Fly fishing for salmon: Q&A with Jay Nicholas

Jay Nicholas knows how to catch Chinook salmon on the fly. He spent the last 30 years studying and supporting wild salmon as a fisheries biologist with ODFW and has been fly fishing since 1954. He was a longtime gear fisherman, but after catching his first king salmon on the fly rod, it was over. There was no going back.

In this Q&A, Nicholas talks about techniques for catching salmon on the fly and the important conservation issues facing our salmon populations.

Be sure to sign up for Jay Nicholas’s salmon seminar at The Caddis Fly on Thursday Dec. 11th. Details at the bottom of this post.

Jay Nicholas Salmon Seminar

So why fish for salmon with a fly rod?
Fishing – any kind of fishing – is deeply personal. There is no objectivity to it. Eggs, spoons, plugs, jigs – these all require skill and technique. I fished all kinds of gear for Chinook from the mid 1960s until 2003. That year, on a whim, I decided to try the fly.

I stopped at the Caddis Fly (honestly) to buy my shooting heads, knotted braided loops on the lines, applied PlioBond to the knots, and hung them over my windshield visor to dry on the trip from Eugene to Gold Beach. I put a second coat of PlioBond on the knots at Elkton, where I bought a diet Coke and got a giant case of hiccups.

I arrived on the Rogue in the dark and stumbled into a campground where I met some old guys from California who were fly fishing regulars on the Rogue. They shared their beer and hot dogs. I shared my Hershey bars. They were up and on the water in the dark, but I hung back, hesitant in my ignorance. I didn’t know where to fish, how to anchor, how close I could fish to the regulars, what line or fly to use. The first day I fished I had one grab, a complete accident, and broke-off on the grab. The second day I never had a grab. My hands were swollen because I didn’t know how to double haul and I had never fished over an 8-weight fly rod. The sun seared my eyes. The wind howled in from the coast and threw every cast back in my face. I was exhausted. I was confused by the chit-chat overheard among the fly anglers around me. And then, on day-four, I hooked a Chinook on ten-pound leader and a size 6 Chartreuse Scud (a fly given me by a friend and mentor). This fish was maybe 12 or 14 pounds. Chrome on Chrome. Powerful. Primitive. My heart was in my throat every second I fought the fish, and I shook with joy and excitement long after I beached the fish. I had caught many, many Chinook on gear over the previous four decades. I even caught a #50-plus fish back in the 1980s. Not one of those salmon inspired me like this smallish king salmon did. Not one, and not all of them together. This one king salmon changed my life. For me, fly fishing for Chinook is a passion. An obsession. A lifestyle. Whatever you call it. It’s also a little crazy. It is what it is.

Do you have a rule of thumb for fly selection for salmon?
The lower, the clearer, the more pressure from anglers on the water, the smaller the fly. Those are conditions where I’d go to a size eight Comet, sparsely dressed. If you get murkier water or real early or late in the day, I like larger flies that present a bigger silhouette.

Even in murky water, most of my flies are size twos, but sometimes I larger hooks and longer shanks even though they’re out of vogue. In lower visibility I like my fly to be larger. And I like to have some black in these big flies because it shows up well.

Jay Nicholas Salmon Seminar: More Clousers

Do you notice a difference in what flies salmon prefer from river to river?
I think the salmon like bigger flies on Oregon’s North Coast. I don’t know why. But on the South Coast, fishing the Rogue I would never consider using a big # 2 Boss. But of course, when I’m fishing the Rogue, it’s 65 degrees, clear water and that’s where I’m using size sixes and eights. On Elk River, if the water is clear, I’m using size 6 comets and smallish (under 2-inch) Clousers. If I get up to the Nestucca I’m going to want a 4-6 inch Clouser on a size 2 hook or a big bushy Boss fly.

Are larger flies really more effective on the North Coast? Don’t know. Fact is, I haven’t done the true experiment of consistently fishing small flies in North Coast.

What’s the biggest conservation threat to salmon on the coast?
You, me, our neighbors, and our society that wants everything from our streams, woods, and lands, thinking that we can continue to “use” these natural resources without consequences to fish, to clean water, and our children’s future. Salmon must have a suitable stream where they can spawn and young fish must have good rearing habitat. Salmon are different than migratory birds that can fly from one good patch of habitat to another. Salmon are different from animals that can survive in an isolated patch of suitable habitat. Salmon spawn in the headwaters, migrate to the ocean and back again. If something is broken in the river/estuary/ocean ecosystem anywhere along the line, you’re going to lose these great fish. Any break in the life-cycle chain can lead to the salmon’s demise.

