’t tangler in a fight.
What are the best salmon flies to have in your fly box?
When it comes to salmon fly patterns you can choose to fill your box with dry flies, nymphs, and streamers/salmon flies, depending on the season and water clarity. It’s best to have a large selection in your fly box so you are never caught out on the water.
There are times of the year when an egg fly is very effective, and this is when eggs laid upstream are dislodged and start floating down the river.
If the water is super clear, upstream nymphing might be your best bet not to spook the fish. But, most of the time you’ll be using streamer flies of traditional double hooked salmon flies on the swing.
How to hook and land a salmon
You are probably going to spend hours and hours salmon fly fishing, or even weeks before a salmon or steelhead bites. After waiting for hours, you can get caught by surprise and get the hook-set wrong, especially because it goes against your trout set reactions.
When a fish takes your fly, egg/bug/streamer, on the swing, or when nymph fly fishing or dry fly fishing, you do not lift to hook up. You have to let the fish take the fly and hook himself which involves doing nothing.
After waiting for hours and hours, when you feel a pull from a salmon or steelhead it’s hard to do nothing, and if you’re a trout fisherman, it’s even harder. Successful salmon fly fisherman will be cold as a cucumber in these moments.
Salmon fly fishing takes time, dedication, patience, and practice. It’s best to think of salmon fly fishing as a marathon, not a sprint and you should try to enjoy the process regardless if you catch a fish or not.
Learn to pick your water at the right time, make sure you have the right gear, practice your casting, swing flies for hours/weeks on end, fish hard, and you’ll be rewarded and become a masterful salmon and steelhead angler in the end.