Indicator Nymphing: 13 Tips From Expert River Guides
How To Fish For Trout With An Indicator?
There is a lot more to indicator nymphing than just casting it out and watching it go. Indicator nymphing properly requires skill and as a river guide, I teach anglers how to go from basic indicator nymphing to catching 10 times more fish. There are things that rivers guides do when indicator fishing and I will discuss them in this article.
Indicator nymphing is when you present a fly below a small float. Indicator nymphing works because it allows you to suspend your fly off the bottom and makes it easier to detect fish bites. If you do it right, good indicator nymphing will also improve your presentation so you will catch more fish.
I’ve learned nymphing techniques from world champion fly anglers, a former head coach of the USA fly fishing team, and other great guides and anglers, and the one thing they all do very well are that they are always in control of their indicator at all times and they always know where their fly is.
Indicators were invented and used 20 to 30 years ago for the purpose of just detecting a bite, but now, good anglers and guides will use indicators for a lot more than that.
Great indicator nymphing anglers never just cast it out and watch it go and neither should you. The best indicator nymphing anglers will work their indicator and their fly through every foot of the spot that they are fishing and the results can be ten times better.
But how do you work your indicator? What is it that these great indicator anglers do differently? I’ll get into that shortly.
Watch for my bonus tip which could be the most important tip of them all. This is a tip that helps my clients go from a few trout a day to an average of 20 or 30 trout a day.
13 Key Things For Better Indicator Nymphing
- Use The Right Indicator
- Nymphing Leader Setup
- The Right Rod For Indicator Nymphing
- Casting An Indicator
- Get A Good Start To Your Drift
- Mending Properly
- Depth – Setting The Indicator Depth
- Know Where Your Fly Is
- Covering The Water
- Hook Set
- Fly Selection And Rotation
- A Better Nymphing Method
The Best Indicator For Nymphing
There are a lot of strike indicators on the market and most will help you detect a bite from a fish because that is what strike indicators were originally designed to do and that’s what most anglers use them for, but . . . .
When indicator nymphing the best strike indicators will also improve your presentation and help you catch more fish.
If you are going to use a strike indicator it might as well be the right one, and it might as well be one that will improve your presentation, and not just detect bites. If an indicator doesn’t improve my presentation, I won’t use it.
I have an in-depth page on what the best indicators are for different types of river conditions. Check out What Are The Best Indicators For Fly Fishing? Guides Advice.
These are the 3 best Indicators that I recommend. I recommend these because they all serve a purpose and do more than just detect a strike.
RAVEN FS Indicator Floats – The Raven FS float is the indicator that I use the most to teach my clients about proper depth finding, dept control, speed control, leader angles, and how to know where your fly is.
All of these things are something great indicator nymphing anglers will do and if you understand each of them and know how to do them, you may catch 10 times more fish. I will discuss each one of these things below.
When fishing smaller trout rivers where not much weight is required, I like to use the Raven FS, size 1.0g.
For bigger trout rivers or when I’m fishing smaller steelhead rivers where little to medium weight is required, I prefer the Raven FS 2.2g float.
When I’m fishing larger steelhead and trout rivers where a lot of weight might be required or if I’m using bigger flies, I will use the Raven FS 3.8g float. This 3.8-gram size is my go-to size for Great Lake’s steelhead.
The Raven float model that I use is the “Fast Current – Shallow Depth” model which is also known as the FS float. You can get the Raven FS Floats at FishUSA.com – HERE
To attach the float to the line I recommend these Drennan float caps from FishUSA.com.
THILL Indicators – The THILL brand of indicators which is also called the Thill Ice ‘n Fly Special Indicator/Float, is another one of my favorite indicators.
This is a more traditional type of indicator many indicator nymphing anglers would use.
I really like oval/football shape and bi-color indicators because their football shape and the bi-color helps me teach anglers about angles, speed control, and where their fly is.
