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.