A PROPER RIG
The character of our streams and rivers in the Yosemite area is most often pools and runs, and indicator fishing is usually the most productive way to fish them. Most of our streams have a lot of trees and bushes around them, which often catch our flies, so I prefer a simple one fly rig that is easy to re-tie.
I typically work with a 7 1/2 to 9 ft. leader, tapered to 5x. I add 8 to 12 inches of 5x or 6x tippet with a surgeon’s knot and put a “BB” or “B” split shot above the knot. The fly is attached with a “swirl knot“.
I have two preferences for indicator types. In faster water or in areas where I need to adjust the indicator position often, I prefer a “thingamabobber“. In slower water, I prefer the more delicate presentation and sensitivity of an adhesive foam indicator. While you can buy the foam indicators at fly shops, I prefer to buy adhesive foam and cut them to size myself. You can get a lifetime supply of foam indicators for about $10 this way; and you can design the indicators to your preferences.
This rig (like most other indicator rigs) is not ideal for traditional overhead casting. If your timing is not good you might end up with some tangles. I encourage beginners to have no more than 5 feet of the fly line (plus the leader) out of their rod tip and to employ simple “lob” casts or roll casts.
Although I can cast this rig quite a ways, I find that indicator fishing is more effective when you keep your drifts to less than 20 feet, and more often than not, my drifts are in the range of 6-12 feet.
GET YOUR FLY DOWN TO THE FISH
I am oftentimes fishing or guiding in very clear water where it is easy to observe how the trout react to the drift of a fly, and one thing that has become very evident is that the depth at which your fly is drifting is extremely important. I have observed flies drifting a few inches over a pod of fish, time after time, with no interest from the trout. And once the rig is adjusted so that the fly approaches the trout at their depth level, the mouths start opening and we are into fish.
In most cases the trout will be near the bottom, and the general rule is to have your strike indicator to fly distance at 1-1/2 the water depth (i.e. when fishing 3 ft. water, put your indicator 4.5 ft. above the fly). But there are other factors such as current speed or how much weight you have on the rig (between split shot and fly).
You can raise or lower the strike indicator and/or add or reduce split shot weight to adjust the depth that the fly drifts at. Personally, I usually adjust the indicator. However you do it, get your fly down to where the trout are. If you are fishing water where the trout are not visible, strive to have the fly bumping the bottom of the stream.
If you are fishing a weedy stream (typical of tail waters), you should be picking up weeds with your fly about once or twice for every 10 drifts. And don’t forget to frequently check for and clean weeds from your fly; trout don’t like salad. If you think you had a strike and have done a hook-set without hooking a trout, check your hook for weeds.
POSITION YOURSELF PROPERLY
If you are working visible fish or a likely holding spot, position yourself so that you are across or slightly downstream of the fish. Also position yourself about one and a half rod lengths to the side of the area that you are working. This will typically put you in the best position to get a good drift and to set the hook.
Avoid standing upstream of the fish that you are working; they are more likely to see you and be spooked. Also you will not get as good a drift from this angle, and your hook sets will be sideways rather than in a downstream direction.
In the areas that I guide, the fish are often times visible. And in the areas where they are not visible, I know from experience where they are holding. Just as importantly, in both cases, I am aware of the areas where they are not holding.
There has been the saying that “the angler who has his fly in the water the most, catches the most fish”. I would like to amend that phrase, as I know that the angler who will catch the most fish is the one who has his fly where the fish are the most.
That sounds simple enough, but it something that I always have to remind clients of. In areas where we can clearly see where the fish are holding, many anglers will start their drift 10-15 feet above where the fish are. They wait for the fly to drift down to the fish, and more often than not, by the time the fly reaches the fish, it is off course and to the side of the fish. To boot they have wasted time waiting for the nymph to travel several feet before it gets to the productive zone.
Most trout will not move more than a few inches to either side to intercept a meal. So, to be efficient, drop your cast a few feet above the trout, just enough upstream of them for the fly to sink to their level by the time it gets to them. Once the fly has drifted by the last fish in the pod (or likely holding area), recast. Be efficient with your drifts, and be accurate with your casts.
CHANGE FLIES OFTEN
Confession: My name is Tom and I am a frequent fly changer. As stated before, my clients are often working visible fish, or areas that I know where the fish are holding. So if I have seen at least 10 good drifts through the zone where the fish are holding (and at the level the fish are holding) without any takes, I will change the fly.
I probably have a dozen “go to flies”, and carry another 50 or so varieties of flies, to boot. 90% of my fishing is with the dozen “go to flies”. The only certainty about fly fishing in my area is that every day is different. I may have clients catching several trout on a copper john one day; and when I revisit the same spot the next day, that fly may not work well, or at all!