They don’t work quite as well as the Raven floats but they are a more traditional style which is why they are liked better by some fly anglers. If you want to improve your indicator nymphing, these are good strike indicators.
For steelhead and big trout or when I need more weight, I use the 1.5 inch size.
When using less weight, and for smaller rivers and trout I will use the 7/8 size. It’s a good idea to get a few sizes just in case.
NOTE: I’m not sure if these have been discontinued or if there is just supply issues but the Thill Ice n Fly indicators are sold out at most places. You may need to chop around for these.
Good Alternatives that I have used, and like equally as well are:
- Frog Hair Football Indicators – Frog Hair was actually my go-to indicator for many years, but it became hard to get with limited on-line places that buy from. I liked them because the XL size was great for steelhead, and the smaller sizes were good for trout.
- Lightning Strike Bi-Visible Football Foam Indicators: Another bi-color football indicator that works.
New Zealand Wool Strike Indicators – These are great for indicator nymphing in shallow clear water when you are fishing for nervous trout and steelhead.
These are a cast, watch, and wait type of indicators and are not great for speed control or for determining angles and where your fly is.
But in shallow clear water when a super stealthy presentation is required, these indicators can’t be beat, and therefore if you ever fish that kind of water you should have some of these on hand.
To use these effectively you will need to use some sort of floatant to help keep them buoyant longer and to prevent them from absorbing water. The best floatant for this is the green can of Mucilin which you can get at Amazon-HERE . The red can of Mucilin also works well, and so does Loon’s Payette Paste which is available in many stores.
There are some tools and tubing required for this New Zealand strike indicator. You can get the entire set-up at Amazon – HERE. You can also buy the wool separately at Amazon.
You can also buy the wool and the tools at FishUSA.com – HERE
To see how to use this indicator go to the official New Zealand Strike Indicator website.
Other Indicators – There are a ton of other indicators available. You can see more of them on my page Best Indicators For Fly Fishing.
Other indicators come in all shapes and sizes and can be made from different materials.
Chances are, I’ve used them before or looked them over, and honestly, most are all Cast-Watch-Wait indicators that won’t likely help improve your presentation or help you land more fish. Therefore I won’t use them or recommend them.
Indicator Nymphing Leader Setup
Your nymphing leader setup is an important part of indicator nymphing, and if you do this wrong it will limit your success.
There are many ways to make a nymphing leader but this is the one I use when using a single fly. Making a nymphing leader that works well means using the appropriate type and strength of leader material, the proper weights, and the right fly.
The standard nymphing leader set-up for trout is pretty simple. It includes an indicator, some weight, and a fly or two. You can also use a tippet ring, swivels, or just a triple surgeon’s knot to connect the pieces.
The entire leader should be around 11 to 13 feet long and the lower tippet section should be 36 to 46 inches long for most rivers in the 3 to 7-foot deep range. If you need to go deeper you simply slide the indicator up the leader to the desired depth.
For more detailed information on leaders for indicator nymphing, which includes the best leader material, the best split shots, tippet rings, knots, and swivels, and how to set it all up, check out my page 3 Best Nymphing Leader Setups – Guide Secrets For More Trout.
The Best Rod For Indicator Nymphing
You could do indicator nymphing with just about any fly rod but some rods are better suited to Nymph Fishing.
Nymphing is almost always best with a longer 9 to 11-foot rod. These longer rods give you more reach to stay further from the fish and they help with mending and line control.
The only time I might nymph with a rod under 9 feet is if I was fishing very small streams under 10 feet wide with lots of trees and tight cover. Otherwise most of the time I am nymphing with a 10-foot rod.