And I worry about predators, too, seals and some of the pisciverous birds that are mostly protected these days. I’m speaking from emotion here, not from data, but I really believe that marine mammals and birds are taking a significant chunk out of the number of salmon that could be returning to our coastal streams. Time will tell.

The broader fishing community has been apathetic about protecting salmon habitat. How can we get more people involved?

I don’t know. I wonder if anglers, organized or not, tend to focus most of their energy on learning how to catch more fish, and on promoting hatcheries. I wonder if anglers just don’t want to get as involved in habitat protection as they do in the social aspects of fishing. Of course this isn’t universally true. I know anglers who participate in STEP (Salmon and Trout Enhancement Program) who are as passionate about protecting habitat as they are about supporting hatcheries and going fishing. I just wish that the watershed councils were full of anglers, and landowners, and conservation advocates.

There are a lot of coastal rivers where wild fish are the foundation of an opportunity to catch fish. In Tillamook Bay, probably 90% of the fall-run fish run is wild. On the Nehalem, Siletz, Alsea, and Siuslaw, all the Chinook are wild. The Rogue fall-run is probably over 98% wild.

None of these remarks are meant to diminish the importance of hatchery fish. Tillamook Bay, for instance, depends on hatchery spring Chinook to support a fishery. Same goes with the upper Rogue spring Chinook fishery – it really depends on hatchery fish. I just try to remind people that we have some really important and productive wild fish runs and emphasize the importance of protecting the ecosystem processes that these fish need.

How do Oregon’s coastal salmon populations look today?
I want to be able to catch wild salmon and steelhead in our streams in 100 years. Well, you know, not me, really, but my son’s kids – I want them to be able to catch wild salmon in our coastal streams a hundred years from now. Whether salmon are reasonably abundant or scarce, a hundred years from now, that’s the real question. I don’t think extinction is on the table, especially on our coastal streams. I think on most coastal rivers, the habitat and fishery management decisions we make over the next 10-20 years will determine whether wild salmon are common or rare in the next century.

You asked how salmon are doing on the coast these days. OK – I would say OK. We are in a Chinook slump right now, after seeing great returns in the late 1980s and early 2000s. But we’ve seen more Chinook jacks on the coast this fall than I’ve heard of for years. That indicates good survival for the 2007 brood. The ocean off Oregon this summer was full of salmon food. If we could put together two-to-three good years of ocean conditions, we could have 100,000 kings come back to the Rogue and 50,000 to the Tillamook area. That’s what I’m hoping for. Three or four good survival years in a row. Then we need to maintain moderate harvest rates in ocean fisheries to pass through good numbers of spawners. There is hope – real hope – if we do our part protecting habitat and the ocean cooperates too.

How should someone start fly fishing for salmon?
Plan A: Hire a good Guide. A fly fishing Guide who knows Chinook. That is the most direct route to a shorter learning curve.

Plan B: Go to your local fly shop, listen to people you trust. Get out on the river and see what other people are doing. Go fishing, go fishing, and go fishing some more. Listen and observe. Be patient. Be tenacious. Be stubborn.

Plan C: Execute both Plan A and Plan B!

Your time on the water is valuable beyond price. You need to see the lines people are using in specific locations, and under specific flow and tide conditions. You need to see the leaders and flies and tackle they are using. You need to see where they stand, where they anchor, and where they cast. This is how you will learn when to use a 3-foot leader versus a 12-foot leader; when to choose small flies or big flies; when to use fast sinking lines versus dry lines. If you want to flyfish for Chinook, by yourself, you have to immerse yourself heart and soul in it.

Jay Nicholas Salmon Seminar: SeaLice

What are some of the misconceptions about salmon on the fly?
Part of getting people introduced to Chinook fly fishing involves expanding their consciousness and understanding about the fish. You can catch big kings on small flies, ten-pound leader, and have a ball. For the angler getting into fly fishing for Chinook, there is no simple formula; it is a journey, a pilgrimage.

A lot of the Salmon fly fishing articles promote heavy sinking heads, say, 400-500 grain lines. These lines can be very effective when you’re fishing swift deep water. In contrast, I tend to fish slower water and use lighter, slower sinking lines. The water might be 12 feet deep, but I want to have my fly at 6 feet.

You have to understand the fish. Very often in slow deep water Chinook won’t be on the bottom. If it’s a rip-roaring current, yes they will be, because that’s the only place they have velocity shelter. This is what Back-bouncers refer to as 3- or 4-ounce water, because it takes 3-4 ounces of lead to get their bait down to the fish. But if it’s slow moving water, and Chinook are fresh from the ocean, they’re pelagic. They’re swimming around 4-5 feet off the bottom, cruising around. So if you use a fast sinking fly line, you’re out of the zone by dredging the bottom. Another misconception is that salmon flies have to be tied on giant heavy hooks, that’s mostly nonsense.

