Fly fishing tackle for Oregon Salmon: the “A” List

Fall Salmon season rolled in during September, is now in full swing, and will extend to the end of the year. Some of us have been banging our heads with 2x4s for the past two months, while others are just shifting gears from trout or steelhead fishing and moving on to salmon fishing. Others are considering taking up this crazy (yes I mean crazy) thing called fly fishing for salmon for the first time.

This post is a series of recommendations intended to help the beginner more so than the seasoned salmon angler. Please recognize that it will not cover every possibility, but it will offer a place to start and maybe bust some myths about salmon tackle.

These recommendations are simply personal opinion, subject to revision at the end of the day….
Keep in mind that these recommendations are based on tidewater and Oregon coastal rivers, not the King swinging situations found in BC or AK. Those situations definitely push the envelope towards spey rods and heavy tips with giant flies.

Oregon Salmon Fly Rods: My number one choice for a single hand rod would be a nine foot, nine weight fly rod. I fish for Oregon salmon with fly rods rated from seven to ten weight, but if given a choice of one rod to put in my pram for the fall season, it would be a 9 wt. Here is the myth: big salmon require heavy rods, say, 11 or even 12 wts. Disagree with this idea. I have fished those rods, and they were not only unnecessarily heavy, but they beat me up afrer a day casting. Remember, any of us might fish a week without a grab. Day after day of casting and coming up empty, all on the expectation that eventually, the bit pull will come to reward all our best efforts. A 10 wt. fly rod is fine for big kings. A 7 wt. fly rod is perfect for silvers, and will handle modest kings if you keep a low rod angle and are not using more than 10 lb. leader.

I fish 700-buck fly rods and 200-buck buck fly rods for salmon. The more expensive fly rods are truly lighter in hand, throw tighter loops, and cast more easily. All of these fly rods perform well and I regularly stuff my pram with high, moderate, and economy level fly rods when I go salmon fishing. The price you pay for a salmon rod does not equate with the success you will have fishing, so don’t let sticker shock hold you back from entering the salmon game. Check your budget. Decide where you want to land, if you need a new fly rod. Your casting pleasure will be affected, but your fish-catching ability won’t.

Salmon fly reels: My opinions about salmon fly reels has wavered all over the map. I have fished some years with the top end super duper fly reels that were touted as must-haves for any serious salmon fly fisher. I have fished some years with fly reels on the mid and low end of the price point scale also. Although I love my finest fly reels, I also note that the salmon fly fishers who precede us fished with beat up, Hardy and Pflueger Medalist if they were lucky. Nautilus, Hatch, Abel, Tibor, Bauer, and the like are wonderful fly reels. The drag mechanisms on these reels, their sturdy construction, and general reliability is an asset. Is it essential to have one of these finely crafted fly reels to go salmon fishing in Oregon? Nope.

The line capacity of your salmon fly reel is important. Sure, you want a fly reel that won’t fall apart on you and seize up or free spool at the moment that such an action would be pure disaster. Fact is, I have fished and caught good size oregon salmon on the entire spectrum of fly reels on the market today. Backing? I try to have about 300 yards on my fly reels. Is this sort of backing really necessary? Not even. I can think of only one instance when that full capacity was needed. That was on the Rogue River, years ago, in very big water, and the Chinook on my line was being pursued by two harbor seals. It is rare when an Oregon Salmon can get you an honest hundred yards into the backing. These instances are usually followed by disaster in the form of snags, overturned boats, falling out of boats, or stepping into water that is about 6″ deeper than one’s waders. Choose a fly reel that will handle a between one and two hundred yards of backing and you have insurance for the rare events that will require it. Most of the time, a hundred yards is plenty.

Larger fly reel diameter is more important, if it produces faster line retrieve speed than having a truck load of backing. Being able to pick up line when a salmon rushes you is a valuable characteristic of a fly reel, and larger diameter fly reels will have faster retrieval speeds. Don’t ever expect to keep up with a hot silver that rushes you in the estuary. Your line can easily be way out in front of you on one side of the boat and the silver can be leaping three feet out of the water on the opposite side of the boat while you reel frantically to catch up. All you can do is count on line drag to keep tension on the fly, and hope that the hook is in a good position to hold.

Top end salmon fly reel recommendations: Hatch, Nautilus, Tibor, Bauer.
Mid range salmon fly reel recommendations: Ross , Lamsen
Economy salmon fly reel recommendation: Echo Ion.

Fly lines. The obsessed salmon fly fisher will collect and fantasize about fly lines all year long. These crazies may have dozens of specialized fly lines, some decades old, and they have their personal favorites that may change from season to season. Fly lines, more than any other aspect of salmon tackle, is the stuff of passion, spirituality, confusion, misplaced beliefs, and hypnotic obfuscation.

