Nymphing for Steelhead...why are folks against it?

As someone who has very limited experience in fly fishing other than past couple months, I was literally born with a baitcaster in my hands due to my father being a gear fisher. Just wanted to put in my 2 cents on this. Take it for what its worth.

I changed to fly fishing for many reasons. One primary reason? The history, culture, and the challenge of it. In the past couple months that I've ben fly fishing, I've stuck to mostly dries and occasional streamers (which I still don't know how to fish). Admitedly, I haven't had much success. As far as the debate on nymphing goes...is there really a difference between bobber/jig fishing? I undeerstand that ther are technical challenges that come with Nymphing (as Sageman has stated) but are these challenges any different from bobber and jig fishing?

Whether you're fly fishing or gear fishing, learning how to read the water is generally something you have to understand in order to fish rivers and catch fish. I see a lot of fly fishers state that gear fishing is just chuck and wait which isn't the case. I've done my share of bobber/jig and corkie/yarn fishing and don't get me wrong, a lot of the skills required for fly fishing isn't required for gear fishing, but let's get one thing straight - whether fly or jig, you should know how to read the water.

Now going back to nymphing. If I was fly fishing for the increased chance of catching fish, I would've stuck with gear fishing. Simple as that. I fly fish for the challenge and the history of said method, not so I can increase my chances of catching fish. I've had a lot of success in my time gear fishing, but very minimal success on my fly. Fortunately, this only motivates me more than deterring me.

Maybe there is a whole culture to nymphing that I don't understand and haven't really opened my eyes to, but I've sure done a hell of a lot of bobber and jig fishing and for me, I'll stick with swinging flies for the sake of the challenge and tradition. I certainly hope I don't get called a "elitist" because of this post. I don't exactly have the credibility to be makign statements as such, but just sharing my reasons for fly fishing and truth be told, nymphing goes against the reasons why I switched to fly fishing.
I too started out as a gear fisherman and I used to think that catching a steelhead on a fly rod was almost a gimmick. I got my first one on the S Fork Stilly after pounding the river all day using spinners and bait. I got my 2nd one about 5 casts later. As I transitioned to beign pretty much an exclusive flyfisherman I used to fish both methods and discovered that I could catch just as many, if not more fish using flies. My day of enlightenment came when I was hiking about a mile stretch of water. I fished upstream using spinners, and on the way back, I strung up my fly rod and fished flies on the way down. I got one fish on a spinner, and 6 on the flies.... Once you get it dialed in, you will never go back. I do think gear has a big advantage (specifically bait) on a bigger, more colored river.

Welcome to steelhead flyfishing, I'm guessing you'll never go back. It just is never the same again.

As for reading water, you need roughly the same understanding of reading water to fish gear as you do to swing flies. Again, being somebody who uses all methods, I think that nymphing requires a higher understanding of reading water and currents. At least to do it right and successfully.

Lastly, get a pair of twins who have some remedial experience flyfishing and gear fishing, but not for steelhead and not nymphing. Put a spinning rod in one of their hands and a box of floats and jigs. Give the other one a fly rod and a vest set up for nymphing. The one with the fly rod is going to really struggle, the one with the gear rod should be able to figure it out pretty quickly.


Ignored Member
So what's the average Joe, working 40 hrs (or more) a week, family man, honey-do's, limited time on the water to do?:beathead: Nymph rig. Depth is controlled simply by sliding the bobber up or down. One or two heavy fly patterns, (it doesn't really matter, it's the weight) and a half dozen bead head prince nymph and copper john patterns. Throw in some power bait emergers for good measure. The learning curve has now been shortened dramatically!
In the spirit of getting this to 10 pages of useless dribble of which I want to make sure I have my fair share in. How is what you described above easier? I have never used a nymph setup for anything but I have seen many do it and to me it is a total mind fuck. Swinging; I put on a sink tip, some leader, a fly, and throw the whole mess out, mend once, check out the scenery until it has swung down below, take 3 or 4 steps, and repeat. Simply simple. This method does not tax my puny little brain and can even catch a fish once in awhile.
I swing flies for steelhead for the same reason some gear guys swing spoons for steelhead, you get fewer but generally bigger and more aggressive fish.

On top of that, the larger rivers that have the bigger more aggressive fish tend to be much too big to nymph the water effectively. You can fish a few spots but if you are trying to dead drift a nymph, you will miss out on literally square miles of holding water.

I have nymphed for steelhead about 3 days in my life around the sacred S Rivers I love so much and in those 3 days I had A LOT of success compared to swinging. For the time spent with the method, it was the highest steelhead catch rate for me ever. However, it just wasn't the same. Many of the fish hardly fought, they were rather small, and they were mostly hens. That is my experience.

I would pass on a dozen 8lbs hens for one mean as fuck 15+ buck on the big water.
I agree that large rivers are harder to nymph. When fishing big water, I usually swing through the runs and then go back and nymph through specific key areas that I think are most likely to hold fish, or are difficult to target on the swing (edges of big rocks, ledges, cut banks, current seams, edge of logs, etc.). Every hole has a "sweet spot" where you are most likely to find a fish. I usually go back and nymph through this area after swinging.

Having caught over 100 steelhead this fall using almost every conceivable method of flyfishing, I'd contend that method has no bearing on the size or fight of a fish. In fact, if anything I find that my bigger fish come nymphing. The bigger ones tend to sit tighter and require you to take the fly to them. I probably caught 10 fish on dries this year and most of them were hatchery and most of them were smaller. A couple of exceptions. I've noticed this in past years as well. The biggest fish I got this fall was on a nymph. Consequently at the time it was also the biggest one the fish checker had seen. I think it was 34" (ginormous for a Methow fish).

