Fly Fishing for Chinook... the KINGS of the River!

September 27, 2014

Fly Fishing for Chinook... the KINGS of the River!

Who wouldn't want to catch a Chinook Salmon on a fly?  They call them Kings for a reason!  These critters are big ol' tough nasty fish with a will to fight that no other river fish has.  While steelhead might be fast, aerial, and flashy none have that "Rocky Toughness" that Kings do.  These fish don't give up!  They pull hard, run with diesel torque, have unbelievable endurance, and an iron jaw that you need a serious rod with in order to get good hook penetration.  My first experience with serious King fishing was in Alaska on the Kanektok in 2006. We fished Kings 10 hours a day, all day, for 6 days straight.  Big fish fever is a real thing!  From that point on I have always had a place in my heart for Kings.  Big, small, bright, black, red, jacks or whatever.  I love 'em.

My first "quality" King was on the Kanektok River in Alaska.  This complete immersion into spey fishing helped jumpstart my passion for both two-handed rods and spey fishing for Salmon.

PNW Kings on Fly Fishing Gear

There are very few species more exhilarating to catch than a King on fly gear!

The local King run for us is peaking on our home water, the Klickitat River in the next week to 2 weeks.  It seems like the last week of September to about October 15th or so is the best King fishing.  We still catch fish later in the month, sometimes very bright, but many start to get a little tired.  They are still a great fight but lack that "ocean fresh" appearance.   We have a few dates open for single day trips, but most of the outfitters are booked up at this point. If you can't get a date this year don't worry!  2015 has lots of open space hahahahahah!  If you are serious about trying to get a date, call soon and we'll get a trip set up for you this year.

Fish Count is Everything on Kings

When you are fly fishing for Kings there is no greater factor that fish count.  Watch the fish counts at the various dams to get an idea of how to read and query this data.  You can look at years past and try to "track and time" the run and find the peak days. Since they don't take a fly as aggressively as Steelhead, you will need to put your offering in front of more fish in order to find players.  On the Columbia River system, 2013 was an UNREAL run of fish.  I believe it is the greatest number of Fall Chinook that they have ever counted.  The run was of epic proportion.  It wasn't until last year that we started catching Kings consistently and it also helped us learn a lot about how to target them as well.  Lots of opportunities.

2014 is shaping up to be an amazing year as well! - The King Run is MORE THAN DOUBLE THE 10 YEAR AVERAGE at Bonneville Dam - The number of Jacks in 2014 also suggests that 2015 will be a masher year as well for Chinook

Where to go fishing? 

There are lots of rivers that offer Chinook fishing.  In the PNW there are countless streams on both the Oregon side and Washington side of the Columbia and too man places to list.  Frankly in our state one of the best places to start is the Fly Fisher's Guide to Washington.  It lists LOTS of rivers and off the beaten path places that the gear anglers often overlook.  Very good book, I personally started with one of these.  I bought it at Alberton's in the grocery checkout when I moved to Ellensburg. It altered the course of my life.  My wife hates you Greg Thomas hahahaha!

Just be sure to check the regulations for emergency openings and closures.  The rules change constantly and can also give you an indication when there is a rare and unique oopportunityto be had.  You can see all the WDFW Emergency Rule Changes online. 

Helpful Tips for Fly Fishing Kings

  • Fish count is important, but don't let it become an excuse not to go.  
  • Water change is a huge factor in your success.  Kings LOVE to move during and after high water and poor clarity can benefit fishing big time. Check out the water clarity in this picture from a few days ago. 
  • Just do it.  The more you step into the water, wet your line, and go fishing the more you will learn how to read water, cast, wade, handle line, and strategize in general.  There is no such thing as a wasted day on the river!  Learn, learn, and learn! Plus the more time you put in... the more fish you catch.
  • Low light is critical if the water is clear.  Kings seems to take flies best just before and just after their periods of "running".  Running might be just hopping from hole to hole and fidgeting around, and while doing this they are more likely wind up in a vulnerable spot.  Be on the water early, or late.  I personally have found about 4 pm in the month of October to be "go time".  Just my 2 cents worth.  Prior to the sun hitting the water is without a doubt the BEST time to target Kings. 
  • Don't overlook tailouts.  This ain't trout fishing!  Get to the tailout.  It is hard to do but you'll eventually learn.
  • Kings are deep - mid day when the water is clear.
  • They seem to bite best in sunlight in faster currents.  
  • Low light - target tailouts and pools.
  • Get good gear, yes, you will need some gear and YES we are going to sell it to you. :)

Notice the water clarity here.  There is about 18" of clarity AT BEST!  Low visibility and good fish counts are the best combo for fly fishing Kings.  The fish tend to be more aggressive and also tend to hold in fly friendly water.

