Fly Fishing for Michigan Chinook Salmon

Hawkins Outfitters

Think you can handle a twenty pound salmon while only using six pound tippet? Ever see your backing while using an eight or nine weight rod, on a Michigan Trout stream? Sound exciting? Fly fishing on the Manistee, Pere Marquette, Muskegon and a number of smaller rivers on the West Side of the Michigan Lower Peninsula offer this excitement during September and early October. This is when Salmon from the Great Lakes invade our rivers.

In the Big Manistee the DNR has estimated that the naturally reproduced salmon are 80% of the run. The DNR stocks 100,000 smolts annually to supplement the run in the Manistee. The creel surveys over the last few years show an average harvest of about 30,000 Chinooks a year. As you can see there are a lot of salmon in the rivers in fall.

How does the average fly angler catch a King? First let me refute a widely held belief that salmon won’t eat a fly. Fresh run Kings, before they hit the gravel and start spawning, will hit a properly presented fly. Hawkins Outfitters lands in excess of 5,000 salmon a year in Michigan and Canada, we know when they are eating and when they have been foul hooked. The key to fair hooking salmon is keeping your flies dead drift, just like trout fishing just a little heavier tackle. Also some new and exciting streamer tactics are evolving click here to learn more.

Rig up a stout nine-foot, nine-weight rod with floating line. Put on a nine-foot 12-15 pound leader. Tie on a 6-8 pound tippet leaving one of the tag ends intact so that you can crimp some split shot there (see diagram here). Tie on a nymph, small spey or bugger. Some of our favorite nymph patterns are bright green caddis, big buggy hex patterns, green sparrows, and black fuzzbusters. If you want you can also add another fly like a Hawk’s Crystal Egg and cast two flies (a salmon favorite below). Tie your Crystal Egg in Chartreuse, Peach, and Steelhead orange. Add a strike Indicator about two times the water depth up from the flies and you’re ready to go. Cast upstream of the fish far enough that your fly gets down to where the fish are holding. Watch the strike indicator and the fish carefully. Most takes are obvious because the fish will rise up in the water column shaking its head or you will see it eat the fly aggressively. Do not react to every twitch of the strike indicator, you’ll be foul hooking fish right and left. Pointing the rod directly at the fish and pulling sharply on the line to break the tippet should immediately break off all foul hooked fish.

You can also use the Chuck and Duck method so common in Michigan. However in fall it is rarely necessary because water levels are low so you don’t need as much weight to get the flies down to the fish. We generally carry rods rigged both ways so we’ll be ready to fish deep if we encounter fish in very deep water. Most of our clients find it much more satisfying to catch big fish using traditional fly fishing methods versus Chuck and Duck. Fighting salmon is different from the average trout. I find that many beginning anglers get as excited as the salmon is angry when they first hook a big fish. Remember to relax and think. You can’t turn a twenty-pound fish by lifting the rod tip up nor can you stop a run by grabbing the reel handle. Both of these moves will result in lost fish and disappointed anglers and guides. The number one thing to remember when fighting any fish is that the tail goes where the head goes. This means you need to fight the front of the fish. Get your rod down parallel to the water and pull that head around, the fish will follow. If possible stay ninety degrees from the nose to give you the best angle to turn the fish. I don’t mean chasing the fish down river just try and stay even with it. Keep the fish off balance so that it expends energy fighting you and the rod. As quickly as possible turn that big head to the net. Quickly photograph the fish and release to continue its journey to spawning gravel. Also you’re not going to land every fish; sometimes they are too strong or too smart. Don’t over stress your Salmon, if it’s 100 of yards into your backing just break it off. Don’t worry there are more to be found.
The best places to find fresh, aggressive fish in Michigan Rivers such as the Pere Marquette, Manistee, and Muskegon are the sections of river down stream from the spawning gravel. Find the mouths of feeder creeks and streams. Fish will stack up there prior to spawning and will take a fly more readily, cooler water and more oxygen. We have had some limited success swinging flies in front of fresh kings. There is nothing like the hit of a fifteen-pound fish slamming a swung fly. Try an Olive Woolly Bugger or small Purple Spey. Tie it on the end of a three-foot leader with a light weight sinking tip. Swing the fly with a tight straight line in front of a pod of fresh kings and hang on. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, what a hoot. They key to swung flies is keeping your line tight and matching the water depth with the weight of your sink tip.

Late August, September, October and November offer the fly angler in Michigan opportunities at salmon, steelhead and lake run brown trout. All are big aggressive fish that put a major bend in the rod. While salmon aren’t the glamour species like steelhead and lake-run browns they provide more reel ripping action than the other two combined. A traveling angler can base themselves in Traverse City, Baldwin or Newaygo, Michigan and have access to some of the finest fly fishing for salmon in the United States.

If your interested give us a call at 231-228-7135 or contact us via email at