Lake Ontario’s Pacific Salmon Fly Fishing

pacific salmon fly fishing catch close up in a net
You can’t beat hooking a salmon on a fly rod for excitement.

A Pacific Salmon Fly Fishing Trip

I was on a solo drift trip down the Salmon River, a Lake Ontario Tributary, in the Great Lakes Region of New York, in my kick boat when I found a good spot to pull over and fly fish a side channel off of the main flow. I tied up the kick boat and waded out to have a look. Sure enough, there were a couple of king salmon holding on a seam in the current.

Coaxing a Bite

It wasn’t an easy spot to fly fish because a tree had fallen into the river and the salmon were holding just off of the top of the tree. I picked out a purple Egg Sucking Bunny Strip Leech and gave it a go. The ugly fly drifted through the fish a couple of times without them showing much interest; they simply moved to either side of it and let it pass. The fifth cast was a different story. A hen fish of about twenty pounds decided she’d had enough of the purple intruder and darted over and chomped the fly in her toothy jaws.

King (Chinook) Salmon Put Up A Fight

I set the hook and things got interesting. She, being a good size King or Chinook Salmon darted downstream peeling the line off of the reel, then decided it was time to speed back upstream in a hurry. I had all that I could do to keep the line tight when she changed directions. I scrambled to get things back under control. The next obstacle came when she decided to tangle the line up in the submerged branches of the tree. I put as much side pressure on the rod as I could without breaking the ten pound tippet. It took quite awhile, but in spite of the odds being in the fish’s favor, I managed to land her.

Fly Fishing for Salmon Is Always An Adventure

Salmon and fly fishing go together like peanut butter and jelly, and in freshwater there isn’t much that is more exciting than hooking a salmon on fly tackle. One of the reasons is that once hooked, salmon are a handful to land, even for seasoned fly anglers. They blast upstream and downstream so fast you will skin your knuckles if they get too close to the reel handle.

I’ve heard fellow outdoor writers and others claim that once salmon enter the river they won’t hit a fly, but nothing could be further from the truth. Becoming a successful fly angler for king salmon is simply a matter of knowing their habits and showing them the right fly in the right place.

Salmon Fly Fishing Gear

close up of reel, flies and net for pacific salmon fly fishing.

Fly Rod

For king salmon, good fly fishing gear doesn’t necessarily have to mean fly fishing with broomsticks. The general all-around Lake Ontario tributary fly rod is a 7 weight that is at least 9 feet or more long.

My favorite salmon rod is a 10 foot long, 7 weight St. Croix, single handed fly rod. I also sometimes use a switch rod (single Spey) that is also a 7 weight, but is 11 feet long. The extra length prevents the rod tip from breaking and acts as a shock absorber to avoid breaking off the tippet.

Fly Reel

The quality of the reel is even more important than how much you spend on a rod when it comes to pacific salmon fly fishing. When you hook a king or coho salmon, it is going to run and can peel off enough line to take you into the backing. Reels have to have a smooth drag and be sturdy enough to take a lot of punishment and not seize up. They should be capable of holding 150 yards of backing.

Fly Line

For fly line, there are a couple of choices for pacific salmon fly fishing. I like to use multi-tip fly lines because it is possible to switch back and forth between using sink-tips or a floating line or use the “chuck and duck” style rig with split shot while using a floating line.

We also make our own sink-tips out of deep sinking shooting heads cut into 5, 10 and 15 foot links with loops on both ends for attaching them to the fly line. With fly lines, color is important. A dull green colored line works best for salmon and steelhead while bright colors spook them. If you do have a brightly colored line, take a marker and darken the first 15 feet or so with a color that blends in with the bottom of the stream.


For pacific salmon fly fishing, leaders should be 8-12 feet long. The most popular rig is an 8 foot long butt section of 10-15 pound test, with a small black barrel swivel tied to the end. From there attach about 3 feet of 6-10 pound test fluorocarbon tippet.  I always leave a 3 inch piece of the butt section tied to the swivel and use that to attach split shot to.


