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Why are Salmon Flies so Gaudy in Color?

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That was a question posted to the thread I ran in the Alaska forum threads about Pattern Productivity. When I tried to answer the question my post turned out to be a little long winded so I have copied it to here. I'm going to add a couple pictures here to help in making some of the things I said more colorful also.

The general or accepted belief is that once the fish enter into the fresh water and their final stages of sexual maturity they are no longer eating. Along with maturity the need to gather additional proteins / caloric energy for continued growth is no longer necessary. Their biochemistry changes and the brain sort of reprograms itself with the imprinted memories of the scent and chemical properties of the natal waters of each individual. There is believed to be a certain level of geomagnetic influence involved in their migratory patterns while in the oceans also and this would be what helps them find the estuaries of their rivers and streams from their feeding grounds far to sea.

Food & Spawning:
Even though the fishes undergo many changes as they enter the final stage of life the behavior learned in the years at sea or in a large lake are not completely expunged from the brain. When you fish near to the lake or ocean they (the salmon) seem much more aggressive as they are just beginning the transition from the feeding - growth way of life they are accustomed to. As they continue their journey up a river or creek the full development of the reproductive organs induce all sorts of hormonal and physical changes, kypes develop and pigmentation morphs into the spawning colors of the various species. By the time they are in the river for a week or 2 they have moved even farther away from that 'eat to live' way of life that they have known since birth. Think of it like this; fish have no sense of time so the physiological changes that they undergo are all that there is in their lives at any given moment. I don't think they miss food because they have underwent a complete shift of life purpose.

The bright and gaudy colored flies are the predators best play to draw the attention of the fish in hopes of triggering that instinct to grab small things that swim. Dark or natural colored flies work well also but you have to get these a bit closer for reasons of visibility. The exception to this 'trying to get them to strike' occurs once they have established spawning beds and are actively engaged in defending every inch of territory. While they are especially vulnerable at this time there are 2 important reasons why this is not a good time or place to target them. By the time salmon begin the actual bedding and spawning actions their bodies have degraded to such a significant level that they no longer will make suitable table fare. The second of the important reasons is that this is now the nursery water and continued disturbance of the fish is not good, although it may not completely interrupt the spawn, in some cases it will. When stressed at this point males will release their milt and females may release the eggs as the result of being caught by an angler.

Now about some gaudy colored flies that will draw a strike from a salmon here in Alaska.

Alaskan Assassin;

A box full of attractors for salmon;

Here are a couple examples of the dark or drab patterns that work just as well when the fish are fresh into the river systems.

The Santiam Spectrum; although designed for fishing steelhead on the Santiam River it is a very good all purpose fly here.

My Nine Three variant seems to work well for all species although I have not used it for king salmon.

There are times when I am trout fishing using trout tackle and while not targeting salmon will catch fish that are well into the spawning ritual. Almost always the fish are subordinate males who have been forced away from the spawning site by the dominate male. I do not knowingly swing flies over beds, I fish behind or above visible fish searching for trout who hang around with them. No matter whether you are looking to catch these subordinates or not, it happens. Actually it happens so often that I can say that these fish are so aggressive that they can't be kept from a fly. At this time color of the fly does not need to be considered, dark, light, no difference.

This would be one of those subordinate males that I suggest will grab the Nine Three just like you would want a trout to do. Aggressive agitated behavior that is perhaps generated by the stress of competition for the spawning females and may well be what draws them to the fly.

Although I don't catch many truly ripe fish this was one that surprised me just last fall. I had never taken a picture of other than bright fish in the past but decided that this one was rather pretty. I have been very fortunate in that the only fish I've ever caught who became so stressed that it blew its milt was a big lake run brown trout some 20 years ago in New York state. I credit this run of good fortune to having learned how to bring such fish to shore rapidly even when I find myself in a mismatch with the fish tackle wise.

Quite obviously that was not a subordinate male or if it was there must have been a giant out in the deep water that I did not know about. I was swinging my nine Three through deep water with a healthy current and the fish grabbed the fly at the terminus of the swing.... I've also been lucky in that I really don't recall catching any ripe hens for many years. The lack of hens came in direct relationship to my learning to stay away from any visible spawning activity. I do not ever recall a hen loosing eggs as a result of my catching her although I have seen people play them to exhaustion and when the fish were handled they lost large numbers of nearly mature eggs.

A third fish with the Nine Three still lodged in the jaw. These guys pursue the fly and if I can spot one coming before it catches my fly I whip the flies away. You'll have to take my word that when there are rainbow trout of equal size in the water catching salmon can become old quickly.

