Bob Boese, Louisiana

December 29th, 2008

The Strike Indicator For Bass and Bluegill
By Bob Boese, Louisiana

Fly fishing may be a very pleasant amusement; but angling or float
fishing I can only compare to a stick and a string, with a worm at
one end and a fool at the other. ~ Samuel Johnson

Trout fishing techniques are not warm water fishing techniques and trout purists tell you don't confuse the two because… well, it would be very bad.

I was six, it was a Sunday in Florida at my great aunt's, and it had been a long day — church with the family, then lunch with the family, then sitting around doing my best to ignore dull talk between the family, the youngest of whom were my parents. Kids were notable by their absence, none anywhere for blocks, except for me, the good child, the quiet child, the patient child — the fisherman. Over the previous week, the lesson of bobber surveillance became a learned skill, a talent now wasted in a sunny room full of jalousies windows and chatty adults. I watched a palmetto bug climb down a leaf of the nearest banana tree as I did my stealthy-as-a-kid-can-be escape to the carport, then struggled to attach terminal tackle to the braided fishing line sold in my grandfather's Western Auto store. A white and red cork the size of a ping pong ball was strung a foot or so above a marble sized lead weight under which I attached a large bronze hook with a pair of overhand knots. The rod was a Western Auto Wizard brand, five feet of stiff white fiberglass with a faux elk horn pistol grip. The reel was a Wizard too, a stainless steel casting variety with a moving line guide and no backlash controls – it was the most beautiful thing I had ever owned. Bait meant white bread and bacon. My aunt only used cardboard quality whole wheat and even fish had better taste than that. But, next door, my great-grandmother lived, and had a pantry stocked with white bread. It also had many foods only a great-grandmother could swallow, and I cringed merely looking at can labels of spinach, beets and lima beans. The bread was soft and doughy, the way store bread use to be, and I took only one slice even though three or four more seemed to jump out of the bag onto the floor when I opened it. The slice stuffed nicely into the back pocket on my shorts next to a strip of fat-ribboned bacon from the refrigerator drawer. Rolling sat-on bread into a ball is harder than it seems, especially if you are six, and it took several tries and much spit to get a satisfactory orb. Then it was another while to tear off bacon fat and wrap it around the bread. Finally, a cast, then undoing the inevitable backlash, and I watched the cork travel slowly out toward the Atlantic. No interest by the fish. So again, cast, undo backlash, watch. Repeat. About the tenth cast the cork stopped, then moved – against the tide. I crossed my ankles and jerked hard Yep, basic bobber rig‚and it caught fish.

Today the science of bobber fishing has evolved and, for trout fly fishing, translates into "strike indicators" for nymphing. Fly fishing purists hate nymphing, in part because most of the trout caught today are caught using a strike indicator. Standard bobber fishing is nostalgic (we all grew up on it) but not very romantic, otherwise it would appear in more literature. It seems strike indicators are considered in that family of equipment. On the other hand, the beauty and art of fly fishing is written of throughout recorded history. Aelian (in the 3rd Century) described Macedonians' skill at fly fishing and was so taken by their technique that he went to great lengths to describe the tackle used. He does not mention strike indicators. When Izaak Walton penned The Compleat Angler he explained swan or goose quill floats were used for worm fishing, but their mention is almost casual, while the descriptions of flies he crafted and used is expansive and poetic. He does not mention strike indicators. Fly fishing history tells us, nymph fishing came into use (which means they were intentionally tying nymph replica flies for trout) as early as the 1600s. No mention is made of strike indicators. Nymphs, wet flies and streamers held the center of attention until dry flies gained enormous popularity in the mid 1840s. From that point on, the Johnny-come-lately dry fly purists proclaimed theirs to be the only true fly fishing. Dry versus nymph was the subject of very unpleasant debates among London's fly fishing aristocrats and there are those dry fly purists who hold such beliefs even as I write.