These nymphing rods are a good choice:
- For small creaks with heavy cover and under 10 feet. The 7’6 foot 3 weight Orvis Clearwater Freshwater Fly Rod is a good choice – Check it out at FishUSA.com
- For rivers 10 to 50 feet wide that are more open, I like the 10 foot 3 weight or 4 weight Orvis Clearwater Freshwater Fly Rod – Check it out at FishUSA.com
- For large rivers and larger trout – A great Nymphing rod under $250 is the 10 foot 4 weight or 5 weight, Orvis Clearwater Freshwater Fly Rod – Check it out at FishUSA.com -or the 10 foot 5 weight, Temple Fork Outfitters Professional II Rod – Get At Bass Pro Shops,
How To Cast An Indicator
Casting a strike indicator is not like casting a dry fly or a streamer. Casting an indicator requires a more drag and flip type of cast.
I call 2 flies, some weights, and an indicator a lot of junk on the line, and junk tangles and can become a mess very quickly with the wrong cast.
The best tip I give to my clients is to keep the line and leader straight as it comes out of the water and land it all in a straight line, and DO NOT false cast with an indicator unless you are an advanced fly angler and you know how to slow down your cast and open your loops.
It’s hard to explain in words so until I get my own video of how to cast a strike indicator, I have included this video of how to cast when indicator fishing from the guys at the New Fly Fishing Show.
Get A Good Start To Your Drift
I tell my clients that as soon as the fly hits the water you need to set yourself up for a good drift.
This means that as soon as your fly hits the water you need to mend the fly line upriver and above the indicator so that the line doesn’t pull and drag the indicator and then the fly prematurely.
Guide Tip: When you mend your line, you also want to mend the entire leader and the indicator upriver of the fly. Move your indicator 1 to 4 feet upriver from where it is and do it as soon as possible.
Doing this correctly will take the drag out of the entire system for a few seconds and that will allow your weights and flies to get into the strike zone much faster.
Think about it this way, if you cast a metal lure like a spoon into a lake and you don’t reel it in it will sink almost straight down. The angle of descent will be straight down but if you cast that same lure in the lake and then immediately reel it in very slowly it will sink on an angle and will not hit the bottom as quickly, the faster you reel it in the shallower the angle of descent and the longer it would take to hit the bottom.
When you cast an indicator and fly, as soon as it hits the water the current immediately starts to pull your indicator, just like as if you were reeling it in, and this slows the descent for your fly because of the angle of descent.
If you flip your indicator upriver of your flies as soon as the indicator hits the water, the indicator won’t be able to pull the flies and the flies will sink more straight down to the bottom much faster. Getting your fly down faster puts in into the strike zone faster and for longer which can increase your chance for more fish.
Without getting into any more of the physics of why this works so well, just trust me on this until I have a chance to get a video up explaining this in more detail. Video Coming Soon
Mending An Indicator Properly
Mending simply means repositioning the fly line to get a better drift. Mending is an important part of good indicator nymphing. Mending properly often includes mending the entire leader right to the indicator.
Mending is best done without moving the indicator too much or at all during the drift. Other than the initial first mend where I will mend the fly line, and the leader and the indicator to get my fly down faster, each mend after that I won’t move my indicator at all.
Guide Tip: Guys that repeatedly move their strike indicators throughout the drift when they mend rarely catch a lot of fish, so don’t move your strike indicator unless you are moving it to improve your presentation.
It’s very common to have your fly line move faster than your indicator and the line will start to pull the indicator and the fly unnaturally fast which will deter the fish from biting it.
The weights on your leader and the fly below the surface can cause resistance that will slow your strike indicator down, but there is nothing slowing your fly line down so you need to slow it down or reposition the fly line with mends before it floats past your indicator and starts to pull everything abnormally fast.
90% of the time you will need to mend the line upriver of the fly so that the line does not pull and drag the indicator and the fly. The only time I mend downriver is if my fly line is stuck in really slow or still water in close to me and the current out where the strike indicator is moving faster.
There are a few types of mends that river anglers do.
The most common mend is to move your rod tip from a 45-degree angle downriver to a 45-degree angle upriver to put your line upriver of your indicator. I call this the flip mend.
You do this using a fast half-moon up and over and drop the rod tip mend.
This flip mend is the basic mend that most anglers use and at times it will work but there are often better mends.