Presentation Strategies for Chinook

There are three basic presentation strategies for Kings.  

  1. Swinging flies - This is the most highly regarded way of hooking Salmon.  It is fun, classy, super exciting, efficient (which leads to productivity), and the most popular.  This adventure frankly isn't for beginners, so forgive me if I get too technical too fast.  You will want to "soften your swing" for Chinook.  Most successful anglers are going to deliver casts at just at or above 90 degrees to the current mend, STEP WHILE THE FLY IS SINKING (this aids the sink time on the fly/sink tip), and then gradually let the fly build tension.  As it rises from near the bottom up through the water column hopefully it will startle the King and provoke a strike.  In clear water most Kings are hooked mid pool or mid-river.  In dirty water they may eat at the end of the swing more like a steelhead often does.  I haven't found Chinook to follow the fly like a steelhead, I believe in dirty water they are sitting/traveling on the softer inside ledges and that is where your swing often ends.

    Focus your efforts in low light, or shady areas.  Kings are spooky and often won't be very aggressive in direct sunlight.  In low light fish the tailouts just above a fast water chute.  The fish come up the chute and while resting at the top of the chute they can be targeted in shallower water than they live mid day.  Once the sun is up, focus on the pools.  Again, slow soft swings are best.  If you plan to only swing flies, get a heavy duty spey rod.
  2. Nymphing or Indicator Fishing - This is a dead drift or slack line presentation much like you might do for trout.  The water you should focus on is holding water where fish are resting or parked.  This is best done in more prominent holes and known holding water.  The more fish that are there, the more likely you are to catch them.  Don't waste too much time in the transition water like riffles and pocket water unless your emphasis is steelhead.  

    Your set-up might range in depth from as much as 12' below an indicator to as little as 4-5' sometimes.  My suggestion is to "find the bottom" and then back off a foot.  Use a 1" adjustable Thingamaleader setup.  Hit bottom a few times and then back off 6" at a time until you are only occasionally tapping. 

    For drifting leaders that are 12' deep a switch rod is really nice to have.  Just sayin'
  3. Stripping Flies - This one is less common around here, but in Alaska it is a pretty standard operation.  Mid-day the guides that really want their guests to get into Kings take them to big pools and back eddies and tie on a heavy sink tip and strip big flies right through the pools.  It makes sense right?!  I personally haven't done much of this in the Lower 48 but plan to this year.  A single hand rod equipped with a RIO Versi-tip 2 fly line would be ideal for this.  Especially in pools where the fly won't swing and you can strip it down stream at the fish.  I was recently talking with an old time Alaskan guide and he said that was an important part of this strategy.  Cast up stream, let it sink, and strip it with the current.  This allows the fly to stay deep during the retrieve and provokes a "fight or flight" response from the fish.

Specialized Gear for Fly Fishing Chinook Salmon

Single Fly Rods for Kings

Don't forget about Single Hand Fly Rods.  Eventually you will want spey or switch rod gear, but if you are just getting into this please get a good single handed rod.  I like a 10' 8 weight if I were picking one rod for fishing Kings on a single hander. A 990-4 would be good too, but since it is shorter and stiffer, the result is that it doesn't mend quite as well.  With the 10' version you can reach and mending, but lose a bit on fish fighting.  

10 Weights are definitely the best, IF you know that you will be targeting Kings and swinging or stripping flies most of the time.  Indicator fishing fishing a 10 weight is pretty challenging and this rod doesn't offer much overlap for Steelhead.  It will however put a hurting on 20-30 pound Chinook!  I have fought several big Kings on a Single Hand 10 weight and it is awesome.  

Complete Outfit for Kings and Steelhead - Take a good look at this package.  In the Sage ONE and ACCEL we'll substitute an 8100-4 (10' 8 weight) OR a 990-4 in any of the models into this complete package at no additional cost if you are after Kings.  The line that comes with this outfit is perfect for chasing Chinook.

