North America is home to 5 species of Pacific Salmon. Fly fishing for Coho/Silver Salmon is quite possibly the most popular salmon species to pursue. Coho are known for their aggressiveness towards pink flies, acrobatics while hooked, and for their schooling behaviors in rivers.
Life History & Physical Description
Like all wild pacific salmon, coho are hardy creatures. After hatching from eggs, the fry/smolts spend about a year in their natal freshwater river feeding on plankton and aquatic invertebrates before venturing into the ocean. Once in the saltwater, coho become piscivores and typically spend 1.5 – 2 years feeding on smaller fish. After growing to maturity coho return to their natal rivers to spawn. The average adults weigh 8-12 pounds, but the Alaska state record was caught in 2011 pushing 27 lbs!
In saltwater environments, coho have bright silver scales speckled with small black spots on their backs and have white gums in their mouths – an important factor for distinguishing them from king salmon. Upon re-entering freshwater to spawn, coho will keep this silvery appearance for a few days before gradually turning towards their crimson spawning colors. Along with the drastic color change, the noses of male coho morphs into a big hook.
What to Expect when Fishing for Coho/Silvers
Good luck staying quiet once you’ve hooked into your first coho salmon on the fly! Whether you find yourself in pursuit of coho on a remote Alaskan river or a forested coastal river in Oregon, there is little doubt you are after a worthy fish. If you are using the right fishing techniques and go at the right time, coho can be some of the easiest fish to catch on the fly.
- Expect a good eat: Once coho have entered freshwater, they become very aggressive and territorial prior to spawning – although some do get a serious case of lockjaw and are not worth your time. With this veracious attitude, coho hit flies hard!
- Expect a good hookset: It’s not uncommon to watch the eat when fishing for coho! Some fish will ‘shark’ behind the fly before engulfing it, others will close 15 feet of distance to crush the fly. Keep calm and strip set! While some anglers can’t help trout setting, or lifting their rod tip, it is not an effective hookset for coho and your landing ratio will be impaired.
- Expect the fight and acrobatics: These salmon love to jump multiple times when hooked, and they will test your ability to manage tension throughout the fight. If you can do it, “bowing” or dropping your rod tip (as you would a tarpon) helps – this gives some slack to the line so the hook doesn’t dislodge while the fish jumps. Silvers are not known for long runs, but expect short runs and some solid headshakes or rolls. Occasionally, an odd fish might get you into your backing if the drag is not correctly set.
- Expect to change flies: Pink, weighted flies are the bread and butter of coho angling. That said, if you’ve found a school of them and the action is slowing down, change fly color. From pink change to purple or black. Some anglers on the Oregon coast swear by chartreuse flies for coho.
- Expect to handle the fish with respect: Bring a net. Depending on the fishery, you could very well be handling twenty plus coho a day. While it is fun to catch so many fish, handle each fish with respect and please keep them wet if they are to be released!
Where to Look for Coho/Silvers
Coho/silver salmon are one of the 5 species of pacific salmon found in North America, but are also distributed along Russia’s pacific coast and Hokiado, Japan. In North America, the watersheds of Alaska’s Bering Sea mark their northern range and Monterey Bay, California represents the limit of their southern range. Some hatchery populations are present elsewhere in the United States including the great lakes.
Wild coho require clean, coldwater river systems to thrive. They are commonly found in creeks and rivers of various gradients and characteristics. Once in freshwater, coho tend to congregate in slower/slacker water like eddies or sloughs with even the slightest current. For the most part, they do not hold in water that has no current whatsoever.
For the angler, coho are best targeted closer to the saltwater as they are most aggressive when they first enter freshwater and have the most energy. This is also the best area for getting them to strike topwater flies like poppers!
When to Fly Fish for Coho/Silvers
The best months to fish for silvers in Alaska are August and September. British Columbia receives the majority of their coho run in September. Further down the coast, Washington and Oregon report the best run timing as September and October.
What Set-Up to Fish for Coho/Silvers
When fly fishing for coho, whether you are fishing small coastal streams or large rivers carved through Alaska’s tundra, it is important to show up with the correct gear. Fortunately for coho anglers, one set up is all you will need for 99% of your coho fly fishing experiences – from Alaska down to Northern California.
A 8-9 weight will get the job done. While an 8 weight rod is perfect for most of your coho fishing (or chum fishing), sometimes a 9 weight can be beneficial in windy environments. Either way, and 8 wt or 9 wt will easily pick up and turnover the typical weight of a silver fly and give you plenty of backbone for fighting these acrobatic fish.
FlyTramp recommendation: Scott Wave (8 wt)
Matching the weight of the reel with the rod goes a long ways in making your set-up more enjoyable to cast and giving it that balanced feel in the hand. When shopping for rods and reels larger than 7 weights we always recommend set-ups that are saltwater friendly to allow them to be used at all fishing destinations. Saltwater reels all have good drag systems these days and are typically large arbor (meaning they can be spooled with lots of backing). Again, silvers are not known for long runs into the backing, but we live by the motto “buy nice or buy twice.”
FlyTramp recommendation: Sage Spectrum Max (7/8 or 9/10)
Since adult coho are only in freshwater for a short time, they don’t get “educated” like trout often do. This means that you can get away with much splasher casts, although subtle is always better. Additionally, coho flies are heavy. With this concept in mind, fly lines with thicker tapers are favored to help pick-up and turn-over flies when fly fishing for coho. Floating lines are used the majority of the time.
FlyTramp recommendation: Airflow Superflo Ridge 2.0 Streamer Max Short (8 wt or 9 wt line)
Leader & Tippet
Unlike spooky trout, long tapered leaders are not needed for coho fishing most of the time. In fact, more often than not guides just use straight 15-20 lb Maxima Ultragreen as a leader. We like 15 lb Maxima because the line diameter can still turnover flies easily but at the same time can break-off when snagged without hurting your fly line. Obviously, there are much skinnier leader/tippet materials rated at 15 lb but they do not turn-over flies well.
FlyTramp recommendation: Maxima Ultragreen
Fly Selection for Coho/Silvers
It is important to remember that coho in freshwater eat flies out of aggression, or as a territorial response, rather than for the sake of nutrition. Below is a short list of our favorite coho flies. However, be sure to check out our deep-dive into the best flies for coho/silver salmon.
If possible, we like to start fishing with topwater flies first, just because topwater eats are so much more interactive! You will not catch as many fish this way, but one popper eat is worth five subsurface eats. Next we recommend going to pink, weighted flies that jig. When pink stops working do not be afraid to try purple or black.
FlyTramp 5 recommended Coho flies:
- Starlight Leech
- Hareball Leech
- Pink Kriller