Catching a king salmon on the fly is not for anglers who like easy fishing – its for those who like to earn their memories! These anadromous powerhouses are called kings for a reason. Once hooked, you’ve got to beat the king because they don’t tire easily! Selecting the best king salmon flies is paramount for success, and we’ve made a list from our years on the water guiding for these chrome giants.
There are two popular styles of fly fishing for king salmon; stripping flies with a traditional single-hand rod or swinging flies using two-handed spey rods. Both methods are great fun and there is some distinction of what patterns are better for each method.
Selecting the right Flies for Chinook/King Salmon
Once in freshwater, the digestive system of pacific salmon literally begins to rot as they get ready to spawn. In other words, they are not eating for nutrition – they grab flies out of curiosity or territorial aggression. The best king salmon flies elicit these ‘reactionary’ responses which is why flies that are flashy, colorful, 3.5-4″ long, and maintain a large profile in the water are the most successful.
Fly color: It does matter when it comes to king salmon fly selection! How much it matters is greatly debated between guides. However, we believe water color, sunlight, and phase of the king run are all factors to be taken under consideration for selecting the the most efficient fly!
- Chartreuse/white or chartreuse/blue are great in the early part of the run or for murky water or dark days.
- Black/blue or purple are great for clear water and bright days (as is sizing down your fly in these conditions).
- Warm colors like pink, orange or red are always great options and seem to be better for late fish.
Fly Size/Profile: That 3.5-4″ fly will get it done 99% of the time. Kings eat bigger flies, but they are not easy to cast! In low & clear water conditions don’t be afraid to try smaller flies!
Best Flies for Chinook/ Kings
Whether you are spey fishing for kings or using a single hand fly rod, the fly selection is pretty much the same and the crossover works well both ways. However, the fly designers behind the patterns designed them with one method or the other in mind. So accordingly, we’ve divided our favorite chinook flies into two categories; spey flies (shank flies & tube flies) and single hand flies.
Our list of the best king salmon flies is built upon intruder-style patterns, Dirty Hoh’s, Sea Prawn’s, and various leech patterns!
Spey flies are built with sparse characteristics and large profiles. Designed to turn over easily when casted while providing an anchor point. There’s three main categories of spey flies; traditional, shank and tube flies.
Traditional flies are tied on traditional style hooks and many patterns hail from Atlantic Salmon ‘traditional’ patterns. This style is great for steelhead too, but not often used for chinook/king salmon.
Shank flies are tied on, well, shanks. The hook is usually attached with intruder wire which provides easy change-outs for the hooks themselves. This style pattern is great for fly longevity as dull hooks are easily replaced.
Tube Flies Don’t show up on a king fishing trip without tube flies! We love this style as they are mostly lightly weighted and turnover wonderfully for spey casters. With this style pattern, depth in the water is best controlled with sink tips and steps with casts rather than fly weight. Not too mention, dull hooks are easily replaced!
Designed by one of the founding spey-wizards behind the original “intruder style” fly, Jerry French has teamed up with Aqua Flies to produce a line of the best chinook/king flies commercially available. Jerry’s Intruder is approximately 4″ long and built with durability in mind. With the synthetic jungle cock eyes at the fly’s rear station most of the fishes attention gets focused near the hook – something we believe creates better hook-ups.
FlyTramp‘s favorite colors: black/purple, pink/orange and black/blue.
Stu’s Barred Ostrich Intruder
Stuart Foxall’s Barred Ostrich Intruder is tied on a 43mm shank with lightly weighted 5/32 dumbbell eyes to keep the fly riding with the Aqua Talon hook upwards in the back. Around 3.5″ in total length this pattern is always a guides first pick. This is a dressed-down intruder, tied with durability in mind. With the trailing hook on a wire loop, replacing a dull hook is easy!
FlyTramp‘s favorite colors: chartreuse/black, red/black, black/purple, and pink
Another innovative pattern by Jerry French! The Dirty Hoh comes in two sizes, steelhead and chinook. We find that both sizes actually work great for kings on the swing! With the trailing hook, we find the vast majority of fish get hooked in the corner of the mouth with this pattern, and very few fish turn into ‘bleeders’. Beyond that, this patterns rabbit strip really wiggles in a rivers current!
FlyTramp‘s favorite colors: chartreuse/white, pink, black/blue
Greg’s killer krill, aka Kriller, is new on the king salmon scene. Around 3.5″ long, this fly fits a niche in every king box with a smaller profile. With the weighted dumbbell eyes at the shanks rear, the fly rides at and upward angle, like fleeing bait in the ocean. We’ve had great success with this pattern turning slow days on the river into some of the best days of the season!
FlyTramp‘s favorite colors: blue, red, chartreuse, orange
Hartwicks Tube Wiggler
Most spey guides tie something very similar to this marabou and saddle hackle pattern. Hartwick’s Tube Wiggler is a great variation of these guide-style flies and comes in a broad assortment of colors. The length is perfect for winter steelhead and king salmon alike. Not too mention, it casts like a dream.
FlyTramp‘s favorite colors: shrimp pink/pink, purple/chartreuse, and black/blue
Jason Osborn’s Sputnik Intruder
As a newer Aqua Flies pattern, we expect the Sputnik Intruder to be the decade’s next heavy hitter for king/chinook flies. We love tube flies, and we love intruders – so what’s not to love about this big profile fly? With some scandi influence clearly hybridized into this pattern, we can’t recommend it enough.
FlyTramp‘s favorite colors: purple, orange, pink, and black/blue
Hartwicks Flashtail Tubes
In western Alaska, Hartwick’s Flashtail Tube flies might be the most used fly on the river. Why? They are extremely easy to cast, they are tied in perfect size, and they come in ideal flashy color schemes! Not too mention, they are very affordable when compared to other spey flies. This line of flies is a great cover-your-basis for color schemes when fly fishing for king salmon.
FlyTramp‘s favorite colors: chartreuse/blue, black/blue, and fuchsia/shell pink
Franc n Snaelda
This fly is the black sheep in our tube fly selection for kings – and that is what we love about it! The Franc ‘n Snaelda is a historic scandi-style pattern that is popular for Atlantic Salmon in the UK. So naturally a client from across the pond tried this out one day while being guided in Alaska and the results were impressive. This fly is traditionally tied on brass tubes with a conehead, so it gets down very quick with its narrow profile – great for sunny days when the fish are deep! Unfortunately there is not a great commercial version of this pattern in the states (Waters West Fly Shop sells it), but it is deadly when tied in classic chinook colors.
FlyTramp‘s favorite colors: red, chartreuse/blue
Single Hand Flies
The Hareball Leech is as classic of an Alaskan fly pattern as there is. This fly will catch any species in the river. With average weighted dumbbell eyes, this pattern swims a jig when stripped. An Alaska fly box is not complete without this fly, as it is also a favorite pattern for coho/silver salmon and works as a great chum fly too!
FlyTramp‘s favorite colors: pink, purple, black