S3:E30 What Your Strike Indicator Tells You

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Your strike indicator gives off some important signals, the most obvious being whether a fish is working your nymph. In this episode for newer fly fishers, we discuss the various kinds of strike indicators – and how to read whether your nymphs are down far enough in the feeding zone. Nymph fishing is a high-interest topic of our audience, and going back to the basics now and then can help you find more success on the river.

Listen now to “What Your Strike Indicator Tells You”

Great Stuff from Our Listeners. At the end of each episode, we often include a feature called “Great Stuff from Our Listeners.” It’s the last segment of each episode, where Steve reads one of the comments from our listeners or readers. We enjoy hearing from you, and appreciate your advice, wisdom, and fly fishing experiences.

What kind of strike indicator do you like best? Or do you even use one? Please post your comments below. We’d love to hear from you!


By the way, we’d love for you to refer our podcast to a friend, your TU chapter, or fly fishing club. Be sure to pass along our podcast to others.

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The Fly Fisher’s Book of Lists

We’ve published a book for regular-Joe-and-Jane fly fishers called The Fly Fisher’s Book of Lists: Life is short. Catch more fish.

One person who purchased the book called it “Cliffs Notes” for fly fishers.

To switch metaphors, perhaps it’s more like a handful of potato chips. It’s an entire book of lists. The goal is to help you find practical help quickly and in an easily digestible format!

Buy it today on Amazon for only $16.99!

A Primer on Mending for New Fly Fishers

Now mend your line.” Those words from Bob Granger, one of my fly fishing mentors, still ring in my ears. I needed all the help I could get on mending for new fly fishers.

Curtis, another fly fishing guide, recently said: “Better menders catch more fish than better casters.” I am convinced he is right. So here is a quick primer on mending for new fly fishers.

What is mending?

Once your fly line is floating down the river or stream, mending is simply flipping the mid-section of the line upstream of your fly line.

So if the current is flowing from right to left, flip the mid-section of the line to the right. The end result is that your fly line should resemble the letter “C” as it floats down the river — with the back of the “C” on the upstream side of the current.

Why is mending for new fly fishers important?

Mending is critical because it eliminates drag.

If the mid-section of your line gets ahead of your fly, it will drag it through the current. Your dry fly will resemble a water-skier, leaving a wake that will send trout scattering for cover. Your wet fly will zoom through the current more quickly than any nymph normally drifts through it.

The point, then, is to get a natural drift. Your fly should look like a normal morsel floating freely on top or underneath the surface.

When is mending important?

The answer is, almost every cast. Every cast needs to be mended at some point.

It’s possible to put a mend in the line during your cast. On your forward cast, simply draw the letter “C”—normally if the current is going from left to right or backwards if the current is moving from right to left. Otherwise, you will almost always need to mend your line once it lands on the water.

How can I avoid disturbing fish while mending?

First, do your mending well before the fly enters the hot zone. If you are casting a dry fly to rising fish, cast well above this spot. If you are nymph fishing or even dry fly fishing when nothing is rising, then cast well above the zone where you figure the fish will feeding.

Second, practice mending so you don’t disturb your dry fly or your strike indicator. The first few times you try to mend your line, you’ll probably jerk your fly or strike indicator a couple inches.

Of course, that’s not the end of the world if you’re mending well before your fly reaches the hot zone. But it’s best to eliminate this. You’ll get a feel for it with more practice, but the key is to lift up as much fly line as you can from the water before you make your mend.

How can I mend longer casts?

The more line you have on the water, the more difficult it is to mend it effectively with a single mend. Longer casts require multiple mends, depending on the current. By multiple, I mean two or three — not seven or eight! Instead of trying to mend the entire line in one flip, concentrate on moving the section closest to you. Then move the rest of it in another mend or two.

What is stack mending?

You can also use the technique of multiple mending to create “stack mends.” Stack mending refers to the creation of successive loops of line on the water. This allows for a much longer drift before your fly ever begins to drag. You might be surprised at how many trout you’ll catch towards the end of a long drift. Stack mending makes longer drifts possible.

So don’t just stand there after you make a cast. Do something. Mend that line.

The fish will not thank you, because you’ll fool them more often. But you will be a more satisfied fly fisher.

