Good Indications

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

I vaguely remember the days before strike indicators.

I don’t know for sure when the first fly fisherman looked over at a bait fisherman using a bobber and decided that he couldn’t beat ‘um and it was time to join ‘um, but I do remember when I first discovered strike indicators. I was fishing nymphs with greater and greater regularity. I was catching a lot more fish but far from what I’d call proficient. A friend gave me a yarn indicator and promised I’d catch a lot more fish. He was right.

It wasn’t long before I found myself using the indicator every time I tied on a nymph. It worked so well I couldn’t see fishing without it. It was such a revolution that I figured there had to be something more. I went on a quest for the perfect strike indicator. That sublime doohickey that could put on my line that would make me a nymphing god.

I started with yarn and at first I wasn’t aware that there was anything else. I experimented with colors and sizes. Yellow, pink, chartreuse, white, black, each had its application but I never found anything I liked better than the yellow one my friend had given me. Fish liked it too. It got eaten routinely so I tied a hook into it. I caught a few fish but mostly I hooked my fingers while adjusting the indicator.

Next came foam. I tried emulating the yarn indicator with strips of foam bound together, thinking it would not get waterlogged like the yarn. It didn’t but it cast like an umbrella. Then I discovered stick-on foam indicators and they worked OK but they didn’t float very high. I eventually lost interest in foam and went back to yarn.

I tried a new style of yarn indicator with a tiny O-ring used to attach it to the line. It was an interesting idea. It was easier to attach but the O-ring always broke before long and it was tougher on the leader.

Then putty indicators came along. I couldn’t resist this idea. It was great to be able to choose the size of my indicator for the fishing conditions. To add or pinch off some putty to get just the right size. I even bought glow-in-the-dark putty which I am embarrassed to say I never used. Putty didn’t do it for me either and it left a sticky mess on my leaders and everything else it touched.

Next I went through a stealth phase. Instead of floating indicators I tied sections of green or yellow monofilament into my leaders. One section about half way down the leader and another close to the butt section. Those leaders actually worked really well. I could see the middle section move when a fish ate and when it was too deep to see I’d watch the second section. The system worked well as long as you were fishing close.

At some point I scaled the whole thing back to about four inches of red mono on the end of the fly line. This worked in a tight line nymphing situation. I didn’t see it at the time but as I changed my indicator, I was also changing my technique. I was becoming a better angler. Using better methods and developing a better feel. Then came the Thingamabobber.

We all started using Thingamabobbers. It was a great invention. Such a simple idea. Just make it a damned bobber! It never sinks, never gets waterlogged, it’s easy to adjust. Why wouldn’t you use it? I started putting it on as a habit. It was just part of rigging up. Nymphs, weight, Thingamabobber. That was the drill. The Thingamabobber worked great and I caught plenty of fish, but over time, something started to change.

I’m not blaming the bobber, but I started getting lazy. Not paying as much attention, losing my feel, getting sloppy. The simple act of doing something that was easy, using a tool that required less from me, was making me less of an angler. It’s almost a paradox. How does a better indicator make me a worse fisherman?

I remember my buddy Kirk Deeter talking about this but at the time I didn’t get what he was driving at. He had been right, as he so often is. It was just like using a smart phone had destroyed my ability to remember phone numbers. The bobber was making me soft.

Now, I’m not telling you to throw away your Thingamabobbers. They are still a great tool and have their place. Nothing floats heavy flies in rough water like a Thingamabobber. I’m just saying, don’t be lazy and don’t use the thing when another technique is better. Don’t just put the rig on auto pilot and let it roll.

As for me, I’m kind of back where I started. About a year ago I discovered the New Zealand strike indicator and I love it. Especially in really technical situations. It’s wool, not yarn, but it’s pretty close to the indicators I first used. It is a much, much better system for attaching the wool. It allows you to build just the right size indicator for the conditions. It’s super easy to adjust and doesn’t leave kinks in you leader. It’s the most sensitive indicator I’ve ever used and it will not spook fish.

It doesn’t matter what you use, or if you use anything at all. Just be mindful of what your gear might be doing to you. Don’t let it disconnect you from the act of fishing. Stay in touch with your fly. Stay mindful and feel the drift. Anticipate the strike. Don’t just sit back and watch it happen.

Don’t let a good idea turn you into a bad angler.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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27 thoughts on “Good Indications

  1. Wow…..that was a good read. I have also noticed my nymphing has become mediocre because of my laziness with Thingamabobbers……and I never really put two and two together to realize it before this article. Thanks for posting this. Made me think…..

  2. Louis, Jeff in OR here:

    Call me an old fuddy-duddy, a knothead, a snobby purist, an old stick in the mud, etc., but I’d rather get caught fishing with dynamite than get caught using a thingamabobber or some facsimile thereof.

