Three Parts of an Ideal Indicator Leader — And One Great Formula

by | Apr 25, 2018 | 28 comments

I’m not much of a gear guy. I demand a solid pair of waders, and I’m picky about my boots, but I don’t obsess over rods and reels. I have what I need, I guess. I am a leader junkie, though, and I have been since the beginning. Early on, I understood how critical leader design is. For presenting the fly, specific material and taper matters a lot.

I’ve never liked trying to make one leader do everything, either. The inherent compromises in a do-it-all leader are too great — performance for each tactic suffers. And I know many anglers who agree; they carry both a long leader for tight line nymphing and a dry fly leader. After all, there’s a world of difference in the expectations for those two styles.

But here’s the thing: Indicators are often added to our leader as an afterthought — leading to yet another compromise. We’re left with a tool that is not well suited for the job. It works, but it could be better.

So, for many years I’ve carried a third leader dedicated to indicator nymphing. And built into the leader are three features which are specifically up to the task of floating nymphs under an indy.

Here’s the Indicator Leader

24-48″ —  .017” Maxima Chameleon
18″  —  .015” Maxima Chameleon
18″ —  .013” Maxima Chamleleon
12″ —  10# Gold Stren
Tippet Ring (2mm)
24” —  3X Fluorocarbon (the Indy mounts here)
24-48” —  4X or 5X Fluorocarbon

Three elements make this leader specifically designed for indicator nymphing: butt section, sighter (colored line section) and 3X fluorocarbon. Let’s go over each, from the top, down.

Butt Section

Most manufactured, tapered leaders have butt sections of .022” in diameter or larger. Common wisdom says the larger butt section is needed to transfer power from fly line to leader — that the thicker butt section turns over heavy rigs easier. I simply don’t find it necessary.

Twenty pound (.017”) Maxima Chameleon is stiff material that lays flat once stretched. The flexibility of .017” Chameleon more closely matches the flexibility at the end of a 3 to 6 weight fly line. And that’s important.

I use .017” Maxima Chameleon for the butt sections of most all my leaders. It carries plenty of turnover power, but it sags less than thicker butt sections because it weighs less. While it may seem slight, the difference between four feet of .017” vs .022” is significant. Thicker line sags more. And sag equals drag.

I cast nymphing rigs as close to my position as possible (often with little to no fly line out of the guides) and the lighter .017” Chameleon allows for more control and less sag than a traditional .022” butt. It matters.

READ: Troutbitten | The Mono Rig and Why Fly Line Sucks

I list the butt section as 24-48 inches because it’s variable. It should suit your own needs. Match it to your river.

One major benefit to tying your own leaders is the ease of adapting them. Often, I cut the butt section of .017″ Chameleon to under two feet. And on the following trip I may lengthen the butt section to four feet, just to suit the conditions.

Let ’em go so they can grow. Photo by Bill Dell.


There’s one thing I always say about using a sighter: “Why wouldn’t you?”

A simple piece of colored monofilament built into the leader provides a wealth of information about the leader’s position in the drift and about the flies at the end of the line. Sighters are commonly used with tight line nymphing leaders but aren’t so common beyond that. Why not? Sighters are extremely helpful in indicator leaders as well.

I often stay close to the trout and fish the indicator leader with little or no fly line out of the guides. In that case, I stay tight to my indicator after the cast. Meaning, I keep all of the leader off the water, up to my indicator. And the sighter dramatically improves my visibility in doing so. It’s easy to watch for the colored line, behind the indicator, and keep it off the water’s surface as much as possible.

At greater distances, when the leader must lay on the water, I can often see the sighter on the surface. Once again, the colored line gives me a visual to rely on. Because I can see the speed, drag or curling of the leader by watching the sighter on the water, it helps me to know if and when I should mend the line.

READ: Troutbitten | Tight Line Nymphing with an Indicator

The 3X Fluorocarbon

Most anglers use standard fly shop leaders and place the indicator at whatever depth necessary to reach the bottom. That seems to make sense, right? Unfortunately, the indy is often placed on the taper or even high up on the butt section. And without a doubt, the drift suffers. Here’s why . . .

When multiple diameters of line are under the water, the current pushes each of those diameters with a different force. The .012” section in the middle of a taper takes nearly twice the force of .007” (the diameter of 4X). And just like butt section diameters, it matters.

The best nymphing rigs have only one diameter of tippet under the water. So the current pushes on all of the line at an even rate (kinda). This is one of the key principles in the Mono Rig and most tight line nymphing leaders: just one diameter of tippet is under the water.

With my favorite indicator leader, however, I cheat on this principle, just a bit.