I prefer to use a lift and drop mend. In a lift and drop mend I simply raise my hand and lift my rod high move the rod tip upriver, I will reach if I need to, and then I will drop my rod tip and the line upriver of the strike indicator where it won’t pull my strike indicator anymore.
This mend doesn’t move your strike indicator or your fly and it doesn’t rip off the water or splash down as the typical mend does. Making noise when mending could spook fish. See this mend in this YouTube Video -HERE
Another mend that I use a lot especially when my strike indicator is too far for the lift and drop mend to work is called shoot mending or stack mending. It’s basically a little mini roll cast that shoots your line up off the water and upriver of your indicator. You can see it on this YouTube Video – HERE
Don’t Be Late – Most anglers mend too late. They wait until the fly line has already moved downriver of the indicator and is starting to pull the strike indicator too fast.
You need to learn to anticipate when the line has gone far enough and is about to pull the strike indicator and you need to mend before this happens. Never let the line pull the strike indicator during your drift. I often tell new anglers to mend as soon or just before your fly line catches up to your indicator.
Learning how to mend effectively and knowing when to mend is a really important skill when learning how to fly fish with an indicator.
Setting The Indicator Depth And Finding The Bottom
Where On The Leader Do You Put Your Indicator? This is a question I get asked all the time.
Where you set your strike indicator really depends on how well you know how to control the angle of your leader, how deep the spot is, and the speed of the spot.
The simple rule of thumb is to set your strike indicator at 1.5 times the depth of the water that you will be fishing. That means if you are fishing a spot that is 4 feet deep you set your strike indicator at 6 feet deep.
There are exceptions to this rule. If the water is very slow you want to set the depth at the same depth or slightly less than the depth of the spot you are fishing.
If the water is very shallow, under 2 feet, you set your strike indicator at the same depth of the water or slightly less again.
If you get good at controlling your drag by using the right strike indicators, and you use proper mends, and you have good line control, you can set your strike indicator the same depth as the spot of slightly less.
If you drag your indicator through the pool you will need to go deeper. Old school indicator nymphing anglers dragged their indicators a lot and needed to go 1.5 to 2 times the depth sometimes.
Let me just say that dragging your fly almost always means less fish. Once I started learning to control my anglers I had to start shortening up my leader and once I started doing that I started catching more fish.
Then one day I saw this method in a book and it was called “Suspension Nymphing”. The book, which today I still think is the best book available for nymphing, is called Dynamic Nymphing by George Daniel. You can get this book at Amazon -HERE and I do highly recommend this book to indicator nymphing anglers.
George Daniel is a great competition angler and was a coach for the USA fly fishing team and learned from some of the best fly anglers in the USA. I’ve had the pleasure of training with George Daniel and seeing his suspension nymphing done first hand, and it’s often superior to what many other guides are doing.
Suspension nymphing is when you suspend your fly from your strike indicator without the weights and flies dragging across the bottom. It’s simple and effective and if done right will greatly improve your success when indicator nymphing. Many of the points I discuss on this page are based around this method.
How Do You Find The Bottom So You Can Set Your Indicator Properly?
You’re probably wondering “how do I know how deep the spot is if I can’t see the bottom?” That’s a tough one to answer especially since most anglers use the wrong indicators that do not help them find the bottom.
When using any indicator, the method that just about every river guide will tell you is to guess the depth and then make a drift and if the strike indicator is set at the right depth you should only hit bottom 1 or 2 times during a drift or, in some cases, you might only hit bottom once every few drifts and although this works it’s not perfect, nothing is.
If your strike indicator drags, twitches, or pulls under and then pops up quickly you probably just hit the bottom.
Hitting bottom every now and then shows you that your fly is down there and that’s a good thing.
If you never hit the bottom, your fly might be 5 feet over their heads and you won’t catch much fish. If you are constantly hitting bottom you will drag your fly below their heads and you will also get no fish, and you will probably lose a bunch of flies in the process.
