Under the Indicator, by Brian Chan

I often get asked what my favourite method is when fishing productive trout lakes. Without question my response is always floating lines and strike indicators. This is not to say that other lines and tactics are not effective at catching trout, but rather, that the majority of stillwater trout food sources can be very effectively fished with indicators. While it appears simple in design and technique, indicator fishing can be quite complex and the proper setup and depth control is key to consistently catching fish.

The science behind the use of strike indicators is based on lake morphometry (structure of lakes) and biology. The majority of trout feeding occurs on the shoal or within the shallow water zone of the lake. This typically means at depths of less than 25 feet. The shoal is the grocery store in the lake where photosynthesis reaches the bottom and stimulates the growth of green plants. The benthic substrate and lush growth of such plants as pondweed, coontail, lily pads, bulrush and cattails provides superb habitat for scuds, chironomids, mayflies, damselflies, caddis flies, dragonflies, leeches and forage fish.  Trout and char in such environments do much of their feeding close to the bottom and within the cover of the heavy plant growth. These foraging tactics are what make the use of indicators so effective. Indicators allow the angler to suspend, wind drift or slowly retrieve flies through preferred, precise feeding depths.

Getting Geared UP

My preferred setup for indicator fishing is a 9.5 to 10 ft long fairly fast action rod in 5 or 6 wt matched to a RIO Indicator line. These lines have been designed to cast the hard foam or plastic indicators that are commonly used when fishing lakes. I then attach a 10 ft long RIO Indicator Leader to the welded loop of the fly line. If I am fishing water that holds really large trout then I’ll use a 3X indicator leader otherwise it is usually the 4X leader to the end of the fly line. I then add Fluoroflex Plus tippet material via a triple surgeons knot so that the leader is long enough to present my fly or flies within 12 inches of the lake bottom. The next step is important to understand. Make sure your total leader length is long enough so that your flies will suspend within 12 inches of the bottom while the indicator is pegged or set on the level section of the indicator leader. In other words, try not to set your indicator on the tapered butt section of the indicator leader. The 3 ft tapered butt section of the RIO Indicator leader is designed to assist in the turnover of the indicator and the fly or flies.  When fishing waters restricted to the use of one fly I will tie in a barrel swivel approx. 18 to 24 in. above the fly. Swivels help in several ways: they help get your fly down quicker, the added weight helps to reduce the bounce of your fly when there is a heavier chop on the water, and when fishing chironomid pupa emergences the fish will sometimes bite the swivel which tells your current pupal pattern is not close enough to the ones being eaten. I use black, grey, silver and gold swivels in sizes 12 to 16 with the larger number corresponding to smaller sizes.

Regardless of fly pattern or how many I have on, they are all attached with non-slip loop knots. This knot allows the fly to swing and undulate as it hangs under the indicator. Wind drifting patterns under an indicator from an anchored position adds even more natural movement to the fly. I prefer to make a long cast directly upwind and allow the fly line, indicator and fly to drift back to me. All I do is keep the slack out of the line so that a straight line connection is maintained between the tip of the fly rod and the fly line. Upwind casts are done only in a gentle breeze situation. If the wind is too strong it will be very difficult to get any distance to your cast and the drift back will be too fast with an unnatural movement to the fly.

When fishing chironomid emergences it is very important to get your pupal imitation(s) down to the depth zone the fish are feeding.  In many instances trout like to feed on the pupa in a very narrow depth range. For example, if there was a good pupal emergence occurring in 16 ft of water the trout may be gorging on them at a depth between 14 and 15 ft in depth. Pupal patterns suspended at 8 or 12 ft go unnoticed. The rule of thumb is to present patterns closer to the bottom than higher in the water column. Almost all the prominent trout food sources can be very successfully fished under an indicator. However, chironomids, mayfly nymphs, leeches, damselfly nymphs, caddis fly pupa and scuds are my go to patterns for this technique.

Here are 2 of my favourite patterns to fish under indicators:

Ruby-eyed Leech

Thread – 8/0 black

Hook – 10-2X to 8-3X streamer hook

Tail – Black/Red Arizona Simi Seal dubbing

Body – Black/Red Arizona Simi Seal on copper wire dubbing brush

Bead Head – 1/8th in copper cone head with maroon silver lined glass bead behind cone head

Black and Red Chironomid Pupa

Thread – 8/0 black

Hook – Scud hook in #18 to #6

Tag – Red Holographic Tinsel

Rib – fine red copper wire

Body – black Midge Flex

Bead – Super white metal bead




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4 Responses to Under the Indicator, by Brian Chan

  1. Dave Kaiserman says:

    Just saw a re-play of the Trout TV show, chironomid fishing. In the 27 yrs of fly fishing, I have never fished with them before. I loved the comment about “To river fisherman, lakes (and chironomids) can be a mystery.” That describes me.

    I want to learn the basics. I’ve been reading a lot, watching videos, etc. Can you give me a few patterns to try (other than the ones on the website) and depths to start out at?

    Love your site!



  2. Dave Kaiserman says:

    By the way, is another name for your Ruby-eyed leech a “micro Leech”?

    Just wondering, because a guy I met out at one of the lakes I fish, said he was using one. I never saw his fly, so I couldn’t comment on what it looked like.



  3. Brian says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your techniques on indicator fishing. I was wondering where I can buy the silver lined beads for the ruby eyed leech?

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