Indicator Nymphing Fast, Shallow Water
Indicator nymph fishing has come a long way in New Zealand the past three decades. Zane Mirfin offers thoughts on this method in fast, shallow water.
The upper Buller River travels down the Buller Valley in a formidable torrent powered at a great rate of knots. Originating from Lake Rotoiti in the Nelson Lakes National Park, the Buller is a cold water, fertile trout river that was just made for indicator nymphing. Renowned fishing guide Tony Entwistle has often recounted stories to me from the late 70s, when he first fished the Buller, of how he was in awe of the Buller’s size and power, having grown up fishing the small placid streams of South Canterbury.
In his first few fishing visits in the 70s, Tony struggled to work out how to catch fish in such fast and broken water. This soon changed when he became one of New Zealand’s first professional fishing guides in 1980. Wool strike indicator technology had been shown to Tony in the early 80s by American customers and this revolutionised fast water nymph fishing for brown trout in the South Island. During my first year at the University at Canterbury in 1986, I remember Tony addressing the Canterbury Anglers Club in Christchurch and demonstrating how to construct a strike indicator. To those Canterbury anglers, it was a revelation, but now more than two decades later the humble strike indicator has become no big deal as anglers have become familiar with the concept of indicator fishing.
To the uninitiated, strike indicators are pieces of yarn. wool, synthetic material, foam, cork, bobber, float, whatever, that signals the take of a trout. Because trout in fast, shallow, broken water can be difficult to see, there is a need to be able to observe the passage of a weighted nymph. If the strike indicator suddenly stops, dips, shoots forward, slips to the side, or behaves unnaturally, it’s a good bet a trout may have the fly and that it is time to set the hook before the fish ejects it.
Before the common use of some form of strike indication, nymph fishing fast, deep and shallow water must have been a very marginal activity. In the early days of nymphing, overseas pioneers, such as Skues, Hewitt, and Sawyer, developed individual techniques for their own particular rivers, but they invariably targeted fish that were either visible, or high in the water column. Other pioneers, such as American Charles Brooks, later developed nymphing techniques that used full sinking flylines and short leaders to fish ‘blind’ in fast heavy water. However, these techniques had major limitations also.
Modern developments in technique and materials have allowed modern nymph fishermen to plumb depths and speeds of water that were previously unfishable with earlier techniques. Chemically sharpened, heavy wire hooks, lead wire, brass and now tungsten beads, split shot, lead putty, fluorocarbon nylon, liquid sinking solutions, modern floating and sinking flylines, and carbon fibre rods have totally revolutionised nymphing. To be fair to earlier innovators of the art, it should be noted that they had better fishery resources and less sophisticated trout to cast to and, therefore, less need to innovate toward current nymphing fashions. Fishing techniques are constantly evolving due to changing circumstances and environment and modern nymph fishermen are a product of earlier innovators, who added piece upon piece to the jigsaw puzzle of modern nymph fishing. As Entwistle would say to me as a younger lad: “No man is an island.” Meaning that we all learn and develop from the help, assistance, and education of others. Nymph fishing is no different.
It is no revelation that modern trout in New Zealand generally receive much more fishing pressure that in earlier years, which can push fish into lies previously thought unfishable by earlier generations of anglers. Just think about the Tongariro and the advent of the age of ‘Globuggery’. Early anglers, like Hintz, Hickling, Fletcher, Pye, even Grey would probably be gobsmacked at how people now fish the Tongariro, with braid leaders and huge chunks of lead to deliver roe imitations near the river bottom. However, times change and, if you can’t beat ’em, you probably should join ’em. At the end of the day, catching fish is the name of the game and I remember a newspaper quote about business by Rod Deans, former head of Telecom, who once said: “If it’s legal -- do it.”
One trap many modern anglers make is to assume that their modern nymphing technique is the best and that earlier methods have no applicability. It’s often said that “one who doesn’t learn from history is doomed to repeat it”, and it’s just so true. The blinkered mentality of many who plumb the depths of the Tongariro, or the rivers of the South Island for that matter, is fascinating. They rig their gear the way they always have and use the same fly, without checking river flow, colour, wind direction, fish behaviour, water temperature, etc. A good mate of mine told me recently that the definition of insanity was repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. No wonder so many anglers consistently under-perform. It goes without saying that the most important tool in your nymph fishing arsenal is your brain.
Early forms of indicator were in use well before the 1980s, with anglers commonly using a large, bushy dry fly above a weighted fly. This technique is still widely used and can be very effective. The American version is commonly referred to as the ‘hopper and dropper rig’ where the nymph trace is tied directly to the bend of the hook on the dry fly. This technique can be used with smaller dry flies too and was how I learned to flyfish. But on many modern technical fisheries, it can be a bit on the basic side and can scare fish, often through drag.