So it’s important to get your fly 6 to 20 inches off the bottom of the river. If you make a cast and you don’t hit the bottom, make it one foot deeper and try again, and then repeat until you start hitting the bottom.
Know Where Your Fly Is
Once the fly sinks below the indicator most anglers have no clue where their fly is. You should always know approximately where your fly is, it’s important.
If your fly is upriver, it’s probably dragging and going too fast. If your fly is downriver it could be picked up by a fish but your indicator won’t detect it because the indicator is moving toward the fish and slack is going into the leader so the indicator won’t go down.
Knowing where your fly is can help you control your angles, which keeps your fly down, and it can control your speed which can greatly increase your success and it can help you detect more bites.
I always know where my fly is and using the right indicator will really help.
Using the Raven floats I can easily get a good idea of where my fly is.
If the tip of the float is upriver, then my fly is opposite and it’s downriver. The more angled the tip is upriver, the further down river my fly is. It’s that simple.
You can’t do that with a round indicator.
Speed – Controlling Your Speed For 10 Times More Fish
In my opinion, which is based on tens of thousands of hours of watching my clients and other anglers fish and through my own fishing trial and error, the number one thing that you need to do is control the speed of your fly when you are nymphing.
I have been lucky enough to have the advantage of being an indicator nymphing angler, a Centerpin and float fishing angler, and a Euro nymphing angler, and all of these methods have taught me one very important thing. That thing is that the method of fishing that controls the speed of the bait or the fly the best is the method that is going to be the most effective method.
You could have the best fly, the best setup, and the best indicators for fly fishing but unless you control your speed and get a great presentation none of that stuff will matter, controlling your speed is critical if you ever want to catch the maximum amount of fish possible when indicator nymphing.
The problem is that most indicator anglers don’t know how to control their speed very well. I know this because I watch good nymphing anglers fish a big pool for an hour and catch 6 fish and after they leave I walk in and I’ll catch 20 fish.
I have seen many times where one of my clients catches 10 fish, and his partner using the exact same setup and fly catches none. It always comes down to speed control.
You may have heard the term, “getting a drag-free drift” or “getting a dead drift”. You might have even heard of micro drag. Drag simply means pulling on the indicator, or the pulling of the line or the fly. Any pull on the line can make the fly look unnatural so we are always told to avoid drag.
I hear anglers and guides say that you want to match the speed of the bubbles which is a good start for a new angler learning how to fly fish with an indicator, but the speed of the bubbles is usually too fast.
The problem is that most anglers don’t see the drag because the indicator is moving at the speed of the bubbles so they think that they are controlling the drag well. But the drag is not on the indicator, the drag is on the fly even if the indicator is not being dragged.
Many anglers don’t realize that the current on the surface is often faster than the bottom current. In fact, some studies show that the surface current can be 80 to 90% faster than the bottom current. Check out this video on YouTube at minute 38:11 to see a great example stream flows from top to bottom.
Let’s just say the surface current is flowing at 4 miles per hour but the bottom current could be only 1 or 2 miles per hour.
This means that if you cast your indicator out and you just watch it go or if you match the speed of the bubbles your indicator will be moving at the speed of the upper current but your fly will be moving 2 or 3 times faster than the bottom current. Remember drag? Drag is the pulling of your indicator, your line, or your fly. You may not see the drag, but it’s there at the fly level.
The real problem with matching the surface current is that down near the bottom where all the fish are feeding on real insects, those real insects might be moving at 1 or 2 miles per hour and your fly will be moving at 4 miles per hour because it’s being dragged by the indicator in the surface current and you won’t even know it.
That’s the drag that you can’t see and that is why most anglers miss the fish that I catch.
Your fly moving at 4 miles an hour while all the other flies are moving at 1 or 2 miles an hour looks unnatural to the fish, especially the bigger and wiser fish, and that means many fish will ignore or avoid your fly without you even knowing it. It doesn’t matter how good your fly is if it’s moving unnaturally too fast.