Setting the Hook for Nymph Fishing

What is the best way to set the hook when fly fishing nymphs? I have been an advocate of the “side pull” approach. A Montana fly fishing guide first suggested it to me. He pointed out that lifting my fly rod — pulling it straight up — could yank the nymph out of the trout’s mouth. Better to do a “side pull” in the direction of the current.

Since trout are facing the current, pulling the rod to the side in a downstream direction take the nymph into the trout’s mouth. He was right. Some of the time.

Surface Tension

The “side pull” approach makes perfect sense. But it has one big problem: surface tension.

Suppose you get a nice long drift so that your strike indicator bobs when it is twenty feet downstream. Try yanking your rod to the downstream side. Since your fly line will be floating on the surface, pulling it to the side requires it to fight through surface tension. If you’ve ever tried running through three feet of water, you can appreciate what your fly line faces as it skims through the surface or even the film.

There is too much resistance for a quick, effective hook set.

The Quick Lift

The solution is to go with “the quick lift.” Simply lift your rod tip. That is, go with your instincts and pull up on your rod.

When you do this, it’s remarkable how quickly the rod will lift your line off of the surface of the water. Try this sometime when you don’t have a fish trying to ingest your nymph, and you will be amazed at what you see. As soon as your fly line lifts off of the water and the surface tension is gone, your strike indicator will lurch towards you. That gives you an indication what happens when a trout has taken your fly.

You will get a solid hook-set.

I suppose you still might run the risk of pulling the fly out of the trout’s mouth. But the “side pull” method is so slow that your hook set will probably be useless. If the trout has hooked itself, you’re fine. But if not, it can spit out the fly before the gets pulled into the side of the trout’s mouth. Even then, the hook set will lack in force because of the resistance you’re facing from the surface tension. Alright, enough with the physics lesson.

I think you get the idea.

Madison River Monsters

My pod-cast partner, Dave, and I used the “quick lift” technique effectively on a day we recently spent on the Madison River right outside Yellowstone National Park. We were fishing for the big “runners” which come out of Hebgen Lake for fall spawning. Without exception, every trout we hooked was 15-25 feet below us. Rather than fighting the surface tension with a “side pull,” we used a quick lift. I do not have lightning-quick reflexes at age 55, but most strikes resulted in hooking fish.

The Exception for Setting the Hook

There is a situation when I still use the “side pull” approach when fly fishing nymphs. It works under two conditions:

First, the strike has to take place above me (upstream) or right in front of me.

Second, the run I’m fishing has to be less than twelve feet in front of me. This enables me to keep little or no line on the surface as long as I keep my rod tip high. Without any resistance, a pull to the side in a downstream direction works quite well.

Once your indicator gets past you, though, forget the sideways pull when you get a strike. It’s too awkward, and there will be too much drag. Instead, go for the quick lift.

You’ll be pleased with the results.

How to Read Your Strike Indicator

Most fly fishers use a strike indicator when fishing with nymphs. When the little plastic bubble or tuft of synthetic yarn bobs or twitches, it’s time to set the hook. A trout is taking your fly. (Or perhaps you’ve hit bottom!) It’s all about how to read your strike indicator. But your strike indicator does double duty: It indicates something else that will make or break your success on the river. It tells you whether you are deep enough.

Conventional Wisdom on How to Read Your Strike Indicator

To succeed when fishing nymphs, the trick is to get the artificial flies down to the right depth. They need to be in the trout’s window.

Conventional wisdom says that you’re not fishing deep enough if you’re not getting snagged occasionally on the river-bottom. So, when the strike indicator disappears and you’ve snagged a rock rather than hooked a fish, that signals you are at the right depth. Your nymph or nymphs are deep enough to entice the trout.

We’ve advocated for this signal in previous articles:

    Nymph Fishing’s 7 Nagging Questions

    Our Top Nymph and Wet Fly Patterns

    The Basics of Nymph Fishing

Nymphing Re-imagined

However, there is a problem with conventional wisdom. Unless you’re fishing scud patterns, you may not need to get your nymphs to bounce along the bottom.

Yes, the fish are at the bottom of the river or stream. But they are looking up unless they are nosing around in the mud or rocks for scuds. Your nymph needs only to be deep enough to be in the river’s lower zone where the trout are feeding. But you don’t need, necessarily, to bounce your nymph off of the bottom.