What is your preference on hook selection?
My first choice is usually a straight-eye hook, my second choice is a down eye, and my last choice is up-eye. That’s my theory. In practice, I use all of these hooks and they all work. I have even used 3XL standard trout hooks – like you would use for tying Wooly Buggers – and had good results. I tend to use a Uni-loop knot and I think that my hook-setting ability is better with either a ring-eye or down-eye hook. But I can’t provide proof, just preference.

I like the Uni loop because I tend to fish fairly slow water. If I’m fishing slower water, I don’t want to take a chance that my knot is off to the side or my fly is hanging funny. You may get a little more wiggle with a loop knot.

Any advice on rod selection for salmon?
I started out fishing single handed rods for kings. I tried an eleven weight and it almost killed me. I had to triple dose on ibuprofen to cast the thing. Then I went to nine and ten weight rods – much nicer. Then I saw a guy fishing a Spey rod. I watched him, decided to give it a try, just overhand casting with traditional shooting heads or integrated shooting head lines.

Now I carry both one- and two-hand rods whenever I fish kings. Tidewater Spey rod casting is strictly overhead casting. Fishing Spey rods upriver calls for Skagit lines and genuine spey casting with sinking tips.

My one-handers are all nine and ten weights, and are typically nine-footers. As far as two handers go, I prefer rods no longer than 14’, simply because a long rod can get in the way in an eleven foot pram. Spey rods have great fish-fighting ability. When you’ve got a 35lb king that wants to hang under the boat, with a 9-weight single hand rod, it’s really hard to pull them out. Males tend to do that to you. They will get under the boat and just stay there. An 8- or 9-weight Spey rod has a lot more butt to it. The awkward part is finding the line that will load the two-hander, without fishing too deep.

Do you have any recommendations for prospective salmon-chasers to read?
A lot of the glossy articles about Chinook fly fishing show photos of pristine rivers in Canada or Alaska. They show the most beautiful giant fish and talk about 20-fish days. Unless you can afford to travel to exotic locations, that’s not what you’re likely to experience here in Oregon. It is just plain hard work here in Oregon, and it is rare to find solitude and numbers of willing Chinook in the same place and time here. Chinook fly fishing here in Oregon includes boats anchored six feet apart, or 30 guys standing in a riffle. Chinook fly fishing here in Oregon often includes small fish, or dark fish – they aren’t all giant chromers. Here in Oregon, you may fish 6 days straight, dawn to dark, and only getting a single grab. And that’s when you have it good. It may take you 15 days or more, to get a single grab. But if you love the quest, the art, the passion of fly fishing for Chinook, it is a sweet joy when the grab does come.

The classic book on fly fishing for Chinook salmon in California and Oregon is The Angler’s Coast by Russell Chatham. It’s good to know that there were fanatics fly fishing for Chinook decades ago, using tackle we would now consider primitive. The Angler’s Coast is a fun book to read. It will tell you something about the roots of the sport, the personalities that you will still meet today, and the techniques — and the book will give you encouragement, perhaps, to give this crazy pursuit a try yourself.

Jay Nicholas is coming to The Caddis Fly for a one-evening fly fishing for salmon seminar. Jay will share his tips for catching big chrome fish on flies, presenting his PowerPoint tour of salmon fishing in Oregon, demonstrating how to tie his most successful salmon fly patterns, and explaining gear and line selection for handling these sea-run bruisers. This is going to be an amazing class, so come sign up at the shop, seating is limited.When: Thursday Dec 11th, 6-9pm
Where: The Caddis Fly 168 West 6th Ave., Eugene, OR 97401
Cost: $20

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3 Responses to Fly fishing for salmon: Q&A with Jay Nicholas

  1. Greg Davidge says:

    Hey, may I buy some steelhead flies from you?

  2. Marjorie Dennis says:

    I am looking for the Jay Nicholas who once owned the home at 924 N.W. Meadow Ridge Pl. in Corvallis Oregon. If this is you, please email me back.

  3. George Demirchyan says:

    Hi Jay! Awesome article. I am tying up some bead head rolled muddlers for a client. Any recommendations as far as hooks go. He will be going after Kings and Cohos on Vancouver Island and I wanted to know what style hooks are best and strong enough. Would a 2x-strong and 3xl nymph hook work? Recommendations for a hook brand and style would be appreciated.

    Thank you,

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