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
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
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:
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.
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.
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:
Baitfish - There are many different baitfish in Puget
Sound but we will address only those most important on a
- 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).
- 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).
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:
- 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
Fly Patterns - Trotter's Loligo II Squid (4),
Mandell's Calamarko (2-6" tube). Blanton's Sea Arrow Squid.
Coho, Cutthroat (Occasional chinook) Check
your regulations for opening and closing dates.
All run timing information listed below is approximate.
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
Picnic Point - February through March; Late August
Point No Point - February through March; August
Fort Casey State Park - February through March;
August and September.
Chum Salmon (Estuary fishing only) Check
your regulations for opening and closing dates)
Hoodsport Hatchery (Hood Canal) Mid-October
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.
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
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