The Bobber Conundrum

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Good, or Evil? Photo by Louis Cahill

The other day I received this email from a reader.

***

“Just wanted to bring up an issue that has been eating at my soul for years! I just can’t wrap my arms around the thought of using a bobber. That being said, I know that when nymphing on some streams that the use of an indicator is almost mandatory for your success and without one you have doomed yourself to failure but I can’t bring myself to apply this method.

Why?

I would love to here your thoughts on this issue from both sides. I have always said it’s not about the catching of fish it’s about just being there. I mainly swing flies for steelhead with my two handers and would never ever think of using an indicator for those majestic creatures but I do at times go trout fishing and find myself absolutely bored out of my mind plugging water and getting very few strikes.”

***

This has come up frequently and I thought it would be a good topic for a post. I’ll give you my thoughts and maybe you can share yours.

How does the lowly strike indicator generate so much controversy? Be it yarn, foam, a plastic bubble or a dry fly, an indicator is a tool. Like a hook or a line it is meant to help an angler catch a fish. Where is the controversy in that? How does a fellow, like our friend here, find that “eating at his soul?”

The tools you use say a lot about how you see your craft. Hopefully you’re not the guy who reaches for the hammer on every job. The old saying goes, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.” Not exactly the definition of craftsmanship, on the other hand, once in a while a nail needs driving.

There is a time to drift a dry fly on 6X, a time to swing a tube fly, a time to rip a streamer and even a time to use a bobber. That’s what makes fly fishing the rich and wonderful pursuit that it is. There are always new techniques to learn and master, new puzzles to solve, new waters or fish to figure out. It is a lifelong pursuit.

The art of angling is in coming to the fish, not in having the fish come to you. It is getting into the slimy little fellow’s head. Figuring out what he expects to see and showing it to him. Whether it’s a nymph, a dry, a streamer or whatever, the art is in presenting the fly to the fish in a way that he can appreciate. It is a chess game between you and the fish and when he makes a conscious decision to eat your fly, that’s checkmate.

Well, check at least, there’s still the business of landing him, if that matters to you. It does, doesn’t it? We have all had the experience of hooking a tough fish only to see him unbutton and I’m willing to bet we’ve all said the same thing, “At least I got him to eat, that’s all that matters.” But is it? Be honest, you wanted to land that fish, right? Or was it just about being out there?

Being out there is great but if that’s what it was about we’d be hikers. Hiking is about being out there. Fishing is about catching fish. We are there with a purpose. We are anglers, we want to catch fish and there is no shame in that. If an indicator facilitates that, where’s the problem? Perhaps not with the bobber.

What we are really talking about is not technique. It’s not the catching of fish or the being out there. It’s cloaked in aesthetic and bolstered by rationalization and perceived as identity but what it is, is ego. It’s not about the bobber. It’s about our self expectation. It’s about the story we have told ourselves, of who we are and how we compare to others and the gap between that story in our head and the one being told on the river.

Most of us have told ourselves a complicated story about our identity as anglers and many of us have left the fish out of it. Whether it’s the tale of the dry fly purest or the skagit master, the Czech nympher or the tenkara minimalist we have created an identity, not only for ourselves but for our quarry, that may not entirely resemble reality.

I’m not suggesting that this is a crime. I do it as much as anyone. I have written volumes about myself and the mystical world of fish. Sweeping odysseys involving fine bamboo rods and towering two handers. I have personified my share of wise old trout and mystic steelhead but I know that those fish live, not in the river, but in my head.

Steelhead, “those majestic creatures.” Nowhere does the humble thingamabobber raise the heart rate like it does in steelheaders. I have good friends who’s tongues spit fire for “bobber guys.” I have heard steelheaders say they would rather see gear fishermen on their rivers than fly anglers with indicators. Is that truly about some perceived insult to a noble fish or about who’s rod is bending?

I have swung flies for steelhead and I have fished a bobber and honestly I don’t see how a bobber is different from a sink tip or a tube fly. They are all tools to help us catch fish, nothing more or less noble about it. That said, my chosen method for steelhead is to swing flies. I don’t do it because it’s the “right way” but because it’s what I enjoy.

