All About “Bobbers” (Indicators)

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…ehh… whoops…. Indicators. As a new fly angler, don’t be intimidated by all the new terms. An indicator is merely a bobber designed specifically for fly fishing. While you can use indicators with dry flies to provide additional visibility on the drift and hint at the location of a small dry fly, their main purpose is to “indicate” a strike when nymph fishing. As expected in a sport as mature as fly fishing, indicators come in all shapes and sizes but boil down to a few basic styles: bubbles/balloons, foam, and yarn. Ignore the other types until you are comfortable using these.

Regardless of style, the indicator should:

  • Be simple to put on, adjust and avoid kinking the tippet
  • Be easy to cast given prevailing wind conditions
  • Not spook fish with a giant splash upon landing
  • Provide feedback on the quality of the drift
  • and, of course, let you know when you have a strike

Regardless of which style you select, it must be matched to the size of your fly to keep the indicator on the surface. Large nymph = large indicator; small nymph + heavy split shot = large indicator. Depending on the angle of the sun, glare, water color and foam, select different colors to provide the required contrast. So, have a selection of different sizes and colors in your vest.

BBalloon Indicatorubbles/Balloons: The best-known bubble indicator is the “thingamabobber” with the newer Airflo Airlock being a more modern implementation of the same concept. The fundamental difference between these two is how they attach to the line. The thingamabobber loops on with a jam post and may kink the line while the Airlock clamps the line with a nut for more gentle connection. Both are easy to use and come in many different sizes. As expected, the bubble style provides excellent buoyancy with the added benefit of a highly visible profile. However, larger sizes are difficult to cast in windy conditions because of their bulk. Speaking of bulk, the big ones land with a splat that can spook fish!

Foam: This is a broad category of indicators ranging from small pinch-on to larger Styrofoam shapes with different connection schemes. The simple pinch-on foamFoam Indicator indicator is best for light nymphs or to use as an additional indicator for a small dry fly. Given the low profile, they are easy to cast and are unlikely to spook fish with a tremendous splash. Also, you can “team up” several of these to provide greater buoyancy – even adding two six inches apart to give a visual line pointing to the fly. Moving up from pinch-on, you encounter different shapes and sizes of Styrofoam with the football style being the most common. These use a section of rubber tubing or a toothpick to attach to the line without kinking. Their primary advantage is they are easy to see and easy to connect. However, I recommend you avoid styles, like the football, that merely pass the tippet through the indicator on a horizontal plane and do not force the tippet into a 90° angle. Ideally, the tippet should go straight down from the indicator and point directly at the nymph. My favorite is the Floatmaster – easy to use, easy to adjust and provides a perfect 90° angle.

Yarn IndicatorYarn: This is the most basic and oldest category. These fuzzy implementations either tie directly to the tippet or attach with a loop connection just like the thingamabobber and can kink. Unlike the others, yarn indicators require floatant to work correctly. Even large yarn indicators land softly and will not spook fish but tend to become waterlogged and lose their floating capability over time. They do not perform well in the wind given the lack of an aerodynamic shape. However, one advantage is you can customize them streamside with a small pair of scissors or your nipper. Therefore, if all you have are huge yarn indicators and it is a windy day, trimming them solves the problem. Regardless of whether you use yarn as your nymph indicator, it is a good idea to have a small container of indicator yarn. It comes in handy as a substitute for a pinch-on as well as for those situations where any impact ripple will send fish running for cover.

Finally, remember the general guideline for nymphing and a length of tippet between the indicator and the fly equal to 1.5 times the depth. Remember, the current will grab the indicator and drag the fly; requiring extra split shot (maybe) and length to allow the fly to sink.

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