Your traditional 890-4 will work for Kings, but your hook to land ratio will be lower and breaking rods is very common.  Especially if you are on foot and don't have a boat to pursue the fish.  These Kings are big, tough, and mean.  A 20 pound Chinook is easy to get close to during the fight but may seam impossible to land without a big stick!

Best Single Hand Fly Line for Kings?

Rio VersiTip 2 Fly Line

I have to go with the RIO Versi-tip 2 Fly Line.  It is an awesome product, you can do all three presentation strategies with this. You can swing, nymph, and strip flies.  

Switch Rods for Kings

This is where Switch Rods become a VERY logical choice.  Many that follow our blog and adventures know that I personally really like Switch Rods, well I actually like all fly rods, but in this case Switch Rods are the best choice IMO.  Part of the reason is, Sage quit making 10' 9 weights about 6 years ago so there isn't a long enough and heavy enough single handed rod in that family right now.  The advent of the Switch Rod was likely responsible for that.

Switch Rods play bigger than they are.  An 8 weight switch rod plays and lifts like a 10 weight single handed rod.  Also, because when you are fishing Kings it is done in a river 95% of the time anyway, there will be mending and line management which requires some flexibility.  In saltwater, it would be just a long straight cast and the 9/10 weight rods built for that are good at it.  But they don't mend and roll cast very well.  These two tools are what a Switch Rod is great at!  

If you want a true "King Switch Rod" the 9 Weight Sage METHOD Switch rod is the way to go.  It is delicately nicknamed the "crowbar" haha.  It doesn't cast bad with a Skagit Head and will absolutely whip most of the Chinook you hook into.  If you are fishing in rivers that have Chinook that regularly go 30 pounds this is a great choice.  

Here is a King I caught on an a Redington Switch Rod while field testing it with a RIO Skagit MAX Short.  This was using the 7 weight, but the 8 weight would have been much more appropriate.  And this isn't even a big one!

8 Weight Switch Rod/Reel and Line Setups - River Ready and will arrive at your door step all spooled up and ready to fish.  You can do some research and try to find the rod that seems to work best for your style, but I will tell you THE MORE YOU SPEND THE MORE YOU GET.  We sell all price ranges and get the best you can afford, but please know that these fish are no joke.  They will burn up reels, break rods, and casting big flies and sink tips is a A LOT of work.  If you want to fish all day, or several days straight at a varsity level then get the best you can afford.  I personally really like the Sage ACCEL right now.  It is a performance rod but soft enough to make roll casts, mends, etc.

Best Fly Line for Switch Rods and Kings?

I absolutely hate to have to choose one... so I won't.  I am choosing two lines.  First, if you are going to swing flies exclusively, nothing beats a RIO Skagit iShort.  NOTHING BEATS A RIO SKAGIT iSHORT!  This line helps your entire fly line get under the fast surface currents and gets you that "soft swing" that Kings like so much.  This head is very fishy.  

Rio Skagit iShort Shooting Head
The RIO Skagit iShort is the best fly line on switch rods for swinging flies for Chinook.  

If you are going to nymph fish some, swing, some, and maybe even strip some flies then the RIO Switch Chucker fly line is a great choice.  It won't slow swing like the Skagit iShort, but it casts and fishes great.  I personally don't love nymph fishing with it, the RIO Switch Line is better but if you are going for a one-line-fits-all system then this line combined with a RIO Medium Floating MOW tip is a good choice.

Chucker + Floating MOW Tips = Decent Nymph Line and GREAT swinging line on a switch rod!

  Rio Switch Chucker - Switch Rod Line

Spey Rods for Kings

There isn't anything more fun than feeling that slow swing STOP and then getting to lay the lumber to a Chinook.  That big bony jaw of their's requires some man-power so lean into those sets with a rod that will back you up.  Provoking these fish though is only half the fun!  Now that you saddled that beast you've got to ride it.  There is no better way than a spey rod.  Spey rods will limit your ability to strategize.  Some rivers are best fished by dead drifting flies or egg patterns with an indicator.  Spey rods are great for chucking giant flies and heavy sink tips, but they aren't capable of giving you an enjoyable indicator fishing experience.