Getting back to the substance of the question that was posted igniting this writing; the person asking is in Colorado. Most or perhaps all of the lake run fish in the Colorado area are land locked sockeye salmon. These fish are notorious as being hard to draw to a fly whether in Alaska or in a land locked system in the lower 48. My best advice is to be as close to the mouth of rivers and creeks that get these fish and try to present bait-fish imitations to them before they get 50 miles and 2 weeks into the rivers. It would have been better to set you up with silver / Coho salmon perhaps.

This fresh sockeye salmon (already dead) chased the freight Train in the jaw like a trout would take after a streamer.

I find that maybe 1 in 10 sockeye will actually run after a fly. The river systems seem to have some bearing on how the fish behave. What I mean by this is that in some systems the fish camp out in runs and pools for up to or exceeding 24 hours before moving on up river. These are the fish that are most vulnerable to the fly or lure. I know some rivers where once the fish enter they are on the mush upstream until they reach their natal waters.

Here is an example of the aggressiveness of breeding sockeye salmon. These are two males; one larger with the other locked in his jaws, tumbling along in a struggle over spawning rights. If you were so inclined to torture a fish, these guys would definitely take a fly but what would be the point?

I don't know if I answered the question or not. I just started typing, the information I offer is based on several sources. What I have read, what I have seen, and what I've actually done - learned hands on. Bottom line = some species are just more likely to grab a fly than others. You may find it interesting that trout here will grab a Skykomish Sunrise or Freight Train as readily as they will a good Sculpin imitation. I hope all this proves either helpful or at least interesting.

To close this off; imagine having a nice big rainbow trout or multiples of them who will grab files like this.

I am still amazed every time I catch a trout on these colorful flies. I will acknowledge that by June they seem to lose interest in such offerings and are more likely to get hung on a Nine Three or a Sculpin pattern. Rainbows spawn in mid April - early June depending on the watershed and I believe this accounts for the wild behavior.



  1. milt spawn's Avatar
    Good stuff Ard! I could not conjure up the Skykomish Sunrise pic however, but I do know what they look like. Do you find that silvers take flies more readily than the other Pacific salmon? milt.
  2. mcnerney's Avatar
    Ard: I see what you mean, I did miss some great pictures and some content earlier. Great work, thanks for sharing. That Nine Three pattern has to be my favorite of all your patterns, just something about it that jumps out at me, great work indeed.

  3. Ard's Avatar
    As always Larry your comments are encouraging and you keep me writing to these pages. By the way, that Nine Three variation has proved to be my brightest creation for fish here.


    I fixed the image for the Skykomish, oops.

    Silver Salmon , Chum, and Kings are the grabbiest ones for me. I believe any of those three species will grab my fly at a rate approaching 85% of the casts if I get the fly within 4 - 6 feet as I swim it through the water. When you fish them in salt water all of them will respond to a fly. The problem is that salt water opportunities for the fly fisher are limited to when the fish are gathering in bays and come close to shore..............Or when they are running along the surf line along shore heading to a rivers mouth.

    Very soon I'll be after the fish, they are steel-heading down on the peninsula right now but I am reluctant to go down there until I can pick up our boat on the same trip. It is almost 600 miles round trip and I would like to multi task at $4.21 - $4.55.9 / gallon driving the truck. You need a truck to pull a big boat but driving that far at a minimum of $225 in fuel cost just to fish does not fit my profile. There are plenty of big trout and some sea run trout here close to home but without that boat I can not reach them.

    I am told that the one, (1) part that was needed to convert the new fuel injected Honda 90 HP motor to jet thrust was overnight mailed to the shop at ATEC yesterday so I may be down there Monday. If that happens, steelhead may be on the venue for Monday & Tuesday next week. I keep thinking I'm going over the past 2.5 weeks but the stars haven't lined up for me yet.

  4. Davo's Avatar

    Awesome article!! Packed with great information and tantalizing visuals. Keep em coming my friend and I for one will keep reading em!!

  5. theboz's Avatar
    Ard . Explained alot of things that I wasn't quite clear on. Especially when gaudy flys and darker ones are more effective. The classics are so nice I think I wouldn't want to let them get chewed up. Yeah right! Haha! Thanks for the good info.
  6. markg52's Avatar
    Once again another great blog. Thanks Ard!
  7. littledavid123's Avatar
    Good job Ard, thank you for sharing. Just before you die (many years from now) I want to do a Vulcan mind meld and transfer all of that knowledge to me...
  8. Ard's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by littledavid123
    I want to do a Vulcan mind meld and transfer all of that knowledge to me...
    That's a good one Dave, I haven't heard that for 40 years!

    Thanks for all the great feedback from all of you