A More Excellent Way to Read Your Strike Indicator

So how do you know that you’re fishing deep enough if you don’t see your strike indicator disappear occasionally because you’ve snagged the bottom?

There is another signal.

Your eyes still need to be on the strike indicator. But if the indicator is moving more slowly than is the surface current, then your nymph or nymphs are deep enough. The fact is, the current at the bottom of a river or stream moves more slowly than the current on the surface. When your nymph(s) and weight float in this slower current, they will slow down the speed of your strike indicator on the surface.

Recently, I was fishing for “runners” on the Madison River just outside West Yellowstone, Montana. On a particular run, my two-nymph combination never once caught on the bottom. Yet I knew I was deep enough because my strike indicator was moving along more slowly than the surface current. After a few casts, my indicator disappeared, and I had the joy of fighting and landing a heavy brown trout.

Watch the Bubbles to Read Your Strike Indicator

This raises another question, though.

How in the world can you tell if your strike indicator is moving more slowly than the surface current?

Watch the bubbles on the surface of the water. That’s right. The bubbles tell the tale. It’s like watching a NASCAR race and seeing cars getting passed or lapped. If the bubbles on the river’s surface start passing your indicator, then you have reached the right depth. If the bubbles never pass your strike indicator, then you need to add more weight. Your nymph has not reached the slower current in the bottom zone.

Watching for the bubbles to start passing your strike indicator will also reveal how long it takes for your nymphs to reach the proper depth in the particular run you are fishing. It may take two feet or fifteen feet depending on the speed of the current and the depth of the run. This is important because it might reveal that your nymphs are getting deep enough after they drift through the spot where you suspect the fish are feeding. Armed with this insight, you can cast farther upstream so that your offering reaches its depth right before it enters the hot zone.

As always, keep your eye on the strike indicator. It gives the signal when you have a strike. But it will also tell you if you’re going to have a chance at a strike because your nymph rig has reached its proper depth.

Deeper Nymphs, Better Results

deeper nymphs

The next time the trout ignore your nymphs, try another adjustment before switching patterns. Go deeper. The trout may not be ignoring the Zebra Midge or Hare’s Ear. Rather, the nymph may be ignoring the trout. It might be drifting several inches above them.

Trout will dart upwards to track down an emerger. They will make a trip to the surface for a big attractor pattern or a hopper. But they normally will not expend energy to snatch a tiny meal with a small amount of calories unless it is in their zone. If your fly is not deep enough to drift by their noses, the trout may ignore it.

So how do you get your fly deeper? Here are five strategies.

1. Add a split shot.

This is the most obvious solution.

Yet it’s easy to be too lazy to reach into the pocket of your fly vest to put on another split shot. So don’t be lazy!

I usually start with one split shot. Then, if I’m not bumping the bottom, I’ll add a second one. I carry both size “B” and the slightly larger “BB” split shot.

Also, I prefer removable split shot which have the little “ears” you can squeeze to remove it quickly if you’re getting snagged too often on the bottom or if you decide to switch to a dry fly. I also use something environmentally friendly (non-lead). Water Gremlin’s tin sinkers work well for both purposes.

2. Use beadhead patterns.

Ninety percent of the nymphs I buy and tie are beadheads.

I use non-beadhead patterns only when I want my fly to stay in the film just beneath the surface. The beadhead patterns do not make split shot expendable, but they do add a bit of weight.

They also give the nymph some action as it drifts or tumbles through the current.

3. Start your drift earlier.

Dave, my podcast partner, and I have talked about this before on our podcast. Casting a few yards further upstream will give your nymph(s) a few more yards to sink as they drift down the stream or river. This worked well last fall on the Gardner River in the northern part of Yellowstone National Park. Starting the drift about ten feet earlier enabled the nymphs to drop low enough to where the trout were located in the “hot zone.”

Conversely, if you are fly fishing from a drift boat, you may not need as much weight. You might go with two “B” size split shot or only one “BB” size since a long drift gives your nymphs a lot of time to sink.

4. Move your strike indicator.

This is not an issue if you put your strike indicator at the top of your leader. But often, on small creeks, I place it only five feet or so above my fly. This is ideal for runs where the depth is only a foot or two.

