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  • Writer's pictureLiz Lucabaugh

To Bob, or Not to Bob: Much Ado about Strike Indicators

Should you or should you not use a strike indicator?

Let’s visit the age-old topic of using or not using strike indicators. Everyone has their preference. Neither of these methods are wrong, however, it’s important to recognize the situations where you may need to use one method over the other. 

The goal of this is post is to evaluate the pros and cons of using a strike indicator. Ultimately, you do not need to rely solely on using an indicator, however, you need to know when it may and may not be a good idea to use one.

I’ll start out by describing my first experiences on the water using a fly rod. I was in Western North Carolina fishing the Nantahala. Here I am, stream side, rod tip up and arm extended, little to no slack in my line, and no bobber. With 3 split shot spread out evenly on the bottom third of my leader, I felt like I was getting a smooth, steady drift with plenty of weight to sink my fly. Bump…bump…strike! I pull in a beautiful wild brook trout. All without using an indicator. 

This technique is called “high sticking.” In high sticking, you have minimal to zero obstruction on your leader so that the float of your rig is seamless and smooth, natural looking. You do this by keeping a tight line from your rod tip down to the water’s surface with your arm held high and rod tip raised high, hence the name “high” sticking. Here, you are relying solely on feeling a bump or tug at the end of your line to set the hook. The goal here is to create a natural drift. 

In contrast, fishing with a strike indicator means you are more likely to experience drag in your drift thus, an unnatural flow. More times than not, the water’s surface flows at a faster rate than water at the bottom of a river or stream and as a result, the fly underneath is being dragged unnaturally by your strike indicator and not by the natural flow of the stream. As a result, the rig and ultimately the fly will float unnaturally and nearby trout will swim or let the fly float past them without giving it a single sniff. Strike indicators can be used in fast water scenarios likes these however, it’s important to scrutinize your rig’s drift. You may think you aren’t getting bites because of the fly you are using when in fact it’s the obstructions you placed on your rig that are causing a less appetizing drift of the fly below.  

When NOT to use a strike indicator:

Highly fished water:

Heavily fished and heavily trafficked waters mean that the trout are more cautious to unsuspecting anglers. They are less likely to be fooled since they’ve been schooled!  They have likely been caught by a rig with an indicator and know what to look for in addition to many other tell-tale signs that they are being duped. Thus, these fish need a much more stealthy approach to be tricked into taking a fly i.e. using a high-stick method.

Shallow Water:

Fishing in shallow water means two things: 1) the fish are more likely to feel and see on-the-water disturbances and 2) if the water is clear, the fish are all the more likely to see you and be spooked. That said, using a strike indicator will only work against you here, especially if the water is slow moving. They will feel the impact in their lateral line.

Trophy Streams:

Trophy trout streams hold trout that are larger than 20 inches. Fish that large are older and smarter and have been caught a few times or have been around the block or in this case, the “rock” (thanks Devon). They have seen and felt what it’s like to be a fish out of water, therefore, are relentlessly cautious. To outsmart these fish, one must take every precaution to fish without gear that may cause unnecessary impact to top water.

Tight stream and/or Short Drifts: 

Smaller streams or situations where you have a short drift mean you are even more pressed for time to make your drift look presentable. If you do use a strike indicator in these situations, you may spook any and all trout in that area. Therefore, using a high-sticking method is your best bet. 

Scenarios when you DO want to use a Strike Indicator

Fishing with a strike indicator is a great way to “see” a strike versus relying on a “feeling” or “bump” happening below the water’s surface. Especially when fishing with heavy weight rods, fishing with a strike indicator is almost necessary. The following are situations when it may be a good idea to use indicator, though, not absolutely necessary:

When TO use a strike indicator

Casting at a Distance:

For example, when casting at a distance (beyond 25-30 feet), a strike indicator can provide as a hinge point by keeping your rig at the distance in which you made your cast. Without it, your leader will likely cut through the water and drift back toward you, narrowing the length of the cast you just made and making the seam you worked so hard to cast for out of reach for the duration of the drift. 

Fishing in open waters with an opportunity for a long drift: 

With the risk of spooking fish by causing impact to the water with your cast, it’s best to use a strike indicator in open water scenarios where you know you can make a nice, long drift for yourself. 

Float Trips:

During a float trip, you are constantly moving to newer water and newer holes of undiscovered fish. This concept makes a strike indicator less disturbing to fish below the water’s surface. For example, say you lay out a nice roll cast but smack the water with your strike indicator and spook the trout in that area. This is okay because you will be moving further downstream to an undisturbed area with your rig still in the water. 

I hope this comparison of situations was helpful you. Long story short, it's perfectly fine to use a strike indicator for the beginner and for the advanced angler. Just be mindful of situations where it may be better to use one vs. not using one.

Tight Lines!


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