Strike Indicators, sure it is marginally fly fishing, but here's what works...
I don't love fishing nymphs - nobody does - but it's a necessary evil so you might was well get (somewhat) proficient at it. Previously I wrote about my somewhat put up with it / hate relationship with the dry and dropper rig. In the Driftless, it is the rig de jour - a small nymph behind a Hippie Stomper, a hopper, the appropriately named Training Wheels, or some other high floating dry fly. But there are times when the dry and dropper rig has significant limitations - or is just too much of a pain in the ass. January through early April, there is not much reason to fish the dry and a bobber, err, strike indicator, is the choice of most anglers.
So which bobber, shit, I mean strike indicator, does one use when they are relegated to fishing the dark arts? (You can get upset at my jabs and bobbers and nymphing but it is going to make this post a long, difficult read because this post is a virtual pin cushion.)
I posed this question to the Wisconsin Fly Fishing Message Board Facebook page, the companion to the message board. The overwhelming choice was the New Zealand Strike Indicator and there is good reason for that. Before we get there, I want to talk a bit about the tradeoffs associated with different types of strike indicators. In no particular order, the major tradeoffs I see are:
Castability - smaller, less air resistant bobbers are much easier to cast. A more castable bobber lets you cast further (not always a good thing...) and more accurately (always a good thing). The larger and heavier bobbers - like the larger Thingamabobbers and others - are notoriously a pain in the ass to cast. At some point, it becomes much more "chuck and duck" than really fly casting - but you are watching a bobber so it's marginally fly fishing in the first place...
Strike Detection - ultimately, the purpose of a strike indicator is to, umm, indicate strikes. Smaller indicators are more sensitive; larger ones are less sensitive. Anyone that has soaked bait or jigs under a bobber, err, float knows this. When I used to do a lot more fairly specialized panfishing on spinning tackle, I owned a number of "floats" that detected the slightest of bites. They all had just the smallest bit of strike indicator above the water's surface for the most minimal of resistance.
Floatability - Again, size matters. Larger bobbers float better and the hold up more weight. The choice of bobber should be somewhat dictated by flies it is to be tasked with holding up. A large foam, cork, or air-filled bobber is required to hold up a double stonefly nymph rig but is overkill for holding up a #18 pheasant tail nymph. And floating on gentle currents is easy but floating through a rapids will require a larger bobber. Floatability and strike detection are generally in opposition to one another. Another floatability issue is how much / how quickly water is absorbed by the indicator. Most are resistant to this but yarns - even with water repellent treatments - will eventually absorb some water.
Adjustability - The successful nymph fisher is constantly adjusting the depth as they approach riffles, runs, and pools with different depths and current velocities. Some indicators are much easier to move up and down the line than others. Palsa stick on foam indicators - a personal favorite - are pretty much non-adjustable. The New Zealand indicator - another personal favorite - is easily adjusted.
Stealth - For many places - particularly slow pools and glides - stealth is a large advantage. The "plop" of a large bobber is likely to put fish off on glass calm waters and a smaller, more subtle indicator is preferable. Again, size and weight are a factor as they are in castability, floatability, and strike detection.
Ease of Use and Removal - The fish are starting to rise and you want to get back to actually fly fishing - how quickly and easily can you do it? Some indicators come off quickly and without any issues - leader kinking, adhesive residue, leader changing. While it is probably not a huge issue, the previously mentioned Palsa (and other stick on foam) and putty indicators leave some residue. Lastly, some indicators require more of the user. The New Zealand indicator provides flexibility - you have control over the size of the indicator - but it also requires a bit more know-how to use correctly.
As this is a Driftless-centric blog and I posed the question to a Wisconsin fly fishing Facebook page; there is certainly a predictable bias for smaller and lighter indicators. Had I asked the same question on a Western forum, I probably would have gotten a lot more responses favoring the larger, better floating bobbers. There are certainly waters in Wisconsin that favor a larger "western style" bobber but those are relatively uncommon. Though some of the really large bobbers are used by some Smallmouth Bass anglers to hop crayfish or other applications.
Different Types of Indicators
There are a few ways I could think of to categorize strike indicators - the materials they're made of, the way they attach to the leader, and their intended application (western rivers, spring creeks, etc.).
