Rants & Raves

Nymph vs. Swing: Can’t we all just get along?

Yes, we can.

But first, we have to get over ourselves.

(FYI: For those of you who fly-fish, you know what I am talking about. For those who do not, I apologize, because you probably thought this was going to be a much sexier blog post than it is… Whoever came up with the terms for the techniques mentioned in the title of this post obviously had their mind in a gutter, or maybe it’s just everyone else’s that is… ponder that for a minute or two.)

Alright, on to the business at hand…

I probably come from a more uncommon background than most fly-fishers out there, as I was introduced to fly-fishing before ever touching traditional gear methods, and one of the first species of fish I caught was a wild steelhead on a swung fly. I found myself addicted to fly-fishing for steelhead before having a chance to try anything else. It wasn’t long before I picked up a Spey rod and the addiction immediately turned to Spey casting and searching for wild steelhead year round with two-handers– with the only changes made being the types of lines and flies I would use. Before long, I became more comfortable casting a Spey rod than a single hand rod.

It also wasn’t long before the riverside banter of “swing” versus “nymph” started ringing in my ears. “Oh, they’re nymphing, that’s hardly fly-fishing”; “It’s a lot harder to catch them on the swing”; “You might as well use bait”, etc. etc.. Initially, I could see why the method I was used to could be seen as the more challenging of the two to catch fish, as the set-up with a nymph allows you to get right down to the fish with a weight and bobber, and are able to put the fly in areas where you are unable to by swinging usually. What I wasn’t aware of until last Thursday, is how nymphing has it’s own degree of difficulty and takes a much different type of skill with a fly rod than swinging flies does.

Don’t knock it ’til you try it, right?

Yes, as some of you know, I do have the saying, “Swing flies, Be happy” as a personal motto, but as I discussed in a previous blog post, it doesn’t mean I’m opposed to other methods of fly-fishing, it’s simply a catchy phrase that sums up the type of fishing I fell in love with.

(For those who do not know what “nymphing” means, it basically means using a fly rod to dead-drift a fly (egg pattern or nymph) underneath an indicator/bobber.  AK/WA fishing Guide, Andy Simon, and seasoned steelhead fisherman, Michael Davidchik, wrote an informative piece about this technique on Washington Fly-Fishing a couple years ago. http://www.washingtonflyfishing.com/forum/index.php?threads/steelhead-nymphing-strategies.77165/)

Nonetheless, I knew eventually I would have to get out and try it myself. So, a couple weeks ago while I was out on the coast, a new friend of mine (Bozeman based photographer and fishing guide), Brett Seng, offered to take myself and another avid steelheader, Annie Kubicka (aka “Big Fish Annie”) out on a raft to drift some flies, as well as swing some runs. I was looking forward to actually seeing the water from a new angle, as this was the first time I would ever float a river– Yes, first time EVER. I have waded and bushwhacked my way through the last 4+ years of fly-fishing for steelhead. (If you wanna know what waders and boots are durable, I am probably a good person to ask.)

So, these two new friends of mine taught me how to “nymph” for the first time, as well as how to “gracefully” climb in and out of a raft. (I quickly learned that both are not easy, as Annie said it best: “climbing in and out of a raft is never graceful”, and nymphing has it’s own set of challenges I found out after losing multiple flies and snagging trees within the first 10 minutes of the float.) I had to brush up quickly on my single-hand casting abilities that are meager- to say the least- and casting an 8 wt with a weight, bobber and fly is about as graceful looking as me awkwardly pulling myself onto the raft like a seal flopping itself onto a barge. I was humbled by the entire experience. The only thing I didn’t get to experience was the fight of a steelhead, but I’m guessing even if there were fish underneath the surface grabbing at the fly, I probably missed any of my chances to set the hook on them, as my reaction time to a bobber dropping had never been exercised before. Thanks to the enthusiastic outbursts that would come periodically from the oars behind me yelling, “GET IT!”, I was able to eventually understand the movement the indicator made signaling the potential of a grab. It certainly is a whole different ball game than what I was used to playing.

Spey casting and swinging flies has it’s own degree of difficulty, as it isn’t always “cast, swing, step”– it’s sometimes, “cast, mend upstream, swing, walk downstream to get the fly down, and then step”, etc. etc.. Depending on the run’s water speed, depth, and objects to work around underneath the surface, the traditional “cast, swing, step” has to be altered more often than one would think. For the amount of hours I have put in and the amount of time spent learning how to read water on my own or from Andrew and others we fish with, I would say I have done pretty well with the amount of fish I have caught without a guide and without a boat or raft. This has made me appreciate the challenge of swinging flies for steelhead (winter run especially) all that much more every time I get out on the water.

