Rethinking the Indicator

Guest Blogger: Mike Vorhis, Author of ARCHANGEL suspense thriller and OPEN DISTANCE adventure thriller.

I think I use nymph patterns more than all other fly types combined; somehow I like the idea of them. And yet, like many others equally obstinate, I’ve been reluctant to adopt the indicator rig as my go-to nymphing technique. Something about suspending the fly below a bobber and letting it dead-drift seems to spoil the appeal for me. I’d much rather “work” the fly, and watch the line, and feel the take. I really just like the idea better, no two ways about it and nothing more complicated or defensible than that.

And so when I read comments from “The Masters” that while indicators will increase the fish brought to net and will bring a fisherman into proficiency faster, they will also delay a fisherman’s arrival at true expertise, I always opt to take that advice–I always seem to wave that as my excuse for not tying some thing-a-ma-balloon onto my leader.

At some point I realized I wasn’t knocking on the door of genius either way, but…well, hope springs eternal.  I used to miss a lot of takes, often never knowing they were even occurring, and to compensate for it (when I began to realize that it must be so) I started preferring the downstream drift, or the cross-and-down. I improve my chances of a decent drift by where I elect to stand rather than by mending the line until it’s slack, and I strip out line to extend that drift. The takes, when they happen, are electric, but of course I also pull the hook out of some of their mouths–the price I pay.

And I keep going back to the question, because I do want more fish…but I can never bring myself to soak a fly like soaking a worm. Maybe from a boat it could make more sense, but wading…guess I just couldn’t warm up to it.

But lately I’ve realized there are some limitations to the methods I’ve been using. So many takes are on the swing, and the most important swing dimension I believe is not the lateral (because I can usually reach eddying water without swinging sideways into it) but the vertical. It’s when the fly is drifting upward through the water column that the action usually happens, whether I’m using a so-called emerger pattern or not. That’s not surprising to any of us, and it makes my downstream focus a viable strategy, but it also means that to fish an entire downstream glide I have to systematically “hold back” the line at progressively further points.

For example I must hold back and let the current cause the fly to rise 20 feet out, then on the next cast 22 feet out, then on the next cast 24…all the way down to maybe 45 or 50 feet, or whatever my manageable limit is. The fly rises only once in a cast, once in a drift.  So where it rises is where a fish would need to be, or else that rise in the water column (and thus that cast) will produce no strike. It’s tedious to be so methodical, but that’s what it takes to cover that pool–to cause the fly to rise at progressively further points from where I stand. Such grid-like thinking kinda takes some of the magic out of a morning…and if I booger up one iteration where a fish happens to be, thereafter that fish will see drift after drift after drift of bright chartreuse line going overhead, with a great chance of being spooked.

Fig. 1: Line & Current Only

Fig. 1: Line & Current Only

Yes, I can release line tension after a vertical swing, hoping the fly will settle again–that it will “reset” and be ready for another rise, but the distance it covers while doing so is substantial, so at most I can get maybe two fly-rises within in my typical range.

So I started to think of ways to quicken that reset. The larger the difference between the floatation force of the line (or whatever’s doing the suspending) and the sinking weight of the fly, the faster such a “reset” will happen. So what about using a high-floating indicator with a weighted fly?  What I began to do was to cast such a rig and then slightly “tension back” the line at a given point, to let the fly rise. Then release the line until the fly quickly descended in the water column again. Then hold back softly again. Repeat…uh, repeatedly.

With this technique I can get quite a number of fly-rises in a single drift of a pool or glide. If I select a fly weighted enough to descend quickly yet still able to rise to near the surface on the strength of that glide’s current, I can “work” my nymph effectively all the way down through the glide. I can make it rise softly, abruptly, partway up, nearly to the top…whatever I elect to try.  Repeatedly.  The indicator has to be a relatively high floater, and it probably helps if it’s streamlined, so as to reduce the chance of laying a wake.

Fig. 2: With Indicator

Fig. 2: With Indicator

Indicator usage appeals to me a little more now, since it affords me an opportunity to “work” my fly, hopefully to good effect. It’s no longer just a practice of soaking a suspended fly under a glorified cork. I can “porpoise” the fly–even a multi-fly rig. And I can still usually feel the take; the so-called indicator is for fly control rather than to keep a visual.

If the rig is set up with a point fly and a higher fly, upward-drifting all the way down a run allows every fly on the leader to reach similar depths, albeit at different points in time. This can make for fly-to-fly comparisons that are a bit fairer, and can benefit the practice of prospecting with a couple of different patterns because apples-to-apples conclusions can be better drawn.

It’s probable that many indicator fishermen have used this technique forever, but personally I’ve never heard a soul mention it and have never seen anyone do it. The indicator becomes more of a swing fulcrum than anything.  As of now I don’t have tons of time on it, but I can say it does work. To me, and maybe to a few other cantankerous hold-outs like me, it can be an idea that nudges us back in the direction of occasional indicator usage.

But don’t tell anybody.

5 thoughts on “Rethinking the Indicator

  1. Michael Vorhis

    I guess it’s jigging using current force rather than force of gravity. Are you saying this is a common practice and that’s what folks call it? I’d never heard it described, seen it written up, or witnessed it done…ever.

    It simply lets my fly rise in the water column in a dead-downstream direction many more times in a single drift. If it’s common, well then my error but I still derived it from scratch; it’s not the sort of thing one who never uses a buoyant indicator would know about. Maybe a couple more guys might be in the same shoes.

    – Mike

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  2. Mary S. Kuss

    I have been fly fishing long enough that I remember well the big kerfuffle that occurred when strike indicators first became “a thing,” I guess it must have been some time in the ’70’s. A lot of Letters to the Editor were fired back and forth in Fly Fisherman Magazine. Critics of the technique dismissed it as “bobber fishing.” Proponents objected, saying no, they were strike indicators, not bobbers. After a while strike indicators gained general acceptance, although there are people who still won’t use them on principle. I didn’t use them for years, simply because I didn’t think I needed them. I felt I was detecting nymphing strikes just fine by watching the floating part of my leader and my fly line. With age, and decreasing visual acuity, I have started relying on them more and more, depending on conditions. I don’t always use a strike indicator when nymphing, but I feel it’s a useful arrow to have in one’s quiver. Of course we all must fish in a way we find pleasing, no argument there.

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  3. Michael Vorhis

    Understood Mary. And myself, I still don’t actually like them, overall–possibly never will. My post was about the fact that I’d worked out an alternate use for them. To be fair to those who swear by them, then, I’m “rethinking” their use based on that other way they could be used. Whether it’s enough to fully change my mind is the question. I’m pretty hard-headed, you see.

    – Mike

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  4. Mary S. Kuss

    If and when you ever feel more kindly toward using indicators, that will happen in its own good time. Or maybe never. I had a guiding client once who was quite insistant that he did not want to use a strike indicator. I told him that was fine, he could nymph without one. I stood next to him and watched him fail to react to a number of what were, to me, very obvious takes. Finally I said, “Do me a favor, let me put an indicator on for you for five minutes. Then, if you don’t like it, we’ll take it off.” He reluctantly agreed. He hooked three trout on about six casts. “OK, time’s up. Want me to take that indicator off?” He replied with a very emphatic, “No!” Of course for a lot of fly fishers, particularly the more experienced among us, how we fish is more important than how many we catch. I respect that.

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