    Just my opinion, but I am sticking to it. Having said all that, I don’t condemn anyone who does, different strokes for different folks. 🙂

    • I keep my Thingamabobbers and pimp indicators stashed in a secret compartment in my vest. If I die on the stream, chances are no one will find them and accuse me of having been a bobber lobber.

  3. Actually Louis, I’m going to take this a step further than what I think you were writing about. I believe the indicator “IS” to blame for anglers laziness if that’s their ONLY method of fly fishing on a day in day out basis, without taking into account what nature’s giving you. I’m not a purist by any stretch nor advocating it, but honestly how much skill are we using when we throw the bobber compared to finding a rising fish and getting the right drift to that fish? Mmm, not much in comparison!!!!! I’m a guide out in Colorado and can’t tell you how often I’m seeing the bobber fly for the sole purpose of getting clients into fish rather than teach the “art” of the sport and throw dries knowing that the fish are coming up to them. Kirk Deeter published an article of mine detailing exactly this in Angling Trade Magazine last fall, check it out.

    Marc Barnwell

    • I acknowledge your point, Marc but there is much more to fly fishing than rising fish. The art is in coming to the fish on his terms. That doesn’t always include dry flies. There is just as much art to a good subsurface presentation.

      • Louis you’re absolutely correct in saying, the sport’s not about rising fish. It’s about connecting with nature and letting THAT dictate what we throw. But that’s NOT what’s happening on the water. Laziness IS setting in terms of introducing new people to the sport. It’s a get ’em in and get ’em out mentality. The easiest way guides are doing this is to lob the bob, and that is certainly NOT doing this sport justice. Again, check out Chuck Furimsky’s article on Daisy Chaining for trout on the Bighorn and my follow up to that in Angling Trade Mag.

        • I agree that if “it” is creating laziness or poor technique then that is a dis-service to the user.
          Learn the basics THEN develop other skills.

    • Marc,
      I can say that there is a level of skill involved in any facet of fly fishing, and that encompasses the indicator style of fishing. I know many people who took quite some time to wrap their heads around drift depth, weight, and drag for example that can’t get the method to work for them. At the end of the day, who really cares how anyone else fishes as long as it is done ethically. The choice of method should be left up to the person at the end of the cork..

      • Rich, I totally agree with you. People should fish however like. In fact, I had a father son duo in my boat the other day and the father kicked his sons butt with a copper #2 mepps spinner and his son was a very advanced fly caster and past guide. My argument stems from the “laziness” for which the article identifies happening. I’m identifying and placing that blame on where I’m consistently seeing it on day in day out scenario.

  4. Well since I have picked back up again with my fly rod I had no idea about a thingymabob!
    Happy to say I’m working on old school techniques I was taught!

  5. Great topic. I received one of the New Zealand indicator things a good long while ago. With every intention of trying it out, I placed it in the ‘fly fishing drawer of chaos’ and forgot about it until now. So thanks for the reminder.

  6. Everyone has a style. Some are traditional, some are techy’s. I just want to learn how to tell the fish to bite, hang on, give me a thrill, and I will release you back to the water you love.

  7. Caught myself being lazy with a thingamabobber this weekend on the Frying Pan…got rigged up 10 minutes faster than my buddy (never happens) and enjoyed 10 minutes of nymphing before he showed up with his rig and yarn indicator…I didn’t even consider using yarn but it was necessary and more sensitive for the Pan! Back to the car and had to search for my yarn kit…forgot how sensitive it was. Nice post!

  8. I will have to agree with Marc on this topic. The thingamabobber, and indicators in general, have created many lazy anglers. Here in MT, I see many guides that are “one trick ponies” with the lob and bob on the indicator, however I understand it pays the bills, but it doesn’t teach the art. It’s tough to see guys on the Bighorn flog indicators through pods of midging fish and not hooking up, while I’m fishing tiny flies on top and hooking up. And these guys can’t believe it’s even worth rerigging for these fish, while I’m catching rising fish in front of them.
    And when was the last time you really heard anyone talk about swinging wet flies or the Leisenring lift. Also, read Nymphing for Larger Trout by Charlie Brooks. There are ton to nymphing techniques that he mentions, none of which include an indicator. Try anything by Joe Humphreys or George Harvey and ready about their tight-line methods. These guys put so much effort into their fishing and were so analytical with their techniques.
    I understand that the bobber give you the ability to fish from the boat, nymph and relax, but get out of the boat. Give the run its justice and really work it and understand it.
    Sorry if this is snobby, but if it offends you, it’s probably because it’s somewhat true. Sorry.
    “We all fish for pleasure; I for mine, you for yours” -Jim Leisenring

