Fall fishing for salmon and steelhead

When it comes down to it, there's 2 types of fly fishing I truly enjoy.  First, is chasing hatches and finding rising trout.  I love when it all comes together and you know what is happening where, what to use, how to use it and get a fish to rise to take your offering.  It doesn't get much better than that.  Now second, is chasing migrant salmon and steelhead as they enter the tributaries to spawn in the Fall.  I live fairly close to the Great Lakes and make a few trips every year up there to get my fix.  Doing this out West on true steelhead with big water and the hopes of even bigger fish is very high on my to do list.  Now the reason I love this so much is the pursuit.  You have to get the conditions just right to have an amazing day, and even so it doesn't always work out.  Sometimes it's just so easy and other days you freeze your tail off and don't even get a bump.  But that's the fun in it for me.  Even more fun is introducing someone to it.  Seeing someone hook into a 5-30lb fish for the first time when they're used to landing 8" stocked trout is something I will never grow tired of.  The excitement, turned to instant panic, and the letdown when they almost always lose that first fish is just a joy to watch.  A little bit of coaching to see them land that first fish is like watching them catch their first ever fish.  

The How To's

There are so many things I've learned over the years and still more to learn each time I go out.  The name of this game is change.  Don't be afraid to go to a new location, fish a different pattern, adjust your presentation, and sometimes even abandon ship (rarely)


These fish are instinctive to return to spawn in the Fall (ok I know some do in the Summer and Spring).  Many people judge this on water temperature.  Typically the salmon run first, and the steelhead follow a few weeks later.  On a normal year you will see a few fish here and there make some runs into the streams anytime in August, but the large majority of fish will start in the middle to end of September.  You can target these fish on the shorelines in the lakes while they are "staging" to run the tributaries.  Even while they are activly running, you can still target the mouth of the streams in the lake they are coming from.  Fish will make their runs for the next few months.  You can even see fresh fish coming in December and January in many years.  That being said, the salmon run is a bit shorter.  I've heard the vast majority of Coho salmon in some streams will run in under a week, where the king salmon will take a solid 4-8 weeks.  Steelhead can run for months as they don't die after they spawn so it seems their spawning runs last a longer time.  With that, you can target salmon during their run and a little while after they are in there, but steelhead can be targeted until they return to the lake in the Spring.


Many of the Great Lakes fish are stocked.  However, there is evidence of natural reproduction in all lakes, some more than others.  The stocked fish are placed in the stream as smolts.  These smolts are typically around 7" and are put in the streams in the Spring time so they can know their surroundings to return in a few years.  Then they'll go out to the lake, gorge themselves and grow to fairly large sizes and return back to where they came.  So the first place to look is the streams that they stock the smolts.  After that, look at surrounding areas.  Many times you'll see tributaries up and down the lake from that spot that will also see fish return in them.  Both large and small, these waters can sometimes be a safe haven from the crowds.  They may not get as many fish but you may have them all to yourself.  Now when we are talking about waters out West, there are so many that get natural runs of wild fish it's hard to grasp.  Some of these salmon will travel literally thousands of miles of water to their spawning grounds.  A little bit of research can get you into some fish even if you don't live by the coast.

When it comes to the where of fishing for these, also note that weather can play a huge role in where you go.  Many of these tributaries have small water tables and can raise and lower very quickly.  A simple rule of thumb is that larger waters take longer to rise but also longer to clear, and smaller waters take shorter to rise and shorter to clear.  So when that big rainstorm comes in and your favorite big stream is blown out, check out some smaller water that might just be clearing up enough to be fishable.  


(yes we finally got to the how).  These fish are targeting with a variety of tactics.  Before they are in the stream they are targeted with charter boats and can find a great amount of success.  Once in the stream you can throw spoons on traditional gear for active fish, drift natural and artificial baits on spinning rods, noodle rods, and center pin rods.  However for this we will focus on how to target these fish on a fly rod. 


The first thing you want to do, as we noted in the article about how to pick your next fly rod, its to pick the right gear for your day on the water.  For salmon I recommend anywhere between a 8 and 10 weight rod.  This way you can handle the fish well and release without over fighting them if wanted.  If the water is bigger I would step up to a larger weight or a switch or spey rod.  For steelhead, if salmon are present I would stay with a 7- 8 weight, but if not, depending on average size, a 10-11 foot 6-7 weight rod is just about perfect.  This gives you the line control for swinging streamers or drifting flies and the backbone to fight some of these bigger fish. 