I enjoy casting the Spey rod and I like the feeling of being connected to my fly and the take is incredible but it doesn’t make me hate the guy with the bobber. He is telling his own story and it likely involves numbers but it doesn’t involve me. I’ve heard the argument that we would catch more fish swinging flies if the bobber guys weren’t sticking so many and, yes, I too would love to have the river to myself but I know it’s not going to happen. I would like to sleep with Angelina Jolie and that’s not going to happen either and I don’t tell myself it’s because Brad Pitt is too good looking.

As long as the bobber guy is respecting the fish, the river and his fellow angler, the way he fishes is his own business. So let me be clear, I don’t think it’s OK to fish treble hooks or low hole another angler and I don’t want to see bait boxes or beer cans on the bank but could care less if you use an indicator. I can write a book on how I feel about bait and gear fishing but for now I’ll leave it at that.

So, back to my friend with the bobber quandary. He wants to catch trout but he identifies himself as a steelheader and, as a steelheader, he has told himself some things about bobbers that make him uneasy about fishing them. What is he to do?

Steelheaders are adamant that steelhead are not trout, some of them to the point of being complete assholes. We will take that argument up another time but tell me this, if a trout is not a steelhead, why would you fish to him the same way? Would you swing flies for carp? Probably not.

I’m going to tell you something now that will get me hate mail. Trust me, I am as enamored with steelhead as anyone alive. I am fascinated by their nature, by their secret lives in the ocean and our brief encounters, both driven to the river by our instincts, but I know the truth. A steelhead is not an educated fish. It is not an intelligent fish. That’s not why it’s hard to catch. It is not a better fish than a trout. It is merely different.

If you want to catch trout first you must learn to respect them. They can be one of the toughest fish to catch and if they are so tough a fish that you have to use an indicator to catch them, does catching them make you less of an angler? If you have found a fish that vexes you, and you have learned and adopted new techniques to catch them, and in the process you have grown and added new tools to your bag, can you get your arms around that?

Here’s how I answered that email. I suggested to my new friend that if he was curious about the bobber he should try fishing one. Give it of real try, fish it for a month or two, take the time to learn the finer points of it and then decide if it was for him. It may not be. He may find that it really is just about being out there and that’s fine too.

I have total respect for the guy who gets as excited about a new bird he saw as a great fish he caught. That guy gets it. He is fishing for himself not for what someone else thinks of him. He is telling a story with no end. A story that will continue after he is gone and it’s not about numbers or bobbers or ego.

I closed my reply to that email with a quote from my Grandfather. Any time I asked my Grandad, “what I should do,” regardless of the scenario, I got the same answer. I know he was dismissing me and I know that he was being a smart ass but nonetheless, it was good advice and I took it to heart. He told me time and again,

“Do what you want to do, that’s what you’re going to do anyway.”

 

Come fish with us in the Bahamas!

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
www.ginkandgasoline.com
hookups@ginkandgasoline.com
 
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45 thoughts on “The Bobber Conundrum

  1. Good points Louis! Your right, a bobber is just another tool in the toolbox, to help us catch fish. There are times when steelhead (which is a trout) or trout fishing that it would be just casting practice to continue to swing flies or fish dries, because of the conditions. You can nymph of course without an indicator and instead watching the end of your fly line and in shallow, calm water, that may be the best choice. But in fast or deep water, a bobber can really make the difference between catching fish or not. I love to be in the water, but yeah, I’m there to catch fish or use every tool that a fly fisherman has to try to do so.

  2. I fished with a friend/guide on the Bitteroot one day, the water was at record level highs, flooding over the banks, and creating what he called a “worm hatch”. He wanted to fish tandem San Juan worms, underneath a thingamabobber, and I was kind of against the idea. I’m not a purist by any means, but just had never used that style indicator, and it to closely resembled the traditional “bobber”. Anyways, never caught more fish in a day than I did that day, and had a blast doing it. The point is to catch fish I guess, and it worked.

    • I actually carry a very small red and white plastic bobber from Wal-Mart just for the purpose of pissing off my purist buddies. There’s no difference between that and a piece of yarn except that the yarn is a hell of a lot easier to cast.

