With Marine Area 10 opening for coho salmon this last weekend, I thought I would write a little bit about fly fishing for coho in Puget Sound. Many people target these fish on the beaches of Puget Sound, but are not as familiar with fly fishing for them from a boat. Hopefully this post might help a few people if they decide to head out in search of these great fish from a craft!
The summer coho season in northern Puget Sound gets started most years in June, and runs through September. By mid June the north sound is full of resident coho salmon who have made their way up from their winter feeding grounds in the south Puget Sound, and August generally marks the time when we start seeing the returning ocean coho making their way into Puget Sound towards their natal streams for spawning. These fish make excellent fly rod targets as they are extremely aggressive, often traveling in small schools, and tend to be fairly surface oriented when compared to chinook salmon. While these fish generally aren’t going to make long runs deep into your backing, they put up a great fight on a fly rod, changing directions quickly when hooked, often going aerial multiple times, and doing everything they can to get that sharp hook out of their mouth! I’ve never encountered a fish more skilled at spitting a hook than a coho.
Gear for summer coho generally consists of 6-8 wt rods, saltwater capable reels, and integrated shooting head lines. There are all kinds of line options out there, however I feel that integrated shooting heads of various sink rates are the best tool for the job. My most used lines for the summer salmon fishing are the Airflo 40+ lines in intermediate, type 3, and type 7 sink rates, with type 3 and type 7 being my go-to lines 95% of the time. For fishing shallower water, <40, or fishing the top end of the water column in deeper water, I stick with the type 3. For fishing deep water scenarios, or heavy current, I jump up to the type 7. I do fish intermediate lines when targeting shallow eel grass or kelp bed areas, or when fishing right up next to the beach, but in general I find the type 3 line can effectively fish the same waters the intermediate lines can, with the added bonus of being able to fish a bit deeper as needed.
Reels with freight train stopping drags are not needed for this fishery, but I suggest using a quality reel capable of withstanding the abuse that our cold saltwater environment dishes out. Ultra cheap reels, fished often, tend to not last terribly long when exposed to the salt. However, if you can’t afford a higher quality reel, or simply don’t wish to invest in more gear (What fly fisher doesn’t want to buy more gear???), then a cheap reel can certainly get the job done. I am a big, BIG fan of the new Orvis Hydros SL reels. These reels can be had at a modest price, and are extremely tough. The drag on these reels is more than enough to stop even the largest salmon, they hold up very well to constant exposure to the salt water, and they look great as well! For around $220 dollars you can acquire a reel that will take a lickin and keep on tickin, and flat out get the job done. I can’t say enough about these reels.
Rod selection for this fishery is quite subjective, but I am a fan of fast, saltwater 6 weight rods. With coho I feel that a 6 wt rod is plenty to land these fish quickly. I like a fast, powerful rod to be able to throw heavier flies and heavier lines into windy conditions, but most important is selecting a rod that you enjoy casting and matches your casting stroke, so don’t get too hung up on seeking out the fastest rod on the planet. My favorite rods for guided salmon trips are Echo 3s and Orvis Helios 3D, both in 6 weight size. At times, late season, I will jump up to 8 wt rods when the largest of coho are making their way into the sound, or when I want to throw larger patterns, however 6 wts will handle 95% of any fish you are likely to hook on the fly, and since we are discussing fishing from a boat, if you happen to hook a large chinook you can always use the boat to chase it down.
For leaders I am a big believer in keeping things extremely simple and heavy. 4-6′ of 12-15 lb Maxima Ultragreen is my choice for leaders when fishing for coho. These fish are not leader shy, and a heavy leader will allow you to fight these fish hard and land them as quickly as possible. The longer you allow a coho to fight, the higher the chances that it will find a way to spit that hook, so I recommend using a stout leader that will allow you to take the fight to the fish and get them to the boat as quickly as possible. Some people prefer fluorocarbon leader, and that works just fine as well, just remember we are not fishing to spring creek trout here; leave your 6x tippet behind!
