Welcome to Eye of the Guide

Part Seventy-eight

Fly-Fishing in Puget Sound

By Les Johnson E-mail: lesj@seanet.com Seattle, WA

Scott Richmond with nice Coho
We are fortunate to live along the margins of Puget Sound, as it is the greatest protected saltwater estuary on the Pacific Coast of North America. Even today with salmon and steelhead runs diminished from historic days of abundance, Puget Sound still supports a very good sport fishery for the angler who is willing to do a bit of exploring.

Depending upon the season, we have the opportunity to fish for chinook, chum, coho and pink salmon. We also have good populations of sea-run cutthroat trout and there are a few spots where we can try for steelhead in the salt. In addition Puget Sound is home to a variety of rockfish and several species of flounder. All of these fish will eagerly go after a properly presented fly.

Bottom dwelling rockfish, flounder and lingcod of Puget Sound tend to be quite territorial, often living out their long lives in an area no more than a quarter of a mile square. The cutthroat also tends to remain within a few to several miles of its river of origin. Salmon on the other hand are extremely mobile, moving throughout the Sound in search of herring, sand lance, krill, squid and other favorite foods.

  • So, we know that upon finding a good spot to cast for rockfish we will enjoy the fishing in that same spot year after year, unless it gets fished out by people committed to catching their limit -- or more.

  • We also know that we should find cutthroat along the beaches near a stream mouth, depending upon the time of year, usually from early spring through late autumn.

  • And, we know that to catch salmon we must become familiar with their in-sound migration routes and the timing of runs out to the North Pacific Ocean and back into Puget Sound.

    Cam Seigler, left and Bruce Ferguson casting to rising salmon in Hale Pass

    A fast, open boat will allow you to cover a lot of water in a day. However, the opportunity to fish Puget Sound successfully is often every bit as good when wading out and casting from one of the many beaches that attract salmon and sea-run cutthroat. If you have a pair of waders, a 7-weight fly rod and a selection of bait-imitating flies designed for Puget Sound species, you are ready to begin the adventure of fly-fishing in Puget Sound.


    Rod - The most practical fly rod to use on a year-around basis in Puget Sound is a 9-foot rod for a 7-weight line. A 7-weight rod is heavy enough to allow you to send a bulky fly to distant rises and light enough to cast all day long. If you should hook up with a fat chinook salmon (and this does happen), the 7-weight will have enough backbone to work your prize to the beach. If you don't have a 7-weight, use a 6 or an 8. If you will be purchasing a rod for this fishing, make it a 7-weight and you won't be sorry. Select the best rod you can afford and make sure that it has corrosion resistant fittings. If you will be using the rod for other fishing, perhaps for trips to exotic, far-away destinations, spend a bit more money and purchase a four-section travel rod.

    Fly Reel - Your fly reel should be corrosion resistant and have enough capacity to hold a full 90-foot fly line and at least 150 yards of 18-20 pound test backing. Be sure that your reel has a smooth disc drag system and a rim control feature. There is a growing selection of reasonably priced large-arbor reels on the market and they are desirable for the Puget Sound fly fisher. Large arbor reels have a fast retrieve rate and hold the line in relaxed coils on the reel spool. Examine as many reels as possible and purchase the one that you like. A good reel will last for several years with reasonable care. If you really take to salt water fishing in Puget Sound you will probably want to purchase a second reel. If it too will be used primarily in Puget Sound, it should be the same model and size as your first.

    Extra Spools - Don't over do it on extra spool purchases. No matter how many extra spools you have you can only operate one rod at a time. However, if you have two identical reels and just two extra spools you will be able to have two rods strung up ready for action. A total of four spools will cover all the bases for most of the fishing you will ever do in Puget Sound.

    Fly Lines - Cortland, Cabela's, Monic, Teeny, Rio, Scientific Anglers and Wulff offer the types of lines listed here. You will be fishing from the surface to the bottom. Most of your fishing though will be accomplished with a floating line. In order of importance, the lines you will need are:

      Floating Line - Purchase a weight forward floating line to match your rod. For a 7-weight rod you will need a WF7F line. I suggest that you purchase your line from any of the well-known companies listed as they all manufacturer excellent lines designed for saltwater use.

      Intermediate Sinking Line - This is the slowest of sinking lines and is designed for use just under the surface. Some of the new intermediate lines are transparent and nearly invisible in the water. This line works well on days when the water is choppy as it rides just under the surface and doesn't get pushed around by the wind.

