The topic of strike indicators may very well be one of the most controversial topics in fly fishing. It may possibly even fall into the same category as ‘which grip to use when fly casting.’ I believe that it is controversial only because it is misunderstood. Every nymph fisherman believes that his or her method is correct, and rightly so if they are successful. The term ‘strike indicator’ has in my opinion, unfairly received some negative publicity. Some people have even gone so far as to say that the use of a strike indicator is unsporting.
The truth is that all forms of nymph fishing require some sort of strike detection. Many people automatically assume that a strike indicator has to be a large, buoyant device attached to the leader. This is simply not the case. Aside from a few methods of nymph fishing in which the strike is felt, such as the ‘Brooks method,’ there must be some visual indication that the fly has either stopped or slowed down. This visual indication can be whatever the angler chooses to use and should be the one that is preferred by the angler.
My preferences change with the water that I’m fishing. When possible, I prefer to observe the fish itself. I enjoy timing the pace of the water and watching the fish’s mouth open and close when it eats my fly. Even though, in this case, the fish’s mouth serves as a strike indicator, I am still using a strike indicator. At times when this method isn’t possible, which regrettably is more often than not, I must rely on other methods of strike detection.
I always keep a ¼ inch piece of Rio’s orange Kahuna LT indicator material threaded onto my leader. It doesn’t hinder casting, it does not buoy the fly or leader, it is highly visible even when it is several feet below the surface, I can slide it up close to my nail knot or close to the fly as I choose, it doesn’t have to be removed when I switch to dries, and most importantly I prefer it much of the time. I don’t always use it, but it is always there.
I do not like to use much weight and I prefer to nymph with as little as possible. Many times when the light is not in my favor, I cannot see the fish or my piece of Kahuna. At these times, I must rely on other methods, one of my favorites is to hold the slack line well off of the water and observe the angle of the fly line near the point at which it enters the water. This method does not entail the use of any device or object but the angle of the line is still a strike indicator.
Gary Borger has taught the ‘greased leader’ tactic for many years, in which the leader is greased and observed in the surface film of semi-calm water. Very small flies can be fished just under the surface with this method and the subtlest of takes can easily be observed. From a distance, an onlooker may not see a strike indicator even though there is one. The angler is using the leader as a strike indicator.
I do not like to use a ‘buoy’ type of indicator often but at times, I find myself needing to add a buoyant device to my rig. I do not consider this unsporting; I view it only as matching the technique to the situation at hand.
In my opinion, the term ‘strike indicator’ should not be considered a four-letter word. There are many methods of strike detection and one is only limited to what they are willing to learn. A human’s eye can be trained to observe the subtlest of things. It may not be much different than learning to spot fish in the water. It is only a matter of learning what to look for.