Apr 28, 2014

Fly Fish the Salmonfly Hatch

Salmon fly Hatch | Fly Assortment
Hitting the Salmon fly hatch right can lead to one of an angler’s best days on the water ever. Memories of epic days of big trout eating dry flies with reckless abandon keep me awake at night, but also comfort me while I sleep. Some experienced anglers have never hit it right and don’t believe in these legendary 60+ fish days. Others have lucked into it and bring home these tales that are often doubted then shrugged off by friends and family.

Deschutes Salmon fly Hatch
There are many freestone rivers in the west that get a Salmon fly hatch, and a few that get a significant hatch. In some rivers, trout get most heir yearly caloric intake in a few weeks time. In our neck of the woods, the Deschutes River is our best chance at an amazing day.

The fishing during the Salmon fly hatch can actually be very difficult at times. I have guided clients on the Henry's Fork, South Fork Snake and Teton Rivers during these hatches. I have actually had some of the toughest days ever with some stellar fishing sporadically dispersed throughout the two weeks of the hatch.

One memorable day
One memorable day on the Henry’s Fork in 2008, the Salmon flies were crawling, flying, swimming and falling everywhere. It was not a day for the squeamish. Bugs were all over everything, but fishing was tough… why? Well, the two fish we caught were bulging; as fat as a fish can be. The first one backed down my Rogue Salmon for ten seconds before committing. You could feel the Salmon flies in its stomach; crunching and distending its already large belly. The fish had eaten all they wanted for the day and were really just being picky and lazy. This often happens for a day or two, and then the fishing turns on again with hive-like mentality.

My best days were always a few days before the adult Salmon flies started coming out in numbers.

Get Ready!
Before the hatch gets going really well, the fish are less picky and more hungry. As the nymphs get crawling towards shore, trout can become stupid. My favorite rig for this time of year is a hopper/dropper combination, with a Rogue Salmon or Henry’s Fork Salmon fly (think big and foam) as the hopper, with a Jimmy Legs, Girdle Bug or Lex’s as a dropper (heavy, but not sink-your-foam-fly heavy). With the nymph 3 feet or so under the foam fly, you can search effectively to find out if they are eating the dries yet or still focusing on the nymphs. Fish can often be tucked in close to the bank at this point as they are intercepting nymphs as they approach their fate on the rocks and trees on the shoreline.

With some luck and the right conditions, fish have started looking up for their food, hopeful for an early adult Salmon fly to munch on. If this happens, you can often take the nymph off and replace it with another dry, like a Norm Woods or a Salmon stimulator, something that contrasts the first bug. If my lead fly is foam, then my second fly is going to be a traditional hackled fly. Show them two different bugs, and don’t be afraid to switch it up early and often, and try to keep the bug that is working best while switching others until you are successful.


NOTE: I don’t condone throwing more than two flies, but an experienced angler should be able to throw a big dry with two (or more) nymphs…. Just don’t call me from the river with a mess of monofilament on your hands.


Within an hour or so, you should know where the fish are focusing. If you have seen little or no surface action, take off that dry and replace it with and indicator. Add a second nymph to your rig and get it down to the fish. If you are a few days too early, dragging a Jimmy Legs with a San Juan worm as a trailer along the bottom has been very productive for me. Two different contrasting Salmon fly nymphs is also a good idea.

The best time to fish during the hatch is morning. I am not a six a.m. type of guy, and neither are Salmon flies. The best fishing for me has always been between about 9:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. The bugs start moving when the water starts warming up; after the sun has hit the water. If there is a lot of food coming down the river, whether adults or nymphs, the fish tend to fill up by the afternoon and fishing often shuts down. There is often a nice window of feeding activity mid-morning. This is not always the case and I am sure others will argue with me about that, but I am relating my experiences. This all depends on how far along the hatch is and how prolific the hatch is on any given river.

Towards the end of the Salmon fly hatch, the fish do tend to be full, fat and lazy. It can often be painful to see all these insects around and have very little activity on the water. The feeding window is smaller and more sporadic. Maybe fish eat a few bugs in the morning and then a few in the afternoon.

When this happens, you can look forward to the next hatch. The Golden Stone flies are often right behind the Salmon flies, along with PMD's or other various Mayflies depending on your location. My go-to rig when fishing the tail-end of the Salmon fly hatch is a #10 Yellow Madam X or a Rogue Golden with a #16 Tungsten Bead Pheasant-Tail dropper, adding a #18 Red Copper John if you are feeling like flirting with disaster. It’s like bringing out the cheesecake when the main course is still on the table. There will always be a couple of takers.

Rigging up:

Tips for rigging up for the hatch:

I use a 9’ 6wt or 7wt rod during this time of year for two reasons. The first is that I will be throwing set-ups with multiple large flies. I want to be able to quickly pick up a big set-up and cast it accurately with no false casting. A fast-action 6 wt. like a Sage One or G. Loomis NRX is a perfect rod for the Salmon fly hatch. 4 and 5 wt rods just don’t have the backbone to pick up heavy rigs and cast them with any accuracy; you will be spending too much time and energy false casting with a smaller rod. This is a battle I have fought with many friends over the years that love fishing their 4 wt rods, but then they can’t cast quickly and accurately, ultimately costing them fish without knowing it.

I use 7.5’ 2x trout leaders. I haven’t found the trout to be all that leader-shy during the hatch. Due to the weight and wind-resistance of big Salmon fly patterns, I would never use tippet smaller than 3x to a large foam fly. In some high-traffic rivers, using longer, smaller tippet/leaders, like a 9’ 4x leader, is a common strategy for spookier trout, although a 7.5’ allows easier pick up those heavy rigs more easily and accurately than with a 9’ or longer leader. For better or worse, I tend to change flies and make longer casts before I change up my leader/tippet setup. I rig up a #2-4 Rogue Salmon directly onto the 7.5’ 2x leader, and then drop a #4-6 Jimmy Legs 3-4’ off of the Rogue with 3x tippet. If fishing is tough or the hatch just isn't happening, I add a small nymph like a san juan worm, #14-18 pheasant tail or #18 red copper john off the jimmy legs using 4x tippet. With the addition of the second nymph, you now have the dreaded triple-rig, universally feared by trout guides everywhere. Only continue with this if you are going to be able to cast it without tangling….

The second nymph should be 12-20” from the first nymph. Always tie the tippet to bend of the hook on the upper fly with a simple clinch knot. Some people tie their dropper onto their upper fly using the eye of the upper fly, but I think that it swims at a weird angle when tied like that. Using the method outlined above, I have never had the dropper slide off, and the knot rarely, if ever fails using this method. If fishing an indicator and nymphs, I use a large ORANGE indicator (1” thingamabobber or equivalent). I then add about 12-18” of 3x tippet to that 7.5’ 2x leader. The Jimmy Legs is my go-to Salmon fly and Stone fly nymph. I always make sure to taper down the size of the flies so that the lead fly is the largest and the last fly is the smallest. With large nymphs and the nature of fish eating stone flies in fast, shallow water, you usually do not have to have more than 4-5 feet of leader between the indicator and the first fly. 
Get your fly arsenal ready...
No matter where you go, if the Salmon flies are there, then you have a chance at hooking fish at their fattest, strongest point of the year. Often, fish come out for this hatch that cannot be caught during the rest of the year. Fish of monstrous size often show up out of the depths just for this hatch, then go back to eating other fish for the rest of the year. Now get ready, start tying, and get out there!

Andrew Perrault
Gorge Fly Shop


 "Fly Fish the World with Us"

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