On my first journey to Colorado's gold medal streams in the early 1980s, I came across and older grizzled gentleman — checkered flannel shirt, five day old beard, moth eaten felt hat, dungarees, tattered vest and canvas wading boots not sold since D-Day. His bamboo rod was tucked under one arm as he was inspecting the compartments of his Wheatly fly box on a bridge under which I proposed to wade. I said hello, so he assumed I had a willing ear and, full of fire and vinegar, he regaled me with his opinions on how dry fly fishing was the only true fly fishing and how the "new generation" of fishermen had ruined the sport and were stealing all of the good trout. He damned all urbanites with their lack of skills and designer waders, and he equated nymph fishing to dropping dynamite in the river. He went on this way for several minutes, insisting that mechanical science had no place in fly fishing and taking fish when they weren't rising was uncivilized, and nymph fishermen should be banned from all waterways, right after they were shot. Near the end of the tirade he noticed my tackle–everything new and shiny and nymph-ish, with a bright orange strike indicator, all products of modern science and tools of the devil. His eyes widened to stare daggers before turning his back to unleash a string of curses capable of melting paint off of the handrails. I excused myself and went below the bridge to catch all the good trout with my Satanic gear.

The advance of modern fly fishing is measured in the quality of scientific achievements. The wonders of chemistry have unlocked problems that have plagued bad casters and frustrated fly tyers for generations. The once revered cracker barrel has been replaced by the lab conference table.

Thibeaux was having terrible problems with his chickens. All of the sudden, they got very sick and he didn't know what was wrong with them. The local vet was baffled and, after trying all conventional means, he called a biologist, a chemist, and a physicist to see if they can figure out what was wrong. First the biologist looked at the chickens, examined them a bit, and said he had no clue what could be wrong with them. Then the chemist took some samples, made tests and measurements, but he couldn't come to any conclusions either. Lastly, the physicist tried. He stood and looked at the chickens for a long time without touching them or doing anything. Suddenly, he started scribbling away in a notebook. Finally, after several elaborate calculations, he exclaimed, "I've got it! But it only works for spherical chickens in a vacuum."

Nymph fishing is a result of science. About 90 percent of a trout's diet are nymphs and the key to modern nymph fishing is the strike indicator. Essentially, it performs the same function as the unromantic bobber, but because it does so for fly fishing, it has more cache. Strike indicators come in several varieties of closed cell foam, polypropylene yarn, and floating putty, as well as large flies (usually a stimulator, sofa pillow or hopper). Using a strike indicator for trout is a lot simpler than some authors would have you believe: you attach it up on your leader 2 ½ times the depth of the water you are fishing. You rig below it one to three nymphs and, if necessary to get to the bottom, add some split shot. As your line and flies move along the stream you watch the strike indicator for the slightest of twitches or when something "different" or just "not right" happens (perhaps a barely noticeable hesitation). Okay, I admit the identifying-the-strike part is really hard (for some anglers it's nearly impossible) because a take is often incredibly subtle and the rest of the drift you are bouncing the nymph off the bottom. But in Louisiana we are not with concerned with delicate takes of nymph sucking trout.

Bluegill worth catching strike hard enough to pull down a plastic bobber the size of a racketball, and bluegill strike indicators consist of large floating flies most trout never see. Poppers, hoppers and floating divers are the usual suspects with hooks Size 6 or larger. Now, if you haven't noticed, I have managed to manipulate this article over to my favorite warm water rig, the popper-dropper. If dry fly purists consider nymphing damnable, multiple fly rigs must surely be Lucifer's invention. Taking my chances on everlasting torment, I never intentionally fish fresh water with only one fly unless tournament rules or the law requires it. Howz it work? Poppers float. Droppers don't and are the second and/or third fly on a 12" to 24" tippet that trails after (drops from) other flies. There is no mandate about what kind of flies must be used as a dropper, but nymph-ish patterns are the most common.