Ultimately, the most challenging part of hooking coho on the fly is simply finding them at any given time. Generally speaking, feeding coho are quite aggressive and likely to eat just about any fly you show them. Baitfish type patterns tend to be the most effective, but coho are likely to eat anything moving that they come across. Their main food source in Puget Sound is herring, but they are also fans of shrimp, squid, sandlance, anchovies and much, much more. Personally I like to keep things very simple when it comes to flies. Clousers and Deceivers are the two patterns I tend to stick with for the entirety of the season. I like to focus less on fly selection, and more on finding fish and getting a fly in front of them. They are not often picky! That said, all of the standard saltwater baitfish patterns can be quite effective, as well as comets, shrimp patterns, bunny leaches, krill patterns, even poppers. These fish are aggressive! I am a big believer in fishing what you have confidence in, and fishing hard. Chances are, if you were to stop me on the water you would find chartreuse over pink Clouser Minnows on my rods about 98% of the time. I’m not one to change flies very often when coho fishing, often fishing the same pattern for weeks on end. I just don’t believe it matters much. I strongly believe that a fly fisher hoping to tangle with coho is far better served fishing a chartreuse and pink clouser and keeping that fly in likely coho water as much as possible rather than constantly changing out patterns/sizes/colors.
All that said, I do have a few preferences for my coho flies. I like to tie my coho flies large, bright, and flashy! I come from a gear fishing background, and if you look at what most gear fisherman are using for coho it tends to be pretty large, bright, and flashy. Big bright flashers, large colorful spoons, big herring etc. Clearly these fish respond well to this gear, so I see no need to fish small, drab flies for coho. I tie my flies with lots of flash, hoping to catch the attention of any coho that may be in the area, and I tie them large to present a meal worthy of eating!
My number one coho fly is a large, chartreuse over pink Clouser Minnow tied with a stinger hook. Coho tend to take flies directly from behind, often times in a very plucky manner (Especially as the season progresses). Fishing flies with lots of material hanging back behind a standard hook will often result in a lot of short strikes. Stinger hooks hung all the way at the back of the fly go a long way towards alleviating the short striking problem. Generally when the season first opens in June, and into July, I will fish standard clousers, but by August I am fishing stinger hooks nearly exclusively.
As I said before, I believe that the best thing any hopeful coho fly fisher can do is to fish a fly they have confidence in, fish it hard, and keep it in the water as much as possible. I truly believe this is far more important than “matching the hatch” and constantly changing fly patterns.
Below is a video demonstrating how I tie a typical coho clouser with a stinger hook:
Techniques for fly fishing for coho from a boat are pretty simple. Cast and retrieve is the name of the game. The important aspects that I really want to touch on here are retrieve speed, strip setting, and retrieving all the way to your rod tip.
I get asked all the time what type of retrieve I like to employ for coho, and my answer is simple… fast. I mean FAST. The simple fact is that you are never going to out strip a hungry coho. EVER. Have you ever watched herring or other Puget Sound baitfish being fed upon by salmon? Those things can MOVE when they are being chased. These fish are quite used to chasing down fast moving baitfish. What baitfish, when being chased, moves slowly in a straight line? None that I’m aware of. These things can scoot, and so should your fly. Many who ask this question seem to grasp the concept and then are shocked when they see it in action. I like to move these flies just about as fast as I can. Fast, and erratic is what I’m going for. Strip strip strip pause, strip strip pause, strip strip strip pause…. Make that fly zip through the water with lots of action. IMO the worst things you can do when it comes to retrieves is to retrieve slowly (We aren’t crawling a leach pattern across the bottom of a lake here), and what I refer to as “robo stripping”. Robo stripping is what I call it when folks get in a lull and retrieve their fly with generic straight strips, giving that fly very little life. Not much in Puget Sound swims in a straight line at a constant speed, so IMO your fly shouldn’t move that way either. I like to visualize the fly while I’m retrieving… What is it doing? Is it swimming in a boring straight line, or is it swimming fast with lots of life to it? I’ve caught a lot of coho on the fly in Puget Sound and I strongly believe these fish are much more likely to respond aggressively to a fast moving fly than one that is casually swimming through the water. Yeah, coho can be caught with more moderate retrieves, and they are likely to at least come investigate a fly that is moving fairly slowly through the water, but it’s my opinion that they are likely to respond in a much more aggressive manner, I.E. ATTACK, to a fly that is moving in a fast and erratic nature. I like to compare fly fishing for coho to playing with a cat and a string. If you slowly move a string around near a cat, they may look at it, may investigate, and sometimes may even attack it…. But if you start twitching that string quickly, with lots of pauses, they are extremely likely to POUNCE. Coho are very similar. Move that fly quickly if you want to up your chances of hooking up.
