Salmon of the Great Lakes

It’s getting to that time of year again, the nights cool and the kids go back to school, but with everything going on, this year will be different. One thing that will not be different is the salmon running up the Great Lakes tributaries to make their annual spawning migration. The amount of fish and timing varies from year to year, however, they always show up. Chinooks show up first in early September or sometimes even late August, and later, the Coho’s show up to give angler consistent fishing into October. The sheer power and veracity of these fish to take a fly or should I say destroy a fly is prominent. The Chinooks are the largest of the Salmon species in the lake and can weigh well over 30 lbs. and put up an awesome fight for the fly angler. The Cohos, though smaller than their cousins, might even fight harder than Chinooks. They will defiantly test you and your gear. We are very fortunate in the Great Lakes Region to have some amazing migratory species like the Chinooks, Cohos, Pinks, the mighty Atlantic Salmon, Steelhead, and Brown Trout of epic proportions. Let this be your cursory guide to finding, hooking and landing these incredible species around the Great Lakes.

How to ID the Salmon & Trout of the Great Lakes

Gearing up

Gear for Great Lake’s Salmon varies by what technique you choose to target them; Spey, single hand, indicator, free-drifting your fly downstream or stripping your streamer. The rods needed to fight these fish and enjoy the ride is in the 8wt to 10wts, leaning on the heavier side for fresh fish or areas with bigger than average salmon. A quality 9wt is a good all-around choice, as these fish are known for destroying gear and you will be hooking lots of fish in a day, by using heavier gear you will be helping the fish by landing it as quickly as possible so they can continue doing their thing, plus, you won’t kill your arms. After hooking and landing double-digit fish you will be thankful you brought the big sticks. Nothing fights like a fresh 30lb King in a small tributary, full of testosterone. It’s all you can do to hold on and either land it or enjoy the battle. The hook up to landed ratio is low, depending on your waterbody. Imagine your favorite trout stream, now put a 30 lbs fish in it and try to land it in all those log jams.

Jacob Adams with an awesome male Coho Salmon

When the water is clear, the need for a premium tippet is required and as low as 3X to try to hook these fish. If you’re fishing an indicator, a 9 or 10ft leader will do in most cases. Fighting them is all about technique and endurance, the use of the drunken driver approach is required, the fish goes left you to pull right and vice versa. The fish will make long runs and if they head downstream, a large arbor reel with plenty of backing is key, so you can catch up while you chase them . A large net will aid in landing these powerful fish. For most anglers, this may be the best time of year to land the biggest fish of your life.


Flies can be as complex or as basic as you want. Popular patterns are woolly buggers in black, olive, and purple. Egg-sucking leeches with the same body colors but with a chart, orange, red and pink hotspot by using either a  bead or a dubbing head. Woolly worms in brown and black, as well as stoneflies, caddis, and hares ear nymph to name a few.

Jacob Adams with the Atlantic’s

Bigger patterns for swinging include; intruders or temple dog style, tied on shanks and tubes. A larger hook size 4 to 1/0 will work for most fish. In chartreuse, red, orange, black, and blue being the top producers.

The most popular patterns would be the egg fly, either in yarn or the controversial and famous beads. Love them or hate them beads catch fish. They produce a wide variety of fish at this time of year. Just like other types of fishing, it is matching the hatch at its greatest. Carrying a traditional plastic and weighted beads will help you in most water conditions. A few natural colors and few bright colors and in various sizes 8mm to 14mm will cover the gamet of the water conditions in the tributaries. Also, by carrying beads you can instantly add color or weight to a fly-by adding a bead without retying, by using the bands to secure instead of a peg.

The author with Chinook salmon

This is the best time of year to be on the water and target the salmon family. The leaves are starting to turn, the bugs are far and few between and the days are just the right temperature to not over-heat in your waders, some days the fish are a bonus. The fish are the fresh, look awesome with their varying colors and hooked jaws. And best of all, they put up an epic fight on their way upstream to make the next generation.


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