Great Lakes Salmon on the Fly
Updated: Aug 26
Their annual migration has begun, Great Lakes salmon season is upon us!
A small number of salmon have made their way into our rivers and streams in search of their spawning grounds. Soon, nearly every Great Lakes tributary will be teeming with chinook and coho salmon. We are very privileged to have such incredible access to rivers and streams here in Southern Ontario – in downtown Toronto we have access to a river with a salmon run that, quite literally, has a subway stop next to it. Another river only a few kilometers away has streetcars ride over top of it, yes you figured them out, the Humber and the Don Rivers.
Before we get to angling tactics, here is some general info you can take to the bank (see what we did there?!).
Why Salmon Take
Salmon, as they begin staging that mouths of rivers, significantly slowdown their feeding behaviors as they prepare for their migratory run up river. These fish have a one-track mind from here on in, their mission is to spawn, very little else matters.
So, why do they take a fly? Here are the top reasons and theories-
Curiosity – Fish don’t have hands… we know that is a pretty obvious statement, but it is worth discussing. If a fish wants to find out what something is, if it is edible for example, it must put it in its mouth. It may rely upon its sense of smell to investigate the object (fly, baitfish, nymph, twig, leaf, bottle cap, etc.) to the best of its ability, but for the final test it has to pop it in its chompers.
Aggression & Territorial Behavior – Spawning periods bring out the most territorial behavior in animals we’ve seen, by far. Most animals, fish included, don’t want much around them besides their mate to get the “deed” done. If you’ve ever watched two salmon spar, you know how aggressive they can be. If you’ve not watched it, it is a spectacle! Bucks (male salmon) will chase each other around a pool or in the shallows, biting at each other, grabbing each other’s tails to show their supremacy vying for their mate, a hen (female salmon).
When breeding, smaller fish will attempt to predate on the eggs of salmon, and why not? Each egg is packed with calories and is an easy meal. A natural instinct for a breeding fish is to lash-out at the egg eaters, chase them away, injure, or kill them. They simply want them clear of the area so eggs that are being deposited and fertilized have the greatest success at survival. As mentioned above, fish don’t have hands, so instead of swatting at them with fists they slash at them with their jaws. If what they swat at is your fly, you have a chance of hooking up.
Feeding – Whether salmon feed when in the river is a highly debated topic in the local angling community. We have reached out to our local MNRF office to get the most up to date info on this subject, but they’ve not gotten back to us yet. Once they do, we’ll update this post.
Keep Away from Those in the “Act”
Fish that are in the act of spawning are easy to spot – two, or more, large fish in the shallows of a river splashing away is un-mistakeable. Without getting too into the “Birds and the Bees”, these salmon are in the “act”, if you get our drift. ;) These are the critical moments where a hen is dropping her eggs into the river substrate that has been cleaned out of dirt and silt (a redd), the male salmon at the same time is depositing his milt (sperm) onto those eggs. If you care, at all, about successful fish spawning, you will leave these fish alone to do their thing – you wouldn’t like to be interrupted in the same situation, so let’s extend the same courtesy.
Mind the Temps
Salmon, no matter what the type, are cold water fish. Simply, they need cold water to thrive and be alive! Our Great Lakes tributaries often warm run in August and September, so we very strongly urge you to monitor water temperatures and keep off the water if water temperatures surpass 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit).
In 2018 there was a mass kill-off of salmon that were in the lower Ganaraska River, air temperatures skyrocketed over a 30+ degree weekend and multiple dozens of salmon died and went floating down river. If any fish were to have survived the water conditions unstressed, having to fight after being hooked would have surely brought their end. The majority of rivers on the Canadian side of Lake Ontario are not stocked with salmon and we need every fish to spawn to keep their populations healthy for the benefit of our fishery, and lake health, for years to come.
Stocked vs. Wild
There is a popular, but incorrect, thought that all Great Lakes salmon are stocked fish. It is true that the west coast strains of salmon were introduced into the Great Lakes and at one point in history 100% of fish were stocked fish, but on many of our rivers and streams these fish have naturalized and boast large numbers of naturally and successfully spawning salmon.
Wild, or successfully spawning fish, offer the greatest robustness in our ecosystem – fish that are stocked do not go through the same process of natural selection and tend to be less hearty and able to handle adversity.
Yes, there are still stocked rivers on the Canadian side of Lake Ontario, but not nearly all.
We have reached out to the MNRF for estimates of successful spawning for chinook and coho salmon, and steelhead, for our Lake Ontario tributaries, but they have not gotten back to us just yet.
Keep off the Redds
Redds are areas on the river bottom that fish have cleaned of silt, dirt, and other debris- a crucial step in their breeding ritual. This process clears space between gravel, or their preferred substrate, for their deposited eggs to find sanctuary and to develop. If you tread on those reds every step you take can wipe out many eggs and significantly reduce the chance of those eggs surviving adding fish to future populations. If you’re fan of Monty Python, think about the last clip of the opening intro… same deal.
