Swinging Nymphs | An Underutilised Fly Fishing Technique

So winter swinging isn’t all about throwing big, blingy streamers. Fish eat nymphs too you know! The key is to catch their eye and not scare them off and ingredients such as rubber legs, soft hackles or subtle bling can really make trout want to eat your fly. In the low, clear conditions often encountered mid-winter fish can been a little finicky, at least here in the south.

When the Clutha runs below 200 cumecs and nearly crossable in places, and the Kawarau crystal clear, big, bright intruders don’t really been seal the deal on fish that are largely just holding.

Fly Fishing With Chris Dore

Last season my buddy, Matt Klara of Big Sky Anglers in Montana sent me a couple boxes of flies to swing, and amongst them, non-descript rubber tailed nymphs. So that got me thinking.

Last week on the river with Steve we fired cast after cast and swung superbly through some of the nicest low water lies you ever could see...nada. Switching it up to a pair of contrasting Simons Uglies, it wasn’t long before the first fish was hit.

Trout will pick out a swinging nymph in clear conditions from a surprisingly long distance, but that’s not all. When the river is pumping or sporting a little colour a pair of nymphs swung enticingly into the softer water can bring surprising results.

If fish can pick up tiny size 20, and smaller nymphs tumbling down amongst the gravels and other debris, they can sure see a size 12 to 16 fly pattern swinging across the current.

Like a shooting star is instantly noticeable amongst the norm and encourages a spark of energy, flies swung across stream can immediately incite fish to play out of instinct and reaction alone. Kind of like a kitten with string.

They stand out no matter their small size as they are behaving differently from other items at the mercy of the downstream flow. You may try a softer tail such as marabou, rubber or softer fibres for movement or quill tails or similar to push water for an alternate effect. Experiment with your patterns and see what hits for you.



Consider always swinging nymphs as a team of two or three as regulations permit. I find setting short, independent droppers off tippet rings, or via a water knot is the best way to keep them together, and yet offer each fly the chance to move freely and independently. Consider a flashy fly to catch the eye along with something a little more natural, especially in low light or larger water. 


Most integral to success is the speed at which your nymphs are swinging. Over winter fish are less inclined to chase a fast moving object and so keeping your flies in front of their face for as long as possible ensures they have more time to see it, and more time to react to it without busting their balls.

You need to slow down your swing and you can do this a couple of ways:

  • Keeping your rod tip wide. Following the 45 degree downstream cast and mend, if you keep your rod tip outside of your line as it swings inwards you will essentially hinging the line from your rod tip, slowing your swing. As it comes to a stop directly below your rod tip, you can choose to dangle it a little, or slowly swing it into the edge by now moving your rod tip inwards.
  • Alternatively to speed up your swing. If you lead your line inside with the rod tip you will accelerate your flies as they pull across the currents.
  • Walking your swing. Following your cast and mend, if you slowly walk downstream as your flies pull across the current you will again slow your swing.
  • You could also use a higher density sinking leader to provide more resistance to the swing. 5’ and 10’ Airflo Polyleaders are the nymph swingers best friends, and on longer, two handed gear, your Flo Tips now become common place.


Next to swing speed, controlling the depth at which tour flies are swinging is another essential to success. Mending, Poly leaders / sink tips, the addition if Loon Black Drops, weighting the fly and using thinner, longer tippet all aid in getting your flies down. To keep them down there you will need to maintain a slower swing, or employ a longer sink tip or a sinking line to hold them at depth for a longer period of time.


If additional movement is required first consider just how much is needed to either simply catch the eye, or make those fish grab. Just a slow figure 8 retrieve while the flies move across the current can make the world of difference at times, whereas at others you may want to get to depth, and then strip. Sometimes, you’ll just want to let them swing. If it's not working, mix it up. 


Keep the rod tip up

Have only just enough line on the water to anchor your rig and stop it from falling back beneath the rod tip. This ensures that softer takes are felt immediately and don’t have to break the surface tension of a longer, attached line before registering. It also gives you better contact to both remove slack, and move the nymphs if so desired. Anchor just the tip of the fly line to maintain tension to the rod tip and to prevent sag.

Send it

Make your cast on a downstream angle to ensure a slower drift across fewer currents. Don’t fluff around, just get your fly out there...

Mend it

Give it time to sink before the line pulls tight. This could be a pullback, or standard upstream, or downstream mend depending on the currents.

Follow it

Following the line with the rod tip as it swings, as opposed to leading it allows for a slower, more controlled swing and any strips will dance the fly upstream rather than accelerating the swing across. You are also in a better position to work your flies back up the edge of the current following the swing. And then take a step or two downstream and do it all again.

You KNOW there are fish there somewhere and covering a large amount of water you KNOW you have presented the fly in their vicinity, so keep moving downstream and repeat until you nail one!

Experiment with your patterns and see what hits for you. Below is a hit list of my favourite nymphs to swing, both in summer and winter. See if you can add to it…

Simons Uglies Black

Silly Stone Brown

Pink Nosebleed

Fresh Prince