I know, I know. You don’t like to fish with indicators, right? You think an indy removes the angler from contact with the nymphs. You believe a fly fishing indicator actually gets in the way of strike detection more than it helps the situation. Granted, there are big problems with the way most fly fishermen use indicators. And I know a lot of anglers who refuse to attach them to a leader.
But I also know many more good anglers who see the value of indicators, who reach for an indy (or a dry-dropper rig) when a tight line nymphing presentation fails, who recognize that an indicator is an amazing and useful tool that extends our effective nymphing range, balances out a drift and helps keep the flies in one current seam.
I think a lot of anglers miss the finer points of the indy game. Good indicator nymphing (or dry-dropper fishing) is not just a chuck it and chance it affair. Instead, careful attention to the indy itself, reading the water against the position and behavior of the indicator, is a necessary skill if the tactic is to be productive.
A fly fishing indicator is both a suspender of weight and an indicator of the drift.
Let’s dig in . . .
Get tight first
All of this is predicated on the indy being in touch with the nymphs. And that happens at various points following the cast: sometimes sooner, sometimes later.
One of the great things about indy fishing is how effectively a slight amount of slack in the system can be managed. A tight line presentation tends to pull out any built in, useful slack, while an indy rig may maintain a bit of slack between the flies and the indicator for long stretches within a drift.
All of the subtleties discussed below, however, occur once the indy is in touch with the flies (or the weight) under the surface.
In touch yet?
A good indicator sends a signal to the angler once it gains contact with the nymphs.
Ideally, we land the nymphs upstream of the indy, all in one current seam. As the nymphs sink and drift downstream, they eventually gain contact with the indicator floating on the surface. (Skilled anglers manipulate the available slack between the nymphs and the indy as the pair hit the water.)
When the two are out of touch, the indicator may orient sideways a bit. It may canter off to the side. It may appear unstable, rocking and swaying with the currents. Watch the indy for all of that.
And then watch for it to change. See the indy tighten up a bit. See its orientation shift. Watch how it stands upright. All of this happens once it gains contact with the nymphs underneath. This is how you know the indy is in touch with the flies.
Importantly, gaining contact is different than slowing down. That’s the next thing to watch for . . .
“How do I know if my nymphs are on the bottom?” It’s a question considered by every fly fisher who’s ever probed the depths of a river. The better question to ask is, “Are my nymphs in the strike zone?”
The indicator signals the position of the nymphs to the angler. And when the nymphs are in the strike zone, the indy slows.
Watch the surface currents. See the bubbles. Even without foam or bubbles on the surface, you can see the speed of the topwater if you look close enough.
When the indy first lands, it’s carried only by the influence of the surface currents. First, watch for the indy to gain contact with the nymphs — watch its orientation or stability, as described above. Next, watch for the indicator to lag behind the surface currents. See it drift slower than the top water. This is your indication that the nymphs are near the bottom.
Water flowing near the riverbed flows slower than the surface currents. It’s an elementary fact that should be printed on the back of every little plastic package of indicators. The water at the bottom of the river is slowed by the rocks, tree parts, weeds, etc. Trout live there. They sit on the bottom, conserving energy, while faster water flows above them. Get your nymphs down into this strike zone and catch fish.
And when the indy drifts slower than the top current, it’s a signal that the nymphs are where they should be.
Do you see it now?
We all watch the indy for a strike. That’s the obvious indication from our “strike indicators.” And I’ll leave it to you to decide whether to set on every jiggle, or only the major bumps of the indicator. Most of those jiggles and bumps are not trout takes, but we set anyway, because one out of twenty times . . .
Does your fishing buddy who doubles up your fish count have a sixth sense for nymphing that you don’t?
Here’s the thing: by watching the other signals of the indy, by observing the orientation and stability, and by watching for the slow down, the best nymph fishermen gather more data about the drift than the guys who just chuck it and chance it. The skilled nympher processes all that data in real time. He factors in the positioning and the contact of the nymphs against the indicator. And he weighs all of that against the probability that each of those small jiggles or bumps is a strike. That is the sixth sense stuff.
I know enough good anglers to understand that indicators are a personal choice, and a skilled nymph fisher can make just about any indicator style work for him.
So fish what you like, but choose wisely. Select your indicator with the above properties in mind.
All indys will show you the slow down. But some don’t indicate the orientation very well — they don’t indicate contact with the nymphs.
I fish Dorsey yarn indicators and Thingamabobbers, and when I fish indys, it’s most often with a tight-line-to-the-indicator style on a Mono Rig.
I love the Dorsey as a first choice because of how well it indicates everything discussed above. It’s extremely sensitive because it’s so light. Even better, the varied angles at the tips of the yarn show me a lot more about a drift than most other indy styles. The Dorsey usually canters to the side or lays down a bit when it’s out of touch with the weight underneath. Then it perks up and sits tall on the surface once it feels the payload. What’s more, by using two colors in the Dorsey, I see slight rotations and minor twists as the Dorsey floats on the surface. Those motions provide an angler with a full picture of what’s going on with the flies underneath the water.
My own second choice of indicator is a Thingamabobber. I like it for casting at distance, and I like it for extra long drifts that I plan to finish out all the way below my position (down and across). The Thingamabobber doesn’t send nearly as many subtle signals as the Dorsey, but it has its own set of strengths.
Last thing here: Whatever you choose, go with lighter and smaller indicators, because they are more sensitive. Less built-in buoyancy means a more reactive indicator — and you can better read the subtle signs. Use indys that are on the edge of sinking under the payload. Adjust often. Watch closely.
. . . and fish hard.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N