However, I’ve had to remind myself to move my strike indicator closer to the top of my leader when I come to deeper runs. Remember that the placement of your strike indicator determines the length of leader that will actually sink. A couple of split shot will not come close to pulling your strike indicator under the water to take your nymph(s) deeper. So you might need a longer length of leader to get to the bottom of some runs.

5. Switch to a sink-tip line.

I rarely use a sink-tip line when nymph fishing.

However, there are some stretches on Montana’s Missouri River where this might be advisable. Usually, adding more split shot will do. I typically use sink-tip line for stripping streamers. But some fly fishers like them for nymph fishing larger rivers.

So the next time your nymphs do not produce strikes, figure out a way to get your nymphs down to the level of the trout. Try that before you switch patterns.

I don’t always fish with nymphs. But when I do, I go deeper.

S2:E31 Nymph Fishing Tactics for Beginners

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Nymph fishing tactics can confound beginner fly fishers. If you’re just starting out, you may ask: How many split shot should I use? How far up should the strike indicator be? Why am I snagging on the bottom all the time? Click on “Nymph Fishing Tactics for Beginners and listen to our episode for beginner fly fishers now.

Listen to our episode “Nymph Fishing Tactics for Beginners”

Great Stuff from Our Listeners. At the end of each episode, we often include a feature called “Great Stuff from Our Listeners.” It’s the last portion of each episode, where Steve reads one of the comments from our listeners or readers. We enjoying hearing from you, and appreciate your advice, wisdom, and fly fishing experience.

If you’re a veteran fly fisher, what tactics would you add to our episode? And if you’re a new fly fisher, what questions do you still have about nymph fishing?

Here are some other podcasts and articles that we’ve publishing on nymph fishing:

    Nymph Fishing’s 7 Nagging Questions

    Our Top Nymph and Wet Fly Patterns

    The Basics of Nymph Fishing

Download a Podcast App on Your Smartphone

Be sure to subscribe to our podcast feed. You can do that on your smartphone or tablet by downloading a podcast app. The most common app used by 2 Guys feed subscribers is “Podcasts.”

Or you can simply subscribe to the RSS feed here:

Subscribe to 2 Guys and A River2 Guys and A River

To see every episode that we’ve published, click on “Every Episode” on the top navigation.

Nymph Fishing’s 7 Nagging Questions

I love fishing beneath the surface of the river because of the challenge. It’s an ongoing set of problems to solve. Here are nymph fishing’s seven nagging questions for those who are still slinging nymphs with a strike indicator.

Do I have enough weight?


Often fishers will add split shot above their top fly. The purpose is to get the nymph down to where it belongs – rolling along the bottom of the run.

The more weight, of course, the more tricky it is to sling your fly.

How much weight to use is a judgment call. I use a couple split shot to start – and add or subtract based on what is happening in real time.

Of course, if you are using the technique called “euro nymphing,” then you are not as worried about weight. Your nymphs are weighted and meant to sink to the bottom of the run. You do not have split shot above your flies.

Is my top fly at the right depth?

Probably not.

If you are quickly moving from run to run, then most likely each run is different in degree from the previous one. Plus, each run moves at varying speeds as your flies move up and down the water column.

I make continual adjustments to my strike indicator when I’m at work on the river. That means moving it up or down, depending on whether I’m getting snagged.

If I never snag on the bottom, then I need to move the strike indicator up some, thereby forcing my top fly down to the bottom of the run.

Should I use a dropper or trailer fly?


If you’re just starting out, I’d recommend getting comfortable fishing with a single fly. Some folks fish with three flies. I generally use two. There are a couple ways to tie on multiple flies. Find one that works for you.

Am I mending well enough?

No. This is the chronic challenge of fishing nymphs. Keep at it!

Is the twitch a strike?


Newbie fly fishers tend to be slow to strike (or “set the hook”) when the strike indicator twitches or dips below the surface. So are veteran fly fishers.

Should I change my fly?


Work on your mend. Pay attention to the depth of your flies. Move to the next run.

Okay, now you can change your flies.

What should I change to?

Is there a hatch on? If so, then try an emerger. Then try a slightly different color emerger (if you have one).

Other options: Go smaller. If you’re fishing a #14 beadhead pheasant tail, drop to a size #16.

Penultimate option: Switch to a streamer.

Final option: Go home and clean the garage.