Before we get there, let's talk a bit about not using an indicator. I will be the first to admit I am not terribly good at deep(ish) nymphing without a bobber to help me out - I need some training wheels. It is not just for the strike indication but for helping the flies drift at the right level without constantly snagging bottom. Of course, you often want to be snagging the bottom some or you are likely not deep enough. I have tried, I am just not very skilled at it and since I don't try often, probably never will be because I won't try often. A somewhat newer option is incorporating some high-vis "sighter" leader material (like this) or cover part of your leader with a neon wax. The indicatorless method I do use a fair bit is greased line nymphing with small, unweighted nymphs or soft hackles. It can be an exceedingly effective way to suspend small midge larva and pupa or pheasant tail nymph just prior to or during a BWO hatch. It is as close to dry fly fishing as you will get with a nymph.
What I use more often than anything else is the New Zealand strike indicator and the stick on foam indicators. Both of these are on the small, lightweight, stealth side of the continuum where large Thingamabobbers and the like are on the other end of the spectrum. The New Zealand strike indicator kit is really just a bit of wool, a bit of tubing, and a special tool to put it all together. What I like about it is that it is flexible - I can make a large or small indicator based on how much wool I choose and how I trim it. It is adjustable, castable, indicates the most delicate of strikes but it does take a bit of "futzing" around with to figure out how to best use it. With the foam indicators, I am typically using two of them 6 to 8 inches apart on the leader which helps assess your drift as well as indicate strikes. They won't float very heavy flies but they are great for the Driftless where current seams are small and I am not fishing large, heavy flies. What I don't love about foam indicators are that they are non-adjustable and prone to coming off and being lost. At least with the wool indicators, they are biodegradable.
The ultimate in stealth - other than going without an indicator - is a hollow piece of fly line. I can not say I have ever fished them but I am curious to try it. But it would mean I would probably have to fish nymphs more often so maybe I will pass. Another rather stealthy method is a bit of yarn - preferably treated with a little floatant - in a loop in the leader.
Probably the most common attachment method for indicators is a hole or a loop that the leader is doubled-up and pushed through the loop and then the bobber passed through the loop in the leader to capture it. I have seen this method used with cork (see above), air-filled plastic like Thingamabobbers, foam, and yarn. Some of them - like the Whitlock TelStrike indicator - have a small straight piece that helps the angler see how the nymph is riding. In my experience, these generally hold pretty well but they generally require a fairly thick diameter leader. hey are quite adjustable - maybe not as adjustable as the New Zealand indicator. Fishing these types of indicators shallower, where the leader is not very thick, makes them prone to slipping down towards the fly. They come off the line pretty easily and usually with little kinking of the leader. I know people that have made their own with an O-ring or orthodontics rubber band and some foam or yarn.
Another type of attachment are the twist-on type indicators such as the Airlock indicators above, the Oros indicators, Turn-On Strike Indicators, football-style indicators, and a host of others, I am sure. These generally use something like rubber or plastic to hold the indicator in place on the leader. I have very little experience with these though I have used the football type and the Turn-Ons in the past and did not love either of them. Has anyone ever really loved an indicator? I would assume that this attachment method is similar to the loop type where they are pretty adjustable but are a bit limited for use on thicker parts of your leader.
A fairly popular choice in my not very scientific poll were the putty indicators such as Loon's Biostrike and Orvis' Strike Putty. They seem to be harder to find now days. The Orvis website does not have Strike Putty and a bit of search around the internet finds a few "want to buy" links. I have used their Strike Putty in the past and liked that it allowed me to choose the size of my indicator. It leaves some "gunk" on the leader and is not very easily adjusted. But I do like the that user can change the size of the indicator and like the adhesive foam indicators, they can be applied to two or three places on the leader to help assess your drift.
As stated more than a few times, I try to avoid having to fish nymphs and am certainly no expert. I mean, twenty years ago or more, I used to be very good and effective nymph fisher but today, I do not do it enough to be skilled at it. But over time, I have tried nearly all of it at some point. Most of the time, my choice of indicator are the Palsa foam indicators despite their rather significant drawbacks in adjustability and that residue they leave annoys me. They are quick and easy to put on and are a good compromise for a stealthy option on Driftless streams. I am slowly using them less and the New Zealand indicators more often which I think are really the best option for Driftless streams. Their adjustability - both on the leader and in how large or small I can make them - is unmatched in my experience. I have found them to hold onto the leader - particularly in places where the leader diameter is small - better than other attachment methods. But I am no bobber expert.
What was most striking to me in researching this post is just how many different strike indicator options are out there. Anglers must take their strike indicators very seriously! A Google search of "Fly Fishing Strike Indicators" retrieved nearly 5 million different links. Hell, they are even making bobbers, I mean indicators, that look like air bubbles on the surface of the water. Talk about getting serious about your indicators! I am sure I have not covered all the options and others have done it better - so I will give some links below - which I probably should have read before writing all this above.