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July 26, 2011 / flogginwater

Technique Corner: Indicator Nymphing

This is a short technique corner – but I’m putting it up here so some folks over at the OFF have a better description of how it’s done, with a visual aid for rigging. One fellow in particular mentioned that he’s done well fishing dries, but would like to try nymphing the deeper water on some of the small streams he’s fished, but hasn’t been successful and isn’t sure if he’s doing it right. So for those of us who learn better with something to visually reference, here goes.

Indicator nymphing is probably THE most successful (numbers wise, anyway) way to catch trout, or just about any other fish that swims in moving water. It also draws a LOT of debate in some circles – or at least some disdain. “Bobber fishing” or “bait fishing” are some of the jabs the purists like to throw around.

They aren’t far off the mark though – indicator nymphing really IS bobber fishing, just with a fly, not a hunk of bait or a jig (though you can drift a fly tied on a micro jig head under an indicator and slay the fish). First off – you need an indicator. There’s a huge variety of indicator types out there – yarn indicators, foam indicators, corkies, small balsa floats… so pick an indicator you like. Personally I like a pegged corkie, or a Thingamabobber (which is a high tech balloon with a molded in ring to attach your leader too). I’ve tried others, and found these the best for me. They don’t hinder casting, because even the smallest versions of these work well with weighted nymphs, or a BB shot and a nymph. Of course, if you’re chucking larger, or heavier flies, or multi fly rigs, you’ll want to scale up the size of your indicator. Even still, the largest corkies cast way better than any yarn indicator I’ve tried. Corkies are cheap – about twelve cents a piece on the high side, five cents if you get a good deal on them. Toss a few round tooth picks and some corkies (pick your color) in a small plastic bag, or in one compartment of a fly box and you’re set.

Now, depending on water depth and current speed, and the type of flies you’ll fish, you may or may not need split shot. I typically stick with BB size shot – but sometimes you need to use smaller shot (typically about $5-7 for a container of them) in light current but deep water (or you could just go with a heavy fly and skip the shot). In deep, fast water, you might need to upsize the shot size to keep your flies down.

Multiple smaller shot spaced out on the leader will cast better, but fewer, larger shot will stay down better and sink quicker. Either way, if you’re fishing at the right level, you’ll be snagging bottom and loosing flies occasionally. If you don’t feel the weight ticking along the bottom – you’re not fishing deep enough. There is a way to mitigate fly loss – that’s by crimping your shot a bit loosely onto a long tag end left when attaching your tippet – so that if the shot snags up, they will pull free from the leader tag and pop the flies free. That rigging method does not cast very well though – an in-line weight will be easier to cast, and tangle much less often.

Of course to fish, you need flies. Bead head nymphs and lead wire wrapped nymphs will get down quickly – but sometimes you don’t want the fly to be weighted – an unweighted or even a buoyant fly, 4-12 inches up from the split shot, will give a more natural presentation as the fly will bob and weave through the current, just like a real nymph or worm.

Notice the similarity between an indicator nymph rig (top) and a bobber & jig rig fished on a spin rod (bottom)?

Usually when I fish, I fish a multiple fly rig – at least two flies – sometimes three (which is all Oregon allows) – this doubles your chances of getting a hook up, and lets you try different patterns to see which one the fish really want.

I used to tie my flies in line by tying the dropper fly to the bend of the point fly, but this year I’ve changed things up and found it’s easier to cast if I tie the dropper fly to the hook eye of the point fly, like the picture below.

When fishing the rig – keep as much of the fly line off the water as possible – a long rod helps with this, but a long rod is relative to the size of the water you’re fishing. On most waters, a 9+ foot rod is good, but on small streams, an 8-8’6″ rod will work fine, and on a small brook, a 7′ rod might be “long”.

Keep the rig floating naturally, without drag – think of your indicator as a dry fly – and try to present it with a drag free drift. If the indicator is consistently moving slower than the current, adjust the depth, and maybe adjust the number or size of the split shot, since that’s a sign that you’re hanging and dragging bottom more than just ticking the bottom. If the indicator moves faster than the current, you’ve probably got a belly of line pulling the whole rig down stream, and you need to work on line control. Keep the running line off the water, and throw an upstream mend in the line that has to be on the water – and keep mending to keep that drift drag free.

Aside from that – just keep watching the indicator. Any twitch, especially a sideways or upstream twitch – is a signal of a bite. Sometimes the fish will yank the indicator under water just like a fish pulling a bobber under water. Set the hook! You’ll get the hang of it. Just keep it up, and you’ll catch fish, and possibly bigger ones than you’ll get on dry flies.

Remember to slow your casting stroke down, and open your casting loop up with this rig – or you risk breaking your rod (Tim Rajeff has clocked casting strokes, and determined that an average fisherman’s casting stroke has the fly moving at about 120mph. At 120mph a split shot or bead head fly hitting your rod tip is as close to a guarantee of a broken rod as you can get. And you don’t want to wang yourself with a fast moving split shot either – it HURTS.

Focus on fishing water closer to you than you might with dry flies, make a few drifts, step up or downstream (which ever way you’re working the river) and make a few more passes. Wade closer to the fish’s lie instead of trying to fish 70 feet way. One more thing to keep in mind – thinner diameter lines will help your flies get down quicker and drift more naturally than using thicker leaders – and with indi nymphing, you really don’t even need a fancy knotless tapered leader. A three-section leader with a heavy butt, medium mid section, and a fine tippet will work just fine. The level line sections will also help keep a corkie or other pegged indicator from sliding on the line, as they can do with tapered lines.

Experiment until you find what works.



  1. Cofisher / Jul 26 2011 11:34

    This is a good explanation of something a lot of newcomers don't understand.

  2. Clover Pass Resort / Jul 27 2011 07:40

    Wow this is great thanks! I'm a “newcomer” like the guy above said and this helps me out A LOT! I am always looking for new techniques to do things and advice from more experienced anglers. Thank you for all your time!

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