That is why you need to control the speed of your indicator if you want to start catching more fish. Most anglers and guides have no clue on how to stop it or minimize it but I do and using the right type of indicator helps a lot.
To do this well you need to set up your leader right, you need to mend your fly line right and then you need to control the angle of your leader below the indicator. Your angle is extremely important in controlling your speed when indicator nymphing.
There is a very simple way to determine if the surface current is faster than the bottom current.
Simply cast out your bi-color or pointed top indicator. If you don’t have one of these indicators put two round ones on the leader, one about 4 to 6 inches above the other, just know which one is closest to the fly line.
Now mend it and then watch it go. 99% of the time the top part of your indicator that is closest to the fly line will point downriver.
This is because the slower current down near your fly is holding the fly back. Your fly and weights in the slower water become like little parachutes and that always turns the top of your indicator downriver.
If the water at the bottom is the same speed or faster than the surface current the top of your indicator may not face downriver, it might even face upriver indicating that the fly is going first and is either at the right speed or the fly is pulling the indicator.
Whenever I see the top of my client’s indicators facing downriver I know they have a lower chance of catching a fish. There’s always a chance, but it’s low.
The best indicators for fly fishing will be either bi-color football-shaped ones, or they will have a pointed top like the Raven Indicators.
Both can really help you control the speed of your fly and learning how to do this could 10 times your success.
The worst indicators for speed, angle, and knowing where your fly is are the round ones, which is why I no longer use them except in certain situations.
Surprisingly the best selling indicators and the ones that get tons of great reviews and the ones that many of the shops recommend are the round ones, go figure.
With the round single color indicators, you CAN NOT tell where your fly is very well, and at what angle it’s running at which makes your speed control very difficult. It can also affect your ability to detect a strike.
In order to slow your fly down and get the right angle, you need to mend properly or hold your indicator back just enough so that you will get a slight downward angle on your leader below your indicator.
You can see this in this diagram with the Raven indicators.
The Raven Indicators are the best indicators because they can show you this angle far better than the round indicators and even the bi-color indicators.
Remember, too much of an angle either upriver or downriver will lift the fly up to high off the bottom and out of the strike zone. This is why I now teach new anglers with an indicator that has a point like the Raven mini floats.
Covering The Water Effectively
It’s important to cover all parts of the spots where a fish could be holding or feeding and covering it well. Even big trout will sometimes move out of their deeper holding spots into shallow water to feed and these spots may be overlooked by some anglers.
Most anglers would only fish the two spots I have circled in the picture above simply because these two spots are behind big rocks and because they are the deepest and most obvious spots. If I was fishing this same spot I would cover all of the water and I would run 1 to 3 drifts down each of the orange lines on the pictures to make sure I covered everywhere.
The reason I fish it this way is that in this particular trout river I have caught many big brown trout over 20 inches sitting beside the rocks, in front of the rocks, and even out in open water sitting in 10 to 20 inches of water.
They are not always where you think they are and if you fish only the most obvious spots you may be missing a lot of fish.
Setting The Hook
Setting the hook properly can increase the amount of fish you catch and decrease the number of tangles you will get.
I watch anglers set the hook so hard that their indicator and weight and flies come flying back at them causing them to hit themselves or tangling around their rod or ending up in the tree 20 feet behind them.
I’ve watched guys set the hook so hard that the little 6 inch trout on their fly goes flying over their heads and ends up 50 feet behind them in the bush. I’ve even had to climb a tree to get a fish that was dangling from a branch.
This never happens to anglers that know how to set the hook properly.
I tell my clients that when the fly goes into the fish’s mouth you only need to set hard and fast enough to move that fly 2 inches. That’s it!
I’m not saying to just move your fly 2 inches on every hook set, what I’m saying is that all it takes to get that hook into the fish is a short hook set and that you be mindful of how much power you use.
That means if your fly comes flying out of the water and hits you, your hook set is that hook is moving 20 feet further than required.