I prefer to mount the indicator on a 24 inch section of 3X, sliding it up and down within those two feet to adjust for depth. Beyond that is the 4X or 5X fluorocarbon (where I attach the nymphs). That way, if I must break off flies on a stubborn snag, I don’t lose the whole rig. The indicator stays with me, as the flies break off at their 4X knot or the 3x to 4x junction.

Note: I know many anglers prefer to nymph with 5x or even 6x. If that’s you, then sub out the 3X for 4X and mount the indy there (with the remainder of the tippet ending in 5X or 6x). The idea, though, is to keep the diameters as close as possible, so the current’s influence is close to even on the two different lines. It’s a compromise.

I should mention that I never go under 4X for the two foot section beyond the sighter (where the indy mounts). And I always use fluoro. Fluorocarbon sustains less damage from sliding indicators. And 3X or 4X can take a hell of a lot more abuse than 5X.

READ: Troutbitten | The Dorsey Yarn Indicator — Everything you need to know, and a little more


As I mentioned above, I carry three leaders, and each is specifically designed for a purpose. Normally, I change to whatever leader suits the tactic that I’m using most. But I also adapt each leader and fish it with other tactics. There’s always some mixing and matching going on.

For example, I use the Mono Rig for a lot of tasks beyond tight line nymphing. One of my go-to modifications is to add an indicator to the Mono Rig.  And I fish it that way often. Likewise, when using a dry leader, I occasionally clip off the dry and add a nymph. Then I may add an indicator. Or sometimes I drop a small nymph behind the dry. Mix and match.

The point is, I adjust to suit the conditions. All three leaders that I carry have their strong suit — their intended use. And all three leaders can be adapted to other styles.

For reference, here are the other two leaders:

Troutbitten Standard Mono Rig
Harvey  Dry Fly Leader

That’s a Wrap

There you have it: Three parts of an ideal indicator leader (as I see it, anyway).

I know that changing leaders is a pain to many anglers, So I’ll suggest the method outlined here:

READ: Troutbitten | Get Me Back to My Fly Line 
and here . . .
READ: Troutbitten | Loop to Loop Is Bad — Try Attaching Your Leaders This Way

Loop to loop sucks. And this method allows for streamlined changes in about a minute.

So change leaders more often. And if you’re fishing indys, build these three parts into your leader. Use a tool that really fits the work in front of you.

Fish hard, friends.


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Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky


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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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Be helpful. And be nice.


  1. Domenick, do you sell your leaders anywhere? Your leader formula sounds intriguing, and I would love to try these out.

  2. I’ve gone super minimalist.

    My fly line/sighter is a the smallest diameter chartreuse running line I can find (.027″, I think). To that, I attach very short (6″) transition mono (around .015″) that ends in a tippet ring. To the tippet ring is attached a 4-6 ft. piece of 4x flouro to a second tippet ring, to the terminal stuff (5x, droppers, etc.).

    So, the entire leader is, essentially, 4x tippet, which sinks super fast and impedes the movement of the nymphs minimally. And, if one is using weight or weighted nymphs, it turns over surprisingly wThe downside of this setup is sag, but, when I have to fish far enough from me for sag to be an issue, I add a small strike indicator.

    One reason for this rig is that I’ve discovered that, at least for me, looking at a sighter is not nearly as effective as looking at the fly line, and watching for a its curve to straighten out a little.


  3. When you match the butt section ( 24″-48″) to your river, is the match based on water depth, flow rate, or something else? I am absolutely new at this but will be giving it a try in Northern Arkanmsas and Southern Missouri all of May. Thanks for your help. I’m hooked on Troutbitten!

    • Hi Norm,

      It’s not so much the water depth, but rather the amount of space that I have to cast.

      One of the most common situations where I clip back the length of the butt section is on small creeks with little casting room. In such places, I may prefer to punch shorter leaders around with tight casts and fly line.

      On larger rivers, I like tight lining as often as possible, and the longer butt sections allows me to keep fly line out of the mix at greater distances.

      Make sense or no?


      • Makes sense to me. It should be a lot of fun trying out a mono rig on the waters I mentioned. Long butts and leaders seem more appropriate for them. I’ve rigged one rod (8-9 weight) with 25lb amnesia for the mono running line. The rod is full flex slow action. Thought I’d try some bigger streamers on it. Your thoughts? Also rigged a Helios 5 weight with Cameleon 20lb per your suggested rigging. Can’t wait to get started. Oh…I’m from Bedford, PA but left over 60 years ago.

        • I’m not a fan of full flex rods for the Mono Rig. That’s just my preference, but you asked. 🙂

  4. I’ll be fishing the Spring River, (AR) Norfork River, (AR) Tailwater, White River (AR) Tailwater, Roaring River, MO, Lake Tanneycomo, MO (Tailwater) and the Little Red River, AR (Tailwater).

