Child sits on dock holding fishing rod, watching the red/white bobber & hoping for a fish to take the worm. 30+ years later, the woman wades in a stream, mending the strike indicator around a branch & maintaining a drag-free drift on a nymph rig, setting up for a take. Goals are the same: have fun & catch fish.
Heck yes, the strike indicator is a bobber! However, it can be more than that. I’ve never read a book or sat with friends for hours while watching my strike indicator. Both the bobber and the indy can set the depth of the hook and indicate when a strike occurs, which is similar in concept to how a screwdriver or a drill can drive a screw into wood. In particular situations, either tool can perform the same task.
The plastic, foam, cork, putty, yarn, or sometimes, elk hair object, with the edgy name, ‘strike indicator’, is a multi-tool. (The bobber may also serve other purposes, but that is a topic for another writer to explore) This article will explore how the indy can be used in ways other than as a classic bobber, and when used similarly to a bobber, how other considerations of its use still differentiate it from conventional angling.
But when is an indicator a ‘multi-tool’ not strictly a bobber?
How about when the indicator is a dry fly or a hopper with a dropper attached? How many conventional anglers hook a fish with a bobber?
The indicator can also be used in multi-current situations to set up the fly. When casting directly downstream through riffles and drifting into a deeper pool, I have intermittently used an indicator. As I strip out line to maintain a drag-free drift, first, it is easy to produce enough slack to not feel a strike and second, the disturbance to the line in the riffles can lessen the ability to sense a strike. Adding an indicator creates a waypoint where less slack is present on the side closest to the nymph and where a strike can be seen, especially during the nymph-led fishy transition into slower, deeper water.
A respondent to my query on theflyfishingforum.com provided another example: the angler uses the indy as an anchor point in a slack eddy, causing the fly that has landed in adjacent fast water to pivot around this section of eddy, hit the eddy line and then flow into slow current water. This strategy keeps the heavier fly from landing on the smooth water while still directing the fly into the current changes and to the slow flow water after the pivot-point, which tend to be popular fish hang-outs.
Furthermore, this same angler reported that he will purposely overweight his indicator, dampening “the rigid depth controlling effect of the indy.”
The ‘soft take’ of a trout might be felt too late for the angler to effectively set the hook. At times, having a visual reference to the fly can be invaluable. Once it leaves the hand, a tiny dry fly often becomes invisible on the water, and nymphs and wet flies can be become difficult to see in a variety of water conditions. Indicators can then be used as a simple aid to allow the angler to make better visual contact with the fly or, at least, to approximate its location in the current. The indy here may be a commercial design, or perhaps the angler simply adds fluorescent paint to knots on the leader. This technique could also be a teaching tool utilized to aid one with reading current.
A guide friend of mine dislikes the term ‘strike’ indicator, believing that this gives one the mistaken belief that its primary function is to indicate a strike. Regarding indicators, he wrote, “The main purpose is to telegraph to the fly angler how your nymphs are behaving underwater. Using an indicator gives the angler a better visual of what is happening below the surface.” He sure wasn’t describing a bobber.
Can this 'multi-tool' make one a better fly angler?
Well, the simple multi-tool can set fly depth, indicate a strike, be a visual indicator of fly location, aid with fly placement in multi-current situations, & telegraph what the nymph is doing on the water bottom. However, another valuable attribute is that the little gizmo is also a great teaching tool. Next time you chase the fish from a hole, use the indicator and keep fishing the hole. Without those fishy distractions, you will have a great visual with which to learn about water current, water depth & what your nymph is trying to tell you.
Indirectly, use of an indicator and a little patience will improve general fly fishing skills. When one reluctantly adds an indicator to a leader already burdened with a weighted point fly, a dropper, and split shot, either one’s fly casting or knot de-tangling skills will improve (& probably both). In streams and small rivers, presentation of both the indicator and the fly without disturbing the quarry is the new rule. Producing a drag-free drift on a windy day can be more challenging. Finally, when you learn what the indy is indicating and how to respond, life will be filled with more fish and fewer snags.
Fly fishing offers endless opportunities to have fun, to learn, & be creative in the outdoors. Improving my abilities to use and read a strike indicator have increased my general skills as a fly angler, regardless of whether I elected to attach an indicator to my leader on any given day. The indy is simply a multi-tool which allows the angler to be successful (or not!) depending on when and how it is used. Others may be just as successful foregoing the strike indicator while utilizing similar techniques… As fly anglers, we have many tools at our disposal. However, our enthusiasm & the application of our knowledge and skill, peppered with a little luck, ultimately determine our successes.
(In a month or two, this story will be moved to the 'Featured Article' section, but I will still make reference to it here so that it may remain easily found. Thanks, ~Twitch)