Fly Fishing
  -Tips & Tricks

Fly Tying
Ted Voise Explains His Downstream Indicator Technique

Fly fishing for migratory species of salmonoids in the Great Lakes tributaries comes in many shapes and forms, with some that tend to defy the traditional definitions of fly fishing. These compromises in definition frequently are the result of the incorporation of "hardware" purloined from other styles of fishing. The use of significant amounts of lead on the line or leader, swivels, monofilament running lines and bobbers -- or, as fly fishermen call them, indicators - are some of the necessary adaptations that have been employed to assist in catching migratory species. One must accommodate the ever changing and often extreme palette of weather, stream types and flows in this region to be successful.

While fishing for migratory salmon and steelhead in the Great Lakes tribs can be done using streamers in a traditional down-and-across technique, there are limited windows of opportunity for this style to be truly effective. Generally, one has a better chance of catching fish using egg and nymphal imitations, often in tandem with one another, presented on the bottom using adequate amounts of weight attached to the leader. It is surprising how a fish that weighs over 15 lbs. can take as lightly as a crappie or perch; you need all the help you can get in detecting the take. To this end, an indicator is of invaluable assistance.

Most fly fishermen seem to have a set notion of how indicator fishing is done. The angler makes a modest cast upstream to a suspected lie or line of drift, retrieves and mends as the indicator comes downstream. As the cast comes past the fisherman and starts to swing out at the end of the drift, he or she picks it up and does it again.

Watching Canadian centerpin fishermen running drifts over 150-feet and hooking lots of fish by covering lots of water suggested that there were some deficiencies in the prevailing thinking of how fly fishermen "indi" fish. The centerpin guys wouldn't even make casts that long initially, but their drifts went on forever because they would feed line into the drift. The primary advantage they have is light monofilament line and a large float that pulls the line in a nice, long, downstream, drag-free drift. It was obvious that some modification of technique was necessary.

The basic concept is to get an extended downstream drift beyond the normal length of drift most fly anglers utilize. The longer your line is in the water, the better your chance of hooking a fish. This is because the longer your line is in the water, the longer it will be in the strike zone. In fast moving or deep water it often takes the cast 15- to 20-feet of drift to settle to the bottom, where it needs to be to be effective. Most fly fishermen work with an average of 30- to 50-feet of line, so a large portion of the drift is wasted just getting into "the zone."

To execute an extended drift (ref. to fig.1), choose a current tongue or seam and make your cast into it to set up for the drift, extending at least 20-feet of fly line. As the indicator approaches your position from 15- to 20-feet away, start lifting the rod to take up slack instead of stripping line (fig. 2). When the indicator comes even with you, start to lower the rod tip to give back the slack you picked up to avoid drag (fig. 3). As the indicator goes past the angler, let the line belly but without dragging by lowering the rod tip and throwing a mend into the line to create a loop downstream of the indicator. This loop should be approximately four-feet-by-four-feet to start with. The current will manipulate and widen it as the drift gets long. In the last step, the angler should be pointing his or her rod directly into the line of drift, tip down and butt up at shoulder height, feeding line by stripping from the reel . It is not unusual to strip 100-feet into the backing. Wax the first 100-feet or so of your backing with paraffin, or grease it with silicone to assist in minimizing drag on long drifts.

For longer casts of 30-feet or more, immediately upon completion of the cast make an upstream mend in the line to create a slight belly downstream of the float. Maintain the belly's position by mending and let the belly tow the float downstream as previously described.

In steps one through three, the strike is enacted as usual, but the next two parts are where this style again departs from traditional thinking. Strike upstream and parallel to the water - not up, as everyone is used to - when the indicator is downstream from where one stands. The logic behind this is that the angler is striking against the tension of the belly that is downstream of the indicator, which results in a downstream hookset.

At the end of each drift, sweep the rod downstream toward the bank at your back to retrieve the line. This will minimize the disturbance of fish downstream in the line of drift or seam being fished.

After the hookset there are necessary details to pay attention to keep the fish on the line. As soon as the hookset is confirmed, sweep the rod low and downstream toward the bank at your back. This allows the belly of line in the current to help maintain the hookset while taking up slack and getting the fish on the reel. If you continue to pull upstream or lift the rod immediately upon striking, you risk losing your fish by pulling the hook out of its mouth. The downstream sweep is essential to keeping a fish hooked until you can come tight to the fish and start fighting it with side pressure, since it will be downstream from where you stand.

The downstream drift also will allow you to access waters previously inaccessible. Picture a deep inside bend with a large piece of slack, deep water between you and the sweet spot on the current seam. Casting across the slow water to the seam would allow no chance for a drift. Move to the top of the pool and pitch a short cast upstream into the seam that feeds into the bend, mend and set up for a downstream drift and let it go. You can actually fish well into the bend of a stream using this method.