Keith Draper, in his classic 1978 book Angling in New Zealand, was an early pioneer of indicator nymphing, championing the use of peacock quill indicators. Interestingly, in Tony Orman’s 1974 seminal book Trout With Nymph, I can’t find any reference to strike indicators. Myself…I’ve tried just about everything from foam stickies to watching the end of the flyline, and I’m a committed fan of synthetic yarn indicators. The latest indicators I’m keen to purchase from the United States, and try back home, are called ‘thingamabobs’, which are small, balloon type indicators that can, according to the manufacturers, hold up to four times the amount of lead that the biggest yarn indicator can support -- sounds like just the ticket for some really deep fast holes I know.
When it comes to yarn indicators, there are many materials you can use, including polypropylene rope, poly yarn, or polyester rovings (from Spotlight Stores). Wool is still pretty good, especially freshly clipped, natural greasy wool straight off the sheep. Balls of four and eight ply wool can be purchased in virtually every colour in bargain bins around the country, if you prefer dyed processed wool for indicators. Whatever your choice of material, a liberal gooping of dry fly floatant can assist floatation. I keep a variety of indicator yarns in my vest for different circumstances and I usually pre-treat lengths of yarn many months before fishing season opens with Selley’s Water Shield, a silicon-based product available at any hardware store.
Anglers are a funny lot when it comes to indicator colour, with everyone having a favourite they swear they can see best. I’ve always believed you should use what works best for you and what suits the conditions. I’m not a fan of orange or red for shallow water brown trout work, but I love using these colours for big water in dull, hard light conditions. If you’re fishing rainbow water, rig your indicator with a hook, as rainbows just love eating a brightly coloured indicator. Browns will rarely eat an indicator, although green or chartreuse indicators do tend to get hit often during cicada time. Black and brown indicators are often advocated for dull light and glare prone situations, although I prefer deep red for this purpose. I’ve just had too many black indicators eaten by wily brown trout. If a fish does mistake your indicator for a bug, strike anyway. You’re very likely to have the line come whizzing through the trout’s teeth until a hook is pulled into the fish’s mouth and connects. The Americans call this nymphing phenomenon ‘flossing’ because it approximates cleaning your teeth with dental floss! My personal favourite indicator colours at present are white and yellow. White is easily seen and mostly ignored and tolerated by some pretty wily fish. Yellow is great in tannin-stained water and also great late season when the autumn leaves are turning and those wily late season, low water brownies are at their smartest.
Size of the indicator is important. Like the tale of Goldilocks, you really want to find the right size -- not too big and not too small. If your indicator is constantly sinking, you will become frustrated and miss opportunities and, if it is the size of a large sparrow like some Tongariro indicators, you will scare the living daylights out of any self-respecting South Island brown trout. The key is: big nymph or lot of weight, use a big indicator to support that fly. If using a small nymph to timid fish, use a small, unobtrusive indicator. Sometimes no indicator at all, aka Sawyer nymphing, is the best way to go on really sensitive trout. Blind fishing generally means using a larger, more visible indicator, while using smaller indicators when fishing to sighted fish. Always carry a pair of flytying scissors in
your vest so you can trim down and adjust the size of your indicator to match the conditions or circumstances you are fishing in.
Indicator attachment is a pretty simple affair, with a single or double loop enough to hold yarn indicators in place. Trim the top of the indicator to the desired size and away you go. Replace indicators regularly, as they do get a bit tired after constant use. The other trick to use, if they are looking ragged or not floating so well, is to trim them again on the top to provide a clean edge, which seems to assist visibility and the ability of the indicator to float. Other forms of indicators can be stuck or tied to the leader, depending on the instructions that come with the packet they were sold with, and some even use toothpicks to attach to the line. I used a lot of stick-on indicators in the States when I fished there back in the mid-90s, but I’m not a great fan of them in New Zealand, as they hit the water pretty hard and can scare timid trout. The paste-gel type, for shallow water use in more placid waters, can be very useful. You can even get glow-in-the-dark, luminous, dough-type indicators from Loon Products.
The most important part of the whole indicator system is knowing how far to place it from the flies? In the North Island, it is commonplace for anglers to attach large, bushy indicators by a snap swivel to the junction of the leader and flyline. This is because they are often fishing deeper water and the common theory is that the gap between indicator and nymph should equal 1.5-2 times the water depth. This can work well, but usually because the target is rainbow trout, which are very aggressive, can hold in fast water, and will move a long way to take a fly. Rainbows also physically seize the fly in their mouths and, as such, can impart violent physical jerks on the leader and indicator, making for exciting hookups. Brown trout, by contrast, often ingest the nymph by inhaling or sucking in a column of water that contains the food item. If the food item or artificial nymph isn’t what they think it is, they can expel the foreign body very fast by closing their gill covers and forcibly ejecting the foreign body. Many times anglers will strike at a bump on the indicator, but usually in a futile manner, as the bump is caused by the force of nymph expulsion. American experts think anglers only see about 25% of the takes they physically get, so strike fast at any thing you think may be a fish and you will often be pleasantly surprised. Many times I’ve watched anglers refusing to strike because they don’t think it is a fish. Why take the chance? You’ll usually only get one opportunity at each individual fish, so react to whatever your indicator is telling you.