A typical day of guiding starts out with a lot of fly changing until I find the “hot fly”; and even after I find the hot fly, sooner or later, the fish will turn off on it. Perhaps the already caught and release trout are putting out a memo. But the hot fly is typically hot for only so long, so I start changing flies again.
Get in the habit of changing flies often, and if you learn the “swirl knot“, you will soon be able to switch flies in under 30 seconds, and quickly have a fly back in the water.
DETECTING THE STRIKE
When a fish takes your fly, the indicator may:
1) jerk upstream (the most obvious of strike indications)
2) suddenly go underwater
3) slowly go under water
4) twitch ever so slightly
Unfortunately, the later two listed are the most common effects on the strike indicator when a fish strikes, especially in slower water, and especially when the take is from a larger fish. Most beginners will initially think that they are not strikes. When the indicator slowly submerges because of a strike, it looks the same as when you have hooked a weed or rock on the bottom, and many anglers will dismiss it as such. A slight twitch might make you think that the fly or split shot bumped a rock, and oftentimes that is the case, but you will not know unless you set the hook.
So the all important rule of indicator fishing is that you strike if there is any change to the natural drift of the indicator, even the slightest change.
In the Yosemite area, we can often see the fly under water as it drifts to the trout, and if that is the case, by all means, watch the fly rather than the indicator. If you can see the split shot, but not the fly, watch the split shot – if there is a strike, it will move before the indicator does. For every strike that we note on the indicator, there has probably been a couple of strikes and “spit-outs” by the trout that were never transmitted to the indicator, so if you can see the fly or split shot, watch them instead. Besides, it is a blast to watch the trout gulp the fly and then catch it!
SETTING THE HOOK
The hook set for most beginners is usually a little late. Trout sample a lot of items that arrive with the current; pebbles, debris, plant matter, and of course the actual bugs that they are looking to eat. And they are very efficient at sampling what might be food, and then quickly spitting it out, typically within a split second.
For most beginners, there will be several hook sets that are too late. Children and teens are usually an exception, though, as they typically have great reflexes (all of that video game play actually helps).
One issue that I often encounter with intermediate to even advanced anglers is that they have been taught to set the hook by doing a back cast motion (over their head). This works well for dry flies, but in the Yosemite area, it usually results in more trees than fish caught.
Trout are typically facing the current, waiting for food to arrive with the current. So the most effective hook set is going to be one which pulls the fly back into the trout’s mouth; a sideways downstream motion. An upward hook set is not as effective, and worse yet is a hook set that pulls the fly upstream and out of the trout’s mouth.
The old school nymphing method commonly taught is referred to as “high sticking”, wherein the rod is held high as the indicator drifts by the angler. I teach a “low stick” method encouraging clients to have their rod tip downstream of the indicator and no more than a few feet above the water. The rod tip should lead the indicator as it progresses downstream, to an extent that there is minimal slack line between the rod tip and the indicator (but don’t pull the indicator downstream).
The hook set is a quick wrist snap downstream, and if a trout is not hooked the rod should be pointed straight downstream at the finish of the hook set motion, and still only be no more than a few feet above the water. This is an indication that you have had the proper range of movement with the rod tip required to hook the fish, and that you have not elevated the rod when setting the hook.
I must emphasize that there is very little arm motion in a proper hook set; the arm is much slower than the wrist. I encourage anglers to practice the hook set at the end of every drift (unless it is interrupted by an actual strike). Trout that are sampling our flies usually spit them out in under a second, so you have to set the hook very fast.
The low hook set, properly executed, will keep your flies out of the trees. If you do an overhead strike and hook a tree rather than fish, you may lose a fly, or worse tippet/leader and have no fly in the water for a while.
FIGHTING THE FISH
Hooking the fish but not getting them in? I see it all of the time, and almost always the cause is that the rod was not used correctly to fight the fish.
My first lesson for all clients, experienced or not, is how to fight the fish. I will stand a couple of rod lengths from the student with the fly rod in my hand and have the student grab the line. I will then put a big bend in the rod, to demonstrate how little pressure this puts on the fish. I will then strip in line and lower the rod to show how much more pressure is put on the fish when the rod is low.
Most fish, especially the big ones, get away because the fish runs and the angler lowers the rod. This puts more pressure on the fish and either the fly knot breaks or the fly comes out. Although I really impress this lesson on students, they are still usually not getting enough bend on the rod to properly fight the fish.
The butt of the rod should actually be angled behind your head. The fly rod is a perfect “shock absorber” when held in this position, and will put less pressure on the fish.