Fly Fishing with Indicator

How to Fly Fish with Strike Indicators (Videos Included)

Nymphing with an indicator adds another dimension of difficulty when compared to dry-fly fishing.  While a dry fly fisherman can see drag on the fly and correct with a mend, fishing beneath the surface you must learn to visualize the progress of his fly and adjust for drag.

After a while you get a “sense” of when drag will occur and mend accordingly, but as depth and flow increase, you’ll have less control over the presentation. To achieve a dead drift, you must maintain a slack line, but increasing slack also reduces hookups.  

fly fishing indicator
fly fishing indicator

If achieving a drag-free drift sounds like a formidable task, it is. There is, however, a tool that allows you to both detect strikes and control drift as you would a dry fly-the floating strike indicator. You can use anything that floats and is relatively ease to cast-small corks, bit of foam, synthetic yarn, greased spun deer hair, or even a large, bushy dry fly.

Why Use Indicators Fly Fishing?

I hate restating the adage “90% of what a trout eats is under water….blah blah”  It’s simple and intuitive: go where the fish are.  Most of the time trout are deep, why?  More water above the fish is protection and food is found deeper in the water column.

Strike indicators or aka bobbers allow the fly fisher to naturally drift nymphs where the trout are without getting hung up on snags.  The indicator also signals the fisher if the nymph has been taken.  Luckily, we get to drive into the details and nuances that make nymphing with indicators so affective.

There are three primary advantages to using a floating indicator: depth control, strike indication, and drift control.  Using each of these advantages fully is what makes using indicators so affective.

1. Controlling the Depth of Your Nymph

A nymph suspended below an indicator can’t sink any deeper than the length of the tippet.  This allows you can concentrate on your drift while your nymph hangs suspended just below the surface, at mid-depth, or inches off the bottom.

When an indicator is used with split-shot (particularly microshot in assorted sizes), you have a deadly combination, Split-shot gets a fly to the desired depth quickly (even small lightweight nymphs), while the indicator maintains the drift at a predetermined depth.

Guide Tip: Be Flexible, with the setup detailed below in the video you can quickly adjust the depth in a matter of seconds

2. Indicators Signal a Strike

The slightest twitch, pause, or change of direction can signal the take of a fish. With experience, it becomes almost a reflex action to set the hook on any unusual movement. More importantly, it is not necessary to fish a tight line to detect the strike. The ability to maintain a slack line is what sets this method apart from other techniques and forms the basis for the its high success rate.

3. Using an Indicator Allows You to Control the Drift

Without slack line, a drag-free drift is impossible. The proper way to fish a nymph and floating indicator is to imagine you the setup from the indicator down tossed into the current unattached to your fly line or leader. The ensuing drift is what you hope to duplicate. The key to successful indicator nymphing is to fish the indicator exactly as you would a dry fly-by casting and mending to maintain slack and achieve a drag-free drift.

When you fish with a strike indicator, you should have no more tippet under the water than in necessary to reach the desired depth. A floating fly line and indicator maximizes the amount of line and leader on the surface, which provides the greatest amount of control over your presentation. Many fishermen have little difficulty learning to fish dry flies effectively with a relatively drag-free drift, but nymphing often seems mysterious and difficult, because the drift and take of the fly are usually invisible.

Floating indicators bring nymphing into the realm of the visible. Fish your indicator with the same attention to drag-free presentation that you give a dry fly. Think of nymphing in terms of dry-fly fishing, and your catch will increase tremendously. Now you know the easy part. To become deadly at nymphing, you must master the type of drag that dry-fly fishermen never face.

Guide Tip: The current speed is different at varying depths.  The top water is usually faster and will slow as the fly gets closer to the bottom.  (Of course, wind will affect the indicator on the surface)

How to Setup your Fly Rod to Use Strike Indicators

The first setup is for fishing deeper rivers with faster currents.  The overall setup is longer and allows for more indicator adjustment.  

Deep Water Nymphing Setup

One of the more popular articles I’ve written describes how to setup a fly rod for nymphing.  You can find that article here -> How to Rig Up A Fly Rod to Fly Fish with Nymphs.  In the last couple years I’ve learned a bit more.

Starting at the forward most tip of the fly line I’ll attach a 6-foot length of 10 to 20 pound fluorocarbon fishing line.  With average size trout, I’ll use the lighter line, but when fishing deep for salmon or steelhead in snaggy water I’ll tie on a 20 pound.  I’ve been buying 100-yard spools of Stren.  It’s significantly less expensive than fluoro sold with a fly fishing brand name.  Amazon is my store of choice, here’s the link to check prices and reviews. STREN FluorCast

How to Fly Fish with Strike Indicators
How to Fly Fish with Strike Indicators

Slide the indicator onto this section of line.  This 6-foot section becomes the area that I use to adjust the indicator. 