  5. I am a leader junkie and always trying new formulas. Loren Williams once told me he changed his leader formula more frequent than his underwater. I am at least that bad. I have tried your Indicator leader and I really like it. I think it is fine for dries with a five foot tippet attached. With it and a long mono leader, I feel prepared for most situations I encounter. Thanks for sharing!p

    • Cheers, Don. I think it works great for dries too, when adjusted.

  6. Dom,

    If you were going to tight line nymphs exclusively (no indie, no dry-dropper, no streamers, etc.), what leader configuration would you choose?


  7. Hey Dom. I love using this leader with New Zealand Strike Indicators. I’m boiling some coiled sighters right now and I’m curious if this leader would pair well with one. Maybe replace the 10lb Gold Stren section with a coiled sighter?

    • Hi Aaron.

      Since you asked, I will advise not to use the NZ indy with the coiled sighter as well. I just wouldn’t do both, but that’s me.

      I’m not a fan of the coiled sighter. I much prefer a very small Dorsey Yarn Indy. That way I have just one point of contact on the water, instead of the full coiled sighter.

      Hope that helps.

    • How do you attach your leaders to your fly line? Are you swapping out leaders on a given day of fishing? While my knot tying skills have improved through repetition, I still spend a bunch of time tying rather than fishing.

  8. I’m going to try this out but I have a question about the rigging first. In your leader formula it looks like you put the tippet ring on after the sighter and then the 2′ section of 3x were the indicator mounts. Why do you do this? I’ve never used tippet rings or sighters so I am trying to understand the advantage of putting the indicator in front of the tippet ring and not behind it on the sighter. Regardless, I think this is a cool idea and I’m going to try it out for myself. Thanks for sharing!

    • Hi Dalton. We want the Indy to be slidable and on a piece of tippet that will be fine under the water. The Sighter is too thick and too colorful to be under the water. Mounting it on that 3x gives you more range and depth.

      Make sense?


      • Thanks for the quick reply Dom!

        That makes total sense and I’m definitely going to try this out on some nearby trout streams.

        Take care and tight lines!

  9. Hi Dom, Great work with this blog – the quality of substance and thoughtful analysis are both consistently very impressive. You open your “Sighter” section of this article with a question in a non tight-line context “Why wouldn’t someone use a section of high vis mono in a leader formula that is used with a soft landing suspender/indicator on the water (meaning Dorsey/NZ)?” I could be reading you wrong but the implication I get is that there isn’t an answer to that question worthy of much consideration because you don’t contemplate in the piece thereafter. With the idea in mind that a significant part of the beauty of the Dorsey/New Zealand design itself is that it lands more softly and visibly looks more natural in the environment when compared to the alternatives – it seemed to me as if the answer to the question was going to be…”We’re trying our best not to spook these trout.” Could you please share how/why you feel that the high vis gold stren either on or near the waterline isn’t spooking nearby trout? Thank you. Best wishes, Jeff

    • Hi Jeff:

      You wrote:

      “Could you please share how/why you feel that the high vis gold stren either on or near the waterline isn’t spooking nearby trout?”

      Sure thing. Quite simply, it’s because I put sighters from my nymph rigs over trout every day, and they just don’t care. They care not if the colored mono is in the air or on the water. I will say that very rarely, I have seen trout SEEM to spook in the lowest and clearest water while I float the sighter on the water. So, in this indy formula above, I use Gold Stren, because it’s even less noticeable. I think if you test the trout’s response yourself, you’ll see that the color of a short piece of leader doesn’t much matter to them. They care about movement (drag) and splashing entry much more.

      Those are my thoughts.


  10. What knot do you use to connect the 3x indicator tippet section to the 4x nymph section of tippet. would a simple double/triple surgeons knot work or should I use a blood knot as I did with the upper leader construction?

  11. Dom,
    Are you attaching the “butt section” to the mono rig or to your flyline?

    • Hello Gene,

      Oh certainly not the Mono Rig. The Mono Rig is its own leader. This is it’s own leader. Links for preferred method of attaching are toward the bottom of the article.


  12. Dom,

    I had a lot of luck this past summer using your indicator leader to quickly switch between tight lining and swapping out a cicada pattern. I prefer the mono rig to keep the fly line out of the guides, but this was a decent compromise to switch back and forth quickly. My local river has a few runs separated by lots of in between flat and shallow stuff, so it worked great for that. I also built in the full sighter rather than only the yellow Stren.

  13. Domenick, don’t know if you’ll see my following question re: your indicator rig. I use unweighted or underweighted nymphs. Thus, even using fluro to sink the flies, where would you place some small shot? Somewher above the droppers? Also, this rig, as I see it “suspends” the nymphs in the water column above the river bed. Unlike a drop shot rig you’re not “ticking” the bottom. No?


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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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