The reality is that many guys will start their hookset with the rod tip pointed up and out towards the fish and at the end of their hookset, their rod tip is far behind them and almost opposite where it started. I call this the follow-through hook set and it almost always puts your flies behind you, or on you, or up in the trees.
The simple solution is to shorten your hook set stroke.
When our rod tip is out in front of you, so is your hand, when you set the hook too hard and follow through your hand will be up near your shoulder and will be pointing behind you, this is too far.
I teach the guys to only bring their hand far enough back that their hand is straight up and their rod tip is also straight up and neither is behind their shoulder.
When fishing in close my hookset is often nothing more than just using my wrist with barely any elbow movement at all. When the fly is close, I set shorter, when my fly is 50 feet down the river I will set much harder with a longer hookset stroke.
I teach my clients to set the hook at the end of every single drift until they get it right and until it becomes a habit, practice makes perfect!
Fly Selection and Rotation
Far too often I see anglers walk into a pool and make 20 casts with the same fly, catch nothing, and then move up to the next spot hoping there will be fish there, and then they repeat the process fishing spot after spot and rarely changing their fly.
I honestly believe that anglers think that if they fish a spot and they don’t catch a fish then there is just no trout in that spot, or that the trout in that spot just isn’t bitting.
I would bet that there are trout there! I would also bet that if the trout in that pool aren’t biting then the trout in the next pool and the next pool also aren’t biting.
It’s more common to see all the trout in the river not feeding at the same time than it is to see only the trout in one spot feeding but not in another.
If you change your thought process you will catch more fish. When I take a client into a spot and we fish it for 20 minutes and catch nothing, and they say to me “there’s no fish here, maybe we should move” I always tell them there are fish here, we just haven’t figured out how to get them to bite, or that they just aren’t hungry yet and moving to another spot before you figure out what they want is useless.
Every time I walk into a pool I always assume there are fish there, and even if I don’t catch any fish I still assume they are there.
I do this because I have walked into a pool full of brown trout and not caught a single trout after an hour or two of fishing, and then gone back to that same pool 3 hours later just as a hatch is starting and pulled out 50 trout. It’s not that the trout weren’t there 3 hours ago because they were, it’s just that they weren’t eating then and they are now.
When you’re a guide like me that spends 7 days a week, and sometimes over 40 days straight on the water you get to know the water well and you see the days and the times when they trout just don’t eat and you see the days and times when your clients land over 100 trout.
I choose my flies based on my observations of what bugs I see on the river, or what flies I know should work. I will run my best guess fly through the spot and cover every foot. If my flies are getting down into the strike zone and I cover the water properly I should get a bite.
If I don’t get a bite I will try another fly, something different, almost opposite of what I just used. There is no point trying a little brown nymph and then trying another little brown nymph that is similar.
I start rotating through my flies trying different patterns and different sizes. I may try a pheasant tail nymph and if that doesn’t work I may switch to a caddis larva, and if that doesn’t work I might try a worm pattern, and if that doesn’t work I may try a woolly bugger or a hares-ear pattern. I just keep rotating through flies until I figure out what they want or until I determine they are just not eating.
A Better Nymphing Method
I used to teach 7 different nymphing methods in my advanced nymph classes and some used indicators and some didn’t. Most anglers use indicators everywhere they fish and in all kinds of different water, and at one time, many many years ago I did too.
I did this because that’s what the books, videos, magazines, and even the old-timer guides said and did. Monkey see monkey do.
But I have since determined that indicators are not always the best method of nymphing.
I have argued the fact that Euro Nymphing methods are much better than traditional indicator nymphing or high stick nymphing methods with other veteran guides. These are guides that are stuck in their ways and they specialize in their methods because they have always worked well for them, therefore, they argue that their method is equally good or better.
Because I am an expert at both types of methods and understand both methods equally well, I can honestly say that Euro nymphing is much more productive in many river fishing situations than indicator nymphing or traditional high stick nymphing.
