Indicator Nymphing

I went fishing with long term fishing buddy Sam.  We headed to a beautiful stretch of water that was known for its early season dry fly hatches.  Unfortunately, no hatch was happening, so we got out the nymphs and tossed on an indicator.  The nymphing was slow for me, despite being able to have near perfect drifts with most, if not all of my leader off the water.

I came to a good stopping point for a moment to look back at the fishing.  This was a stretch of river I had never fished before and I thought it was devoid of fish.  I had caught only one or two fish, if anything.  Sam came around the corner and I asked him how the fishing was.  He said, “Great!”
His answer completely perplexed me, since I had such an amazing tool for what we were doing and he was catching so many more fish.
I sat down and watched him fish the hole I had stopped at.  It had already been fished by me, so I didn’t think he would catch anything.  To my surprise he pulled nearly half a dozen fish out!
My time fishing with Sam that day was a completely eye opening experience.  I had always thought that indicator fishing was for the inexperienced, but Sam proved me wrong.  There was much I needed to learn to become a true Indicator Nymphing master.
Then I had to figure out how to combine it with  tenkara.

The Gear

  • Long Tenkara rod of your choice – stiffer can make casting with an indicator more rewarding
  • Level line100-200% the length of the rod
  • Fluorocarbon tippet from 2x to 6x
  • Indicator – this is personal preference, but I’ll talk about it in more detail below
  • Flies – weighted or unweighted
  • Nontoxic split shot

The Setup

I like to tie a little piece of backing to the end of my level line.  This makes it easier to attach to the lilian with a simple girth hitch.  Always easy to attach and always easy to remove.  Sometimes when using just straight level line, and wrapping the lilian through your slip knot three time, it can become stuck – especially if it’s freezing conditions.
To the end of your level line, tie on a short piece of 2x with a Seaguar knot, clip the ends off flush.  Then, start tapering down from there about every 18-24 inches, tying each section of tippet together with a Seaguar knot.  Once you’ve achieved your desired thickness of no bigger than 4x, it’s time to tie on flies.
You’re going to want to use two flies.  Two flies allows you to cover varying depths and a variety of bugs.  Tie on your fly onto the very end of the tippet using a Davy or Double Davy knot if the hook is big.  About 18-24″ above, tie on about a 6-8″ dropper line and attach another fly.  This seperates the flies about 12-18 inches, and will cover a lot of the water column.  If your river is particularly deep or shallow, vary the distance between flies accordingly.  Also, if your river is shallow, tie your heavy fly onto the dropper and your light fly onto the main line.  If your river is deep, tie your heavy fly to the main line and your light fly to the dropper.
Sometimes when fishing a dropper rig like this, the dropper line can get tangled around the main line when it’s windy, you’ve got a crazy flopping fish on the line, or you just made a boo boo.  You can try putting an overhand knot in your dropper line around the main line.  This will put your dropper out at more of a 90° angle.

The Cast

Casting with a heavy indictor and weighted flies requires a slightly different cast.  You need to open up your cast so you don’t accidentally hit your line or your rod.  You have got a lot more weight, so you won’t feel that delicacy you feel with tossing dries or kebari.  With weight comes a slower cast, too.  You won’t have crisp stops.  With all this being said, the most important thing is to keep your line moving at all times.  If you hit the stops and pause like you may with a Western rod, waiting for it to load, you will have poor presentation and/or wind knots galore.
Once you’ve got the flies tossed out, sinking nicely under your indicator, you can keep all of your line off the water.  No more mending like you’d have to do with a heavy Western line.  You’re free to focus all of your attention on that little piece of foam or trapped air that is your signal for fish.
A lot of indicators are brightly colored; maybe that’s for old men who can’t see their left hand, but try to go with something as natural as possible.  Try white, black, or clear if you’re using Thingamabobbers in the smallest size they sell.  Another indicator I’ve begun experimenting with is a Lil’ Corky.  They come in a host of colors that all have a mottled look to them to break up their outline.  Just peg ‘em in place with a tooth pick and you’re good to go.

What are you watching for?

It would be nice if all the fish took our flies with abandon and the indicator just shot under the surface, but fish aren’t there to be hooked.  They are there to not be hooked.  You have to be smart to see the subtle signs of a take.
Look for:
  • The indicator slowing down from the current
  • A slight dip that appears unnatural
  • Any side to side movement
If any of these things happen or you even think they happen, then SET THE HOOK!  You might have a fish, you may have weeds, but you’ll never know until you set the hook.  Every drift should end with a hook setting movement of your rod.  Then cast again, looking for the subtle changes, and set!  Every drift, set.

As your indicator goes down river, look for where the currents want to take it.  Give line and take line as needed, for the currents usually direct your fly into the right feeding lane.  Sometimes you will need to manipulate the flies and indicator a little bit to get them where you want them to go.  Apply subtle pressures with the rod, pulling and leading your rig into “the zone”.  At the end of a drift, or even during, you can tight line your indicator off the water to make it look like your bugs are trying to ascend to the surface and then getting dragged down.
Learning indicator nymphing may seem like a silly pursuit and most Tenkara anglers are completely opposed to it.  However, hybrid Tenkara indicator nymphing can make you a better angler.  The subtle details in the movements of an indicator help you to observe the subtle movements of your level line when Spanish nymphingor fishing traditional Tenkara, for example.  Maybe next time you’ll catch more fish than Sam.