That being said, a dedicated spey angler is efficient and if you step out of your comfort zone and are willing to "soft swing" some of the broader pools you will be surprised.  Most spey casters are always looking at water from a steelheader's perspective.  Be sure to consider a different approach when fishing for Chinook.  They prefer deeper water and hold mid-day in the pools.  While some of these softer currents aren't as fun to swing as water moving at a fast walk, they are productive places to target Chinook.

Spey rods for fishing Chinook should be at least solid 7 weight.  An 8 weight is preferred and if you are really targeting Chinook a 9 weight is the only way to go.  Especially if you are on big water.  We sell all sorts of spey rods so I won't get too detailed with my reccomendations, but I will say this.  Longer is better for casting big flies and heavy sink tips.

A 13' to 14' rod will make picking up a heavy sink tip with a barbell eyed fly on it sooooo easy its not even funny.  It's like this.  Imagine you have a trench to dig behind your house.  It has to be 4' deep and about 100' long.  Grab a shovel, that is like casting big flies with a single hand rod.  Now imagine the guy with the excavator shows up. That is what casting a 13'6" 8 weight spey rod is like.  Why use a hand shovel when there is an excavator available?  

For steelhead the trend seams like it is going to shorter rods.  I am part of that.  They are fun to cast, the loops are super tight, and I feel like I have a bit more control when managing currents on smaller to mid-sized water.  I fish a 12'6" Sage ONE spey rod a lot.  It is great, but it doesn't pick up heavy sink tips and big flies like the 13'6" Sage ONE at all.  The 13'6" rod is also a lot smoother.

In short, longer is better when dealing with heavier flies, tips, and FISH.  A 9140-4 or an 8136-4 would be optimal for targeting Kings.  

If you are trying King fishing for the firs time and want an all inclusive rod, reel, and spey line package on a budget.  Think about the Echo KING spey rod package.  It is only $549 and a perfect setup for dabbling in this type of fishing.  

Best Spey Fishing Line for Kings?

We should seriously write a whole article on spey head soon, but for this application I can't recomend anything as the "best" unless it is an intermediate.  Floating Skagit heads are better for all around fishing, mending, and learning.  But if you want to be a King Krusher then get an intermediate head.  There are two choices.

Leaders and Sink Tips for Kings

Tippet for Kings:  

Rio Steelhead/Salmon Tippet Material
  • You can go wrong with 15 pound Maxima Ultragreen for all of your swinging and stripping flies.  You can go up to 20 pound if the water is murky, or down to 12 pound test in clear water.  3-5' of tippet off the end of your sink tip is sufficient.  If you prefer to have all your tippet "stack" and clip together.  The the RIO Steelhead and Salmon Tippet.   
  • For Nymph Fishing go with OX RIO Fluoroflex Plus

Sink Tips for Chinook Salmon

Most of the time with Steelhead we fish from the top to bottom. Meaning we start with light gear and eventually work deeper to try and find success. With Kings, it makes sense to start at the bottom and work your way up.  Go heavy on your first pass through the run, if you are snagging up too much then lighten your fly. If you are still snagging then lighten your sink tip.  The trick is to stay off the bottom but not by much.  With Steelhead you want to be above them (most of the time).

You will need a variety, but you definately need to go heavy on the heavy.  Meaning some T-14 that sinks at 9 inches per second needs to be in your holster.  Most sink tip kits come with a good enough variety of sink tips, but my advice would be to make sure that you have a couple of these 30' shooting heads.  Cut them in half, and make 2 sink tips out of one shooting head.  It is a good value, and you can have a long or short piece of T-17 (total chuck 'n duck) or T-14.  You can star with making 2 15' pieces and shorten them to cast well and fish well.  These come with a loop on each end, so you can make 2 sink tips.  RIO 30' Shooting Head Sink Tips

These kits come with a nice assortment of all sink rates and will fill the bill most of the time.  If you don't have a good assortment of sink tips invest in a RIO MOW Sink Tip Kit  They come in 4 variations, "light", "medium", "heavy", and "extra heavy".  This has almost nothing to do with sink rate and actually corresponds to rod weight.  It sounds confusing but is pretty simple.  Most switch and light spey rods require a "medium" MOW tip kit, and most 8 weight spey rods need a "heavy".  You can read more on the MOW tip page.

