Salmon Fishing Tips

If you’re just learning to fly-fish for salmon that run up the rivers from the Great Lakes (especially in western Michigan), this page may help you.

Rigging Your Line

Chuck-n-duck is probably the most common, and easiest, way to use a fly rod to fish for salmon. (To learn about different methods, check out the Other Resources.)

Here are a four line formulas for chuck-n-duck that are fairly popular:

The River Guide
100+ yards of 30 lb. backing
100 feet of shooting line
20 feet of Amnesia line (15 lb. test)
20 feet of Maxima monofilament (12 lb. test)
Swivels & weight
3-6 feet of Maxima monofilament (6-8 lb. test)

The Simple Set-Up
100+ yards of 30 lb. backing
100 feet of shooting line
10 feet of Maxima monofilament (12 lb. test)
Swivels & weight
3-4 feet of Maxima monofilament (6-8 lb. test)

The Simple and Cheap Set-Up
100+ yards of 30 lb. backing
100 feet of Amnesia line (15 lb. test)
20 feet of Maxima monofilament (12 lb. test)
Swivels & weight
3-6 feet of Maxima monofilament (6-8 lb. test)

The Combo
100+ yards of 30 lb. backing
100 feet of shooting line or Amnesia line
3-12 feet of Maxima monofilament (10-20 lb. test)
Swivels & weight
4-10 feet of Maxima monofilament (2-12 lb. test)

The integrity of the line strength in these rigs depends on “stepping down” the test gradually to your tippet. Always have a higher test line tied on before a lower test line. Doing this helps insure that when you lose a part of your line to a snag or salmon, you will hopefully only lose your tippet. Some anglers like to closely space their line strength (i.e., 30-20-15-12-10) because it seems less likely to “shock” any one part of the line when a salmon is hooked.

>> Note on shooting line. It is sometimes called running line, and looks very much like typical fly line. Shooting line is flat (not tapered), will float on the surface (not sink tip), and has a small diameter (about .029 or .032 or 2X) to easily cut through the water. Air-Flo is an increasingly popular brand. Some anglers prefer the brightly colored line, while others prefer an “invisible” line. When using shooting line, very little of it should touch the water. What does touch the water is often used as an indicator. Also unlike typical fly line, you do not use the weight of shooting line to cast. A slinky or split shots provide the weight for casting.


This image (which is from the White River Steelheaders) illustrates very well how to rig your line for chuck-n-duck. The weight, whether it’s a slinky or split shots, is usually made up of 2-4 pea-sized lead split shots. The blood knot can be replaced with a double Duncan loop or nail knot. The knots to the swivels and fly are usually improved clinch knots.

Whether you use shooting line or amnesia line, the bright color of the line can be both good and bad. It can act as a very good strike indicator during your drift. But it can also spook the salmon. The best solution is to keep as little colored line in the water as possible.


How to Cast

In chuck-n-duck, you make one cast to the fish, not several false casts. The first thing to do is to put out about five feet of line between your rod tip and the weight. The second thing is to pull enough line off your reel to reach where you want to cast. This slack line floats in the water next to you and will be pulled through the rod guides as you “chuck” your weight at your target.

The cast should be as soft as possible, with the weight leading the fly into the water. A high, arching cast helps get the weight and fly into the water deeper and faster.

As the weight sinks to the bottom, pull in any slack line, to keep a small amount of tension on the line. Be sure to always run the line through the hand that is holding the rod. You will need to set the hook in an instant.

You should follow your drift with your rod tip to keep the fly as drag-free as possible. You may want to raise or lower your rod tip, or pull in or let out line, as your fly drifts through the hole. It all depends on where you cast, where the fish are, the river’s structure, and the water currents.

As the fly finishes its drift you may want to give the fly a small upwards jerk or gently pull up on the line. Sometimes a salmon takes your fly at the end of the drift and it is difficult to detect.

There are two general approaches to casting. The first is to stand basically next to the fish and cast 10 to 20 feet upstream. Strip in the line as it comes past you, keeping as little shooting line out as possible. You should try to keep your rod tip parallel to the drift. The second approach is to stand downstream of the fish and cast 10 to 20 feet above the fish. You will want to be a few feet off center so that your line doesn’t go across the back of the fish and spook it. Pull in your line just like in the first approach, always trying to get a drag free drift.


