One of the greatest thrills in Pacific Northwest fly fishing is bringing large anadramous fish to a surface fly. While surface fishing in the saltwater is not as popular as subsurface fly fishing, feeding saltwater coho salmon will take a popper quite aggressively. Neah Bay is the best place to cast flies for coho salmon in Washington State, and I believe it's also the best place to catch coho / silver salmon on a cast popper.
Of course, there's a long tradition of trolling flies on the surface in the Pacific Northwest. But there's a move away from trolling (which I do not believe is fly fishing) to casting and retrieving surface poppers in the Pacific Northwest.
First things first, fishing a popper for saltwater salmon is going to lower the number of fish you hook most of the time. If numbers of fish are your goal, I still recommend fishing a sinking line and a baitfish pattern, such as a clouser minnow. Surface fishing in the Pacific Ocean for feeding salmon is not about numbers of salmon hooked. You will have lots of follows, slashes, and boils at your fly. But out of all the interest, most of the salmon will not grab the fly. This is what makes this type of fishing so much fun. You watch the fish follow, and attempt to entice the salmon by slowing down or speeding up the retrieve (some days faster works, other days slower works). It is truly one of the greatest fishing thrills in the Pacific Northwest.
For this fishing, I prefer fishing 30' shooting head fly lines. Fishing surface flies for saltwater salmon offshore of Neah Bay demands long casts. Basically, the more line you can throw, the more fish you will bring to the surface. I believe that shooting head fly lines give you the most distance with the least effort, especially considering a rolling deck and persistent winds. I like a .30 diameter floating running line. It gives you distance but without the tangling drawbacks of amnesia or other running lines. Remember, fly lines in a boat seem to seek out tangles. I use buckets with weighted bases to hold the fly line when casting and stripping the fly back along the surface.
An important part of popper fishing for salmon is the retrieve. I like a steady retrieve that makes the fly slowly wake along the surface, slowly covering productive fish holding water. The slow retrieve also gives following fish more time to make a decision to strike. It seems that fish will stop following once the fly gets within 10-20 feet of the boat (another reason to practice casting). To get this retrieve, I will tuck the fly rod under my arm and do a two-handed retrieve. This retrieve gives the angler more control and allows you to have that steady retrieve the coho salmon seem to love. Of course, like all fishing there are exceptions to every rule, so don't be afraid to pop the surface fly instead of the steady retrieve. It may be just the ticket when the salmon won't go for the typical retrieve. Coho fishing success is all about fishing hard and a willingness to experiment.
Like many forms of fishing that are less effective, popper fishing does require some dedication. Stick with it, even if you know for certain you are going to catch more fish by grabbing your other rod rigged with a sinking line and a baitfish pattern. You will rise coho salmon when you least expect it, and you will gain the most important thing when it comes to popper fishing for coho salmon?. Confidence! Confidence is the key to true success in fishing poppers in the saltwater.
I hope you learned a few things about popper fishing for coho salmon at Neah Bay. It is the most challenging way of hooking feeding salmon in the saltwater.
Chris Bellows, owner of Topwater Charters, Inc, which runs fly fishing charters off the Washington Coast. His websites offer more information about Saltwater Fly Fishing and Neah Bay Halibut Fishing