Using an Indicator When Fly-fishing
with Nymphs

I need to get something out of the way here, before we get into the following chapters on how to fish the various types of water outlined previously. This is the use of indicators when fishing nymphs. (In this sense 'nymphs' are trout-fishing flies designed to be fished underwater.)

Many fishermen use an indicator when nymph fishing, especially when using weighted nymphs.

An indicator is a piece of wool yarn, foam plastic float, or small inline float that is connected to the leader or the end of the fly-line. (Check local regulations for permitted indicator materials). Because the nymph is invisible underwater the indicator is used as a visual indication that the nymph has stopped drifting, hopefully because a trout has got it in its mouth.

Woolyarn indicator

The indicator also provides a clear visual guide to where the nymph is in relationship to the fish or the lie.

An indicator is an invaluable and I think a necessary aid for less experienced fishermen, and if you are new to fly-fishing I urge you to use one.

There is a lot going on when fishing quickly moving water and having an indicator to fix your attention on is a great help in placing your nymph where fish are. As skills and experience build, the necessity to use an indicator decreases.

However in big rivers trying to nymph fish without an indicator, no matter your skill level, is counter-productive.

Striking a Fish When Using an Indicator

There are three questions to consider when striking at a fish if the indicator ducks and dives.

  • The first is always – is it a fish? As the nymph drifts along the bottom it will stall, and occasionally stop as the nymph catches on various things. You could spend most of your fishing day striking at rocks, boulders, twigs, and weed.
  • Despite the above, you want your nymph to be as close to the bottom as possible. If your indicator does not 'bobble' as the nymph bounces along the bottom, or  does not stall occasionally, you need to add some weight (split-shot) to the leader or change to a heavier nymph.
  • The second is, if it is a fish, what is the best way of setting the hook? If you are using a weighted nymph, or a weighted leader, it is odds on the indicator will be downstream from the drifting nymph. Besides, conventional wisdom seems to suggest that a trout can pick up a nymph and spit it out in the blink of an eye.

Based purely on my own fishing experience, and observation of many hundreds of other fishermen, I believe that in faster moving water, striking at a small movement of the indicator will do little to increase your chances of gaining a hook-up.

Here’s why.

Trout feed on free-drifting nymphs by approaching the prey, opening their mouths and at the same time flaring their gills, 'vacuuming' the nymph into their mouth. The nymph is then pressed by the tongue onto the roof of the mouth, and if it is felt to be suitable to eat it is swallowed, if not it is ejected.

This happens very quickly - literally in the blink of an eye.

Most modern hooks, especially chemically or laser sharpened hooks, are very sharp. ‘Sticky sharp’ is a lovely American term. It means the hooks are so sharp they ‘stick’ to anything they touch. If the hook point touches any part of the trout’s mouth it will ‘stick’.

Even on a big size six hook, the hook has to move less than 2 mm to sink it over the barb. When a fish engulfs a nymph, that hook is already moving towards the back of the fish’s mouth – the line pulled by the current continues to pull the hook backwards.

Most often, by the time an angler ‘strikes’ at the drop of an indicator in fast moving water the fish is either hooked already, or it is not. Nothing the angler does will make any difference.

striking with the rod tip high above the water is ineffectual

In my view, the angler can do little to make any difference to the initial pricking of the hook.

In fact ‘striking’ by lifting the rod tip up in the air when an indicator moves usually achieves nothing at the nymph end.

Too often all it does is lift slack line off the water. (As shown in diagram alongside).

Consider this. Let’s say you are using three metres of leader, and you are eight to 10 metres from the indicator. To get any pull at all on the hook, you have to first pull out the bend caused by the nymph being at right angles to the indicator, then pull out any slack on the water. That can be as much as nine metres, and your rod is only three metres long.

strike low illustration

The best technique is to pull the rod through a low arc, with the rod tip near the water. Even if there is slack in the line the water itself will maintain line pressure. (As in diagram alongside).

This uses the friction of the water and the current to pull on the line and transmit the pull more directly and firmly to the hook to achieve a good strong hook-set.

Once that hook-set has been achieved then the anglers full concentration can be placed on either stripping in loose line, or (and preferably) getting the loose line onto the reel as quickly as possible.

Actually I believe striking the fish with the rod tip low to the water is the best method in all fishing situations except when the line (fly-line and leader) is straight and tight to the fly.

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