  9. I think about indicators a little differently. I very rarely will use an indicator of any kind, and, typically, the only limiting factor is weight. Ninetynine percent of the time I will split time either tight-lining or floating my nymphs with a dry fly instead of using an indicator. I learned how to fly fish throwing dry/dropper rigs on Fightingtown Creek here in N. Georgia, and I’ve always felt that if I can float flies with an indicator, why can’t I float them with a dry fly? It just makes sense to me. Adding the dry fly is just another opportunity to catch a fish. Like I mentioned, the only limiting factor is weight, and from time to time I am forced to fish a thingamabobber in order to float my flies at the desired depth, and even then I will probably tight-line my nymphs instead. Basically, the only time that I’m really tempted to place an indicator on my leader is when I’m fishing for trout holding in deep, slow pools where tight-lining is more difficult, and the nymphs that I’m using are too heavy for any dries that I have in my box. Anyone else feel the same?

    • Justin–
      What you say makes sense and mirrors my experience. Indicators may be one of many methods depending on conditions, including season, depth, current, water clarity, etc. Proficiency in all methods allows flexibility and, I think, more enjoyment and less frustration. I do feel it is easier to get success with newbies using an indicator, which is why it is a staple of mine in teaching kids and wounded warriors. I think that’s why so many guides like it as well.

  10. Funny it’s called an “NZ Indicator” as it was invented by an American, Rudi Ferris. I’m a kiwi but used the Ferris Indicator long before someone decided to commercialise it. It’s a great indicator!

  11. I can understand the point of guides using indicators for their clients. Their clients have spent good money, and in most cases quite a bit of money to get to a location to fish. They want to make sure they catch fish, it’s a business, how they make their living. In reference to teaching the art of fly fishing, I feel that is something that comes from within, one who wants to learn will take the time to do so. I feel that since fly fishing has had a big resurgence even in a down economy, fly fishing has become like the fashion industry. What’s in today, and how do I get it. What’s the latest and greatest. And I think what get’s left behind is the art of it. What fly fishing is at it’s purest level. I use indicators in certain situations, but for the most part I Czech nymph. As in any industry, when you have rapid expansion, things become more commercial, a deviation from the grass roots. To each his own, indicator or not, if someone see’s me tight lining it, and they ask what I am doing, I am more than glad to show them. Just my opinion. Nice article.

  12. I can see using indicators to learn subsurface techniques and if you’re destination fishing and want to get your money’s worth catching fish. Even to take off the skunk and catch some fish. But it seems like a natural thing to me in the progression from beginner-intermediate-advanced to take off the indicator at some point and learn to fish without it. Blame some form of ADHD or my age, but I can’t imagine going out and catching 20 fish on the same fly, same technique without thinking it was time to up my game and try something new and more advanced.

  13. I find it ironic how often a fly angler will snub a spin fisher who is fishing a tight line method yet you look at the fly anglers rig and he has a bobber. I fish a fly rod for trout and most the time I fish a two hand rod and swing streamers and/or nymphs. I prefer tight line just like most spin guys. I want to feel and not rely on the bob. I not against those that fish the bob and in situations the bob can get your flies places that are next to impossible with tight lining. I really see the laziness of it in other anglers. Many simply won’t fish without it. Many guides have this condition too. Recently I fished with a guide that had this condition. I got bored pretty quick! I asked several different ways about tight lining and eventually got the “It doesn’t work here!” answer. Of course now I can’t wait to get back on that river and prove him wrong. I might not catch as many fish as bob anglers do (many times I catch more) but I get a better thrill out of the ones I do catch. The tug is the drug!

  14. Fun article! Strike indicators are things we love to hate and there is no perfect indicator for all situations. My first “indicators” were colored leader sections that most call “sighters” now for high-stick nymphing in the 70’s (most call it Euro nymphing these days). In about 1977 Dave Whitlock showed me how to use short sections of thick orange floating fly line threaded onto the leader butt, about the same time Gary Borger was using tiny cork floats while nymphing for better visibility. I had lots of Lil Corkies from my steelheading gear days and used them in bright colors for indicators in fast water when I started guiding the Henry’s Fork and Madison in 1983. I was initially ridiculed the first times I guided with indicator rigs but after my clients regularly tripled other guides hookup rates, many other guides started using them too. Since then I’ve tried about every style imaginable. I’ve settled on 3 main indicators. Thing-a-ma-bobbers for fast or deep water, micro-yarn indicators for selective, spooky, shallow fish and of course, sighters for high-stick rigs. Yes, I call sighters strike indicators because they indicate strikes. And, if you watch the end of your fly line, that is your strike indicator too!

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