Having said this, it is worth noting that an indicator is only an indicator so, if you see a fish eat your fly, flash, or react, strike before the indicator moves. Often in slower water, if you wait for your indicator to show that the fish has definitely taken the fly, you will be too slow and the fish will have ejected your nymph and bolted. As a fishing guide and recreational angler in New Zealand, I have watched many anglers being unsuccessful because their indicator was too far from their nymph and the fish that took could escape detection. I have met anglers who have caught virtually no fish in two or three weeks of fishing by themselves, yet they have been using the right line, leaders, tippets, and flies. Sometimes just by the simple step of placing their strike indicator within two to four feet of their fly, I have watched them catch fish after fish with me. Often it can be just that simple.
Another great feature of indicator fishing in fast water is that you can fish multiple flies. I don’t recommend three flies for most anglers, but most of us can fish two flies no problem. By using two flies, you can fish different weights and sizes to find the magic nymph. A common strategy is to use a larger, heavier nymph up the line on a dropper, or tied into the line by two knots to the eye, or else the point fly is attached to a trace knotted to the bend of the hook of the larger heavier fly. Using this technique, you can fish deep into fast pockets and riffles both to sighted trout and blind fishing.
A bright, flashy tungsten beadhead above a more subdued nymph, such as a Pheasant Tail, can be a good combination. Many times I have seen a fish zoom out of nowhere to look at the attractor nymph, refuse it, but then eat the smaller nymph. Very small nymphs (often #16-20) behind a heavier sinker nymph work very well in mid to late summer when trout move into shallow riffles for oxygen and for the abundant but small deleatidium mayfly nymphs. The smaller nymph on lighter tippet (commonly 5x) floats up behind the heavy nymph, which is just part of the fly delivery system. Successful Southland angler and guide, Stu Tripney, even has a nymph he ties with a foam wingcase called the ‘pogo’ nymph that floats and bobs along behind a heavier sinker nymph. This strategy is similar to the ‘Booby Fly’ phenomenon in the central North Island, where a foam-eyed streamer, or Globug floats up behind a full sinking line and short leader fished along a lake bottom or rip. Such an action is irresistible to any hungry trout.
The types of water you can fish with strike indicators are many and varied. The technique works well in large and small rivers. The best places for trout to live are fertile, stable, cobble-lined riffles and this is ideal nymph water. Trout are camouflaged among the rocks and shallow fast water, yet can be easily caught. Summer, when water temperatures soar, is the time to catch a lot of trout in such places. Oxygen is much more plentiful in the fast riffles and trout can vacate the rest of the river to be stacked up in the fast water at the heads of pool and in suitable riffles. Great sport can be had fishing a four to seven weight line in suitable locations. I guess a definition of shallow fast water would be any water that was of a wadeable depth, although strong currents will often preclude you from attempting to do so. As a general rule, rainbows can hold in faster flows than those preferred by browns, but I have caught plenty of browns in some amazing fast water places over the years, so it pays to experiment and keep an open mind.
Most fish will be caught fishing up and across riffles and through current seams and pocket water. In most cases, you will need a drag-free drift to get deep and attract most takers, although rainbows can be more forgiving of a poor drift. Line retrieval and control skills are important in fast water fishing, as fast water will throw the line back at you in a hurry. Mending is an essential nymphing skill, especially on longer casts, or in difficult currents. Remember to mend upstream if you are fishing across fast water into slower water, or mend downstream if you are fishing across slower water into faster currents. Fancy tricks, such as reach mends during the cast, can significantly improve your success, but never mend just for the sake of it. Avoid dragging your strike indicator through prime lies and also avoid, where possible, that horrible slurping sound that happens when you rip an indicator off the water surface. Fish in fast water might be easier to catch, but they are not stupid.
Generally speaking, when your flies are upstream of you, you should strike downstream and, when your nymphs are way below you on a long blind drift, you should strike upstream for maximum speed and hookup efficiency. Try to strike with your rod tip parallel to the surface of the water, rather than up in the air. It is faster and more efficient -- lots to remember, but practice will make perfect. Remember to leave your fly in the water too. Many anglers are just too keen to re-cast when they should just let their fly continue drifting.
One little trick I always like to do at the end of a long drift is to throw an upstream mend just before I take a step or two forward before another cast. It is amazing how many times you will step forward after the mend, attempt to cast and feel the weight of a fish on your line. I think the mend just softens the drift and the step forward sets the hook into the corner of a fish’s mouth. Try it -- you may be surprised by how well it works. Any trick that can add a fish or two to your bag is worth adopting.
Once you hookup on an exciting fish, it can be all go and landing that fish is another story. The good thing is that, even if you lose a number of fish, there are likely to be identical fish nearby that can be fooled with a similar approach. Nymphing the fast, shallow water with a strike indicator is often the best way to catch a lot of fish over the summer season. Practice, experiment, and perfect this technique, and you won’t need good luck, or tales of the one that got away.