Strike indicators are pretty controversial among fly anglers. Some dry fly purists turn their noses up at any type of nymph fishing while other skilled nymph fishermen are so good they don’t need traditional strike indicators and/or shy away from them because they can spook fish. Others, including many guides, like them for their ability to help clients fish well. No matter the charge leveled at them, they can help even a beginner fly angler detect strikes and hook fish.
My first fly fishing experience was with an indicator. My brother-in-law, a seasoned fly angler, took me to the West Branch of the Delaware, set up a nymphing rig with indicator, and positioned me on a nice riffle. He then told me to cast upstream, watch the indicator, and set the hook if it moved at all. I fished as he instructed, and not long after he disappeared downstream, my indicator plunged downward on a drift, I lifted my rod, and saw that wonderful butter brown flash below. Minutes later I had an 18″ brown, bank-side. Call it beginner’s luck, but without an indicator, I may have never had reason to continue fly fishing!
Browse a local fly shop or the internet for indicators, and get ready to be overwhelmed. Like many types of tackle, the fly fishing industry has come up with a wide variety of strike indicators, each claiming to help solve angling problems.
The basic types of indicators are as follows:
- Bobber – the bobber type of indicator excels in acting as a suspension system for fishing deep water. It also works well in fast water where it’s size is needed to keep flies off the bottom. Unlike yarn indicators, bobbers or floats can be wind-resistant, making for difficult casting under some conditions. They can also potentially spook fish when landing on the water or by creating shadows, due to their size. They range from the traditional cork and toothpick type, to plastic air-filled bubble and even water balloons filled with a small amount of air. They offer easy depth adjustment.
- Foam – foam indicators are normally smaller versions of a bobber type indicator. They typically use adhesive and wrap around the leader or have a slit for the leader that is then closed with a foam insert. They are more delicate and useful when nymphing small flies and generally have a smaller profile.
- Yarn – yarn indicators are useful where delicate casting is required, where small flies are used, and where flat, slow water, or clear water is fished. They are known for their extreme sensitivity, land very softly on the water so they don’t spook trout as much. They are fairly easy to adjust in terms of depth and can easily be made. For best floating ability, they require dressing. A variation of the yarn is a version where foam is used. These are also light for casting but float without the need for dressing.
- Dry Fly – some anglers will use a fly as their indicator. For one, this increases the odds of hook-ups as the “indicator” itself may attract a strike or at least clue an angler into the presence of fish. A large dry fly or terrestrial pattern is typically used and these patterns need to have decent to high buoyancy depending on the size of the nymphs being fished. Good examples of dry fly indicators are foam grasshopper patterns, stimulators, or bushy and visible dry flies like a royal coachman. While dry fly indicators cast well, they may not always be as visible as a more traditional strike indicator.
Colors of indicators matter. Colors like bright red or orange often best work on bright days, while bright yellow or chartreuse are better on darker days. White can also work at times but may blend in if a lot of foam is on the water. Black also offers an interesting contrast on bright days where the water is really lit up or in stained water conditions.
There are a number of interesting developments in indicators recently that are worthy of note:
- Thingamabobbers are air-filled and very light and offer easy depth adjustment. They come in a range of colors.
- Airlock Indicators are similar to Thingamabobbers but have a slot for the leader with a screw-on cap. These new indicators will not kink your leader like others do where the leader is passed through and over or knotted to the indicator.
- The New Zealand Strike Indicator Tool offers a nifty way to make your own yarn indicator on your leader without kinking the leader.
Sometimes it pays to experiment to determine the best indicator for the conditions an angler fishes. It also pays to keep a variety on hand if you fish a variety of conditions such as fast and slow water, heavy and light nymphs, and/or different times of the day and year when sunlight is different.