Dual Purpose Equipment for Salmon and Steelhead Flyfishing

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Saltwater Fly Fishing Series

Dual Purpose Equipment for Salmon and Steelhead Flyfishing

with Barry M. Thornton


When I have been discussing steelhead and salmon fly fishing opportunities at fly fishing clubs and sports shows, equipment costs have been a repeated concern expressed by many anglers. Fortunately, for the pocketbook, fly fishing equipment used for saltwater salmon fly fishing can also be used for river steelhead fly fishing! Length of fly rod (9 to 10 ft); ASA rating for fly rods (ASA #7 to #9); fly reels ( size 7 to 10); fly lines (sink tips, shooting heads, floating, wets); all, can be used equally effectively for both target species and in most situations. From my personal experiences I have found that it is only with the flies used for salmon or steelhead that there is a major difference. But, even then, I have found that many steelhead fly patterns can be interchangeable when fishing for some salmon species like pinks and sockeye.

When I began serious saltwater fly fishing for salmon I had already purchased quality equipment which I had been using for summer and winter steelhead. Because of this, when first experimenting on the saltchuck, I found myself able to cast and retrieve my fly lines in a manner which I soon found required only slight modification to become effective for catching salmon.

The dual purpose fly rod

The one characteristic I would recommend for your dual purpose fly rod would be that it have a stiff and strong spine. Noodle action or mooching action fly rods are not what you need! Your rod should be rated by the American Sportsfishing Association, ASA, to handle a #8 or a #9 fly line. Salmon and steelhead are powerful trophy fish! Anything less than a #8 will have you fighting from the reel with the tip pointed at the fish. The only exceptions to the #8/#9 rule would be the use of a #6 or #7 rated fly rod when river fly fishing for coho 'Jacks' ( and a very limited number of 'Jills') during late autumn. It is an experience I would recommend highly for all fly anglers. Another exception would be when you are fly fishing for pink salmon along beaches and in estuary situations. These smaller coho and pinks defeat the sporting purpose of the powerful #8 and #9 fly rods. My preference for these smaller salmon is a #6 weight strong spined fly rod. In fact, it is the same fly rod I use when I fish trophy Interior lakes for large rainbows. For sporting pleasure, and to reduce the strain that a powerful fish will put on your wrist, a detachable 'fighting butt' should also be a part of the fly rod you purchase.

The versatile fly reel:

There are many many fly reels on the market ranging in prices to fit all pocketbooks. Unlike trout fishing where the reel's primary purpose is to hold your fly line, the salmon/steelhead fly reel is the key fighting tool in your equipment. Regardless of fish size, and, regardless of whether I have hooked a steelhead or a salmon, I always, always, reel in my slack fly line before I attempt to fight the fish. Once 'at the reel' I feel I have some control over these large fish, and, I can let them run from the reel whenever they resist the fighting action of my fly rod. Make certain when you first spool on your backing that it is tight to the drum of the reel. The tension from a powerful fighting fish will have your fly line tangle under this backing if it is not tight. Never use monofilament line as backing. Spare spools are highly recommended which carry alternate lines for quick in-field changes. If you are expecting to be a serious salmon or steelhead fly fisher make the reel your most important tackle purchase!

Dual purpose flies:

As a rule of thumb, I use "SILVER" patterns for salmon and, "PINK" attractor patterns for steelhead. But, if you were to look into any of my many fly boxes you would see that there is variety! How often, in many situations I have found that the unorthodox, the unbelievable, the undefinable, the unreasonable, that strange fly was the fly that took fish on that particular day. It is for that reason that I carry a wide selection of patterns, from optics to lead eyes, from streamers to attractors, from dries to bombers, to ensure that I have covered all situations. I strongly believe that you can never have too many flies!

As an experimenting fly tier, I do feel that there are some similarities between salmon and steelhead flies. First, because you must get your fly down to the depth which the fish prefer, salmon at 15 to 30 feet; steelhead at the bottom of the river pool, the majority of my wet flies are weighted. This I have found over the years is the only certain way of getting my fly to the depth where these trophies lie. Secondly, I use stainless steel hooks for the majority of my wet flies, Mustad #34007SS or the long shank #34011SS. These hooks do add weight and help to get my flies down. Anyone who has tied a box of nonstainless steel hooks and looked in your box after a day on the saltchuck will understand why you use stainless steel, always!

I have found that it is best to have different sized fly boxes for each species. When river fishing for steelhead, small fly vest boxes are most desirable and these are easily accommodated by the numerous pockets in most vests. However, on the ocean, a single large box is preferred because you will rarely wear a vest. This large box does allow your selection to be fully displayed when you are making a choice and does allow you to tie flies of different sizes to accommodate water conditions and baitfish sizes. I use two large boxes in by boat, one for unweighted flies and the other for weighted flies.

While dual equipment will solve the cost element in your fishing equipment, there will come the time when you will find that each situation, each species, requires a particular set of equipment. This is but one lure to flyfishing, in fact with any specialized sport. Each year I add at least one new rod, one new reel, and, a number of fly lines to my repository of tackle. Each winter I will spend hours inventing new patterns and tying the tried and proven. This is the grand appeal to fly fishing, likely the reason why it is the fastest growing outdoor sport in North America.

© Copyright Barry M. Thornton

Barry M. Thornton

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Dual Purpose Equipment for Salmon and Steelhead Flyfishing