Silver nanorod array substrates are fabricated by oblique angle deposition and characterized for optimal SERS performance. Using UV-visible-NIR spectrophotometry we show that the nanorods have a transverse surface plasmon resonance mode at ∼357 nm and a broad absorbance spanning 600-800 nm when excited along the longitudinal direction. We demonstrate that SERS enhancement is optimized using an excitation wavelength of 633 or 785 nm. The large area uniformity in SERS signal (<10% variation) and reproducibility among preparations (<15% variation) provides a unique opportunity for SERS-based whole-organism fingerprinting. Egg prepared avian influenza virus and clinical sputum samples of human influenza virus were investigated to demonstrate SERS-based detection of a virus in a complex sample matrix and to assess the effect of different background matrices on the detection of similar viruses. © 2010 Copyright SPIE - The International Society for Optical Engineering.