The reason for my desire to write a post about this common argument of one technique versus another, is during the last few times I have been out fishing on my own, I have honestly run into more friendly gear and nymph fishermen than those with spey rods swinging. This is just my observation, and it doesn’t mean EVERY swing/spey fisherman or woman I have come across is less friendly, but it was enough to take note and feel the need to share my feelings. Coming from the perspective of a 31-year-old female out with a spey rod walking the river banks with my dog, I feel like my perception can be taken however you want to, but I will never raise my nose or have preconceived opinions about a gear, bait, or nymph fisher I run into out there, as long as the fish are being respected.

That is really the bottom line, isn’t it?

I find it interesting that I have been “low-holed” more times from other spey fisherman and smiled at and greeted kindly by more gear fisherman…

Go figure.

As “sport” fishermen and women, we all know the catch and release mortality rate is apparent no matter what, so we all need to be educated properly on how to catch and release with the least amount of harm to the fish as possible. Ultimately, whatever method you are using to catch these beautiful wild fish, be sure you are following the rules and respecting each other, so we can continue to be able to do so.

Can’t we all just get along?

I certainly can’t control what others do out on the water we all share, but I can control the way I act and behave towards others.


As some of you know, our wild steelhead populations are continuing to deplete every year. I can’t say I have gone as far as to stop fishing some of my favorite places because of this, but I will say that by being involved in the WSC (www.wildsteelheadcoalition.org) has only furthered my knowledge on this issue, and eventually, I won’t be surprised if I will have to stop fishing for steelhead entirely. That is a sad reality. Please get involved with the coalition if you want to help the efforts to save a species.


Thanks for reading~






2 replies »

  1. Well said Lisa and I agree. I am a fisherman and a hunter. It is unfortunate that these conflicts happen amongst outdoors men and women. Like you mentioned, swinging vs. nymphing has been a hot topic. I have also seen arguments between archery hunters and rifle hunters, even traditional bow hunters vs. compound bow hunters. Fly fisherman that think using a bead head nymph is “cheating”. By fighting amongs ourselves, we weaken our unitedness as members of a sport, and in my opinion, we need to stand together more often. I rarely use gear on steelhead and have caught 3 fish on gear my whole life. Not sure the number of steelies I’ve landed on a fly rod but it is well over 100. I am not an expert and realize there are many that have caught thousands both with fly rod and gear. I have seen eough to notice that some of the fly fisherman seem to have an elitist attitude and as you mentioned, are not very “friendly”. The same can be said of some gear fisherman though, so it certainly is not limited to one or the other. I appreciate your making the point of “can’t we all just get along”. Whether the fisherman across or upstream from you swings, spey’s, or one hand’s for steelhead, he/she should be an assumed friend and not foe. If I was to judge a hunter or fisher it would not be because of their weapon, rod or techhnique. It would be more about are they following the fish/game laws, do they treat their follow outdoorsmen with courtesy and the fish and game we pursue with respect. One who breaks fish/game laws, or as you said “low holes” and crowds in on you, those are the people I would choose not to share a field or stream with. Tim


  2. So I stumble upon your blog, Lisa, and suddenly realize I have a huge problem because I knew what your title meant without any hint of the innuendo! Houston, we have a problem! I may be a quart low on testosterone…. time to stop by jiffy lube to get topped off!

    Personally I have yet to experience any bias toward the spey swing, but I live and fish mostly in Oregon. There can be pretense in anything. I do tire of the “cool dude” pretense I see in fly fishing. None of that was ever portrayed in movies like A River Runs Through it, but it sure runs deep in products from places like Orvis and Patagonia. My feeling is the sport is about the outdoors and the fish, not about doing the urban pretense race. To wordsmith an old axiom… Those that can, do…. those that can’t, buy tons of patagonia and orvis. Also those who can, spend a lot more time just smiling when compared with those that can’t. It’s a bit of a zen thing, I think.

    Every once in a while I will have a bit of fun with a pretentious fly fisherman in conversation. I will subtly work in that I design trophy trout fishing habitats for a living. That has a funny way of cooking off the pretense.

    One of my very favorite fishing memories that dealt with pretense was from a guide in the little crossroads of Wise River Montana. He had more than his share that night and was wandering down a dark road yelling about those *#&#&@ “Orvis-holes”. Granted the Orvis-holes paid his bills, but it was enlightening and entertaining to hear his liquored lament. As I think back on it, that guide would have fit right into the River Runs Through It script.



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