Few experiences beat swinging a big salmon fly, and catching a big salmon with it. Even more satisfying if you tied it yourself. With an endless number of patterns to choose from, what works the best for different types of salmon and fishing conditions? We’ve broken it down so you can choose the best salmon flies for your next trip out.
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What Makes Salmon Hit Your Fly?
Even with a perfect cast and presentation, you still need a fly that the salmon will take. If it doesn’t draw a strike, it doesn’t matter how well you presented it.
All fish are particular, including salmon and steelhead. So, it’s important to know what they want – or at least what will trigger a strike as migratory fishing usually aren’t feeding, instead reacting to what is put in front of them.
What Makes A Great Salmon Fly?
Salmon flies are actually attractors. With some exceptions, they typically don’t try to emulate specific minnows or insects.
For this reason, salmon flies are judged more by what works, often based on experimentation and experience, than by “matching the hatch.”
There are a few ways however to know what makes for a productive salmon fly.
Because to goal is to trigger an aggressive strike out of instinct, the most productive salmon flies tend to have a significant element of attraction. This is achieved by using bulky and bold colors, with feather or hair plumage to create a rather, obnoxious shall we say, presentation.
This strategy was tried and proven in the classic Scottish patterns that worked on Atlantic salmon starting over a hundred and fifty years ago.
Today, more modern patterns and designs may not have the degree of color compared to the original feather versions. Nevertheless, they are productive through their colored body wraps, hair, tinsel and many other material combinations.
Movement counts, in terms of what will generate a strike (also known as a take). Hence the popularity of bugger and leach patterns, that rely on lots of maribou to create an undulating look underwater.
Keep in mind we are still in the mode of achieving an instinctive hit, so in a mode more akin to a lure than to matching the hatch. Hairwings also excel in this arena, as when properly designed have a nice back and forth motion to them.
You’ll find many design options in our descriptions below, that give you something for every situation – and every type of fish. Shallow water, deep water, top water. Tube flies, articulated flies. Choice of single, double or treble hooks. You name it, someone has done it.
As it turns out, there are actually some salmon patterns that try to emulate natural life. Spey flies for example, were named after the crustaceans that salmon eat in estuaries prior to getting serious about spawning. And most streamers emulate baitfish in some fashion. That said, some of the most outlandish designs, such as the Bomber, can’t possibly represent anything natural, even so work great!
Related Article: The Best Fly Rods For Salmon
The Best Flies For Salmon
Let’s start with some good news. Many of these patterns work also well for steelhead, migratory browns, giant resident rainbows, and even pike and musky. Though these other species have often have their own proven patterns, especially when you are fishing a river that has multiple runs you’ll be glad to know you’re in the running for multiple fish!
And some more good news. If you are a fly tyer, you’ll find below many patterns that are relatively easy to tie. Moreover, don’t hesitate to experiment, and come up with your own pattern. Since the goal is to elicit a strike out of instinct, many ideas you have may work just as well as the pros!
1. Classic Streamer Patterns
Classic streamers are what you’d expect to see – the kind of flies worthy of putting a frame around and hanging on the wall in your fly-tying cave.
The most elaborate of these have bright feather plumage, with jungle cock eyes (imitation these days, of course) and golden pheasant tail trimmings.
Do they catch more salmon than other, simpler patterns? Probably not, though we’ve never seen definitive numbers. These flies can be artful for sure – but take a lot of time to tie, and/or cost a lot when you lose them. For many, you may even have a hard time finding the materials needed to tie them.
Of course, there are some classic patterns that aren’t as elaborate as others, and it’s completely your call how much room in your fly box to give these. Some of the classic patterns include:
- Black Doctor
- Blue Charm
- Durham Ranger
- Fiery Brown
- Green Highlander
- Helmsdale Doctor
- Silver Doctor
- Spey Fly
About the Spey Fly
For starters we’ll expand on the Spey Fly, a great salmon fly named after – you guessed it – the Spey River in Scotland. Speys come in all kinds of shapes and colors, but were designed to emulate the crustaceans that salmon in Scotland would feed on.
While the Spey Fly traditionally was fished in deeper water, certain designs, such as the G.P. Spey Fly works well in lower, even clear water.
Spey flies are relatively easy to tie, and with many variations, don’t hesitate to tie the variety that suits you best. Even though it imitates a crustacean, fish it more like a streamer (swinging across the current) and less like a crawfish pattern for example.
The Spey is typically fished on a sinking line or with splitshot to get it down.
Related Article: The Best Fly Reels For Salmon And Big Game Fish
Hairwings often follow in the shoes of older classic feather patterns, even emulate them, but incorporate more modern materials. For example, wool bodies, wire or tinsel body wraps or ribbing, and of course the hair “wing” itself are the mainstay materials.
More modern hairwing designs are not only some of the most effective salmon patterns, but have also been simplified to their key elements, to make tying substantially easier and less expensive.
These flies look obnoxious, and are obnoxious – all to get the salmon’s attention for an instinctive, hard strike. They are intentionally not only bright and colorful, but also long.
Common hairwing patterns include:
- Bondal, in Green, Orange, Yello, Silver, or Black
- Clearwater Special
- Green Butt Skunk
- Last Chance
- Second Change
- Stordals Killer
- Tony’s First Choice
- Where-ya-Wannebee Special
The time to use hairwings is especially when you are working to locate salmon. Keep your attention to the chasers and followers, even if they don’t strike. For this you’ll want to ensure you have quality polarized sunglasses, so you can don’t miss a silent, invisible investigation of your fly when they at first don’t hit.
When you get a follow, or even a missed swipe, that means the hunt is on. Even if you don’t have the right fly on, it’s a great signal that you’ve found the salmon or other big game fish, and now you can start varying your offering and approach till you do get a strike.
Consider that you might have found the color, but not the shape the are looking for, and visa versa. It won’t be long till you’ve hooked up solid.
For fly tiers, the good news is these often aren’t difficult to tie, as large as they are.
Related Article: The Best Waders For Cold Water
3. Natural Egg Patterns
Egg patterns simulate, well, eggs. They are hugely effective, because they are hit both by migrating fish that aren’t actually eating, just hitting out of instinct, and also by fish that are eating.
For example, many fish hover behind spawning salmon to clean up on spawn that gets swept downstream and doesn’t land or stay in the nest. Many nice rainbow trout and dolly varden in Quartz Creek Alaska, as one example, are caught by casting behind the spawning sockeye salmon in August. The same is true migratory browns in Johnson Creek and Oak Orchard Creek in New York, both tributaries to Lake Ontario. And many other creeks, keeping in mind that egg patterns should also be a staple in your steelhead fly box.
When you tie glo bugs, which are very simple, try different varieties so you can stock your box with options for the fish. With and without white maribou (simulating male sperm on top the female’s eggs), different colors, singles vs. doubles, e
4. Bead Eggs
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, bead eggs work!
Many who argue against using bead eggs, don’t like the fact that they aren’t tied flies, without any natural materials. We sympathize as it’s a departure from traditional “match the hatch” fly tying.
They are usually made out of plastic, but more recently in softer rubber materials for a natural feel, in many sizes and colors and patterns to simulate natural eggs. In Alaska for example, they are classified as “attractors” rather than “bait.” So they seem to land somewhere in between lures and baitcasting, which should give fly anglers some comfort. Actually, not much different than a rubber version of the San Juan worm (which we know may make purists cringe!).
What we really like about bead egg patterns is that when properly rigged, they lead to a higher percent hook-up rate, make unhooking and releasing fish easier, and therefore result in a lower mortality rate among released fish.
This is because the bead is placed several inches up the leader from the hook. This means the fish doesn’t feel the hook when they first touch the bead, and are less apt to immediately spit it out.
When you set the hook, it hooks the outside of the mouth instead of inside, with a higher percent hookup because you’ve just pulled the hook towards the fish instead of out of it’s mouth away from the fish.
Finally, because the fish hasn’t swallowed the hook, it’s an easier release and lower mortality rate for catch and release. Not a bad deal, for you and the fish both. Give them a try at least, and see how they work for you.
Related Article: – for how to rig up your egg pattern, see your diagram in Section 11 of our article Twelve Best Tippet Tips.
5. Tube Flies
Tube flies are less so a pattern, and more of a sturdy design, that are much less likely to be chewed up by the fish. This helps your fly last longer, and you don’t need to change it as often after getting beaten up.
Tube flies can be made in any pattern you like, with extended bodies that actually are made of a plastic tube. Tyers of tube flies vary the length to suit whatever pattern they are working to emulate (for example, shorter for shrimp patterns, and longer for streamer styles.
The longer design also extends the hook to a more effective hooking position, because many fish hit behind the streamer, especially if tentative or just a mis-hit. That plus keeping the hook free and clear of the materials helps with increasing percentage hook ups.
Popular tube fly patterns include:
- Collie Dog
- Green Finish
- Go Go Girl
- Shrimp (variety of patterns)
- Stoats Tail
- Sunray Shadow
- Tube Poppert (for bass and other surface fishing)
In fact tube flies are made for other species as well. It’s a concept that started expanding after WW II, rapidly popularised in fly tying books such as the 1960s and 1970s manuals written by author John Veniard, founder of the Veniard tying materials company.
For now we’ll highlight two of these patterns, the Sunray Shadow and Stoats Tail, tube style.
The Sunray Shadow is widely used for many predator big game fish, not just salmon. As a versatile pattern, it’s good to try early in the day, and see what chases it. Just recognize that as versatile as it is, it may not work on the day you are out so just change flies as usual till you see what works.
Once nice thing about the Sunray Shadow, is that the dressing is fairly simple, making it less prone to tangles. This helps keep up the flies action and attractiveness to fish.
Another hugely popular tube fly pattern is the Stoats Tail. This is a newer design for a very traditional pattern. Typically tied with black hair, and a jungle cock feather substitute, the Stoats Tail will use a shorter tube combined with a single or double hook to lower the chances of hooking the river bed as you may with a treble.
Remember, tube flies are a design not a pattern, so whether you tie or buy, you can make any of your favorite salmon patterns into a tube fly!
7. Deeper/Faster Water Salmon Flies
Now to the depths – when you are fishing faster and/or deeper water, you need a heavier body.
First up, you can put a conehead on many of the traditional patterns (Woolly Bugger, Bunny Leach, etc.) and do well. Don’t hesitate to put a cone head on top of a “egg sucking” pattern, it won’t deter the fish. Of course, add some flash tinsel to trigger an aggressive strike reaction, now is not the time to use subdued tones.
Beyond the traditional patterns with cone heads, consider cone head tubes flies. The advantage of these flies is that they, maintain a simple profile all the while getting down quickly – and staying down.
Some of the more effective deep water salmon flies include:
- Frankie McPhillips Cascade Shrimp Gold Conehead
- Jock Scott
- Olsen Salmon Fly
- Green Machine Salmon Fly
And of course just about every other pattern you like – just make sure you have lead wire, a conehead, split shot sinkers, and/or sinking line and you’ll be good!
8. Surface Flies
Fishing on top for salmon (are you kidding)? Yes, especially for Silver Salmon, also known as Coho Salmon. This is a similar technique to using a mouse for lunker rainbows, or for brown trout at night, just applied with specially designed flies for silvers.
Found throughout the northwest ocean tributaries, and practically the entire state of Alaska, silvers are hard fighting, eager biting, and acrobatic. Their propensity to strike near the surface, followed by a jumping show, make them hugely popular among fly anglers. For example, the AK Gurgler, in orange or pink is not only an effective fly, but it’ll float all day due to the large amount of foam.
You may also want to consider the Bomber, a fly that’s universally used for salmon, steelhead, and bass. Made with techniques similar to a deer hair popper for bass, just with a longer deer hair body, usually in green, blue, or orange.
While fishing the surface is not always the best strategy for silvers, it is often the case that using a fly is just as effective as fishing underwater.
9. Salmon Fly Assortments
Buying salmon fly assortments can help you get the cost per fly down lower than purchasing them in smaller quantities. Be careful though, about buying discount boxes from discount online retailers, compared to your local fly shop or a high quality online retailer.
There are too many low quality flies online these days. Here are some that you can be comfortable getting reasonable quality for the price, from known companies that have a track record.
Rainy’s Alaska Salmon Fly Assortment gives you a nice variety of flies (36-pack) that work for many different types of salmon. After all, given that many rivers in Alaska have multiple runs of Kings, Cohos, Pinks, Chums, and/or Sockeye, who would know better?
Bassdash Steelhead Salmon Flies Assortment are not only well tied, but also arrive with a whole variety of natural egg patterns, and streamers. Also good for trout, their pictures will give you a very good idea of what you’re getting. A very good value for the dollar.