Onto the FluorCast, I tie on a 9-foot, 4X fluorocarbon tapered leader.  Here’s where it gets a bit tricky and you might want to watch the video.  I cut the first three feet or so of the BUTT section off.  I know this might feel painful given the cost, but I’ll show you how to use that line later.   Tie this leader onto the main line with a double surgeon’s knot.

Guide Tip: this is a selfish plug, in my simple little online fly fishing store River Traditions I sell fluorocarbon leaders at a great value.  You get 3 leaders for $8.99 plus postage. LINK  River Traditions Fluorocarbon Leader. I do love RIO and Scientific Anglers leaders, but they are going to be about 3X the price.

9-foot, 4X fluorocarbon tapered leader
9-foot, 4X fluorocarbon tapered leader

Looking for Fluorocarbon Leaders get them fast from Amazon.  I recommend using a name brand like Rio and Scientific Anglers.  Link to Amazon Fluorocarbon Leaders.

Before you tie on the fly, I’ve got one more painful step.  About 2 feet up from the tip, CUT the leader….UGH.  Then re-tie it on with a double surgeon’s knot.  It’s above this knot that you’ll squeeze on split shot.  The knot stops the weight from sliding down the leader.

Now tie on your fly with a clinch knot.

Shallow Water Nymphing Setup

This setup usually works best with water 3 feet or less in depth.  On the end of the fly line attach a 9 foot, 4X or 5X fluorocarbon tapered leader.  Cut the leader 3 to 4 feet down from the fly line. Slide the indicator on.

Sketch of Setup

Re-tie the leader together with a double surgeon’s knot.  You’re probably asking why cut the leader?  Two reasons.

1. It stops the indicator from sliding all the way down to the fly if the peg falls out or loosens.

2. The thick section closest to the fly line is nearly bullet proof, meaning you can tie on a section of straight tippet and keep fishing.

Last step, tie on your favorite nymph. 

Favorite Nymphs for Trout
Favorite Nymphs for Trout

Have you been searching for nymphs to fill your fly box?  Read this article: Best Nymphs for Catching Trout (17 Proven Patterns)

Learn How to SEE the Turnover Point in an Indicator Setup

On warm summer evenings on the Au Sable River here In Michigan large browns  would drop back onto the tailout of a “secret” hole.  You can stand on the boulders where the current broke into rapid and cast upstream into deep water where the fish fed over submerged weed beds.

From our vantage point, it was clear that while the current was swift on the surface as it accelerated before spilling out of the pool, the current at the bottom was quite slow. The fish were barely finning where they lay inches off the weeds.

If you cast straight upstream to them, the fly would be towed along by the indicator in the faster flows at the surface. It would never sink to the level of the fish. Adding split-spot would sink the fly to the desired depth, but once there it would move much too quickly relative to the drift of the naturals. It was a form of drag that had never occurred to us before.

At first, we hooked few fish, but over time we learned that if we threw a curve cast, landing the nymph downstream of the indicator, the fly would sink with far less weight and achieve a more natural drift. Instead of immediately towing the fly along, the drifting indicator would feed slack to the sinking nymph, allowing an acceptable presentation.

After several feet of good drift, however, the indicator would overtake the slower-drifting nymph, and drag would set in. The fishing still wasn’t easy. We could make dozens of drifts over a difficult fish with nothing more than a twitch out of the tail, then bang-the fish was on.

Over time we noticed that on each drift there was a “sweet spot” where the take was most likely to occur. What was this sweet spot? As the fly sank to the desired depth, the indicator drifted closer and closer to a point directly over the fly. Prior to this point, the indicator upstream of the fly would slightly impede the drift. Once the faster-moving indicator had overtaken the nymph, it would accelerate the drift of the fly.

To the fish, both situations were drag. On each drift, however, there was a turnover point where the indicator and leader in the faster surface flows above the slower-moving fly were neither accelerating he drift nor slowing it down-a sweet spot where drag was eliminated (or at a minimum).

The perfect drift was one which positioned the turnover point over the fish’s head. The turnover point is the period of time that the indicator is nearly directly above the nymph.  While the difference between surface and subsurface flows is exaggerated at the tails and heads of pools, it is invariably true that the flows near the surface are faster than the flows at the bottom.

Just as casting across varying current speeds without mending causes drag in dry-fly fishing, a line crossing several current speeds from top to bottom creates drag for a nymph fisherman.

A nymph landing upstream of the indicator will almost immediately be towed along at greater-than-natural speeds by the indicator in the faster surface flows. You can cast or mend to correct for this drag by placing the indicator upstream of the nymph. Throwing curve castes upstream or making a slack-line cast downstream can land the fly down-current of the indicator, allowing slack to be fed to the sinking nymph.

Video Curve Cast

Drag will occur only when the indicator has over-taken the nymph and begins to tow it along. Although there is only a brief turnover point, there is usually a range on either side where drag is minimal and either indistinguishable or acceptable to the fish. In long, slow glides or pools with an even bottom, the fly may drift in the turnover point for several yards.

