Fall Fly Patterns fit for a King

By Judy Nugent - November 1, 2006
When the air is crisp and the days get shorter, thousands of anglers head for the Lake Michigan tributaries to catch the migrating Chinook salmon, or Kings. Those monsters of the open lake are now struggling upstream to spawn. The adrenaline rush you get when you see a dozen 18 lb salmon in one small pool can take your breath away. Often I am so excited I can hardly cast. But for many fishermen this excitement soon turns to frustration when they can't entice the fish to hit. The right presentation can improve your chances of going home with a fish.

The first thing you need to remember is that the fish aren't "hungry." As they get ready to spawn their bodies change. All of their energy is directed at that one goal. As a result, their digestive system shuts down and their intestines harden. Therein lies the problem. How can you legally hook a fish? The key is to think like a fish.

Salmon will take a fly for one of two reasons: it strikes out of annoyance or it strikes out of habit at something it sees as food. John Graba, fishing manager at the Kenosha Gander Mountain, has an excellent system to attack both of the salmon's instincts. First he cuts off the last 2 or 3 feet of tippet. Then he reattaches the tippet with a surgeon's knot leaving a 2-3 inch tag of leftover line. TO this tag he attaches one or two small split shot. The amount of weight will depend on the water flow and the weight of the flies. To the tippet, Graba will tie two different flies which I'll talk about in depth in a moment. The first fly will be about 16 inches from the end of the line and will be an attractor pattern. The last fly will be a fly that imitates food. The idea is that the salmon will see the attractor fly and attack it out of annoyance or the attractor will get the attention of the salmon so that when the second fly comes by the fish is ready.

Remember that your tippet should be at least 3x or stronger. You need to prepare for a good hook set, several minutes of fighting this King, and the possibility of getting hung up in woody debris. Strong line is key.

Now, about those flies. Let's start with the attractor patterns. These are generally large, streamer like, sinking flies that are usually brightly colored with exotic eyes and flashy tails.

Egg Sucking Leech
This is perhaps the most familiar to fly fishermen. This is essentially a wooly bugger (chenille body and marabou tail) with a brightly colored chenille head to represent the egg. The leech body can be traditional black or other colors such as purple. Egg colors are usually hot pink, orange, yellow, or chartreuse.

Boss Fly
This fly also has a black chenille body, but this is wrapped with silver ribbing and has a tail of buck tail. The collar is an orange or red saddle hackle. Above the collar are dumbbell eyes. These are made of dumbbell eyes that are tied and cemented at the head of the fly.

Comet
This fly is another variation of the other two. In this fly you wrap flash on the body instead of chenille. The flash should be gold, purple, chartreuse, or orange. Then use strands of flash for the wings. Match the color of the collar to the color of the body (for example, white collar for a white body). Then attach the dumbbell eyes with thread and cement. Finish the head with red thread.

Flesh Fly
On those days when you feel like a little more color, try the Flesh fly. These large patterns look like a small pom pom in your fly box. Made mostly of marabou, these flies have shades of hot pink, orange, purple, and white with often a few strands of flash. These can be tied over a straight hook or you can wrap the body of the hook in silver or colored threads.

Jessica Spey
This is John Graba's own unique attractor pattern. This colorful fly consists of a body of holographic flashabou, a greenish or bluish rump feather from a pheasant skin, and a wing of turkey. This has become a popular fly with professionals and recently guide Bob Blumreich had a Spey swap at a seminar where fishermen learned to tie this special fly.

Estaz Wiggler
This is another one of Graba's creations. Author Matt Supinski featured this pattern in his book Steelhead Dreams. This fly is similar to a wiggler. It has the squirrel tail, a wiggler body, with a shell back of squirrel tail as well. The difference is in the choice of material for the body. Use Estaz chenille in your favorite color. Suggestions are root beer, black, and white. The heads can be a standard color or can be in the hot, bright colors to imitate an egg.

These are some of the basic attractor patterns. Next we have to consider the secondary fly. Your best bet here is to imitate a food source found in the rivers. While an early season Chinook will take a shad or minnow pattern, the longer they stay in the river the less likely these will succeed. Instead, try some of the following flies.

Egg Fly
The first to try is the traditional single egg fly in a bright color (chartreuse, orange, and shades of pink). These are meant to imitate the spawn laid by the females.

Crystal Sucker Spawn
This pattern is much larger than the traditional egg pattern and is made of crystal flash. This also comes in the hot colors, but has that extra sparkle to get the fish's attention in murky water.

Bead Spawn
This fly is made with a glue stick. You can buy pre-colored glue sticks at your local fishing store. Put these into a hot glue gun and put drops of glue on the hook. The glue will cool and harden to look like eggs.

Crystal Braid Spawn Sac
These flies are made of sparkly chenille. Make a small loop in the crystal braid chenille to imitate a single egg. Do these seven or eight times to make the egg cluster. Tie each one to the hook to keep them in place.

In addition to these patterns, there are two traditional nymph patterns worth mentioning. These flies are standard fare when fishing for stream trout and work surprisingly well on Chinook.

Kaufman Stone Fly
This large black nymph can be used as either an attractor or as a secondary fly. These nymphs are a familiar part of the river landscape and the Chinook recognize them as food. They are big and heavy so be aware of the extra weight.

Squirrel Nymph
This nymph is similar to the Hare's Ear (a small brown nymph pattern) and can be tied to have a bead head. Use traditional colors like brown and tan. When salmon are being picky this small offering can be very effective.

As Chinook change their habits and metabolism, fishermen must change their tactics if they want to be successful. For those of you new to fly fishing, don't be intimidated by the lingo or technique. All of these flies can be found at your local store or on line. As for the casting, in these small streams "casts" usually involved lifting the rod tip and swinging the line out like a pendulum. With the weight of the flies and the sinkers, traditional casting is difficult and unnecessary. The key is to keep the fly near the bottom and right in front of their noses.

Trust me. Once you've had the chance to properly present these flies and battled an 18 lb fish on a fly rod, you'll leave that spinning rod in the truck.

Author Judy Nugent
Judy Nugent
Judy Nugent has been writing for several years. Her work can be found in Wisconsin Outdoor News, Wisconsin Outdoor Journal, Wisconsin Sportsman, Midwest Outdoors, Fly Fisherman Magazine and Snowshoe Magazine among others. She is also on the TV show OUTDOOR WISCONSIN. Judy has experience in radio with the show Great American Outdoor Trails where she does a weekly segment called Women on the Trail.