When a coho does bite your fly, the most important thing you can do to increase your chances of hooking that fish is to not lift your rod. Just keep stripping! Trout setting, as we call it you lift the rod to set the hook, is a coho fly fishers worst enemy. I cannot emphasize this enough. When fly fishing for predator fish that are chasing down fast moving prey, lifting your rod to set the hook is likely to result in a missed fish. Not only that, a sharp lift of the rod is going to pull that fly 6+ feet away from that fish, or worse yet pull the fly completely out of the water. The best thing you can do when you feel a coho strike your fly, is to keep your rod tip right down low and set the hook by stripping the line sharply. This will not only increase your chances of burying that hook in the fishes mouth, but will also keep that fly right in the zone if the hook doesn’t stick, thus giving that fish, or other nearby fish, another chance at it. Now, believe me, I know how difficult this can be to actually accomplish. Most of us have a lot of muscle memory involving lifting the rod when we feel a fish bite. I know it’s not easy… But it’s very, very important. One thing you can do if you find the temptation to lift the rod just too much to overcome is to employ a two handed retrieve. Tuck your rod under your casting arm with the rod tip pointed down at the water, and use both hands to retrieve the fly. When you feel a coho take, the rod is now out of your hands taking the option to lift the rod right out of the equation. Instead, just keep stripping until that fish has eaten the fly, turned, and is solidly hooked. You’ll know when that fish is on there. At that point you can transition back to your rod hand and fight the fish as normal. An added benefit to this method of retrieving is that you can really move a fly quickly as you’re using both hands to retrieve.
The last bit of technique I want to cover here is retrieving your fly right up to your rod tip. I strongly, strongly advise any saltwater fly fisher to retrieve their fly right up to the leader to line connection, as coho will often follow a fly right up to the boat before committing. These fish are very curious, and will often follow a fly for long distances, only attacking when they sense that their prey is about to escape. By retrieving your fly right back to the boat you will be maximizing your chances of hooking these curious, following fish. You’ll be surprised how many fish you will hook right next to the boat! What I like to do, and instruct my clients to do, is to strip until there is just a couple inches of fly line outside of the rod tip. As soon as I can see my fly as it’s being retrieved I like to watch 2-3′ behind it, always looking for a following fish. Knowing a fish is following is extremely useful as it allows me to employ tactics to get that fish to actually commit. If you don’t pay attention to your fly in the water, and simply pick up and re cast when your fly gets close, you will be missing out on a lot of potential hookups. I like to strip my fly until it is a leader length away, and then I like to hang it in the current for a second or two, then sweep my rod in a direction towards the bow, or stern of the boat. Often this sudden change of direction will trigger an attack by a following fish, even if you haven’t spotted the fish following your fly. When I do know a fish is following, it gives me the chance to try little things to get that fish to eat. I’ll stop the fly and let it drop, hang it in the current, twitch it with my rod tip, sweep the rod tip to change direction… Anything I can think of to try to get that fish to commit. When the fish is right off the rod tip you no longer have the option to keep stripping, however that doesn’t mean you should just pull up and re cast. If there is a fish there behind your fly, I highly recommend keeping that fly in the water until the fish either attacks the fly, or turns away. If the fish does turn away, I like to quickly pick up and make a short cast in the direction I saw it heading. Often times the fish will see your fly hit the water, and instantly attack. Don’t just pick up and make a long cast if you saw a fish follow right up to the boat… You know there is a fish in the vicinity, why not try to catch it???
Ok, so you have the right gear, and you have an idea how to actually go about fly fishing for coho, but where should you fish? In my opinion this is the most important aspect to fly fishing for coho, and is where many fly anglers lack confidence. Puget Sound is a huge body of water, how on earth can a single fly fisher know where to be casting their fly in hopes of catching a coho? The good news is that while Puget Sound is indeed huge, often intimidatingly so, there are several ways to help you narrow down where you should be casting your fly. If you know what to look for, and have a keen sense of observation, you can read the subtle clues around you to help narrow in on where these fish may be located at any given time.
Before getting too far into this, it’s worth noting that everything I write about here applies to traveling/feeding coho in the north sound. Things change when these fish get close to their spawning destinations, but I’m not getting into that end of things here.
When you launch a boat on Puget Sound with the intent of targeting coho on the fly for the first time it is a daunting task to decide where to fish. Believe me I know. I still remember my first trips, looking at all the water available to me, wondering how on earth I would get my fly in front of a coho with all that water for them to swim in. Well, once you get past the intimidation factor, it’s not as difficult as it seems. I like to look at the act of searching for coho in the most simple way possible. These fish, in northern Puget Sound waters, are doing two things and two things only: Traveling, and feeding. That’s it. Their goal is to make their way to their spawning grounds, feeding as much as possible along the way. With that in mind, the most surefire way to find concentrations of coho is to find the food. Find the bait, find the fish. Of course just because you find concentrations of bait doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be coho in there feeding at the time, but it certainly ups your chances by a large amount!
In my opinion, the most important tool a fly fisher has at their disposal when searching for coho is their eyeballs. The most important trait a saltwater fly fisher can possess is being observant! Always keep your eyes on the waters around you. Just like a river, or even a lake, a knowledgeable angler can “read” the waters of Puget Sound if they know what to look for. Always, always, always keep your eyes open and aware of your surroundings. Even when actually fishing, keep your head on a swivel and pay attention to everything you can see.
The first thing to keep an eye out for is pretty obvious…. Look for fish! Always keep an eye out for coho showing themselves. Jumping, swirling on bait, finning at the top of the water, and even cruising in the waters around you… If you see fish it’s obviously a good sign that you may want to fish there! Sounds ridiculously simple, and it is, but it’s important. If you’re fishing a piece of water, and happen to see a coho jump a few hundred feet away, it’s a good idea to move to that area and continue fishing. If coho are around, they will often show themselves, especially by jumping. I don’t believe anyone truly knows why coho will jump out of the water. There are lots of theories, many of which make a lot of sense, but ultimately who knows why they do it. Luckily for the saltwater fly fisher they do! If you’re seeing coho occasionally jump out of the water you can be confident you are fishing in a good area. If you are fishing an area and see a fish jump within casting range, cast to it! I know this sounds stupid simple, but you’d be surprised how many anglers I’ve watched fishing who notice a fish jump within range and don’t immediately cast to it. If you see a fish, do everything possible to show your fly to that fish! If you are in the middle of retrieving your fly when you see a fish jump within range, strip your line in as quickly as possible and get a cast in that direction. Urgency is important here, and is something I really stress to people on my guided trips. When targeting these fish you are only going to have so many opportunities in a day to make a cast into water that you know has a coho in it, so when these chances arise it’s important to take advantage of them. This fishery is all about maximizing opportunities, so when you see a fish show itself do everything you can to get a fly in that vicinity quickly. You are out there with the intent of catching these fish on the fly, right? So why wouldn’t you cast at one if you see it? Sounds like low hanging fruit, but it’s important. Pin point accuracy is generally not required in these situations, as you never truly know which way a coho will be heading when you see one jump, so the best thing you can do is to get a fly in the vicinity of where you saw it as quickly as possible. Coho that you can see are generally coho that you can catch.