  3. I have never really used a thingamabobber, or other floating indicators, but only because I’d rather have a dry fly floating my nymphs. I’m certainly not against “bobbers”. For me using a dry fly just gives me another shot at hooking up with a trout. However, when I’m on the water I have one goal in mind… Catch fish. While I have my preferred methods and techniques, when it comes to putting a bend in my rod and fish in the net, I’ll do whatever is necessary (ethically) to get the job done. At the end of the day I’m on the water to enjoy myself and the beautiful environment around me, and hopefully gain a few new fish tales. Great read Louis on a subject that gets touchy with some anglers for some reason.

  4. I had a customer in the fly shop tell me once that he didn’t use indicators because “anybody can catch fish with an indicator”. This really perplexed me, the idea of not using a tool because it was too effective. Whatever you choose to do is your own decision I guess. In the end all that really matters is your own happiness. Just remember to let the other guy find his.

  5. Personally, I don’t give two shits about how someone else chooses to fish as long as they aren’t killing fish needlessly. With that said, there are so many interesting ways to catch fish that I can’t see why anyone would want to limit themselves to certain methods. Being a complete angler that can adapt to any situation is a lifelong pursuit that most of us will never totally master….. Time for me to go hit the water and take another baby step!

  6. I agree wholeheartedly with everything you stated here. The belief I think is that fishing with a “bobber” requires less skill to be more effective, and is the most boring way to fish, which I couldn’t disagree with more. Casting a double or triple nymph rig, with multiple knots, split shot, and an indicator, can be one of the hardest casts to make in angling, requiring just as much patience and skill as spey casting. There are twice as many hooks, three times as many knots, 4 times as many objects on the line, and an infinite number of possibilities for things to tangle or go wrong. Add wind, an overhand cast, water drag on multiple flies/weight, and the fact that you are casting less weight with a smaller rod to the equation, and things begin to come into perspective. Any nymph fisherman will tell you that you can spend 10-20 minutes constructing a new rig, make one bad cast, and be left with a rats nest the likes of which you never laid eyes on before. An instant “do over”. Or how about the first cast that hangs up on the bottom resulting in a break off which yields the exact same outcome. Now if that doesn’t take patience, not sure what will. On the other hand, once a spey cast is mastered, it can become routine and thoughtless, and although a thing of beauty, it can become just as repetitive and boring as nymph fishing with an indicator, perhaps even more so. We’ve all heard many of stories of the fabled steelheader, entranced in a daze, diligently working down through hole after hole, cast after cast, searching for this “fish of a thousand casts”. After a successful spey cast, you then only need one hand to control the line and set the hook, of which the other is usually placed in a chest pocket of some sort and of little importance. I’m sure we’ve all seen that “oh shit” look of surprised amazement on the face of a startled steelheader who’s just realized he’s hooked up. On the contrary, while nymph fishing, one needs to constantly retrieve excess line with the opposite hand and keep eagle-like alertness in preparation for a possible strike. Once the strike occurs, reaction timing is key to a successful hookup, as the fish will feel the resistance of the added weight, other fly, or indicator, before the tension of the hook set if one hesitates. One could even argue that it takes more awareness to catch a trout nymph fishing then it does swinging flies to steelhead. I tell you one thing with confidence, 9 outta 10 fish caught nymph fishing aren’t a surprise. With steelheading on the other hand, one must only need to lift the rod tip and pinch the flyline after feeling a undeniable tug on a more static line. I am not undermining the beauty, skill, and shear awesomeness that is steelheading, but do get rather annoyed when this elitist attitude manifests itself. It’s more a matter of pride\ego than anything else, IMO. And if nymph fishing weren’t effective as hell, then why would said emailer be so inquisitive about such angling, even if it eats at his very soul? When it comes down to it, yeah we like the beauty, sure we enjoy the solitude, the philosophy, etc, but ultimately we are in it for the pull, and for me personally, the more chances I get at feeling that big pull, the more I enjoy fishing. That’s why I nymph fish. I guess in the end, its just like your grandfather told you, they will keep doing what they want to do, because that’s what they’re gonna do anyway, and I’ll keep catching fish on a soulless demon bobber.