I will say that when you hook one nymphing they will sometimes sit there and try and just shake the hook out before they decide they are really hooked and get going. The ones that hit you on the swing are already moving. So the initial fight is generally more impressive when you get the take on a swing. I've had some of most chaotic initial fights on nymphs though. If you get one that really takes off on you from the word go and you had to pick up line, you sometimes find yourself stripping in as fast as you can and stepping backwards to try and catch up, only to have him turn and run the other direction, so now you are trying to keep your pile of line from knotting up as he rips it out....
I do admit I enjoy this thread this year and every year. I can mostly pass over the BS stuff enjoy the posts by Salmo, Speyfisher, Kerry, Sageman. And don't forget the last several feet of a dead drift are a swing up and across, while the first several feet of a swing cast greater than 90 degrees are ofter a dead drift.



Fly Guy Eat Pie
i'd just like to note that I find threads liek these very valuable. of course its nice when everyone gets along but debates liek these get people brain's rolling and i think reminds everyone why we fish in the first place.
I have lead on a very small percentage of my nymphs (in fact only 2 patterns that come to mind). I DO use beadheads, but getting the flies down is more a function of line management than weighting the flies. I only use split shot while nymphing when using big egg flies or fishing deep, fast runs. Lots of people who swing are using heavily weighted flies, either lead wrapped or with dumbbell eyes. Also, until recently most sink tips were (and still are) made of lead core. Now some of them are being made with tungsten. So unless you are swinging unweighted flies with a dry line, lead is used in both methods.

True grease-lining is its own art form and one of my favorite ways to fish for steelhead. Your catch rates are going to go way down if you only use a true grease-lining technique. One of my partners uses this method exclusively.


You're on to something - - in your own inimitable way.

Here's a little background for those of you who haven't fly fished in WA for more than a couple decades. What sets nymphing apart from the wet fly swing? One word:


By material availability fly rods first were constructed of greenheart and later of bamboo. Casting weighted flies or split shot wasn't a very good way to treat a bamboo fly rod.

The definition of fly fishing in WA on fly fishing only waters until a few years back allowed only the weight of the fly line for casting. No lead. Not only no lead for casting, no lead split shot on the leader, no lead wire wrapped on fly hooks. Without lead, how successful or useful is the nymphing technique even for trout, let alone steelhead. Absent a couple split shot, nymphing for steelhead loses its effectiveness. Consequently, nymphing for steelhead only became popular when the WA fishing regulations were modified to allow weighted flies in fly fishing only waters. And the rest, one could say, is history.

I've been fly fishing for steelhead for 37 years. Early on, much of that fishing was on the fly fishing only waters of the NF Stillaguamish and Kalama Rivers. I've probably spent fewer than 5 hours nymphing because, as commonly practiced, nymphing was illegal in those waters. I don't know when the regulation changed, but from 1940 until the late 1980s or 90s, if you had lead in your fly pattern or split shot on your leader, by definition, you were not fly fishing in WA state. This is most likely why you won't find many long time steelheaders nymphing for steelhead. Not only is it not traditional, hell, it wasn't even legal on restricted waters, and by habit I presume, fly fishing on other rivers followed the same legal technique even tho using lead was permitted. But lead is the main thing that separated fly fishing from spinning and casting methods. In fly fishing, you cast the line, the fly goes along for the ride. In spinning and baitcasting, you cast the lead, with the line being nearly weightless.

So the remarks about purism and tradition have some validity, since by tradition, and the associated fly fishing regulations, swinging was fly fishing, and nymphing was gear fishing and could not be legally practiced in the state's fly fishing only waters.

So back to Pan's scale of goodness and badness among people, authentic fly fishing, or at least traditional fly fishing, does not use lead on the fly or the leader. Hence a traditional - and of course elitist - fly fisheman is more than justified in thinking you an uncultured gear chucker if you're casting lead with your fly rod.

That's my hypothesis regarding the bias against nymphing. That makes a hell of a lot more sense to me than thinking I actually give a shit how many steelhead someone catches by nymphing.

I can show the average Joe how to successfully swing much quicker than showing them how to successfully nymph. He'll probably catch fish quicker on the nymph and more of them because it is simply a more productive method.

So what's the average Joe, working 40 hrs (or more) a week, family man, honey-do's, limited time on the water to do?:beathead: Nymph rig. Depth is controlled simply by sliding the bobber up or down. One or two heavy fly patterns, (it doesn't really matter, it's the weight) and a half dozen bead head prince nymph and copper john patterns. Throw in some power bait emergers for good measure. The learning curve has now been shortened dramatically!
It seems more like you guys enjoy ganging up on swingers so you can feel better about yourselves. :D;)
I don't think I've ever seen a nympher badmouth somebody for swinging.... How many posts on this thread alone have blatantly stated that either nymphing is morally wrong, nymphers are bad people, or nymphing isn't flyfishing?

I defend it not because I am exclusively a nympher, but because I think a true flyfisherman should be capable of using several different methods of catching fish. Each has its benefit. Dry flies allow you to see the strike. Swinging gives you a more vicious take. Nymphing is the most productive. Dead-drifting a dry fly is just heart-stopping because you see the whole thing happening before the fish even takes your fly....