Rods and Reels

Perhaps the most commonly used rod is a 9′ 6″, 8-weight rod. Some 8-weight rods will be as small as 9′ or as long as 10′, and they are also acceptable. Rods smaller than 7-weight don’t have the fighting backbone to horse in a 25-pound salmon. Rods larger than 9-weight are probably overkill. Some people use very long, two-handed spey rods to fish for salmon. These rods are becoming more popular in Michigan since they provide greater reach for a better drift, a more flexible tip for less line breakage, and a stronger butt to better fight salmon.

Your reel may be even more important than your rod. It should match the weight of your rod, be capable of holding 150-200 yards of line, and have a disk drag. When a salmon takes a run, your reel should let line away instantly and smoothly. Any hitches in the reel mechanism will snap your tippet. Expect to spend more than $100 for a quality reel. Large arbor reels are a popular choice for several reasons. They are less likely to create memory loops in your line, they can hold lots of line, and they usually have very good disk drags.


Fly Selection

Before Spawning

  • Spey flies or marabou streamers with krystal flash (blue, black, chartruse)
  • Wooly buggers (blue, black, red)
  • Hex flies
  • PM Wiggler
  • Soft Hackle Green Caddis
  • Black Stonefly
  • Green or Red Butted Black Spey
  • Glo-Bugs (green, yellow, chartruse, milky white) with red eyes

During Spawning

  • All of the above flies
  • Glo-Bugs (red, pink, orange) with red eyes

>>Note on egg colors. Salmon eggs are generally bright orange, steelhead eggs are generally yellow. Use whatever color that would naturally be kicked out of the gravel.

>>Note on fly sizes. Smaller sizes (6-8) are generally better.


Where to Fish

Salmon will gather in deep, dark pools where the water is “black.” At the outside of many bends, just where the water gets deep, is a common spot for salmon to congregate. Here, the fast water is on top, and the slow water is down low. The salmon will often sit just six inches off the bottom in the slow water. During the day they may move up or down in the slow water column, so you may have to adjust the depth at which you fish throughout the day.

In these deep holes, it is helpful to find the snags before loosing too many flies. If you can get above the hole from either bank, you may be able to spot downed timber if you’re wearing polarized glasses. This can also help you spot where in the hole the fish are sitting. Another trick is to drift a fly you don’t mind loosing through the hole a few times. You can also drift a few times with just split shot to help find the bottom.


When to Fish

The salmon run, for streams on the western side of the lower peninsula of Michigan, begin in mid-August. The northernmost streams begin to have salmon first. As the season progresses, the salmon generally enter streams further and further south.

Pere Marquette River — Salmon enter the river by mid- August. By September 15, they will be up to M-37, above the “flies-only” area. The peak is usually the end of September. Fishing is good through October. Spawning takes places September through October.

Betsie and Big Manistee Rivers — The run begins a week or two before the Pere Marquette.

Muskegon River — Salmon will be in the Bridgeton area (near Salmon Run Campground) in the middle of September. Salmon will be up to the Carmichael Flats area in the beginning of October.

Rogue River — More unpredictable, but generally begins by October 1.


General Tips

-If the salmon are in a taking mood, they’ll take anything. If they are not in a taking mood, they’ll ignore everything.

-Low light times of the day, as well as cloudy days, are generally best. However, on bright, sunny days, the salmon will congregate deep in the holes.

-Salmon do not feed while in the river. However, they do strike because it is a learned behavior. When the salmon are in the big lake, they are very aggressive and predatory. They will continue to act that way when they enter the rivers. The longer they are in the rivers, the less they will strike.

-When setting the hook, do so by yanking downstream with the rod three times, like tugging on a snag. You can even pull on the line with your free hand to get a better set. Lifting the rod straight up will sometimes pull the fly out of the salmon’s mouth. However, by lifting straight up when initially feeling a “hit” you are less likely to get hung up on a snag.

-Keep your hooks very sharp to penetrate the salmon’s thick jaw.

-Fish with a partner and help each other spot salmon. While one person fishes, the other can be high up on the opposite bank watching how the salmon react and where they are. Polarized glasses are a must for this.

-A good hole with many salmon in it can be fished all day long.

-Adjust your weight and the length of your tippet to match both the depth of the hole and the depth of the fish. Your weight should touch the bottom once in a while. It should not drag on the bottom. A tippet that is three feet long will put the fly six inches to two feet off the bottom. A tippet that is six feet long will put the fly two feet to four feet off the bottom.

-If you need to get your fly higher in the water column, you can add a foam indicator above your fly.

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