Salmon Flies Explained

For as long as anglers have fly-fished for Atlantic Salmon they have sought to do so with an ever-increasing assortment of patterns, styles and types of fly.

The very first salmon flies created were some of the most beautiful and intricately designed, made with incredible detail and an extraordinarily exotic assortment of materials. Fly-fishing for Atlantic salmon used to be the preserve of the landed and the wealthy and seeing the detail and finesse of these early creations it is easy to understand why.

However, as accessibility increased, so too did salmon flies evolve.a classic example being the Collie Dog; made as it sounds with the long hairs of a Collie sheepdog and a flash of silver, this was far removed from the composition of traditional patterns with their assortment of 15 or so exotic materials sourced from the far ends of the world! Despite the beauty and complexity of the early creations, the Collie Dog and its derivations would probably be considered to be far more successful.

The enthusiastic and dedicated salmon angler will probably have more flies than one would ever hope to use in a year of fishing however at the same time there is always the feeling that one can never have enough flies. That in part is down to the fact that different flies on different rivers in different conditions will all have their time and what works on one day may well not work the next. In other words, yes, it is important to have a varied selection to hand and one size most certainly does not fit all.

Key Considerations in Choosing a Salmon Fly

Size – This is probably the most important aspect. I have always held it to be a good rule of thumb that you should surprise a salmon. If the fly is too big and the salmon has a chance to see it a long time before it actually passes it and the fish may have ‘lost interest’. Conversely if it is too small the salmon may not see your offering until it is too late. In cold or dirty water or when visibility is limited a larger fly would be more appropriate. During the heat of the summer when the water is very clear and conditions are bright small flies are required. Always remember that no rule stands true in all situations and sometimes a large ‘shock tactic’ fly can break the rules.

Colours – As a very rough guide it can pay to choose flies which are roughly sympathetic with their surroundings. The peat stained waters of a Scottish spate river seem to benefit from flies with yellow, orange and red in them. Where rivers have the amazing sort of green hue, typical of Norwegian salmon rivers, greens and yellows are effective. In rivers with the sort of clarity of those in Iceland blues are very popular. Black is the primary constant in a lot of salmon flies, whether as a component or the sole colour.

Modern salmon flies tend to have a reasonable amount of flash or shine in them and certainly many are of brighter colours than were used in the past. This can be very effective but an overly bright fly may also be too gaudy and the final choice should reflect the water conditions


You do not have to “match the hatch” when picking salmon flies but it can pay to use colours that work with the water colour…..a Templedog fly underwater is sympathetically coloured to the peaty brown of the water

Hook Type – You can catch a salmon of any size on almost any hook. A big salmon will not necessarily take a big fly. However the thickness of the hook will dictate how strong it is and if you do hook a fresh large salmon having a really reliable hook may be the difference between success and failure. Conversely if you are primarily in a river where you are mainly fishing for grilse a lighter hook may be all that you need and when small flies are concerned they will normally fish much better on a lighter hook.

Key considerations when fishing a salmon fly

Speed – Of equal importance to the size of a salmon fly is the speed at which it swings. In fast water you can use a larger fly than you may have been using as it will whip past the fish quickly giving it less time to see it. With that in mind one fly is rarely suitable for all a large pool with variations in flow from top to bottom. A fast neck may be better suited to a large fly whilst the middle of the pool, which may be slower moving, more suited to a small fly. If the tail of the pool is smooth but yet speeding up something slightly larger but not as large as that used in the fast rough water.

You can of course vary the speed at which the fly swings using either an upstream mend to slow the fly down or a downstream mend to speed the fly up. The angle at which you cast your line will have a large difference on the speed. A 45 degree cast will present the fly much slower than one at 90 degrees to the flow.

Depth – Salmon flies not only come in a multitude of sizes but also weights. Deer hair will give a fly buoyancy whilst at the opposite end of the spectrum a tungsten tube bodied will make it sink very quickly. The profile of the fly will also have a significant factor on the depth it fishes. A large bushy fly will create more resistance as it swings and so will not obtain as much depth as a compact or slim-bodied fly. Of course the line you are using will have the most important role in the depth a fly fishes but even with a fast sinking line, if fished square with a fly that creates a significant drag it will not fish nearly as deep as you may expect.

Types Of Salmon Fly

Hooked Salmon Flies – Singles, Doubles, Trebles – Salmon flies were traditionally tied directly onto the hook and until relatively recently this was the primary choice. Single hooks came first but now, outside of certain countries (in Newfoundland you are only allowed to use single hooks) doubles are the most popular. Treble hooks used to be the ‘go to’ choice however with catch & release either mandatory or more and more widely practiced trebles are no longer welcome in a great many locations. If you are building a salmon fly collection from scratch and want to be able to use them universally then choosing a double or single hook will stand you in good stead.

Tube Flies – These have become increasingly popular and are now used almost as widely as those tied directly onto hooks. One of the primary advantages is that if your hook becomes damaged you can replace it without having to replace the whole fly. They also allow the fly to be tied onto many different bodies whether that be plastic, aluminium, brass or will tungsten which significantly alter the weight of the fly. As a rule of thumb a brass tube is twice the weight of an aluminium tube and a tungsten tube twice that of a brass one. The choice of flyline will dictate the depth at which the fly fishes but a heavier fly will get down to that depth more quickly.

The contra argument to this is that the more weight that a tube fly has the less free its movement will be in the swing.

Coneheads – For the most part conehead salmon flies are tied onto tubes which are usually made with a plastic body although recent tube designs may incorporate a metal sleeve for added weight. The coneheads may again be made with different weight materials, typically either brass or tungsten, a similar sized tungsten conehead being approx. twice the weight of a brass one.

Disc or Turbo Cones – One of the most recent developments in coneheads is the use of discs. Unlike a regular conehead, which aside from appearance is to add some weight to the fly, the disc is designed to create a level of turbulence which in turn imparts greater movement into the fibres of the fly. For this to have an impact the fly needs to be able to be of a design where the fibres will move very freely so the designs are focused on around light marabou or fur as opposed to traditional deer hair designs

Hitch Tubes – This is really a style of fishing the fly although certain tube flies are designed to be fished this way. A small hole close to the head of the fly allows the leader to be threaded into the tube at right angles. This results in the fly, which would normally be fished on the surface, to obtain a seductive wiggle as it snakes across the water surface. This style of fishing is particularly popular in Iceland and Russia but is increasingly practiced worldwide. Salmon will come up and sip the fly off the surface in a similar manner to the take you might expect from a trout. It works best when the salmon are active in summer conditions.

Dry Flies – Dead drifted or skated – Salmon dry flies are mainly made out of trimmed deer hair which provides them with buoyancy. Primarily dry flies are used on the east coast of Canada where they are almost always fished like a traditional dry-fly, cast up stream and dead drifted over a salmon. The take is usually the gentlest of sips. Alternatively and widely practiced in Russia is the technique of hitching the fly and skating it. In this method the take is often much more aggressive. In both instances it is common to strike the salmon. The other variation on this technique is the practice of dapping which is really a combination of both these techniques and is particularly popular in Ireland when fished from a boat in lochs.

All of the above Atlantic Salmon fly patterns and many more can be seen at

Interested in finding out more about the Atlantic Salmon Fishing hot spots around the world? Find out all there is to know at

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