Even the top competition fly anglers around the world rarely use indicators. These pro know that there is a lot wrong with using indicators and that there are often better methods.
With Euro nymphing, you are not locked into fishing one depth throughout the enter drift like you are with an indicator.
Your depth control is superior with Euro nymphing. If you start bumping the bottom you simply lift your rod tip up a foot or 2 and get your flies off the bottom, you can’t do that with an indicator.
With Euro nymphing, you also have better strike detection because you have a tight line through the entire drift and you eliminate any slack in the line that could make you miss a bite. With indicator fishing, it’s hard to tell if there is any slack under your indicator.
Controlling your angles and knowing where your fly is can be done much easier with Euro nymphing. Once you cast your indicator into the water and the fly sinks most guys don’t have a clue where their fly is or how to control their leader angles, and most guy’s don’t even know why they need to know this.
With Euro nymphing, you are able to control the speed of your flies much better because you do not have an indicator dragging your flies unnaturally fast through the pool.
For more information about Euro nymphing methods, check my page on Euro and Modern Nymphing For Trout.
Indicator Nymphing Approach
This is the bonus tip that I mentioned earlier and it is likely the most important tip of all the tips on this page for one simple reason.
The reason it is the most important tip is that if you do not approach every spot properly and you spook your fish before you even get to do all that other great stuff I just told you about, you won’t catch any fish.
I’ve said this time and time again that I honestly believe that most anglers make the fish in the pool they are about to fish go lack-jaw before they even make their first cast.
Trout are not much different than most wild animals. As soon as that wild animal notices you they are going to run away or freeze. I have seen trout do both of these things. So it won’t matter how good your fly is, or how good your presentation is, if you have already spooked that big trout in the pool it’s game over.
In the picture above the angler is standing in the wrong spot. Trout generally look upriver and an angler standing upriver if going to be seen. Sure he will probably still catch some smaller trout because they are dumber than dumb, but I’ll bet every big fish in this spot has lockjaw.
Make sure you know how to fish so that you are not seen or heard.
That should get you started on your way to better indicator nymphing.
Just Ask About Indicator Nymphing
Got a question or comment about indicator fishing. Maybe there was something I missed or something that works for you. Let me know in the comments below.
Graham and the Guide Team
Thank you for being so generous with your knowledge and time writing these articles. They are so informative and often break the traditional thinking which makes a lot of sense to me once you pointed them out. I enjoy and learn a lot reading them.
Graham, thanks for sharing these invaluable insights; really great stuff!
Curious about what you refer to as the “good angle” with the Raven float. Although that addresses the overspeeding of the fly, it seems to me that it introduces the problem of delayed strike detection; especially compared to the “bad angle”, where although the fly is overspeeding/dragging, the strike detection will be quicker. In the “good angle”, with the float being slightly behind the fly, will need to catch up a little, and then it’ll react to the fly being taken by the fish.
Is it your assessment that we have to either compromise on speed of strike detection or dragging the fly and that you place more emphasis on the latter, because that overall brings more fish to the net? Would really love to hear your thoughts about this!
Also, this is something that’s confused me about centerpin rigging as well; as they use the same overall idea (the beads/eggs ahead of the float).
Looking forward to reading your reply.
There is definitely a compromise. The choice is to control the speed of your fly and gat far more bites and possibly miss some bites, or get no bites or only a few bites but detect all bites. In my experience, the angler that controls the speed of their fly will put far more fish in the net, sometimes 10 times more! Speed is likely the most critical part of the presentation. Speed control and presentation are why methods like Euro nymphing (done well) can’t be beaten.
Hope that clears it up for you.
Regarding the Raven indicators, I see that they require silicon tubing that the vendor also sells. Does that mean that the indicators can be adjusted up or down the leader as the fisherman adjusts to changing locations? I’m in western NC and my favored waters are small freestone streams. Thanks.
You are correct, you can simply slide the indicator up or down the leader to set the depth.