There is no doubt that the advent of and wide use of strike indicators changed fly fishing for trout in a major way a couple of decades ago. In the past, dry flies, streamers and tandem rigs of swung wet flies dominated the tactics for catching trout on a fly rod. With strike indicators, new techniques, fly patterns and equipment developed rapidly.
Popular choices for indicators included yarn, putty, pinch-on foam and small corks. All had advantages and drawbacks but they certainly allowed anglers to up their catch rates when hatches were sparse and trout held deep. Nymphing with strike indicators also made fly fishing for trout much more accessible to less experienced anglers and even beginners were able to catch fish. In some ways, the mystique of expertise and aura of difficulty surrounding fly fishing began to show some cracks. Long false casts? Unnecessary. Matching the hatch? Why bother when any old beadhead will do? Mending? If you want to but the indicator does most of the work for you.
When strike indicators first became a standard part of fly fishing their use was generally a fall back method used to put some fish in the net when other tactics such as dry flies failed to produce. Gradually though, nymphing with strike indicators began to become, if not the primary technique, much more acceptable and widespread.
Many fly fishing guides began to favor their use, especially when teaching beginners. Learning the basics of strike indicator nymphing is relatively simple and newbies can pick it up quickly. Accurate, long casts are not required, strikes are highly visible and at first, trout seemed willing to gobble up any beadhead nymph that floated by-some days they still do. This was both a good and bad thing. More fish were caught with less experience but anglers began to eschew becoming good casters, and learning how to fish dry flies, wet flies and streamers in favor of just putting fish in the net. Strike indicators became a blessing and a curse.
There’s no denying that indicators offer a decided advantage and are an important and sometimes necessary part of your fly fishing arsenal. During the coldest part of winter indicator nymphing in icy rivers may be the only way to catch trout. When rivers run high and off-color an indicator deep drifting a big stonefly nymph will work when a dry fly doesn’t stand a chance. On some popular Colorado tailwaters like the frying Pan or the Taylor River that experience excessive amounts of angler pressure, a small indicator may be the only option for detecting subtle strikes from trout that will only eat tiny midge patterns that resemble a speck of dust and a few wraps of thread. And, sometimes, nymphing, regardless of time of year, hatches, or water conditions is without question, the most effective way to catch trout.
Enter the Thingamabobber. No other style of strike indicator was ever as popular or as effective as the plastic bubbles called Thingamabobers that now dominate the nymphing scene completely. They simply work better and last longer than previous versions of strike indicators. But, make no mistake, in the world of fly fishing, where anglers previously refused to accept that “strike indicators” were actually bobbers, one of the most popular and widely sold pieces of fly fishing terminal tackle is now, fly fishing snobbery be damned, indeed, a bobber.
Personally, although I use them without question when the water is high and muddy or it’s the middle of winter, my bobbers tend gather a lot dust in the bottom of my boat bag. I can’t help but notice the huge impact such a seemingly harmless little plastic bubble has had on fly fishing for trout. Several years ago I found myself mindlessly staring at a bobber that had been suspending a San Juan Worm and a damsel nymph in a lake for about fifteen minutes before I had to ask myself “Is this really fly fishing?”
I simply assumed that with a beginner client the bobber was the ticket to success but it was boring and he wasn’t learning anything even though we had caught some large trout. Off came the bobber and I proceeded to teach my client how to actually cast and we fished streamers and dry flies the rest of the day, caught fish and both of us had a much better time.
Call me a purist but, the interesting thing about Thingamabobbers is instead of reaching for them only when it’s really necessary, more and more anglers and guides don’t fish any other way even if every fish in the river is rising. Take the Roaring Fork River in early July, for example. At this time of year, it’s a safe bet that a mixture of Green Drakes, PMDs, Yellow Sallies and loads of caddis will be hatching from dawn til dusk. The fish are most defintitely looking up and eager to eat on the surface. But you would never know it after watching boat after boat after boat float by whose anglers’ glazed over eyes are staring mindlessly at the bobber ten feet from the boat. Call me crazy but something is missing there. Like fun.
If you’re not careful bobbers can reduce fly fishing to nothing but a flip of the rod and a brightly colored plastic bubble. Add a few split shot, and a rubber wiggle worm hanging below a pegged plastic bead egg to your “fly fishing” rig and the same fly anglers that look down their nose and make rude comments about bait fishermen are wading in murky waters.
In my opinion, that’s part of the problem with strike indicators. They’ve become a kind of quick fix crutch. Many anglers have simply forgotten how fun and exciting it is to watch a trout rocket from the river bottom through gin clear water to slurp a dry fly or to watch a fish chase down a streamer with the aggressive intent of killing it. More anglers will go straight to the bobber rather than learning the traditionally respected wet fly swing. Nymphing with a bobber should simply be one method among many that is part of fly fishing, rather than the only method.
But, although I can’t stand the sight of a bobber floating down a beautiful trout stream, I also love them to death. Even when there’s twenty boats ahead of me bobbering down the middle of the river, I know all those fish rising in a foot of water near the bank have been left alone and they’ll be happy to eat a dry fly presented with a good cast.
Even when hatches are absent and there’s not a riser in sight, more often than not, there’s plenty of trout willing to hammer a flashy attractor dry fly fished through riffles and pocket water. Without visible risers most anglers automatically assume that unless you crimp on some split shot and bounce a couple of nymphs deep along the bottom you don’t stand a chance. That’s simply not true and you can always hang a nymph under a big bushy dry fly and have the best of both worlds.
I’m not suggesting any serious angler simply stop nymphing and chuck your bobbers in the trash, but I am hoping that we don’t forget to learn new skills or polish old ones. Instead of heading straight for that deep nymphing run take a walk and try to catch that one riser that’s sipping under a branch that will force you to make a precise cast.
Good or bad, the bobber is here to stay. There’s plenty of steelhead anglers who only swing spey flies and dry fly afficianodos that wouldn’t be caught dead using one and there are some anglers who are going to use whatever works best to catch more fish. Strike indicators and the Thingamabobber in particular is a proven piece of effective fly fishing gear but don’t let them turn you into a one dimensional fly fisherman.
Brody Henderson, Guide and Content Writer