Let me start with this: I use bobbers on a regular basis. They’re a wonderful tool in certain nymphing situations, and I would never be without them. There’s no pretense here at Troutbitten. I use whatever rigs, flies and methods get the job done. For me, it’s about catching trout and being efficient out there. Combine that with the beauty of a trout stream, and happiness is the end result.
That said, I believe bobbers are used incorrectly most of the time. They are introduced to anglers without the necessary explanations, and are used as a crutch that encourages bad habits and holds anglers back in the long run.
In this Corner, Weighing in at . . .
A bobber is a strike indicator with enough weight to significantly affect the cast. These days, the two most common types are Thingamabobbers and Air Lock indicators, but Corkies and other Styrofoam or plastic creations also fit the bill.
READ: Troutbitten | It’s a Suspender — Not Just and Indicator
Now, you might look at a medium, three-quarter-inch Thingamabobber and think it doesn’t weigh much. Hold it in your palm, and it seems to weigh nothing. But your mind is playing a trick. In fact, the medium Thingamabobber weighs sixty centigrams, and Air Lock indys weigh far more than their Thingamabobber counterparts. For perspective, a #10 stonefly with a tungsten bead from my fly box also weighs about sixty centigrams. And yes, in fly fishing, that’s a lot of weight.
Upside? The weight of a bobber is exactly what makes it such a useful tool.
Downside? The weight is what makes the bobber a bad teacher that can instill habits that are hard to undo.
READ: Troutbitten | Your Indicator Is Too Big
READ: Troutbitten | Series | Know Your Weights and Measures
Why Use the Damn Bobber, Anyway?
Like many anglers, I prefer a tight line approach to nymphing, but sometimes an indy simply outperforms the tight line. What are those times?
— When I can’t wade into the perfect position to lead the nymph down one current seam with my rod tip, I use an indy to extend my reach and do the one-seam-lead for me.
READ: Troutbitten | One Great Nymphing Trick
— When the wind kicks up beyond anything that can fairly be called a breeze, the sighter and leader in a tight line rig gets blown around like a sail. And often, the best solution is to attach an indy to anchor the drift against the wind.
— When the water is calm, in flats and pools where it’s hard to effectively read the currents and know how fast and what direction to lead the nymph, an indy often does a better job than an angler can.
So if the situation calls for it, I turn to an indicator system. My favorite indy, by far, is a Dorsey Yarn indicator. It weighs next to nothing, so I can cast through it. I can boss the nymph around beyond the indy. Because the yarn has no significant weight, it doesn’t change the cast (much).
But a bobber is the opposite. Its weight affects the cast, as it helps carry the fly and leader forward. It extends the range and punches through heavy winds. A bobber also floats longer and handles rough waters with ease — all good things.
Again, the bobber is a wonderful tool. And the weight is what provides that punch through the wind and what lends more distance to the cast. But that same weight, used without knowledge and a full understanding, has some major drawbacks.
READ: Troutbitten | How to Read a Fly Fishing Indicator — What You Might Be Missing
Also . . .
As an aside, there are other reasons to choose something lighter too, like yarn or a dry fly for the indy. Bobbers splash, spook trout more often, and they don’t show nearly the subtleties of a drift like their lighter counterparts can.
But the point of this article is not to say which is better. (Each style has its moments.) The point here is that bobbers can actually hurt an angler’s progress by encouraging bad habits.
The most common fly casting issue I see is lack of speed in the cast. Good casting of nymphs, dries, wets or streamers doesn’t take strength. It just takes speed between two points and crisp stops. But most anglers don’t have it.
Consequently, I’ve written about this extensively on Troutbitten. We need turnover of the line and leader for good casting. The line should sail to the target in a tight loop. That loop should unfold in the air and not unroll on the water’s surface. Then, the line either drops (standard approach) or the line stays off the water, with the rod tip up (tight line approach).
Turnover is the only way for reliable precision, placing not only the fly at the target, but the tippet where it should be too. Honestly, nothing could be more important. Because wherever the tippet is, the fly is going there next.
Turnover is a function of good casting. Take it away, and we are no longer casting — we’re just lobbing things around. Sadly, I see a lot of dry fly anglers who don’t cast the fly line — they lob it instead. And this common problem is even more endemic to nymphing anglers, as they so often rely on the weight of the fly to perform the cast.
With that in mind, what do you think happens when the weight of a bobber is added? It makes a bad problem worse. Bobbers encourage lobbing.
READ: Troutbitten | It’s Casting, Not Lobbing
You don’t have to lob a bobber. Line turnover can be accomplished just as easily when a bobber is attached, but the addition of another point of weight in the system throws some anglers off. Then, instead of learning to adapt the stroke and casting with good turnover, they use the weight of the bobber to do the work of getting the fly, leader and line out there. But that shortcut is a mistake.