There are a lot of tried and true flies that work for Pacific salmon fly fishing. My favorite is the Edge Bright Comet in hot pink, red, and fluorescent chartreuse. Another great fly that you can use in a couple of colors is the Egg Sucking Bunny Strip Leech. I like to tie these in purple and black. Wooly buggers in a variety of colors work well, and I enhance mine with a wing like my buddy Jim Kelso’s “Wing-dinger” pattern. Basic egg patterns also produce kings, and I like to tie simple Iliamna Pinkies in different colors and also like to use the Otter’s Soft Egg patterns. A good dark stonefly pattern like the Rusher’s Stone sometimes works well.


Remember, hook gaps on flies can’t be greater than ½ inch and flies can be weighted no more than 1/8th of an ounce. Generally, hook sizes range from #2s  – #10s. When the fish are finicky, going to smaller size flies will often work.

Other Useful Gear

In addition to this basic gear for pacific salmon fly fishing, good quality polarized glasses are essential. A wading staff is also a good item. Waders should have Korkers or some sort of cleats to prevent falls into what will be icy water when the salmon run.

Fly Fishing Tactics for Salmon

Picking Your Spot

While fishing in Alaska, one of the things I discovered with salmon is that there may be a thousand fish in a pool but most of them won’t hit. The fish are resting in the pool on their run upstream to find spawning substrate and they won’t strike, but there is one spot in the pool where spawning aggression gets the best of them. New fish coming into a pool have to find some elbow room and there are shoving matches that ensue. The tail of a pool is often where the most aggressive fish are, and they are the ones that will hit a fly.

In addition to tails of pools, there are often resting spots through the heavy water runs as they come upstream. There may be a spot where there is a big boulder that is breaking up the current and the salmon will duck in behind it and rest as they move upstream. Setting up on a spot like this will produce fish.

Spawning Behavior

When salmon are on the gravel and spawning, male salmon will aggressively strike anything that comes near them because they fight with other males and are just unruly. Both male and female salmon have an instinct to protect the nest, and crayfish and minnows try to sneak in and steal eggs. Anglers often find a lot of dead minnows and crayfish on the bottom when the salmon are spawning.

Salmon also seem to want to conserve protein.  Dead eggs or eggs drifting along the bottom often get eaten.

Find The Active Fish

Finding active fish under any of these scenarios is what it takes to get a strike on a fly.  Once you find fish, keep putting the fly past them. If they don’t strike it, try changing colors.  Changing colors can often make a big difference with Pacific salmon fly fishing.

Depending on light conditions, they may want a pink fly one day and a purple one the next. You should also vary the retrieve from the dead drift style if they won’t hit. Cohos love to chase things, so a strip retrieve may work for them. Sometimes giving a dead drifted fly a twitch or two as it passes in front of a king will entice it to strike.

Places to Try Pacific Salmon Fly Fishing

An angler enjoying some pacific salmon fly fishing

NYSDEC stocks 1.7 million Chinook salmon and 250,000 coho salmon each year. The runs can start as early as late August, but the bulk of the fish will run from mid-September to mid-October.  Some streams may be “on” earlier or later depending on water flows.

From east to west, the Black River, South Sandy Creek, Salmon River, Oswego River, Sterling Creek,  Genesee River, Sandy Creek, Oak Orchard Creek, Eighteen Mile Creek, and the Lower Niagara River are the places to go as they are stocked with salmon and the spawning fish return there.  The Salmon River is the best known, and offers the longest length of stream that you can fish, but the other streams are a lot of fun as well.


There is something about catching a “wall hanger” sized fish that drives some people insane and keeps them coming back for more pacific salmon fly fishing time and time again. Remember good angling ethics and don’t crowd other anglers. If someone yells “fish on,” pay attention and reel up if they have to go past you to fight the fish as you will want the same courtesy if you have one on.

Enjoy The Adventure

Pacific salmon fly fishing is not only effective, it is a heck of a lot of fun.  This trophy fishing opportunity exists right here in the Empire State; and if you do get “salmon fever, you won’t forget landing that first king on the fly!

Original Article By Rob Streeter

About The Author

Rob Streeter enjoys fly fishing for many species, especially trout and salmon in the Lake Ontario tributaries. He is the outdoor columnist for the Albany Times Union and freelances for several publications. He is a member of the NYS Outdoor Writers’ Association and the Outdoor Writers’ Association of America.

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