      Sinking Line - The relatively new 24-foot sinking heads with floating running lines cast easily and sink fast. They are gaining favor among salmon anglers that fish fairly shallow water (to 40 feet deep) or who work from the beach. Full fast sinking lines are better for fishing from a boat and fishing a fly well into the depths. With an extra-fast sinking line you can fish down to 90 feet.

      Shooting Head System - Shooting heads are fly lines that are just 30-feet long. They range from floating to very fast sinking. A shooting head (also called shooting taper) is used in front of a small diameter floating running line. The advantage of a shooting head is that it can be cast considerably further than a standard line. This is important if you are fishing from shore and the fish are just out of range of a cast with your regular line. A shooting head system allows the angler to carry several heads in a wallet and by changing heads to meet different conditions, can get by with just one reel. Try a shooting head before you decide to buy one.

    There are other types of floating, sinking or sinking tip lines that we won't go into here. At some point you may decide you need additional lines but by the time this happens you will know what you need.

    Leaders - Employ leaders 5-feet and 10-feet long. Tippet strength will range from 6-pound test to 12-pound test. You should have matching tippet, preferably fluorocarbon for each leader. Ten-foot leaders are best for surface work and fishing just under the surface film. Five-foot leaders work well when you are fishing deeper. Don't skimp on leaders because you will want to develop a good turnover and presentation of your fly. Salmon along the beach, particularly coho, can be very spooky, often scattering in a panic at the splash of a sloppy cast. A well-balanced leader helps you make a gentle presentation to skittish salmon.

    Flies- Puget Sound salmon and cutthroat feed primarily on crustaceans, squid, sand lance and herring. Your flies should match these food forms. There are times when salmon will pounce on just about anything but more often they will be very specific on what they want and your fly has to match the saltwater hatch if you expect a high degree of success. Seattle area fly shops carry a limited selection of Puget Sound flies. The Morning Hatch in Tacoma has an excellent selection of patterns and always offers first hand, up to date information on South Sound fishing.

    Crustaceans - These are small shrimp-like critters collectively known as krill. Small salmon love them because they are abundant and weak swimmers. The following crustaceans are important food items:

    • Copepods - Sometimes only 1/5" long as adults copepods are the number one food source for most fish and mammals in the Pacific Ocean. This krill form is a favorite of juvenile coho and chinook salmon usually during the winter months. Copepods are usually transparent with an orange hue.
      Fly Patterns - Sandstrom's Copepod (sizes 16-20), Hale's Pinky (14-18).

    • Amphipods - They look like sand fleas and are very small (1/10" to 1-1/2") and regular fare for juvenile coho and chinook salmon and sea-run cutthroat. The hyperus form has large, dark eyes and is the one most often imitated by fly tiers. Coloration is pale, transparent with hues of orange, pink or violet.
      Fly Patterns - Tyler Shrimp (8-14), Ferguson's Amphipod (8-14), Trotter's Pink Feed (8-18).

      Bonaparte gulls
on a feeding spree of euphasids.  An excellent indicator salmon are present.

    • Euphausids - In Puget Sound the euphausid ranges from 1/8" long to a bit more than one inch. Euphausids are slender and transparent with tiny color spores that give them a pale, pinkish cast. Juvenile coho and chinook, sea-run cutthroat and any other fish that they happen to run into relish Euphausids. Mature coho and chinook will also feed on euphausids.
      Fly Patterns - FJ Pink (6-14), Flashabou Euphausid (6-14), Tyler Shrimp (6-14).

    Baitfish - There are many different baitfish in Puget Sound but we will address only those most important on a year-around basis:

    • Sand Lance (Candlefish) - Gray, green or olive on the back and silvery on the sides and belly, the American sand lance is slender, lives in the shallows and is a slow swimmer. This makes the sand attractive fare for salmon and cutthroat and is the reason that they often forage within just a few feet of the beach. Sand lance range from 2" to more than 6" in length. They are found along Puget Sound beaches most months of the year.
      Fly Patterns - Ferguson's Sand Lance (4-8), Thorne River Emerger (6-10, 4xl), Williams Point Special (4-8)

    • Herring - Bluish-green to olive along the dorsal surface and shading to silver on the belly, herring are a prized food for salmon and cutthroat and all other carnivorous critters in Puget Sound. Juveniles (1-1/2 to 4") live in relatively shallow water from May through October where they are sought out by all predatory foragers.
      Fly Patterns - Ferguson's Herring (2-6), Ferguson's Green and Silver (2-6), Johnson's Basic Baitfish or JBB (2-6 2xl), Surf Candy (2-6).