In fact, broken flows over large cobbles or boulders, the turnover point may last only seconds. In either case, you should attempt to position your cast, so the turnover point occurs as the fly passes the fish, by either increasing or decreasing the distance the fly lands above the lie.

At the turnover point, the fly should be suspended vertically below the floating indicator with virtually no drag. No more tippet is needed than is necessary to reach the depth of the fish.  In theory you only the length of tippet below the indicator would be the same as the water depth, but sometimes I want the fly to dribble along the bottom.

In practice, I try to be flexible with the tippet length below the indicator.  Dribbling across small stones or drifting above woody structure. 

Heavily weighted flies and heavy currents have traditionally gone together, but removing drag eliminates much of the need for extra heavy nymphs or large split-shot. As your drift improves, the amount of lead you need decreases.

5 Tips for Using Indicators Fly Fishing

1. A Nymph Needs Time to Sink

Knowing that the nymph needs to have time to sink learning to position yourself for an affective cast is important.  Because the nymph needs to begin the drift down-stream of the indicator learning to make controlled overpowered and underpowered curve casts is essential.

In some situations, it’s possible, by making a vigorous upstream mend, to hop or slide the indicator upstream of the sinking nymph. A tight-looped upstream roll cast can accomplish the same thing.

2. The Cast Determines the Nymph “Turn-Over”

Your cast determines how soon in the drift the turnover point occurs. If you cast so the nymph lands with the tippet outstretched far down-stream of the indicator, the fly will sink relatively slowly as the faster-drifting indicator feeds slack to the sinking fly.

Cast so the fly lands only inches downstream of the indicator (with lots of slack in the tippet), and the fly will sink almost immediately. Make several of these casts to the same spot, each with the turnover point occurring a different distance downstream.

3. Methodically Cast Nymphs

When you are fishing blind or probing large areas of a stream, fish methodically, just as you would with a dry fly. Begin with short casts, and gradually lengthen each cast until you have covered the water within comfortable distance. Then take a few steps upstream or downstream and repeat the process.

wild trout caught on a nymph
wild trout caught on a nymph

The key when nymphing is to imagine a grid on the stream bottom and systematically position your casts so that the turnover point occurs in the areas where you suspect the fish are most likely to lie.

4. The Turn-Over Point Makes a Drag Free Drift

Often you will find that though you may have made several drifts over a suspected lie, the fish won’t take until you place the turnover point over it. Many fly fishermen shy away from nymph-and-indicator fishing, because they find casting large, wind-resistant indicators, split-shot, and weighted nymphs difficult and unappealing.

5. Open the Casting Loop – Add Swing to Your Cast

Dry-fly fishermen may find they need to open their casting loops a bit, but it should be an easy adjustment for anyone who fishes bass bugs or saltwater streamers. Dry-fly fishing is essentially two-dimensional. With the line and leader on the surface, a dry-fly-fisherman can mend all or a portion of the line, feeding slack to avoid drag and achieve a natural drift.

Nymph fisherman must not only consider all the two-dimensional aspects of drag faced by the dry-fly angler but must also learn to control drag in a third dimension-depth. Nymph fisherman must also learn greater line control-a nymph-eating fish may require several feet of good drift.

Selecting the Right Indicator for Fly Fishing

My favorite indicator is the pinned hollow foam type.  The leaded is strung through the indicator center and pinned with a toothpick.  The one I recommend is the SF Foam Strike Indicator (Amazon Link) They cast pretty well, but what I like most is how the toothpick gives the angler a sense of how the nymph is hanging below it.  The turn-over point can be seen by watching the tooth pick.  When it points straight up and down, the chance are really good the nymph is drifting naturally.


Many indicators don’t signal the “turn-over” well.  Greased poly-yarn will cock upright slightly when it reaches the turnover point, but this is sometimes difficult to see.

The popular Thingamabobber (Link to Amazon) works great for floating heavy nymph setups and is easy to adjust the depth with, but struggles signaling the turn-over.

Tiny twist-on indicators are good for small nymphs on small streams.  When a longer cast is needed I’ll also turn to the twist-on type, but in these cases I’m usually fishing a single nymph setup with a fine leader and tippet.

Guide Tip:  Fluorocarbon tippet is a must for the indicator fly fisher.  For the diameter it is stronger, it sinks faster and has refractive properties closer to water making it nearly invisible to trout.  

Once you have mastered control of your drifts, try positioning casts so the turnover point takes place directly above the suspected lie of a fish. I’m certain you will be surprised, and pleased, with your improved success.  For me, indicator nymph fishing has accounted for more large trout and steelhead than all other methods combined. The rewards of mastering the nymph-and-indicator presentation can more than compensate for the effort.

More Nymph Fishing Articles – WHY because NYMPHS Catch Fish!

Hi David Humphries Owner of Guide Recommended. I love everything to do with fly fishing. Casting, Tying, YouTube, writing about it and even teaching. I’ve got a FREE video workshop teaching how to dry fly fish at this link How to Fly Fish

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