When fish are stressed (a.k.a. spooked) hormones are released in the fish and cause the fish to ‘shut down’, making them very reluctant to take a fly and very difficult to catch. This is true for all fish, so tread and fish quietly, keep back from the banks of rivers and creeks and keep unnoticed.
When salmon return to the rivers to breed from a blue-water environment to shallow rivers, creeks and streams they are in a foreign environment. If you came to an overpopulated dense urban center from spending your life on the wide-open prairies, how would you feel? Probably uncomfortable and a little stressed.
A lot of factors have these fish on edge and can cause them to shut down.
While swinging flies, keep your flies off the bottom, we urge you to swing high. With too much weight on your fly, or too heavy a sink tip, you can quite literally swing your fly underneath fish. Salmon, steelhead and trout can’t see below them without tipping their heads down. If a fish is sitting level in the water, anything below them is out of view. If you find the right combination of the sinking rate of your fly, and sink tip, you can have your fly swing at the same level the salmon are sitting – this is a bad situation. If your fly is swinging at the same depth of a fish, or many fish, the chances are that your fly (and hook) is going to encounter the fish in an area other than its mouth. You have a tremendous chance of foul hooking (snagging) a fish when running a fly at the same depth of the fish.
So, what do we recommend? Swing high! Leave your heavily weighted flies at home and heavy tips, and swing your fly above the fish. If the fish are active, and willing to take a swipe at your fly they’ll move a short distance for it! Keep your fly 2’ or 3’ above the fish and let them choose to come up and take it.
A Slow Introduction
Dropping a fly in the center of a pool of fish is hardly ever a good idea. The sudden “PLOP” on the surface can send fish fleeing. Try introducing your fly a number of feet out from the fish, then slowly introduce it closer until you’re near them (not in or on them!). We have found this tactic works quite well and the aggressive fish in the pool will make their way out to intercept the fly and take a slash at it.
Indicator rigs are a great tool to keep track of where your fly is, and what’s happening with it, and presenting at a set depth. Dead drifting streamers, nymphs, and other patterns below an indicator can pay off for Great Lakes salmon, but keep in mind the same issues we discussed while swinging a fly. Too deep and the fly rides below the fish, the fly at the same height as the fish and you run the risk of foul hooking, so keep them above the fish and let the fish come up to them.
Single vs. Multiple Fly Rigs
Multiple fly rigs are popular while targeting a variety of species of fish and can be extremely effective, but due to the close proximity that these very large fish keep with each other and the numbers of fish that can be in a small area, we have found that multiple fly rigs often end up fouling on fish, snagging them in fins and other less than ideal body parts.
A quick reminder, a fish that is hooked anywhere besides in front of the gill plates is not a legally caught fish. A fish that is not caught legally must be released immediately and without photos taken, if an angler continues to hook multiple fish this way they must change their tactics or change areas.
Skating flies for Great Lakes Salmon
A good friend of the shop, Matt Martin, had a great season last year skating flies on the surface for salmon in our local tributaries! Not a lot of folks are on this program for our local salmon opportunities, but we’ll sure as heck be out there ourselves this year skating flies!
Handling Great Lakes Salmon and Steelhead
BE CAREFUL! Due to a lot of less than desirable, non-ethical, and in many cases illegal, angling practices that take place on Great Lakes tributaries many salmon end up having hooks throughout their bodies, especially their tails. When landing a fish please keep aware that if you grip onto a fish, you could also grip onto a misplaced hook. Very few things get you off the water quicker than a hook in your hand and an angry salmon attached to it.
West coast strain salmon are big fish, so leave your lightweight gear at home.
We’ve seen many 8wt rods snapped in half when anglers have tried to force salmon to hand too soon. When picking a rod for the task, we highly suggest that anything under an 8wt stays in its tube, it is not worth the risk on the gear, and to play a fish on tackle that is any lighter you will just stress the fish for too long.
Single Hand Rod
Rod – 8wt, 9wt, or 10wt
Reel – to match the rod
Backing – 100 yards minimum
Line – floating cold or warm water line
Leader & Tippet – 9’ in 8 to 16 lbs
Spey & Switch Rod –
Rod – 7wt, 8wt, or 9wt
Reel – to match the rod!
Backing – 100 yards minimum
Line – Scandi, Skagit or other line
Tips – Floating or Intermediate
Leader & Tippet – 6’- 9’ 8 lbs to 16lbs breaking strength
Flies for Chinook, Coho & Atlantic Salmon
Woolly buggers - various sizes – purple and/or black and/or chartreuse
Stoneflies – various sizes - purple and/or black
Yarn Flies or Trout Beads – various sizes - chartreuse
Prom Dress – Blue, purple, black, chartreuse
Intruders – 2” – 3.5” blue, purple, black, chartreuse
Stoneflies – various sizes - purple and/or black
Yarn Flies or Trout Beads – various sizes – chartreuse