    Oh, and one last thing.. can we please quit calling these things bobbers? A bobber costs $0.69 cents and can be found at your local Walmart. If I have to drive 5 miles outta my way to a fancy-pants fly shop and pay $2.99 for the thing, it’s a damn strike indicator.

    • Wow Mike, great comment!

      While I agree with everything you say about nymphing I think you are selling the Spey crowd short. If it were as automatic as you describe I would not get consistently out fished by my buddies. There is a lot of skill that goes into that swing and, when done right, it is constantly mindful. In fact, that’s the aspect of it I enjoy.

      The only way we will settle this issue is to stop worrying about who is a better fisherman. None of us are fishing for food, at least I hope not, so how many fish we catch or how we catch them is irrelevant. What matters is the quality of the experience and that is completely personal.

      BTW, I’m taking the word bobber back from the man. I say it with pride!

  7. This is a very good, respectful reply to this debate. I know I am essentially playing devil’s advocate here, but I just want to put forth a perspective that should seem logical and yet still sounds a bit anti-indicator.

    I think your hammer/nail metaphor perfectly describes what I’m going to outline here, but this time it is not swinging or dry-fly drifting that is in focus, it is the use of the indicator itself. As fishermen (and people in general) we often gravitate to the things that make our lives easier and/or maximize the time-to-yield ratio that we have on the water. With an indicator setup we can eliminate time needed to change the dropper length, alter our sink-top, or even constantly change flies (to a degree) because we can adjust easily to a huge range of depths and flow ranges. This means that we begin to see indicator nymphing as an extremely useful technique that is effective for a lot of our fishing situations and thus we gravitate to it more and more.

    This is a problem in the same way that religiously avoiding the indicator because we begin to have a limited view of fishing that does NOT use an indicator. I personally found myself getting caught up in the indicator nymphing game and I began to “force it” on many of the waters I fished that simply weren’t best fished with an indicator. I saw the success on certain water types and as a grad student with limited time on the water I wanted at least some of that success everywhere. This caused me to miss out on a lot of fish and through my introduction to Tenkara I soon fixed this problem by discovering short-line nymphing. With these two techniques I can now cover a much wider range of water and thus be more successful depending on the conditions in front of me rather than how I “think” fishing should be.

    So after this rant, the reason I wanted to comment was that people who are “stuck” on the indicator are just as messed up as those who won’t touch the thing and turn up their noses. This might lend to the negative perception of using indicators, but we can’t be sure.

    Bottom line: fish how the water should be fished, not how you think “fishing” should be defined.

    • You make a great point Peter. I too have found myself fishing and indicator in water where it was a hindrance rather than a help. Sometimes purely out of sloth. The most important skill and angler can have is the ability to stop and think and solve a problem.

      I have friends who are as the vehemently against Spey casting as some guys are against bobbers. They think it’s just bullshit. The truth is that on some water it is the most effective method.

      Swinging flies covers water in a way that is mathematically beautiful. When targeting migrating fish in a big western rivers it is a very effective technique. To search that water as effectively with an indicator would be mindnumbing and tedious. The spey school of fishing evolved because it was effective not because it was cool.

      Indeed, Fish the water as it should be fished!

  8. Geez.. This is a tough one. Personally if needed, I prefer the dry/dropper approach as it doubles the chances of hooking a fish as already mentioned. I have only used a thingamabobber on 1 occasion and it was at the insistance of a guide in a fly fishing club in North Georgia where 25-30″ Rainbows frequently pounce on unsuspecting anglers. Personally, I tried it for about 10 minutes and couldn’t get past the visual aspet of it, not to mention my novice approach to setting the hook as soon as it stopped. I prefer the feel of a tug , the bouncing on a nymp on the bottom, or the watching the line approach.. Dont get me wrong here, as I know plenty of guys tht can slay’um with the indicator setups, but it just doesn’t fit in my skill set. BUT, I say use what works for you and don’t worry about the rest. As long as you enjoy the fishing , the catching or both…at least your on the water and not behind a desk….

    • Always on the water, never behind the desk. I think that would make a good tattoo!

      John, no one is suggesting that you have to fission indicator but if you don’t give it a chance it will never be in your skill set. Like I told the fellow who email give it an honest try before you decide it’s not for you.

