I grabbed the Chubby Chernobyl by the bend of the hook pulling it back behind my ear. The rod flexed as I took aim towards the riffle upstream, “3, 2, 1 launching!” “Whiz,” the fly zipped by my ear and smacked on the water. The Chubby was riding high rocking through the current like a small sailboat in rough seas. I anxiously waited for a redband rainbow trout to show itself. But, nothing, not even a looker.
I picked up, stripped in some line, and focused my efforts on getting the fly to land under the tree branches upstream. As I pinched the slackline with my finger and grabbed the chubby, my rod began shaking back and forth from the tension.
I steadied my rod tip, aiming towards the imaginary dinner plate-sized target below the trees. “Launching,” the fly zipped by my head somehow missing my ear. It landed upright in the target zone.
The fly began to float through the trees and then into the open water until “Schlop,” an aggressive redband rainbow slurped down to what it thought was a downed salmon fly. The fly stuck into the outer edge of the mouth of the fish as it began to peel out some line on its first run. I quickly took control and steered the rainbow to the bank. I had 2X tippet on and knew if this fish gets in the open water, it’s not only the fish that I’m then fighting but the current.
The fish was a beautiful 14-inch redband rainbow, a native fish to the Deschutes River. It’s belly chock-full of what I thought to be salmon flies. It was mid-May on the Deschutes River in Eastern Oregon, 80 degrees, and the fish were actively eating salmon fly dries on the surface. I knew I got lucky and it’s not so often you can hit the Salmon Fly hatch just right. But when you do it’s a day you will always remember.
Tips for Fly Fishing the Salmon Fly Hatch
The salmon fly hatch takes the cake for getting the most hype out of all the other hatches across the Western United States. The salmon fly or Pteronarcys Californica is one of the largest aquatic insects that trout feed on, if not the largest. This can mean two things for anglers, hungry happy fish and large flies. Sounds like fun right?
While this all sounds very enticing, the salmon hatch can be quite complicated to hit right. The banks, willows, and trees can be lined with crawling salmon flies but the fish aren’t always interested in the salmon fly patterns you are fishing.
It leaves you scratching your head wondering if you have the wrong fly or are fishing the wrong water. What is the secret to cracking the code to having some success during the salmon fly hatch?
Tip 1: Understand the Salmon Fly Life Cycle and Identify and Observe What the Bugs are Doing.
Like other aquatic stoneflies, salmon flies have a simple three-stage lifecycle, egg, nymph, and then adult. The nymphs live in the river for typically three years until they begin their transition to an adult. When the nymphs are ready, they crawl to the rocks along the banks. This is where they begin to molt into adult winged insects.
Almost immediately after the bugs have molted into adults they look to mate. The larger females find areas along the bank to sit and wait, while the males scurry around looking for a female. After mating, the females pump an egg sack out of their abdomen. When air temperatures are right the females will fly above the water and drop the eggs into the water.
For anglers, this can mean a lot of things, the most important factor being that the salmon fly is a large meal for a trout. There is only so much food that a trout will need to survive. So with that in mind, fishing the salmon fly hatch can be spotty, one day you could find success and the next day the bite might be off.
Typically the start of the hatch can be very good especially subsurface when the nymphs are beginning to move to the banks and crawl up the rocks. And as soon as the bugs become adults, the trout will get really happy. The bugs will be covering the bank and the opportunistic trout will be awaiting a clumsy salmon fly.
Once the salmon flies have been evident for a little while, the trout slow down on feeding, they are full. This can be when the hatch can completely turn off and be frustrating for anglers as there are literally salmon flies all over the banks but no trout feeding on them.
It’s not really until the bugs begin their mating rituals that the hatch turns back on. After mating the females will deposit their eggs onto the water. The females are extremely clumsy flying with large egg sacks, often falling into the water. This means an easy meal for a hungry trout. This stage of the hatch can be the most exciting. Focus your efforts farther off the bank as the fish know that these bugs are now not just falling in the river from the bank but falling in from the egg depositing.
Tip 2: Monitor the Weather.
Like all other aquatic insect hatches, water temperature is what triggers this hatch. Typically the magic number for salmon flies is around a water temperature of 54-55 degrees.
After the hatch has started it is important to look at the weather reports. These weather patterns impact how the salmon flies act. The salmon flies are happy when the weather is warmer and humid. When it gets cold the salmon flies will sit in the grass and not move around. The bugs also don’t like high winds, they will just stay put and wait for calm, warm, balmy days. These are the days you should target as an angler.
Tip 3: Do Some “Jungle Fishing” or “Billygoating”.
Trout are opportunistic creatures, they know when the salmon fly hatch happens and will head to the banks and shallows in hopes of a large meal. The term “Jungle Fish” came from (I think) the fishing reports on the Deschutes Angler website years ago. The Deschutes River has steep banks with large overhanging trees and good holding water below the trees. Making a perfect place for a trout to post up and snack on salmon flies that may have fallen out of the trees or brush. As an angler, you have to crawl into the trees and try to somehow cast your fly to the open water below the brush. When you can get that fly into the strike zone it’s almost a “gimme” as fish will stack up in these areas.
