Pro Tips: Nymphing vs Swinging for Steelhead

Written by: Dave Stewart, Wet Fly Swing


This winter steelhead was caught on a nymphing setup.
Photo by Dave Stewart

Have you been thinking about getting into steelhead fishing, but are not sure where to start? Maybe you have been out a time or two but weren’t quite successful. You’ve probably heard about the two main strategies for steelhead fly fishing: nymphing and swinging flies. These two tactics that couldn’t be more different.

One is about getting down and dirty, while the other is about making a nice gentle swing across the water. With one, you are chucking and ducking, and with the other you are coaxing a steelhead to come up to your offering. One is about dredging the bottom, and the other is about hooking fish near surface.

There’s no question that both of these methods are effective, but what’s the best one to start off with? Which one is going to catch you more fish? Which one do people find more enjoyable?

I’m going to answer a few of these questions and leave a few for you to discover on your own. I’m going to take you down the road to understanding the benefits and drawbacks of both methods. You will have a good feel for what you need to get started in catching that first fish, especially with the 23 steelhead fishing tips listed at the end.

The East vs. West Debate
So, what’s all of this East Coast vs West Coast stuff you hear about? It’s about the Great Lakes fisheries vs. the Pacific Northwest fisheries. Here’s a brief history of steelhead introductions and natural distribution of steelhead.

Steelhead are native to the Pacific Rim and were historically distributed from Mexico, up and around the rim, and over to Kamchatka in Russia. More than 100 years ago, steelhead were introduced into the Great Lakes and have taken off there. These are hugely popular fisheries that are slightly different from West Coast fisheries.

So, what’s the big difference? The swing. Although there is some swinging of flies on the Great Lakes tributaries, it’s not the predominate method of catching steelhead there. Nymphing tactics rule, and rightfully so, because they are effective and can produce huge returns.

West Coast rivers are typically larger and deeper, and runs are tailored to easy swinging for summer, fall, and winter steelhead. For summers, you can get steelhead to even come to the surface for a swung dry fly.

What does this mean for you? It means that you have multiple ways to target these fish.

Which one is better? Well. . . it depends. I know, you didn’t want to hear that. But it depends on your water conditions and the size of the river. It depends on the depth and water clarity. It depends on your casting ability. It depends on what you end up enjoying more.

I’ve probably hooked an equal number of fish using both methods and can say from experience that I have been addicted to both techniques. Currently, though, I‘m on the swinging bandwagon. This is mainly because I now have two young kids who have restricted my fishing time and caused me to choose a limited number of trips.

Swinging flies for summer steelhead late on an August evening, when it is 100 degrees out, is pretty amazing. You are standing in that cool water as the warm breeze picks up a little to cool off the water, and it takes you to another world. You are enjoying that serene world, the feel of the breeze, caught up in the rhythmic lull of the river, when suddenly the rod is nearly ripped out of your hand–the pull of a lifetime! This is summer steelhead fishing. This is what I have chosen, for now.

How do you fish each method? Here’s a quick run down of the technique and gear types so you have a feel for what it will take to get you ready.


Swinging flies on a misty morning is a magical experience.
Photo by Dave Stewart

Spey Rod vs Single-hand rod
I used to think that single-hand rods were the traditional and best way to catch steelhead. I used to think Spey rods were for yuppies who were trying to be cool. I now know that my Spey rod has helped me catch a lot more fish. It’s just another tool in the toolbox.

For casting long lines and swinging flies, Spey rods are great tools. Spey fishing increases the time your fly is on the water, gives you more control in wind, allows you to cast bigger flies, keeps you from getting tired, and lets you have a lot of fun.

There is still plenty of room for single-hand rods. For smaller rivers especially, single rods are great for steelhead. For smaller flies and lower water conditions, single handers will do the trick. So you don’t have to go out and by a Spey rod tomorrow. Use what you have to find out if you enjoy steelheading first.

Nymphing Gear and Tactics
A 9- or 10-foot 8-weight single-hand rod will work in most situations for nymphing. An 11-foot or longer switch rod offers you extra versatility. Use a weight-forward line for the single-hand rod, and either a Skagit or Scandi line for the switch rod. Use a leader that is twice as long as the water is deep. These are the basics.

The nymphing setup is pretty simple. You can use an indicator above your fly with a split shot 18 inches above your fly with enough split shot to get it down. The most basic pattern and one that has caught more fish for me than any other is the Glo Bug, but stoneflies and plenty of other buggy or egg patterns will do the trick. Take a look at this article for additional tips and flies for nymphing.

The goal is to achieve a dead drift that essentially floats naturally downstream with the speed of the water. As your line moves by you and downstream, you can extend your run by feeding slack into the drift. After your line straightens out below you, get set up for another cast up into the slot. Look for the seam lines when chasing steelhead. The fish will be holding on the edges of the faster water where they can rest, as well as in the spots where there’s some structure to break things up.