If you get on the water and find an area that is full of jumping coho it’s pretty dang obvious that you should be fishing in that area, but what about the times when coho are not jumping and making locating them extremely easy? How do you know where to fish in these times? Well, always keep in mind that these fish are doing two things: Traveling and feeding. With that in mind, the bulk of my time spent searching for coho is spent searching for bait, or areas likely to hold bait. Most of the time if you can find concentrations of bait, (herring, sandlance etc), coho will not be far away. These fish are super opportunistic and always looking for a meal. If I’m not seeing obvious signs of fish, then I try to focus on fishing water that is either obviously holding bait, or likely to be. There are a few different ways to locate bait, or water that is likely holding some. First off is physically seeing bait. When slowly cruising around and keeping your eyes open it’s not terribly difficult to spot bait, either popping out of the water, in thick schools in the water as you cruise by, or by using a sonar on your boat to locate balls of bait fairly near the surface. Obviously spotting a bait ball on your sonar at 180′ down is not super helpful to a fly fisher, but if you are cruising along and mark a bait ball at 25′ down on your sonar, this is a different story and that’s an area you may want to spend some time fishing. That scenario is one where heavier sinking lines are very helpful. The type 7 lines I discussed earlier can fish down to 25′ pretty easily.
Since you are out on a boat, and able to cover a lot of water, don’t get hung up on focusing all of your time searching in shallow water near the beach. Don’t be afraid to head out into deep water in search of these fish. Whether you are in 50′ of water, or 500′ of water, if you can find concentrations of bait at the top of the water column there is a good chance you will find coho. One of my favorite ways to find these fish is finding shallow bait balls out in deep water, and working those areas hard with type 7 lines. This can be unbelievably effective, but is something that many newer saltwater fly fishers lack confidence in. Remember, the overall depth of the water means very little in this fishery. These fish are going to go where the food is, so even if you are in 500′ of water out in the shipping lanes, if there is a giant ball of herring near the surface these fish are going to come up and feed. Don’t get hung up on the depth! Sure, you can’t get a fly down 500′ feet, but if the fish are 10′ under the surface feeding on herring in that same 500′ of water, you can most definitely get a fly down to them!
Another great tool for finding bait is birds. In just about all saltwater fishing it is very important to keep an eye on what the birds are doing. The birds around Puget Sound, just like the coho, are constantly on the hunt for food, and conveniently enough they enjoy eating the same bait as the coho. With that in mind, always keep an eye on what the birds are doing as they can really clue you in on what’s going on. If you are just seeing random birds flying around, not doing anything interesting, then you don’t need to get too excited about them. But if you look off and see big swarms of birds actively banging and splashing down on the water, then I highly recommend getting yourself over there immediately! Big numbers of birds acting in this manner are telling you that there is most likely a big ball of baitfish, shallow enough that the birds can dive down and eat them. Often times these balls of bait are near the surface because they have made their way to the surface in an attempt to escape feeding salmon below them. These types of scenarios are ones I lay in bed and dream about, and get me quite excited when I see them. No matter what I’m doing on the water I am always paying attention to the birds. When there are large concentrations of birds actively feeding on bait near the surface, you can often spot them from a long ways off. Don’t just keep an eye on the water in your immediate vicinity, scan the water as far as you can see. Many times I’ve been fishing in shallower water near the beach, and been able to spot big swarms of feeding birds way out in deep water. If you’re scanning the water and see what appears to be a great number of birds actively working the water, then it would be in your best interest to run to that area immediately. The way I handle those situations is to pick up and run full speed until I am fairly close, then ease back and slow down as I approach. I will try to position the boat so that I, or clients, are able to make casts into the water where the birds are feeding. Often as you get close in a boat the birds will get scared and take off, but don’t let that stop you from covering that water thoroughly. If there was enough bait there to attract a good number of birds, there is a very good chance it also attracted coho. Large concentrations of feeding birds is a great sign when searching for coho, but even individual birds can tell a story. Always keep an eye on whatever birds happen to be in your area. If birds are just flying around not doing much of anything, that is probably telling you there isn’t much bait shallow enough for them to get to. But if you watch single birds flying around then dive down and hit the water, these birds are attempting to get their beaks on food. While not as exciting as spotting large swarms of birds, or “bird bangs” as I’ve learned to refer to them, this is telling you that there is at least some bait in the area which is always good to know. A general rule is, even if just blind casting with no signs of fish, it’s always better to fish in water that is holding a little bait than fish in water holding no bait.
If you’re not spotting signs of fish, and not seeing obvious signs of bait, then you should be focused on water that could be holding bait. The best way to accomplish this is by fishing rips. A rip is a piece of water where two currents are meeting, and can be identified by a line, or obvious current seam. Smaller micro rips can be fairly subtle, just looking like someone drew a line on the surface of the water, with one side of the line often being noticeably flatter than the other side. Larger, more aggressive rips can be very obvious. These are just like the smaller rips, only they are identified by a rather pronounced line that is often flat smooth on one side, and choppy on the other. This chop is often referred to as the “coho chop”. Often these rips will also come with large concentrations of seaweed and marine debris, as the two currents meeting together will tend to concentrate this floating debris. This also applies to bait, which is why rips are always a good place to be throwing your flies. These two currents meeting will force baitfish, generally not strong swimmers, into the area. Coho know this, and will often be hanging in the area ready to feed on this bait. If I’m not seeing obvious signs of coho or bait, then I try to be casting my flies into rips. Salmon love rips, since they concentrate food, so always be on the lookout for them. In general fishing the biggest rips you can find is your best bet, but in the absence of great big, juicy rips, fishing smaller rips is better than nothing.
The bigger the tide swing on any given day, the more likely it is that large rips will be created, so in general fishing on days with large tide swings is preferable to days with smaller tide swings. The more water moving in and out of Puget Sound throughout the day, the heavier the currents will be, which will create larger rips when they meet other currents. In a nut shell this is why tides are so important to this fishery. Tides create current, current concentrates bait, and salmon love bait. Pretty simple right? Yep, it is indeed.
With the tides constantly coming in and out of Puget Sound, water conditions are changing constantly, so a saltwater fly fisher should always adjust accordingly. If you are fishing a nice rip it won’t last forever. Always keep an eye around you for signs of other rips forming. The contour of the bottom, as well as the contour of the shore, will help form these rips so keep that in mind as you are moving around searching for them. Certain areas of Puget Sound have a bottom contour that changes depth rapidly, and these areas will tend to focus current and help create rips. “Jeff Head” is a popular summer salmon area for this reason. The bottom changes drastically in areas, going from deep to much shallower very rapidly, and this tends to make the area likely to have rip tides on large tide days. The same applies to the shore. As water is moving in and out of Puget Sound with the tide, it is funneled, pushed, and affected by the shoreline. This is why salmon beach anglers often focus on points. As current is moving down the shoreline and passes a point, it will often change the current direction enough to form rips in the vicinity of these points. Knowing this a boat angler can have an idea where to look for these rips that hold bait, so always keep that in your head. If you’re out on the water and not seeing fish, signs of bait, or obvious rips, then knowing that points can create these rips can help you decide where to head. If in doubt, go cruise the shore line till you find a noticeable point, and there is a good chance you will find a rip.
The last areas I am going to talk about here are eel grass, and kelp beds. Baitfish will often concentrate in these areas, using the grass/kelp as cover to hide from predators. Salmon know this, and at times will come into these areas to feed. I would say that these are the areas that I personally focus on the least, however if all else fails and I am unable to locate any of clues I discussed above, I will sometimes go into these areas in search of fish. Kelp/eel grass beds can be a bit more difficult to fish due to flies snagging in the grass and picking up lots of debris, but they can also be extremely productive so don’t forget about them.
While it’s easy to get intimidated when fly fishing Puget Sound for the first time, always try to keep in mind that its very possible to “read” the waters of Puget Sound just as you would a river or lake. By being observant, paying attention to the small clues given to you by the water and the birds, you can be confident that at the very least you are fishing in water that has a high chance of holding coho. Fishing these areas is definitely not a guarantee that fish are going to be present, and that you are going to catch them… Sometimes the fish simply don’t cooperate. It is fishing after all. But by being aware of what to look for, and using the great tool that fly fishers are naturally equipped with, (eyeballs), you can break this giant body of water down into smaller areas that improve your chances of finding fish.
Summer salmon season is my favorite time of the year, and coho in particular are my absolute favorite fish to target on the fly. I have spent countless days chasing these fish with a fly rod in hand, both on the beach and from a boat, and have developed a lot of confidence when I am out there. Hopefully some of these tips will help you also hit the water with confidence, and up your chances of hooking these extremely fun fish on a fly rod! Be safe out there, and have fun!