These days, I see more bobber lobbers on the water than ever before.
A few days ago, I ran into a fellow guide on my walk out of a popular access point. He had three guests lined up close together in a nice run near the parking lot. From thirty yards away, I could see that each of them had the same, extra-large Air Lock indy attached. They all lobbed awkward casts across from them into the same long seam.
I mentioned the big bobbers to the guide, and he told me this:
“Oh, none of them can cast, so I just threw those on so they could get the line out there.”
Astonished, I nodded, wished him good luck and walked away.
This is a lazy and shortsighted approach. But sadly, it’s become widespread.
Instead of using the bobber as a shortcut to getting the line out there, first learn a good casting stroke — with speed, crisp stops and turnover. Then, attach the bobber and see the supreme advantage gained when the fly hits first and the bobber comes in downstream, with the fly and indy both in the same current seam. Oh, hello dead drift. Nice to see you.
Most of our time on the water is spent without a guide or teacher looking over our shoulder, so it’s up to us to analyze our own usage and effectiveness. But if you’re on the water with a guide and he or she reaches for a bobber, maybe ask why. A good teacher will have the answer immediately — to beat the wind, gain extra distance, float in rough water, etc. Or, you might have the guide blushing, because they just assumed that you can’t learn to cast.
There are excellent reasons to use the advantage of a bobber. But don’t allow it as a crutch. And don’t let it hurt your cast. Know the tools in your system. Select them with intention. And don’t let a good tool form bad habits.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N
You’re written about this before, Dom, but the single biggest mistake I see people making when using bobbers is the almost universal cross stream cast. The result is that the bobber leads the flies in a big, unnatural, arc across the stream. In my experience, a bobber fishes much better when fished upstream. That way, it might lead the flies, but that is not a bad thing, since it maintains a tight connection between flies and bobber, making strike detection easier than with a cross stream cast.
I should add that when combined with the mono rig, a bobber can do something truly remarkable. As Dom has mentioned in previous articles, a bobber coupled with a mono rig can allow anglers to fish upstream even when casting across stream. It even allows an upstream drift when the flies are downstream of the angler. Only yesterday, I caught a trout that was a considerable ways below me, but with a cast that allowed an “upstream” presentation. This is no small thing.
Unfortunately the vast majority of “bobber lobbers” will never invest the time and energy to take this advice to heart. They are touristy, “one-and-dones” who want to tell their friends or clients that they fly fished the Madison or Delaware while on vacation. Guides would be better off putting a center-pin or UL spinning rod in their hands.
I never liked strike indicators, because of the weight and the “sail” effect.
What I will do is use a bass or panfish popper, with a nymph tied directly to the popper hook.
I’m used to the popper, so I can adjust the cast without thinking about it.
Plus once in a while an ambitious trout will take a whack at the popper.
So, I’m a fairly new guide but I have been fly fishing for quite awhile. When I started guiding I shadowed a couple other bobber lobbing guides and was basically told the same thing, water haul mend mend mend….etc. I don’t fish like this and I hate having clients fish like this, unless it’s the right tool for the water we’re fishing.
Most of the people I take out are first time tourist types and the streams we fish are smaller mountain streams where bobbers obviously spook fish. I guess I’m just curious where your starting point is for teaching beginners? I try to explain things like line control and using reach casts to keep the Indy and flies in the same current seem but feel like I am just confusing people and overloading them with info when they just want to catch a couple fish. I go over casting basics on the grass but on a 4 hour trip I hate to waste limited fishing time.
Thanks for any suggestions. Love the blog! I’ve learned tons from your articles.
Swinging soft hackles is very doable for most beginners and trout in those small mountain streams tend to be pretty opportunistic.
Hi Will. I understand where you’re coming from.
And I don’t believe there’s anything at all wrong with throwing bobbers. I do it a lot. But using the bobber as a crutch and not even attempting to teach the better way to cast the bobber — that’s what i won’t do personally.
I get beginners enough to know that I can teach most of them to cast a yarn indy and a single fly, with a ten foot leader (after tippet). Most of them get it in about an hour. The yarn forces people to CAST and not lob as much. That’s a good thing.
I guess I just continue teaching, rather than sitting back and letting people develop bad habits for the sake of making it easier for them and me. Basically, if they hired me for a fly fishing trip, I believe they deserve to learn fly casting.
Those are my thoughts.
First started with the 3/4 Airlock,then was lucky enough to find the half inch,which is all I use now. I fish a big river,so many of my fish 60 to 80ft away,and an indicator has saved many a day!!
When l fish slow and even flowing water I love to cast nymphs upstream Howard Croston style, but if there’s water I can’t get to, I’m reaching for my air lock.