Just How Much Fly Reel Backing Do You Really Need for Salmon?


For many novice fly fishermen, just setting up their reel with the proper backing and line is a challenge. Questions abound about what the beginner needs to get a good start. There are as many answers to most of these questions as there are different flies to be tied. One big question I hear is how much backing I need on my fly reel for salmon fishing.

When fly fishing for salmon with a single action fly reel, you should choose a reel large enough for your fly line, including 100 to 200 feet of backing. When the fly reel is fully loaded, you should have one-quarter inch between the fly reel’s top edge and the fly line’s top layer on the reel.

Salmon fishing with a fly rod and reel can be exciting and challenging. Before you experience that thrill, you must have the proper equipment and have that equipment configured for this type of fly fishing. We’ll show you how much reel backing you’ll need so you’ll be properly prepared.

fly fishing for salmon

What is Backing and Why is it Important?

Perhaps the best explanation I ever got about backing on a fly reel was that the backing I put on is insurance. Imagine hooking a beautiful salmon and watching as the fish strips all the fly line from your reel. The result is a broken line and a lost fish.

An extra 200 feet of backing line behind your fly line could easily have put that fish in your creel rather than watching it disappear with your fly line and fly. Typically backing line comes in two types.

  • Dacron Backing
  • Gel Spun Poly Backing

The type of backing line you choose is what suits your preferences. Personally, I use a braided Dacron backing. The downside to Dacron is that it will not decompose in the environment and you should never abandon Dacron backing in the wild if possible.

How do I Load Backing onto My Fly Reel?

You should load your fly reel in this order.

  • Backing Line – Your backing line is the first thing to be loaded onto your fly reel. There are as many ways to attach the backing to the fly reel as there are fly fisherman. I like to make two wraps of the backing line around the reel and then tie a slip knot using the loose end of the backing line around the working end of the line. A pull on the backing line will snug the knot against the reel.
  • Fly Line – Next, attach your fly line to the backing line. The attachment point needs to run smoothly through the fly rod’s guides and off the reel.  The knot you use to attach the fly line to the backing must be low profile, and the two lines must join in an end-to-end fashion. I prefer to use an Albright knot to attach the fly line to the backing line.
  • Leader – Leaders are a special part of your fly line. In general, fly line leaders are monofilament line that tapers from a wider diameter to a smaller diameter at the tip. This taper allows the leader’s easier attachment to the fly line and the fly’s smaller end. There are several types of leaders that you may use when fishing for salmon and I will discuss this in more detail.
  • Tippet – Many fly fishermen add a tippet to the end of their leader before attaching a fly. The tippet is a length of smaller diameter monofilament line. The idea is that the thin monofilament is almost invisible to the fish and makes the fly appear more natural as it lays on the water.

Fly Fishing for Salmon – What do you Need?

Despite what some people say, I find that some of my best fly fishing experiences came when I used the simplest equipment. There are some basic components to fly fishing with which you should be familiar. These items include:

  • The Fly Rod
  • The Reel
  • The Line
  • The Leaders

None of these items are overly expensive. A good beginning set-up suitable for salmon fishing, including an assortment of flies, shouldn’t cost more than $300 to $500.

Get the Right Rod

Walk into a fly fishing shop and begin to look at fly rods. For me, the sensation is overwhelming. The number of different styles, weights, lengths, tapers, flex, etc, creates so many variables it is almost impossible to decide which is best for you. My advice is to make the process as simple as possible.

  • Weight – If you want to fish for salmon, the lightest weight rod I would choose is a 7-weight. Fly fishing rods of 7-weight and above will give you the strength to manage heavier fish such as salmon without fear of a rod breaking.
  • Material – With the introduction of carbon fiber to the fly fishing world, options have increased dramatically. The other option is bamboo, which is usually much more expensive due to the skill and craftsmanship required to build a bamboo fly rod. I prefer the durability and strength of carbon fiber.
  • 3-Piece or 4-Piece – For me, this is a question of convenience. A 4-piece rod can easily fit into a suitcase or strapped to a backpack without much problem. 3-Piece rods tend to be a bit more inconvenient when traveling. Since the closest trout stream to me is about 5 hours away, I always opt for the easiest rod to pack.

Finding the rod that best fits you is almost as personal as picking out clothes. It may take you a while to find the right combination of weight, length, and materials to fit your fly fishing style.

Reels for Salmon Fly Fishing

Like almost everything else in fly fishing, there are as many choices in reels as there are fish to be caught. The choices in fly reels depend on style and size. The most popular option for salmon fly fishing is a single action reel with a spool diameter large enough to hold your backing line, fly line, leader, and tip.

I would suggest that you opt for a reel with interchangeable spools. Several spools loaded with different combinations of:

  • Backing
  • Fly line
  • Leaders

Having several spools allows you to adapt easier to changing water conditions as you fish.

More sophisticated fly fishing reels with adjustable drags, automatic retrieval, and other bells and whistles are available. In my mind, these extras all add up to more things that can break or fail when you are fishing.

Line and Leaders

When fly fishing for salmon, two types of fly lines are the favorites. You should have reels loaded with both types of lines so you can adapt quickly to the current conditions. Fill one reel with a sinking line and the other with a floating line.

If you want to prepare even further, have spools with different fly line densities for even better adaptability to water conditions.

Let’s Talk About Leaders

I’m not talking about the people that inspire you to do great things. The concept here is the transition between your fly line, the tippet, and the fly. Monofilament is the most common material used for leaders. Leaders are not just another length of fishing line.

Leaders are tapered from one end to the other and may have special characteristics such as:

  • Floating line leaders do what the name suggests. They float. The floating characteristic keeps the fly, tippet, and leader on top of the water. Typically, floating line leaders in the 6 to 12-foot length work well for salmon fishing.
  • Intermediate fly line leaders will sink at the tip. The sinking action pulls the tippet and fly into the water, imitating a sinking insect. I suggest that you use a 6-foot length leader if you want this effect when fly fishing.
  • Fast sinking leaders, many use tungsten, pull the fly, tippet, and fly line into the water faster and deeper. You may need to shorten the leader to as little as 3-feet depending on the water you are fishing and the depth you want to reach with your fly.

Monofilament is the most common material used for leaders. And you can see that leaders are not just another length of fishing line.

Go Fishing!

While fly fishing is a bit of an art, the best way to hone your skills is to go fishing. Put together a basic package and head to your favorite stream or river and put a fly on the water. Not only will you get better with practice, I bet you will find yourself more relaxed and happier.

I know fishing has that effect on me. And I’ll be seeing ya’ll out on the water….just not too close to my secret spot 🙂

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Outdoor Shane

I've been in love with the great outdoors since I was a toddler. Grew up in many parts of rural America, spent my youth camping and in Scouts, and years adventuring in Alaska. I know, love, breathe, and live the great outdoors.

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