Focuser Flies for Bass, Trout & Salmon this one is a budget / value play, with a hundred flies arriving in a nice sized streamer box. What you may give up in quality, you probably make up in quantity and saving on the cost of a separate box. This box could have sufficient salmon flies to last you more than a couple seasons, and despite the low price Focuser has some of the best-reviewed pre-tied flies on the market these days.
Tigofly Cone Head Tube Flies provide you with an assortment of cone head flies from another quality fly tying company. All flies in the assortment, which comes with a total of 40 flies in 5 different colors, are good for salmon fishing. Note in this instance, no box is included.
RiverBum Classic Alaska Silver Salmon Flies Assortment a relatively new introduction, these flies are targeted at silver salmon. Of course, you can use them for silvers anywhere, not just in Alaska! 15 flies with a basic plastic box (not a specialty fly fishing or streamer box).
10. Fly Boxes For Salmon Flies
As you’ve probably surmised by now, if you don’t already have one, you’ll need a much larger box than usual when fishing for salmon. Flies for salmon tend to be long, bulky, and some have double and treble hooks.
A salmon fly box, or even one designed to hold lures such as spinners, will be your best bet. Just make sure you get one that will hold the flies securely, or conversely loosely enough, so that the wings and tails and other materials don’t get bent or mis-shapen over time.
For your consideration, here’s a few good options to consider:
- New Phase Salmon Fly Box – a good budget play
- Aventik Streamer Fly Box – more space for more dollars
- Cliff Outdoors Bugger Beast – the most rugged for the most dollars
- Creative Angler Streamer Fly Boxes – we like this 3-in-1 triple play, perhaps the most capacity for your dollar (if not the highest quality)
We like this intro to how to play and release salmon, by Greys Fishing. Good discussion with tips as they play fish, on how to not horse the fish too much early on, see what it wants to do. How to keep tension on, deal with a turn upstream, know when you can start reeling in, and even when tired out how they will make another turn and run as they get close to the net.
There you have it… our top fly fly reels for catching big game such as salmon, steelhead, and stripers! See you out there, and get ready to score your trophy fish!
What size flies for salmon?
When water is high, deep, or swift, use larger, bulkier flies (sizes 4 up to 2/0). When water is lower and slower, use smaller, more sparsely dressed flies (sizes 6-8). If you use large dry flies (such as mice or bombers for silver salmon sizes 6-10), wait for a water temperature over 60 degrees.
What type of hooks for salmon?
Be sure to use a strong, tempered metal hook so that the salmon don’t bend or break off your hook at the curve. Regular hooks, even larger sizes used for trout are not strong enough to hold a salmon, and will bend, twist or break off resulting in a lost fish. Salmon hooks are typically shorter shank (relative to their size), with the eye up to help keep the fly in upright position when stripping.
Should I use barbless hooks for salmon?
Not if you want to land them! Salmon are much tougher to land than your typical trout. For example, salmon are masters at shaking off your hook by quickly changing direction, and through acrobatics. They also have very tough jaws, so it’s harder to injure them compared to more delicate mouths of smaller fish. So, you can use barbed hooks to help landing them, while still releasing them safely.
What are tube flies?
Tube flies were first tied by Scottish fly tier Minnie Morawski, around 1945, for Atlantic salmon anglers. Tube flies were improve hookup rates, and at the same time prevent damage to often expensive salmon flies by the serrated teeth of the salmon as they are played.
What colors are best for flies for salmon?
Often, the brighter and gaudier, even offensively or outrageously bright flies are productive for salmon fishing. In addition to naturally bright fly materials, many incorporate fluorescent orange, yellow, or pink along with flashy tinsel to create enough “show” to motivate salmon to strike instinctively and aggressively.
What do flies for salmon imitate?
Some imitate minnows and baitfish, others leaches, mice, and other large aquatic life such as crustaceans. However, most flies for salmon are considered “attractors” that entice salmon to strike out of aggressive instinct, as they rarely feed while migrating and spawning. The goal is less to “match the hatch” and more to have shape, color and movement that elicits an aggressive, territorial swipe at the fly.
Are salmon flies the same as flies for salmon?
Actually, there is a large stonefly called a salmon fly, that is different than flies tied to catch salmon! Salmon flies are the largest of their species, and when they hatch, larger trout come out of the depths to feast. Salmon flies have a relative long life span of four years from nymph stage to a hatched adult. Easy to remember this way: flies for salmon are not the same as salmon flies (a large stonefly)!