What to do about fly lines if you are a beginning salmon fly fisher? Two options provide a clean way to start. My first choice would be to start with an integrated shooting head fly line like the Rio Outbound or the Airflo 40+ . Both of these lines are easy to cast, and offer the nicety of not having a loop to loop connection to go clackety-clack through the guides. If I had to choose one of these fly lines, it would be the type 3 sink tip which is roughly a sink rate of 3-4 inches per second. If I had the ability to get two lines, the second would be a clear Intermediate tip line. These two fly lines will cover a lot of the Oregon Salmon fishing conditions.

The traditional salmon fly line approach would be to use 30′ shooting head fly lines looped to a shooting or running line. Rio 30’ Shooting Head lines are looped at both ends. I recommend intermediate running lines offered by both Rio and Airflo. Rio Slickshooter is an oval mono running line that I also use frequently. You could loop on a shooting head to your spey fly reel and be ready to go if time or budgets are short. Floating running lines are my preference with the intermediate sink rate heads, and intermediate running lines are my preference when fishing Type 3 shooting heads.

Beyond these two sink-rate fly lines, you are each and every blessed one of you on your own. I fish fly lines from full floating to Sink-rates of 8-9 ips, depending on local circumstances. There. Said it.

Leaders. Again, there are opinions and religions built around the topic of leaders in fly fishing for salmon. Tapered or un-tapered. Traditional mono versus Flurocarbon. Leader length. I know successful salmon fly fishers who use short and long leaders, tapered and un-tapered, and all sorts of arcane materials. They debate sink rates and invisibility of Flurocarbon versus mono. They cite scientific studies of how well or poorly a salmon can see. They note that salmon anglers who fish spinners, bait, and many other lures use 30-40 Lb. leaders of about 3 feet long. Then they turn around tie on finely tapered leaders of several different materials, claiming that their special leader formula is the key to their success. Go figure.

Leader strength is something where myth is strong, and a subject that I do have strong opinions on. I read again and again to use 20 or 25 Lb. leaders when fishing for Chinook. My salmon leaders are most often 12 Lb. and I will occasionally use 15 Lb. Twenty pound leaders will often exceed or out-gun the strength of your fly lines, and cause you to loose or break your fly line when you inevitably become snagged and have to break off.

Salmon leader ecommendation. Start with a 9′ leader. A Rio Salmon/steelhead leader in 12 – 15# is a good choice. Alternatively, Grab a few spools of 12# and 15# Maxima Maxima Ultragreen leader, with a spool of 20# for the butt section and tie your self a few tapered leaders of 9′.

High water, murky water, and low light conditions point you to shorter leader lengths. A shorter leader fished with a sink tip will get your fly down faster than a longer leader. Just something to think about.

Spey and Switch fly rods applied to Oregon Salmon fishing. In recent years, I see an increasing number of experienced fly anglers fishing switch and spey rods for salmon. My personal preferences are for an 8 wt. switch rod and a 7 wt. spey rod. I prefer that the spey rod does not exceed 13′ but good salmon fisher-friends use spey rods up to 15′ with success. The long rod option is important for anglers who are suffering from casting shoulder pain or injury. The switch or spey rod allows one to get the cast off with underhand power, releasing the shoulder – top hand from pain and suffering. Another justification for the long rod is that it will allow one to cast from ankle or knee deep water where backside obstacles make a back cast with a single hand rod an impossibility. The long rod will also offer more leader cushioning flex than a ten weight single hand fly rod.

Rio DC 24’ Sink Tip and Airflo Depthfinder fly lines are the go-to when fishing rivers that are up with the full flows of Autumn when it is essential to get one’s fly down to the fish holding in swift flows. These fly lines sink fast, in the 7-9″ per second range, and will get you down fast when that presentation is on the menu. These specialized fly lines are probably going to be in the 300-400 gr wt range depending on your fly rod.

Traditional 15 ft sink tip fly lines, in the 15′ type 3 or 6 sink rate variety – are still useful and if purchasing a new fly line is standing between you and going salmon fishing —- just load up your old 15′ sink tip fly line and go fishing.

Salmon flies for Oregon destinations. Simple. Comet , Boss , and Clouser type flies are on the “A” list day in and day out.

OK, enough tackle talk for now.

Jay Nicholas
November 2011

This entry was posted in Fly Fishing Gear Review, Oregon Salmon fly fishing. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Fly fishing tackle for Oregon Salmon: the “A” List

  1. mike keown says:

    i like the blog very helpfull and informative. Could you do something similar for winter steelhead? I haven’t been able to put all the pieces together and could use a nudge in the right direction. Thanks and keep the blogs coming please.

  2. Lorenzo Swanson says:

    This article is very much appreciated because this information about reels and rods for Salmon is spoken amongst guides and their customers but is not spoken in public or articles easily accessible. This mostly would be learned over years of active pursuit of salmon, I think. I have wondered about these very ideas, but until now have never heard them voiced.

    Thank you for your candor.

  3. Roland Gangstee says:

    Jay, I want to personally thank you for your generosity in sharing your knowledge and expertise about fly fishing. Your “u-tube” demonstrations of fly-tying have been invaluable to me. Your Oregon river knowledge has been extreemly helpful and spot on. This piece on Salmon fishing is no exception.

    Thank you very, very much!

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