Flies for Kings

Your fly selection will vary based on whether you are nymph fishing/dead drifting flies or swinging or stripping flies.  

The #1 consideration that you should make is the quality of the hook.  I won't throw out brands, model #'s or whatever, just avoid cheap flies because they are tied on cheap hooks.  That is why they are cheap :)

Swinging and Stripping Flies for Chinook

These patterns are designed to be fished on tension, they often make noise under water, and have a lot of "action" that is hopefully going to provoke strikes.  I carry a lot of different patterns and switch flies based on several factors.

  • Fly weight, I like to fish heavy but if I am hitting bottom more than every fifth cast or so - put on a lighter fly. (I might change sink tips as well, but the most first thing I do is put on a lighter fly).
  • Fly color, I favor dark patterns but will fish lighter colors on brighter days.
  • Tired water.  If I have fished a run/pool a couple of times.  Then I begin to experiment.  If there are Kings in a hole, you will typically know it because they will be rolling on the surface once in a while.

Signature Guide Intruder - #1 Fly that we sell.  Get this in all the colors, it casts well, sinks well, and carries a great hook.  

Black and Chartreuse Squidro - Good weight, consider this one of your heavy patterns.

Fish Taco - Unweighted, great steelhead fly or good with a heavy sink tip in slower runs to keep you from snagging bottom.

Morejohn's Bantam Spey Fly - Green Butt
Black and Chartreuse Bantam Spey - Lightweight, has tiny eyes on it.   

Red and Orange Loop Leech - Good weight, great fly with lots of body. Nothing moves like rabbit.  This can be hard to cast on a switch rod with a heavy tip.  

Hoh-Bo Spey I am going to make a few notes and include this fly, although it is very sparsely tied and was engineered for spey casting at Steelhead it straight up fishes.  This fly doesn't have any weight so it typically isn't my first choice.  However, I carry a pile of these and have caught several Kings on this pattern in shallower runs.  

Nymphs and Egg Patterns for Chinook

I wish I had "the fly" for indicator fishing for Chinook but then if I did, I'd patent it and retire at 35.  This is hit or miss but one thing is for certain.  Good hooks are paramount to your success.

Here are a few patterns and notes:

Dragg'n Fly - We use this fly for Steelhead as well, but thanks to its heavy weight and big demeanor it seems to attract Chinook as well.  

Size #4 Agent Orange Nymph - Great fly, good hook, this fly has caught its share of Kings over the past couple of years.  

Solitude's Chewy Egg
- This fly is weighted and carries a mean hook.  Great pattern, just prepare to lose a few.  It sinks fast and should wind up right on their nose even in the deepest pools. 

Solitude's Beadhead Lifter Steelhead Nymphh
Solitude's Beadhead Lifter Egg Pattern - This is another good one, but not quite as heavy as the Chewy Egg. Heavy wire hook, good fly.  

Beads.  Yes, beads work very well as an egg pattern.  Get a big variety of sizes and pair them up with a Gamakatsu Glo Bug Hook.  Get #4/6's for fishing Kings.  


  1. Excellent Article! Thank you for sharing your tips, they are very helpful!
  2. Thanks Tim, we appreciate the encouragement and we always like comments and feedback. We sincerely want you guys to have the best possible fly fishing experience.
  3. I'm looking into getting a salmon set up. I already picked up a reel and I'm now in the market for a rod and line. I was looking at a 8wt switch for kings but after talking to people I'm nervous that it might be too light. I was looking at the orvis clearwater switch, the g loomis pro 4x, dreaming about the helios 2 and sage method. I read that you use a 8wt switch for kings and i wanted to know if you can help me out on a decision. Thanks
  4. Great help. Thanks. Will be in Alaska on the Kenai 1st week of June.
  5. Fine article. Over my head. I'll have to study the terms. I'm going to fish on Bonaventure River in Quebec this early to mid July. I've only fished trout and back woods ponds with cheap equipment. It's all been fun. Trying to get a little deeper into it. What can you recommend for my use in this area. I wrote down the Echo King Spey rod package. As well as the RIO 30 shooting head sink tips, (RIO MOW sink tip kit) and a variety of colors of the signature Guide intruder.