  9. as a somewhat neophyte nympher I admit I hate the look of that thingamabobber, but having spent those hours with no takes using other techniques, I finally gave in recently. Have to say, catching beats fishing sometimes, and sometimes just fishing is totally fulfilling, but lets continue to debunk the “snobbery” syndrome around fly fishing by respecting that some of us do it one way, and some another. Lets encourage more folks to go fishing and the best way to do that is to let them catch one now and then.

  10. I am not sure where the above posters live, or what type of water they usually fish, but I would assure you that you wouldn’t catch me dead floating a large Western river in the colder months (or when the fishing is slow in the warmer months) without some type of indicator that can handle split shot and some heavy nymphs without sinking. You’ll just be sight-seeing from a drift boat if you can’t get your flies down to the fish. I agree that a dry/dropper is great when it starts to warm up enough for a fish to even think about that dry. There is a situation for all types of fishing. The indicator allows for a short leash or long leash adjustment all day long. You can’t get that with a dry/dropper without retying all day. And what if the water is deeper than 5 or 6 feet? Tying a 6 foot dropper? And the way the moss was out West this year, you had to keep those flies up off the bottom a bit if you wanted to fish without losing flies every few minutes. In steps Mr. Thingamabobber (small water balloons work equally well, if not more sensitive, when blown up to about the same size).

    • I love the balloon idea. I have fished balloons in salt water. On days in the Keys when things go to hell and there are no fish to be found we will sometimes get stinking drunk and fishbait for sharks under balloons. It’s so much fun I feel like I need to confess!

  11. I’ve never fished for steelhead so I speak to that part of the debate but I can speak to thingamabobbers while trout fishing. Ideally I like to fish a nice hi-vis dry fly. The site of a cutthroat rising to my fly is exciting. I have over the years realized that fish don’t always feed on top so I have been nymphing more and more. Last year I used a thingamabobbers for the first time and loved it. I got the same visual stimulation from it as I do with a big meaty dry fly. In short, I don’t always use an indicator but when I do, I use a bobber. Why not, I still have to figure out what fly to use, present the fly in a way I’ll get a hit and I still have to land the the beast.

    • Brian, thingamabobbers are great but again, not always the tool for the job. In deep, fast or choppy water they cannot be beat but sometimes the subtler approach is necessary. Personally I always have several sizes of thingamabobbers as well as yarn and NZ style indicators on hand. Sometimes I use a short bit of red mono in my leader. Again the right tool for the right job.

      BTW, you have to try steelhead. They are awesome!

  12. Wow…you hit the nail on the head with this one. There are so many different methods to catch a fish. And that is why it intrigues me to no end! I love to Czech nymph, but I also find myself getting out a bobber some of the time too. Ahhh…the lowly bobber. Ha. Hey, if it didn’t help catch fish, I wouldn’t be using it. = )

    • Thanks! Czech nymphing is bad ass! I wish I were really good at it. That’s going to be one of the next things I work seriously on. Have you ever tried it on steelhead? I know a run where I think it would be deadly.

  13. Louis, that is a great blog entry you just authored there. This is one of the most objective articles I’ve seen on the subject. Congratulations on hitting the nail with the bobber or is that hitting the bobber with a hammer.
    My favorite quote is “Being out there is great but if that’s what it was about we’d be hikers. Hiking is about being out there. Fishing is about catching fish.” I sure hope I can remember that and use it someday, it is perfect!

    Kirk

  14. I’ve been able to increase my ability to prevent my finger from typing when my brain sends out a sarcastic signal. So I will attempt to leave out any swinging flies sarcastic comments. Truly I love and try to use all techniques, I use as many as possible with every cast. Fly fishing is an art, as artists we evolve and grown new skills/talents. The indicator has been around for years, it’s just went from someone using a twig to using a korean make plastic accessory. There are endless pros and cons about the whole issue. The best point I can make is keep the preservation of the fish your TOP PRIORITY. It’s not an if you can do it, it’s what are you the best at. If indicators are your thing then use them if they ain’t then don’t. The evolved fisherman knows what and how to use a technique based on the given water-laid scenario. To the purists who refuse—-only the elite evolve. To the Nex-Generation—-to be elite know your roots.

    Louis Yoda called and he said wisdom you have!!!