Swinging Tactics for Steelhead
I can’t imagine that fishing can get much easier than swinging flies. Cast your fly out, downstream and across, give it a little mend, keep your rod tip near the water and wait for a pull as the line and fly swing across. Although this sounds simple, there are still plenty of challenges. Finding the fish is on top of the list. This article describes summer steelheading.

You need to look for the broken water within the larger run. Steelhead like water that is the pace of a walk and will seek shelter near underwater obstructions, which aren’t always obvious.

There is a wide range of gear choices can do the job. A 12- or 13-foot spey rod is sufficient in most cases for Skagit or Scandi spey lines. For single-hand rods, a 9-foot 8-weight will do the trick. Use a 6- to 9-foot leader, depending on conditions. If you are swinging flies with a sinking line, you should use a shorter leader to insure that your fly get down in the striking zone.

That’s about it. Your main focus should be covering the water to find the fish. Cast, swing, hang the fly, and then step down. Then do it again until you feel a fish. Stay with that fish until he hooks up.


Early morning last minute preparation..
Photo by Dave Stewart

20 Random Tips for Steelhead

  1. Swing wet flies on the surface before the sun is on the water in the morning and evening.

  2. For Spey rods, use a Skagit line for heavier flies and deeper water and a Scandi for lighter flies and shallower water.

  3. 5 killer patterns for all-around steelheading: Egg-Sucking Leech, Glo Bug, Max Canyon, Purple Burlesque, and Kaufmann’s Stone.

  4. The two best steelhead books to get you started:A Passion for Steelhead by Dec Hogan, and Steelhead Fly Fishing by Trey Combs.

  5. Steelhead can hit lightly, so if you feel a tip or tap, put the fly back to the same spot on the next cast.

  6. If you hook a fish, mark the spot because it will hold fish again and again, year after year.

  7. Switch to a smaller fly.

  8. Sharpen your hook before each session.

  9. Move to the opposite bank to get a better angle on the run and fish.

  10. Get elevated to see holding water and spot fish.

  11. Alter the depth of fly when swinging by using more or fewer mends.

  12. Let the hole rest, then run through it again with a different fly.

  13. Don’t be afraid to fish behind your buddy or that dude who just fished through.

  14. Fish water that is 3 to 6 feet deep.

  15. Fish water that is flowing at walking speed.

  16. Start close and cover the water before you wade out deep.

  17. Let your fly hang at the end of the swing.

  18. Bow to the fish before you set the hook.

  19. Practice casting when you can’t fish.

  20. Cut the excuses and get out fishing ASAP

Conclusion
Should you nymph or swing? There’s no right answer here. Both methods are effective for steelhead. Whether you start nymphing or swinging flies, the important thing is to make sure you get out and practice. I challenge you to do one thing to get a step closer to catching a steelhead. Once you do, you will be hooked, and the passion will only grow as you connect with more steelhead.

Dave Stewart runs WetFlySwing.com, and he’s offering a special guidebook for Orvis News readers. Dave is a lifelong fly fisherman, and has a passion for steelhead fishing and natural resource protection.

8 thoughts on “Pro Tips: Nymphing vs Swinging for Steelhead

  1. Larry

    Dave: That was a great read, thanks for taking the time to explain the differences to those of us that have never fished for Steelhead!

    Reply
    1. dave stewart

      No Problem Larry. Hopefully some of this will resonate with you after you’ve planned that first steelhead trip. Are you far away from an opportunity to swing or nymph for these guys? I hope that my site inspires a few more people to get out and find a way to make a steelhead trip happen!

      Reply
  2. joshuacitrak

    although I’m not an A’s fan, I think you were a great pitcher. 4 seasons of 20 or more wins is impressive and the Bay Area is proud of you.

    Reply
  3. Tony

    Whoa! What an insanely comprehensive article. I’m doing my first multiple day/night fly fishing trip next month and this just got me even more excited.

    Between this and rewatching a river runs through it, I’m gonna become a fly fishing addict 🙂

    Reply
  4. dave stewart

    Hey Tony,

    There’s no turning back now. Wait until you get that first pull of a steelhead and you will be done – In a good way buddy! Let me know anytime you have questions. Also, check out the site for the new interview series that I think you will find helpful.

    Reply
  5. Victor

    Thanks for the detailed review on these two methods. Ive been cleaning upy swing game for winter steelhead. Im using an 11 ft 7wt switch with a wulff ambush 350grain kine. Ive been using versileaders in 5 and 7ips. What lenghth and pound tippet do you recommend for swinging flies on this rig. Also any particular length and type of versileaders you recommend? Are sink tips better??

    Reply
  6. Bob Greenberg

    Some people recommend a leader the same length as your rod. So probably a 10 foot poly/versaleader with a 2 or 3 foot Tippett of 8 or 10 pound tippet. If you want to use sink tips (e.g. T8, T10, T11,etc.) you will need to use a Skagit head. Have fun!

    Reply

Leave a Reply to dave stewart Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *