The sight of a strike indicator disappearing below the surface makes fishing them exciting. Despite the debate on the use of strike indicators, they are widely accepted in mainstream fly-fishing. Not only do they make the learning curve much quicker for beginners, but many experienced rods use them chironomid fishing on stillwaters or fishing with nymphs in flowing water. Strike indicators are primarily used to detect strikes, but can also be used to present flies appropriately to fish.
While the origin of strike indicators is not clear, it was probably the father of fly-fishing with nymph imitations, G.E.M. Skues (1858-1949), who first suggested using sheep's wool to see fish bites easier. It also could have been Alexander Wanless (1889-1952), coincidently the father of the tubefly, with his version of an indicator the float-cum-fly rig that was a depth controller – where the float controlled the depth of the fly.
The strike indicators of today are usually painted in high visibility colours like bright red, orange, yellow or chartreuse. The red and orange versions are more visible on bright sunny days, and yellow and chartreuse ones are more visible to the human eye during low light, overcast conditions.
Brightly coloured indicators sometimes can be counterproductive, especially on highly pressured streams, as they tend to spook the fish. In these situations, strike indicators in subdued colours like green, white and even black are good options. Also be aware of size – a large strike indicator can cast a shadow that will spook fish, so if the fish are wary, use a smaller indicator.
Comparing strike indicators
Ever walked into a fishing store to buy a strike indicator and were puzzled by the choices? Some strike indicators look very different, or they may look very similar and their slight nuances only become apparent once you use them.
Strike indicators are divided into two classes: floaters and sighters. Floaters suspend weighted flies at specific depths, in addition to detecting strikes. Sighters only facilitate the visual detection of strikes and cannot suspend a fly at a specific depth. Some strike indicators can be used in a wide variety of fishing situations whereas some have been designed for specific fishing methods.
So, what makes a strike indicator effective? You should be able to see it clearly on the water, attach it easily to the leader, and while casting the strike indicator it should hold its position and not cause any tangles in the leader. A good strike indicator should also be able to signal subtle strikes.
After evaluating 12 popular strike indicators across ten categories, it is evident that all are not created equal. The categories that were evaluated were lake fishing, long-line nymphing, short-line nymphing, stealth, strike detection, wind resistance, tangles, easy on/off, slipping on the leader, durability/re-use. The summary of how these strike indicators performed is outlined in the attached table. The indicators tested are all commonly available in fishing tackle stores and to best compare them, they were selected in similar sizes or weights where possible, especially in the case of the hardball style strike indicators.
A fly-angler's guide to strike indicators
First published in May 2013
1. Thingamabobber (score 82/100)
The inspiration for the Thingamabobber comes from the use of small balloons. This indicator is basically an air-filled, thin-walled plastic bubble with a loop, and a jam stop to attach it to the leader. It is much lighter in weight when compared to similar sized indicators so it lands softly, adding stealth. The Thingamabobber is light weight, easy to attach, floats very high on the water, and even in its smallest size will suspend heavy flies. Offered in both bright and subdued colours, it is easily tracked on the water, even in turbulent or highly reflective conditions. This indicator is a little awkward to cast and requires a deliberate open loop, otherwise you will spend a lot of time untangling the fly from the indicator.
2. Indicator Putty (score 82/100)
You might be sceptical of indicator putty – but wait until you use it. Compared to most indicators, especially the ball-style indicators, putty is very sensitive and allows for much easier detection of subtle strikes. Being able to use a relatively small piece of putty and the physico-chemical properties of the putty reduce the surface tension on the water, and allow it to move in response to a subtle strike much easier.
Although designed as a sighter, the putty is very buoyant. A putty ball the size of a peanut can suspend a size 12 nymph weighted with 1/8 size tungsten bead and six wraps of 0.025 lead wire wrapped around the hook shank.
Putty is reusable to some extent, it is easy to adjust and but does not slip, easy to put on and easy to take off. You can also adjust the indicator size according to your needs. The only annoying part is that it will slighty discolour the leader, a small concern given its other favourable attributes. Putty's major limitation is its temperature dependence; it is best suited for air temperatures between five and 20 degrees Celsius. Outside of this range, the putty is either too brittle or too pliable.
3. Quick Release Indicator (score 78/100)
The Quick Release Indicator was invented by well-known stillwater fly-angler Phil Rowley. It has become the preferred choice of the majority of stillwater anglers in the Pacific North West. The genius behind the Quick Release Indicator comes into play when fishing chironomids at depths of 15-feet or more. When trying to land a fish in such deep water, other strike indicators will prevent you from reeling in enough line to land the fish. With the Quick Release Indicator, you can just pull on the leader underneath the indicator to release it, or if the fish's strike was sufficiently hard, that can also release the indicator. The key to all of this is the method of attaching the ball and peg, where both parts are strung onto the leader.
The Quick Release Indicator also works well for long-line nymphing applications in streams. Like the other hard shell indicators, they can make quite a loud popping sound when hitting the water, if not cast properly. This is a problem on streams as it will spook fish easily. In this application, use the tapered teardrop style of this indicator as it makes less noise than the ball shape. In addition to the traditional bright red and yellow versions, green is available as the stealth option.
4. Football and Rubber Tube (score 77/100)
The Football and Rubber Tube is attached to the leader using a slit cut down the length of the football. You simply slide in your leader, followed by the soft silicone rubber tubing. A few alternatives to attaching the indicator to leader are provided with the packaging. These football shaped indicators are easy to cast, easy to attach, easy to adjust and do not cause many tangles in the leader. However, the biggest advantage of the football is its ability to detect subtle strikes.
Beware though, when using small diameter tippet of 4X or smaller, the indicator can slip or even fall-off during casting, especially if you attach it according to the main recommended method.
5. Corky and Toothpick (score 74/100)
The Corky and Toothpick combination is a good general purpose indicator. Considered to be the ancestor of hardball indicators, it has evolved into several different types of more modern indicators like the Quick Release, Football and Rubber Tube, Ball and Rubber Stopper and Turn-on Corky indicators. The Corky and Toothpick floats high and attaching it to the leader is intuitive. Always make sure your casting loops are more open to prevent your leader from tangling with the toothpick.
6. Yarn (score 73/100)
Using yarn is probably the oldest style of indicator, but it is still widely used by many anglers. The original sheep's wool has been replaced with synthetic poly yarn. It is inexpensive and is easily constructed from a few household items and a pair of scissors – just do a Google or YouTube search for instructions.
The popularity of yarn indicators stems from the fact that it is lightweight, detects subtle strikes and is easy to cast. It also lands softly on the water, and smaller sizes in subdued colours, can be quite stealth. The yarn indicator is also easy to attach without having to take the fly off. Simply fold the leader into a loop and stick it through the rubber ring and back over the yarn.
The biggest drawback is that yarn indicators do not float very well in turbulent or fast moving water – it can become waterlogged causing drag on your fly. The method of connecting the indicator to the leader can also be problematic as using thinner diameter leaders can cause a kink and it will even slip on the leader.
7. Fly-line Strike Indicator (score 71/100)
The Fly-line Strike Indicator is the brain-child of Andre Puyans (1935-2005), who developed it specifically to detect subtle strikes. The first design by Mr. Puyans was a stripped coating of a fly-line. Today, Rio makes a fly-line indicator called the Kahuna LT. Following Rio's instructions, attach the indicator by simply sliding the hollow fly-line tube over your leader. After persevering for 30 minutes,I finally got the indicator onto my leader. A few words of advice – follow the instructions closely and pull the indicator off the core with your fingers. Do not cut it with scissors. It was also helpful to string the indicator onto a bodkin, enlarging the channel inside. This allows you to more easily slide the leader through, otherwise it can take a lot of time. Without enlarging the channel, I was simply not able to string leader through the indicator, unless you use a leader material that is stiffer, like Maxima Chameleon.
Although this indicator is intended for short-line nymphing, it works very well as a sighter while long-line nymphing. The Fly-line Indicator is most definitely more sensitive and detects subtle strikes easier than most other indicators.
8. Ball with Rubber Stoppers (score 64/100)
A variation on the Corky and Toothpick is the Ball with Rubber Stoppers, produced by Frog Hair. Instead of using a toothpick to set the corky in place, small rubber stoppers are provided. The little stoppers are strung up on a wire threader that facilitates transfer to the leader. The rubber stoppers are excellent at setting the indicator at a specific depth but there are some practical issues while using it on the water. Adjusting depth is easily done until you try to move the stoppers past a knot – this is impossible. The stoppers are essentially a one-time use unless you take the time to thread them back onto the wire threader, and this is time consuming. They are also very small, easily dropped and subsequently lost. There is the option of buying extra stoppers or you can just use a toothpick to set the ball instead.
9. Roll-on Sticky Foam (score 64/100)
Roll-on Sticky Foam is sold as a sheet of 35, where each is approximately one square centimetre in size. Simply peel off a square and roll it onto your leader. This indicator is easy to cast as it feels like there is not even a strike indicator on the leader. It is very buoyant and detects subtle strikes reasonably well. With its slim profile, it actually fishes and performs very similar to a Fly-line Indicator. As it is a one-time use indicator, you can extend its life by just reeling it onto the reel when done fishing.
10. Turn-on Corky (score 62/100)
This indicator is shaped like a capsule where a flat rubber band connects two halves of the capsule. The Turn-on Corky's slim profile makes it easy to cast and since nothing is protruding, it does not cause tangles. To attach it, slide the leader into the slit, pull the two halves away from each other and twist each 90 degrees in the opposite direction.
Although easy to attach, you need to use at least 4X or thicker tippet otherwise it will slide down the leader while casting. Sliding can be prevented by twisting the leader a few more times around the indicator, but eventually it comes undone and the indicator slips from its position or even worse, sometimes it will fall off the leader. If you manage to keep it from slipping or falling off, this indicator can be good.
11. Pinch-on Sticky Foam (score 61/100)
Typically sold in packages of 24, pinch-on sticky soft foam is two sides of foam that close together like a book, with the leader as the bookmark in the middle. Once the two sticky sides of the foam are attached to each another, it gets basically destroyed in the process of removing it, making it truly a one-time use indicator. It is for the most part similar to the Roll-on Sticky Foam Indicator, except that it is bulkier. This extra bulk allows you to suspend heavier flies, but you cannot save it by reeling it onto your reel, like the roll-on sticky foam.
12. The Rastaman (score 56/100)
An evolution of the original yarn indicator, the Rastaman is made from closed cell foam. Using closed cell foam instead of yarn makes it float very well, but with it comes less ability to detect strikes. Sometimes even the most solid strike is not detectable, and casting with a Rastaman can twist leader and tippet of 4X and thinner. Given these issues, the Rastaman may be destined for extinction.
Interpreting these strike indicators' scores should be done with care, as some indicators designed for specific applications scored very high in their specialty, inflating their total overall score. For example: even though the poly yarn indicator scored less than the fly-line indicator, it can still be considered a better general-purpose indicator. The total scores are important to identify a good all-round indicator, but in specific fishing situations a specialized indicator could be a better tool. Choosing the best indicator for the appropriate situation is important. Nevertheless, for lakes the Quick Release Indicator is the winner, and when fishing streams the best all-round choice is either a Thingamabobber or indicator putty.