    • Squid - This important salmon food source is abundant in Puget Sound. It is not widely used as a fly but is popular with bait anglers. However, it is worthy of experimentation.
      Fly Patterns - Trotter's Loligo II Squid (4), Mandell's Calamarko (2-6" tube). Blanton's Sea Arrow Squid.

    Martin James with his first
salmon in the salt, from the beach Lincoln Park in Seattle Where and When to Fish Puget Sound - You can fish Puget Sound literally every month of the year. However, with all the limited openings, shortened seasons and closures, it pays to keep tabs on your regulation pamphlet and check the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife web site on a regular basis. The following are a few of the many good spots that are fished regularly by salmon fishers either by boat or from the beach. You can get in on up-to-date information by signing up with the Seattle Salt Water Fly-Fishing Club, contact me for more information: les@seanet.com

    Coho, Cutthroat (Occasional chinook) Check your regulations for opening and closing dates.

    All run timing information listed below is approximate.
    BBC radio outdoor
broadcaster Martin James play a coho as writer Scott Richmond looks on
  • Tacoma Narrows - December through mid-February; October and November.

  • Vashon Island - West Side; December through mid-February; September and October.

  • Agate Pass - December through March; Late August through October.

  • Lincoln Park - February through March; Late August through October.

  • Picnic Point - February through March; Late August through October.

  • Point No Point - February through March; August through October.

  • Fort Casey State Park - February through March; August and September.

    Chum Salmon (Estuary fishing only) Check your regulations for opening and closing dates)

    Author's wife Carol with late autumn Chum Hood Canal
  • Hoodsport Hatchery (Hood Canal) Mid-October through Thanksgiving.

  • Eagle Creek Estuary (Hood Canal) Mid-October through early November.

  • Potlatch State Park (Hood Canal) Late October through November 30.

  • John's Creek (Shelton) Early October to late October.

  • Chico Creek (Bremerton) Early October to late October.

  • Miller Bay (Bainbridge Island) Mid October to late October.

    Fishing Techniques

    This is a cast and retrieve sport. While blind casting does work, it is far more effective to drop your fly onto the rise of a salmon, or pod of feeding salmon.

    An erratic retrieve of the fly is best particularly with crustacean imitations.

    Sand Lance dive for the sand at a 45 degree angle when attacked. Sometimes when a salmon is following your sand lance imitation, simply stopping your retrieve to let the fly dive toward bottom will trigger a strike.

    Always keep your rod tip low and aimed straight at the fly.

    When fishing from a boat you should at times fish your fly almost straight down to take chinook salmon. Coho will almost always be taken in the top few feet of water.

    Chum salmon will arrive at estuaries over a period of several weeks and are often fished in water little more than knee-deep. Cast to visible fish or nervous water (caused by a pod of swimming chums) keep your tip low and hang on!

    Recommended Reference Books and Pamphlets

    Fly Fishing for Pacific Salmon (Ferguson, Johnson, Trotter) Frank Amato Publications

    Fishing the Sea-Run Cutthroat Trout (Les Johnson) Frank Amato Publications

    Walks & Hikes on the Beaches around Puget Sound (Harvey and Penny Manning) The Mountaineers Press

    Washington Atlas and Gazetteer DeLorme.

    Washington Sport Fishing Rules Department of Fish & Wildlife. ~ Les Johnson

    About Les:

    Les Johnson has fished for salmon in the Pacific Ocean with a fly rod for more than thirty years. His experience covers the coastal waters of California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska. During a writing career that spans four decades Les has written more than 200 published articles and three books based on fishing experiences from Alaska to Mexico and Washington to Massachusetts. He is author of Fishing the Sea-Run Cutthroat (Seven printings since 1972); co-author of the book Fly Fishing for Pacific Salmon, (Bruce M. Ferguson, Les Johnson, Patrick Trotter), 1985 and co-author of Tube Flies (Mark Mandell, Les Johnson, 1995). Les was founding editor of Fly Tying magazine. Les lives in Seattle, Washington with his wife, Carol. You may contact Les for information on his fishing presentations and clinics at lesj@seanet.com.

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