    Red Solo Cup…..I fill you up…..Lets start a party……….

  15. This is a great discussion. Thanks for your Yodaism Louis. I sure hope I don’t screw it up.

    I have only been Fly Fishing for @ 18-20 years. Before that I fished the NC Mountains as a bait chunker with carpet stapled and taped to an old pair of shoes and ate what I caught. Yep. I even used a bobber. I now fly fish all kinds waters for all kinds across the USA as I travel for work. Even those in lowly Frog waters.

    One day I made a decision (Had some extra money) and bought one of those fancy Rooster Tails. That changed my fishing experience.

    Then I made another decision. It was time to try that fancy fly fishing thing all of the doctors and lawyers were using on the rivers and creeks. I had some more extra money.

    I went into fly shops and those arrogant elitists scared the hell out of me with their “Superiority” and complicated sport that only men of certain status could understand.

    One day I walked into a fly shop in Foscoe, NC and the guy running the shop treated me as an equal. He took time to teach me a few basics. A week later I bought my first Fly Rod from him and haven’t looked back except to buy more .

    My point is that as fisherman it shouldn’t matter how we do what we do. Regulations cover that. We need to encourage everyone to “do what they want to do. It’s what they are going to do anyway”. We need more fisherman if we want to protect and restore our resources.Encouragment will do this. Not arguing over methods or Bobbers.

    Just a thought.

  16. But why fly fish if you are going to use a bobber ? is it still fly fishing ? you would be just as effective with spinning gear and a bobber.

    I thought fly fishing was the most skilled way too catch a fish…the bobber pretty much takes the skill out of it and you are left with a very expensive bobber set up..haha.

    but to each their own.

  17. Strike/Drift Indicators are simply a fly fishing tool that allows a visual connection with our sunken fly. If you watch the end of the floating fly line or leader track instead, then the fly line or leader is your indicator. If you fish two flies and one is visible, then it is your indicator. Add-on indicators simply make it easier to see the drift and hesitation of your leader. Tight line nymphing or “Euro-style” nymphing is closeup and generally does not use add-on indicators but is only effective in certain water types and again, only close into the angler. Once you get out to 25+ feet, then indicators give a real advantage. I have often caught fish out at 50-60+ feet on indicator/nymph rigs and without an indicator, slack-line presentations at any distance would be very unproductive. I love the feel of a fish grabbing the fly on a tight line as much as anyone but recognize that more often than not, fish like a natural drift over a tight-line presentation.

  18. Center-pinning, running mono, etc – I’ve seen some pretty bait and tackle indy-rigging things hanging off a fly rod and reel. And they usually produce.

    I have no qualms about catching fish the way you want to catch fish. I love throwing Rapalas for pike on one of my many spin casting rods. Rapalas rule…I wish I could find a way to swing a fat-rap with poly leaders.

    However, when I fly fish, I prefer swinging, dry flies, poppers, two-handers, etc. I’ve run my fair share of thingamabobber-driven indy rigs through deep pools, don’t get me wrong. But every-time I have, and will do, I KNOW that I’m am a sliver’s distance from rocking a bait and tackle rig. I’m cool with this, but I understand where I stand in the spectrum.

    If you have feelings on the bobber question ask yourself this: if you are focused on fishing the most effective method possible to catch the trout, steelhead, etc, why do you stop at an indy rig with fly gear? What is it, in your mind and perception, that separates this technique from running a fly, on mono, off a Walmart bobber, from a top of the line St. Croix or GLoomis spin cast rod? Or further, throwing a waxy on that x-legs?

    Is it your fly box, Simms waders, and DeYoung-coated flask of whiskey that keeps you grounded as a “fly fisherman”?

    Anyone claiming superiority or righteousness via the method they employ to catch fish is a true punter. And we are all them.

    “Just nice be out”, as my man Gronk is prone to say.

  19. One thought to ease the mind of fly anglers who dislike using a bobber. A friend explained that a bobber was used with bait, a strike indicator was used with flies.

    In some situations, like deep channels in bedrock, the strike indicator is the only way to go.

    It is really an individual choice to use a strike indicator and it does not harm the trout. Holding the fish out of water to take its picture harms a trout.

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