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Fly fishing Great Lakes Salmon

1960’s, Howard Tanner made a phone call to Oregon to get eggs to take care of a massive alewives problem and build, what had a lot of what if’s at the time, an amazing fishery that turned out to bring in billions of dollars.

 Summer’s on its way out and the thoughts of salmon running into the rivers and up the tributaries has us sleepless. The Great Lakes have a few different species of salmon, from chinook to coho, as well as pinks and Atlantics. Today is going to be over chinooks and coho. River banks are soon to be full of people hoping to get the chance to tangle with the “King”, a fish that lives up to his name. Over 18 years on the river with a fly rod and guiding, I have had many encounters with the salmon of the Great Lakes. Questions and emails fill my days, a lot on “How do I target these fish on the fly rod”; “Where do I find them and what do they eat.” The main question  being “Do salmon eat when they enter the river?” Kings and coho have one thing on the brain when that time of year comes and that’s spawn. Kings will actively feed during the “stage” to move up on gravel whereas coho will actively feed all the way through until death.

 Kings will attack out of aggression when on gravel but do not actively feed. The move up the rivers can be rather fast or could be a slower process as river temps and water flow play a part as well as big lake temps. Moving on to where I find these fish in our rivers during the “run”  in our rivers. Keep in mind the end game is spawning so looking for faster water and gravel is key. Once you locate yourself in that area, move down and locate what we call “holes” or “pocket water” as this is where the staging happens. Coho love what we call “frog water” (slow water) and wood… Coho love the wood.

Picking your equipment to target these fish tends to make the mind wonder. When you walk into the local shop during the run, there are always that one or two guys, staring at a wall of rods or flys with a glazed look in their eyes and stroking their beards.  Keep it simple- no need for making things harder than they have to be.  Two rods minimum in my opinion: one for that simple “what- if” factor and a second for different tactics. It’s easier to swap rods than to change out reels. 8wt to 10wt fly rods are recommended as coho have some spunk and these days, kings to 40lbs. Reels: you want a reel that can put the brakes on a fish and hold up. Steer clear of lower end reels. When buying a reel, look at reviews, talk to your local dealers, and get opinions. I love the Piscifun sword in 9wt/10wt. myself.

There are many methods used from chuck “n” duck to nymphing to swinging. Here are some diagrams of different methods used to catch salmon on the fly.

Chuck n duck

Nymphing

Swinging

Changing the strength of your leaders and tippets should be taken into consideration of course. Minimum being 12 lbs but no need to go over 30lbs. There are many lines available but the first step of the fly rod setup is the backing 20lb to 50lb Dacron. Then, depending on which method you choose, get with your local fly shop or guide and they will steer you in the right direction and will help you learn and perfect the method you chose. Listing everything for every method would be a long list.

Moving on to what flies do I throw at these fish.

Egg flies probably are the most popular of all flies. It works well for behind gravel runs, deep holes, and fishing behind graveled-up fish.

Plug flies probably are one of the most over-looked flies in my opinion. These flies do everything a crankbait does but on a fly rod. Great flies for deep holes or holding water. This fly will get in and get bit!

Streamers: stripping streamers in different types can bring massive success. Streamers and coho go together like tacos and cold beer. Utilizing streamers to wood and runs and deep holes will produce. Active males on gravel will smash streamers out of aggression. Remember to not mess with actively spawning fish.

Swinging flies is one of the fastest growing and heart stopping methods of fly fishing. This cross current presentation is best done in faster runs and holding waters. As long as the flow is there to make it swing ….swing.

Hopefully this article gave you some ideas and drive to get out on the river this fall and tie into some fish! Good luck and don’t give them slack.

By Ben McDonald

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