When it comes to a reel for these fish I actually recommend that if you spend more money on a piece of equipment, it be the reel.  I've seen my fair share of rods busted by fish, by improper use by the angler, and sometimes just because.  For that reason I don't think an expensive rod is always what's best.  But a reel, is going to get a work out on these fish.  I've had steelhead take me into my backing twice before, and putting the brakes on a fresh run fish is sometimes harder done than said.  I've seen cheap reels get burned up as well.  I also recommend getting a sealed drag.  Yes it helps against getting dirt and grime in the drag housing, but also because if you're a nut like me and fish in below freezing temperatures, if your reel gets wet in conditions like that, the drag will freeze up.  That's a huge problem in landing a fish when you cant release any line.  


Much of this fishing is either casting streamers and swinging them through some faster water or drifting flies through the runs.  A nicely tapered line for streamers will always help with fishing a bigger fly, but when you're drifting a fly or 3 with some split shot and even an indicator, fly line does not need to be anything special.


These fish can be taken on a variety of patterns.  Streamers and tube flies are very common early in the season when the fish are fresh and very active.  Some people say the salmon don't eat once they enter the system and need to be "flossed" but I've seen them charge several feet to take a swung or retrieved fly.  Patterns with a lot of movement seem to produce well.  I really like almost any  pattern with marabou or zonker strips.  Bunny leaches, slump busters, zonkers, wooly buggers, popsicles, etc are all great patterns.  Once they're in the system a bit I like to add in other patters like eggs and nymphs.  Once they start to spawn, they will feed on the eggs, especially steelhead and any other trout.  There may be resident trout in the system or even lake run fish like browns and even brookies on a rare occasion.  Egg patterns have come a long way in the last 10+ years.  There's a ton of synthetic materials on the market that have really produced well.  Estaz, glo bug yarn, crystal meth, and even some craft yarn has caught me fish over the years.  You can also use beads and soft plastic eggs.  When it comes to nymphs I go on both ends of the spectrum.  Natural looking patterns like stoneflies, pheasant tails, prince nymphs and hares ears can work, but other times the flashier the better.  Wiggle stones, steel hammer, steel ticket (my fly),mop flies, squirmy worms, psycho prince nymphs, and so much more can catch tons of fish.


As mentioned earlier, swinging flies in the early season can be quite productive.  The fish are moving in the system so getting them to chase down a fly works well and gets your heart pumping.  One HUGE thing I'll mention about this is finding the right fish to target.  These fish are moving miles in a single day so often you will see them piled up in deep holes.  It's hard to do, but try to ignore them.  They are resting and waiting for their next run up stream.  Target the tops and bottoms of these holes for the most active fish and your success rate will go up.  Riffles, runs, and tail outs are great places to find active fish ready to take your fly.  Quarter your cast downstream, throw in a quick mend, and swing that streamer across this type of water.  If you want to nymph, this type of fishing should be very typical of much of the other nymph fishing you have done before.  Look for those active fish and use a presentation that's most comfortable for you.  Indicator or no indicator, 1 fly or multiple (where allowed).  Before you change flies, add or subtract weight first.  Sometimes in low, clear water, I'll put on a bright egg fly to help track my other fly as an indicator.  Go smaller when the water is clearer.  


Many times these fish are targeted in less than ideal conditions.  Rain, sleet, snow, etc are sometimes the norm.  Be prepared with good clothing.  Leave your felt at home (it's outlawed in many places anyway).  If you've never walked in snow with felt boots on, just thank me on this one.  Studs can help drastically as well on your boots.  Wear neoprene or breathable waders with some room to layer.  Moisture/sweat kills in the cold.  Don't wear cotton.  Layer your socks with poly socks first and then the best wool you can get from there.  Same thing for your other layers.  The poly will wick away moisture and the wool will hold it away from your body.  Get a good wading or rain jacket to wear over top and don't forget a good hat.  Gloves are a tough one as I haven't found the best solution.  I've used about 10 different pairs.  The best for warmth are rag wool, but they weigh about 10 pounds if you get them wet.  My advice is try to keep them dry and even keep an extra pair on you.  

Other tips are to carry chap stick.  Not only do your lips get chapped in the cold, but a little chap stick on your guides can keep them from icing up.  There's a few other items on the market to help with this as well.  Keep a spare set of clothes in the car.  On the off chance you take a swim, that can be a literal life saver or at least make the ride back a whole lot less miserable.  

I know this was long, but if you want us to help you get geared up check out our target species kits.  We have a rod, reel, line, backing, leader and box of flies all set up specific for target species like salmon and steelhead.  Check them out at the link below.


Ramblings by:

Ryan Gouldsbarry

Owner of Risen Fly

1 comment

  • Bill

    Good ramble Ryan. I went out yesterday on a coastal river in the PNW. No action, snow on the ground and enjoyable day swinging flies with my new switch rod. I would have bought one from you guys except I didn’t see that you made one. I bought an 11’ rod. Works well. Thanks for the education.

    God bless

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