Small streams with tunnels of closely knit shrubbery can be fished this way too, the same as described for the inside bend. Flip a short cast up into the seam you want, set up the belly of line and the indicator and let it float down.

Using a long leader or clear-tip fly line, this method also works for dry fly fishing for trout and panfish. It will allow for drag-free presentations that can't be otherwise achieved because of difficult cross currents, since one dominant current seam is usually towing things along.

Keeping your line and the leader above the float greased with silicone will assist immensely in mending and achieving a drag-free drift.

Since this technique is a flyfishing-friendly adaptation of gear methods, there are details in tackle and rigging that make it more efficient than the common style of indicator fishing. For most Great Lakes migratory species of salmon and steelhead, rod weights of six to eight that are nine-feet or longer work well. This method also adapts to spey rods.

The choice of indicator type and material is contingent upon conditions. The basic materials indicators are made of are cork, balsa, styrene, foam and polypropylene yarns.

For their weight and mass, wood floats carry more weight than styrene, which makes them valuable in strong currents. The natural color of the wood bottom also helps to keep from spooking wary fish.

The chief values of styrene and foam are that they are cheap, float well, and are readily available. Styrene ice fishing floats are very handy items to have in your tackle bag.

If the water is low and clear and the fish are spooky, then the choice is a yarn indicator. They make a minimal impact upon the water and fish aren't alarmed by their presence, as they are sometimes spooked by indicators made of other less-amorphous materials. Their chief shortcoming is that they can't support much weight.

Float size is determined by conditions. Rough water where lots of weight needs to be suspended or snag-filled stream bottoms are best fished with floats of 1-inch or larger. Smaller floats can be used in more gentle flows with a float of 1/2-inch to 3/4-inch being an ideal size for most situations. The key point to keep in mind is to balance the size of the indicator with the amount of split shot necessary to keep your fly on the bottom and moving more slowly than the surface current.

Try to think of the indicator as a dry fly in that you don't want it to drag in the current. Other than the slowing of it's downstream progress by the split shot ticking the bottom, there should be no unnatural movement in the float on it's drift. Feed line or mend to perpetuate the drag-free drift just as one would for a dry fly.

Fly Lines
Natural or soft colored fly lines in gray, tan or olive are an advantage when using this method. A stiff or hard line helps to feed line on the drift as well as shoot on the cast instead of bellying in the guides like a soft line. A weight-forward line with a short to medium head helps to turn over split shot and indicator and causes less drag from cross-currents that pull more on a long-belly line.

While this method can be used with many types of floating lines, experience has shown that weight-forward lines work a bit better than double-tapers since the light-running line feeds into the drift better than a double-taper.

A leader appropriate to the purpose intended usually makes for an effective presentation regardless of method, and this technique is no exception. A stiff, tapered butt to turn over the indicator at various settings with a quick and slender taper to cut through the water on the balance of the leader works well to minimize drag and achieve quick penetration of the water column. The following formula works very well: butt section - 36-inches of .021, 18-inches of .017, 18-inches of .015, 18- to 60-inches of .013 and 24-inches of .010. At this juncture, tie an overhand knot in the tag end of the .010. This will be a tag for split shot that will hang untrimmed from the blood knot to the tippet.

The .013 portion of the leader is adjusted in length as necessary to accommodate the average of varying water depths on the river being fished, as illustrated by the range of length indicated in the formula. After fishing for a half-hour or so, you will usually have a feel for the average range of water depth that will be encountered on the river you are fishing and trim the .013 section to what works best.

Split Shot
An assortment of split shot from micro to No. 5 shot are useful for the varying conditions that you may encounter.

Split shot are best attached to a tag end from the blood knot that joins the tippet to the leader with an overhand knot in the tag to keep from losing the shot. This keeps the flies close to the bottom and avoids having shot attached directly on the tippet to roll under a rock and snag. Tippets of 24- to 30-inches work best with this method.

A small BB-shot or two strung out on the leader is often helpful when fishing water when it starts to get over four-feet in depth. This keeps you in close contact with what the fly is doing by preventing billowing by the current in the line between the float and the fly. Keep the shot on the leader at least 18-inches below the float when fishing multiple shots on the leader for depth and 12- to 18-inches apart on the leader with a final adjustment on quantity of shot on the tag from the blood knot.

The ultimate goal of this is to get a drift without cross-current drag that is floating slower than the surface current, since the speed of the water column is always less on the bottom than at the top of the column. Use bubbles or other objects on the surface as a point of reference to judge the speed of the drift.

Being a "pre-movie" fly fisherman of more than 30 years, I have seen more than a few fly fishing heresies become accepted practice. The downstream drift technique always invites suspicion from those unaccustomed to it. For those willing to experiment, it is unfailingly productive. Get out on the water and practice the mending and control of the loop on the water and strive to get the perfect downstream drift. Don't forget to strike when your indicator goes under 80-feet downstream from you...
Author: Ted Voise

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