I grew up on a family farm in northeastern Pennsylvania. The head waters of a small wild trout stream emerged from a spring in our backyard. My father built a number of ponds in the yard and pasture before allowing the trickle to form little Raven Creek which then drops downstream some eight miles to join with bigger Fishing Creek. The first two small ponds held some enormous brown trout. Nobody was allowed to fish here, the fish were dad’s pets. The larger pond below had a bit of everything including pan fish, bass and the occasional trout. This is where we fished.
Dad and my brothers were fishermen but not with flies. They would fish with lures or sit with lines in the water and watch a big red and white bobber until it moved or was pulled under indicating that something was eating the bait. If they were paying attention this would bring a gut wrenching pull on the rod which was followed by a few choice words of either praise or disappointment if the fish broke off. I realized then as I do now that having a bobber can be a real asset.
Thirty five years ago I traded in my spinning rod for a fly rod and I’ve never looked back. Throughout the years strike indicators have become and continue to be an important piece of my gear. Simply put strike indicators are a visual aid attached to our leader to show us when a fish takes our fly. Sounds simple but like almost every other rule in fly fishing strategy there are exceptions.
There are all kinds of indicators on the market including yarn, foam, plastic, etc., and in a variety of colors from hi viz to black and white. There is no one perfect indicator that meets all of my needs, nor is there one color that will suffice for every situation. I carry an assortment that I hope will cover the situations that I might encounter.
For me an indicator should be easy to attach but at the same time I want it to stay put and not slide up and down the leader. Along with that I still want to be able to move the indicator as fishing conditions dictate. The size of the indicator is important too. If I am faced with high water or rapids combined with weighted flies, I’ll need a larger size to help support the heavier fly and to make it easy to see in the heavy water. On the other hand, if I find flat smooth currents and am fishing with smaller flies a smaller strike indicator makes more sense. For general work I often use the Thingamabobber strike indicator, which covers most of the above requirements.
Color depends on available light, glare or in some cases how the fish respond. I’ve watched more then one shy trout move off after a hi viz indicator passed over his head. When in gin clear water with touchy fish, a small white yarn indicator often works well, something that will land quietly and not alert the fish. In glare black sometimes shows up best, so you see it’s important to carry a variety of colors. When using a yarn indicator, I often turn to a New Zealand Strike Indicator which is easy to attach, adjust, or remove – and it doesn’t harm the leader. (See our web site.)
A dry/dropper combination can be deadly when trout are feeding on emergers and duns. The dry becomes the indicator to which a section of tippet material is attached to the bend of the hook and the emerger is then attached to the tippet. The length of the tippet depends on how close to the surface the trout are taking the emergers, but in general a 20” tippet is a good place to start. In the American west the hopper/dropper rules, especially for anglers fishing out of rafts or drift boats.
It is often said that strike indicators not only show us when a fish takes the fly, but will also tell us when we have unwanted drag and need to mend the line. This is true, but there are exceptions. Of course, if there is drag on the indicator, the fly will not behave like a natural insect and perhaps mending the line will correct the problem; or if the indicator is moving too fast through the water, a mend will correct the drift and slow it down. You can tell if this is happening by watching the bubbles, insects, or bits of leaves on the water around the indicator. If the indicator is moving faster through the water then these other things, there is drag
But, there are also times when the indicator doesn’t let you see the take. This past spring I was standing on a bank watching a friend carefully fish a sinking green inch worm. The water was gin clear and from my vantage point I could see the inch worm drifting along the bottom. Three feet above a white strike indicator was attached to the leader. I could also see a fair sized trout turn, come downstream and eat the fly. I expected the strike but instead saw the trout spit out the inch worm. My call to strike came far too late. I was watching the trout but my friend was keyed in on her indicator. Because the trout took the fly coming downstream, the indicator never moved. This scenario doesn’t happen often but when it does, there’s little chance that the indicator will show you the take.
There are anglers who disdain using a strike indicator so they are not for everyone. My husband, Barry, will only put one on if forced to but he is and always will be a trout hunter. He prefers to move slowly, locate a fish (preferably one that will make the client’s day) and then he plays the game. Long RIO leaders, small tungsten bead nymphs, and a good presentation are the order of the day. When the right cast is made he tells the client to be ready and watches as the drift comes to the fish. He can’t see the tiny fly but he can see when the trout opens and closes his mouth and the command to strike is instantaneous. If you ask him he will tell you that this kind of fishing takes a combination of the right water conditions, a willing fish, the right presentation, and the best Smith sunglasses money can buy. He’s very good at it.