I use the term “Billygoat Fishing” referring to the hard-to-access banks and water that may have large overgrowth. Same idea as “Jungle Fishing,” fishing water that you may not throw a mayfly dry to. Think outside the box, fish where you think salmon flies might fall into the river or where someone else hasn’t cast a fly too. Whether that means getting a drift for a split second, that is all it can take to get an eat.
Tip 4: Get Creative with Casting.
As mentioned above some “Jungle Fishing” or “Billygoating” may be necessary to find some topwater eats. With this in mind, your normal cast backcast will probably be out of the question. Utilize other more advanced casts like the Bow and Arrow Cast or the Steeple Cast.
Utilize other advanced casting and mending techniques like the stack mend which is a great method to get a fly presentation in far to reach area that usually involves some fast water currents. Having a quiver of different casting techniques dialed will aid in a successful day on the water. And remember to use strong tippet, ditch the 5X, 2X or 3X will be the ticket.
Tip 6: Do some “Combat Fishing,” Stay Stealthy!
Most of the fish this time of year are concentrated in the shallows. With this in mind, your approach to the river will be a little different than normal. Before walking down to the riverbank, take a second to analyze where you are fishing and if you think there are any areas that the fish may be tight on the bank.
Get down on your knees or army crawl in order to get a stealthy presentation. Use bushes and trees as cover to stay hidden on the bank. Think of it as combat fishing!
Tip 6: Slap that Fly!
This technique goes for any stonefly or hopper fly imitation. Try to slap that fly on the water’s surface. This action can often trigger a trout to eat. Larger insects are known for their poor flying capabilities that will often cost them their life due to an unexpected crash on the water.
To effectively slap the fly on the surface, end your stopping motion for your forward casting stroke to 3:00 or 4:00 o’clock. As well as add more force to the stopping motion. This will tighten the loop and push that fly forward with more power.
Tip 7: It’s not all about the Salmon Flies.
This might be the most important tip. Salmon flies may be present on the banks, fly around, or crawling the grass but, there also may be other insects that the trout are keying in on this time of year. This is really the start of the summer hatches so at times the complexity can be overwhelming. The biggest mix-up that can happen is that the fish may be keyed in on smaller stoneflies like the golden stones or yellow sallies. Or even the caddis may be starting to come off in numbers. And if it is cloudy out the green drakes may be on the menu.
With this in mind, be observant of what other bugs may be coming off. Try and catch that bug that may be whizzing by your face. Identify if it is a Yellow Sally, Green Drake, or any other bug for that matter. In addition, look closely at how the trout are rising. These rise forms can tip you off on what type of bugs they may be keyed in on.
All this may mean packing more boxes of flies to be sure your bases are covered. Or switching your fly if you not getting any takes. It’s not just the salmon flies that the trout will eat. Sometimes they are so full of them caddis might be what’s on the palate.
Recommended Gear for Fly Fishing the Salmon Fly Hatch:
The fly rod entirely depends on the river you are fishing. For the Deschutes, I prefer an 8’6 4 weight GLoomis NRX LP (NRX+ LP 486-4). The softer action rod is more fun to cast the dry flies with. The shorter length allows for more pinpoint accuracy when trying to get the fly into tight quarters. It also makes the bow and arrow cast much easier with the shorter rod. Your typical 4-6 weight trout fly rod will be well suited for this hatch.
Airflo Fishing came out with a new series of Trout Taper Fly Lines called the SuperFlo Series. These PVC Free fly lines, cast like a dream and mend with ease. The three tapers include a Power Taper, Universal Taper, and Tactical Taper. For fishing salmon flies I prefer the Power Taper as the shorter and fatter taper delivers the heavier bug effectively.
If you prefer a little more accuracy versus power, the Universal Taper is the ticket. It really pairs nicely with a softer action rod. Making casting these big bugs a load of fun.
Leader and Tippet:
For leaders, I would recommend the Airflo Polyleader Plus Trout in the 6.5-foot floating size. These Polyleaders come with a tippet ring already added onto the end of the leader. So then all you do is put about 2 feet of monofilament tippet material onto the tippet ring, add a fly and you are set. I use 2X or 3X when I’m fishing salmon flies. This is extremely important as using 4X or 5X can make it very easy to break off your larger fly.
- Norm Wood Special #4-6
- Chubby Chernobyl #2-6
- Morningwood Special Salmon Fly #4-6
- Rogue River Salmon Fly #4-6
- Winged True Salmon Fly #4-6
- Girdle Bug #4-8
- Rogue River Stone #4-8
- Kaufmann Stone #4-8
Fly fishing the salmon fly hatch can be some of the most rewarding fishing and at times frustrating fishing. You can do everything to line up perfect dates for a trip and the bugs or the fish just won’t cooperate. But, like someone once said if it was easy it would be no fun. Salmon flies will always keep the angler on their toes. Are you a fan of the salmon fly hatch?
Photos and story from a day out on the water with Matt Mendes, A fly fishing guide on Oregon’s Deschutes River. To book a trip with Matt check out his website here and be sure to follow him on Instagram at @deschutesnative.
Article by Patrick Perry @patperry.