KNOTTY ISSUES: There are three accepted approaches to tie on a dropper: (A) the "tie to hook bend" approach where the dropper tippet is knotted to the hook bend of the lead fly, (B) the "tie to tippet" approach where the second tippet is looped over the first tippet just ahead of the lead fly, the loop is closed on the first tippet and the knot is drawn down to snug up against the knot by the eye of the lead fly, and (C) the double knot approach where two knots are made in the eye of the lead fly and are cinched down opposite each other (this can be difficult with very small flies = very small eye). Some claim #1 will cause the first fly to move unnaturally. Others claim the #2 line-to-line connection is too weak. I use option (C) because it seems the strongest with least adverse affect on the fly. For the knots I use the Pitzen because it is a very reliable on-the-water tie, retains 95+ percent of the line strength, and is usually the fastest and easiest on-the-water knot to tie. Here is how to tie the Pitzen with empty line: 1. Take tippet and make a loop between your middle fingers with the tag end on your right. (You will need your forefingers and thumbs free to do later steps.) 2. Grasp the tag end with your right fore finger and thumb and wrap the tag end four times around the loop clockwise (you'll need your left finger and thumb to help) then run it back through the end of the loop on your left, pushing it through with your right thumb and forefinger and grabbing it with your left thumb and forefinger. 3. Moisten the line and gently tighten keeping your right middle finger in the loop. Pull the tag end of the line and the knot will snug down. You can now take the empty loop you have just made and either loop it onto the hook bend of the lead fly or over the fly and onto the tippet, and tighten. NOTE: To use the Pitzen to tie a fly on your line, thread the fly on the line first and when you make the loop, have the fly in the crook of the knuckle of the middle finger of your right hand. When you finish the steps above, the fly will be on the loop of the knot you have just made. See me at the AFR or GCC Conclave for hands-on instruction.

FISHING THE POPPER-DROPPER: Trout fishermen who do not use a strike indicator while nymphing either (1) tight-line (high stick) with only leader and tippet in the water or (2) they focus on the end of their fly line (above the leader) for tell-tale movement. In truth, watching the line tip is essentially the same as using a strike indicator, just without the bobber. Many trout guides insist that it is impossible to detect strikes without an indicator if you are not high-sticking. Similarly, a panfish take can be too subtle to detect if there is any slack in the line. Video studies of bluegill confirm that a bite can occur and the fly be ejected with no slack removed from leader or tippet. If you can't feel it and don't see it, you won't catch it. On the other hand, when a hopper imitation apparently flinches its little rubber legs on its own, this means you have suddenly become telekinetic or something is fiddling with your dropper.

When you finish rigging a popper-dropper, you have also created a two or three fly combination rig that will allow you to dictate how deep your nymphs fish (how long the drop is from the popper). Unlike fishing nymphs alone (where your tippet and leader angles down into the water), with the popper-dropper the nymphs can fall almost directly below the popper when it is at rest (or between retrieval strips). Voila! You have a bobber-like strike indicator is not only socially acceptable, but bass are very fond of poppers. Very ambitious bluegill may opt to take the popper and catching doubles (a fish on each hook) is not unusual. Remember also that bass are opportunistic feeders and will often take a nymph floating lazily in front of them.

Detecting strikes is usually responding to the obvious. As you retrieve with small strips (it is not ruinous to make the popper splashy or ripplish, but you should pause between strips) the droppers will rise and follow the popper, then will fall when you pause. Most bluegill and bass hit on the stop or drop. Strikes on the dropper will be noticeable by twitching of the popper not caused by you. Larger bluegill may take the popper down, sometimes with a splash from the force of the popper entering the water backwards.

CASTING: Here's the rub. Laying out line with a 3 fly rig is very different. Droppers are fond of catching up with the popper and creating massive bow ties and tiny hard knots in your tippet. Droppers also like playing tag with your rod. Fishermen who are accustomed to tight loops may find their technique is not well suited to the long and unusually weighted popper-dropper. Depending on the weight of your droppers and the length of the drop, you may also find roll casting difficult because the dropper acts like an anchor. To successfully roll cast you have to make sure all flies are skimming the surface as you bring the rod forward. A single dropper rolls easier than a double dropper but even a single requires more force than usual to keep the dropper from nailing the popper as they fall. Larger loops and a double haul are almost mandatory. The size rod and line is wholly dependent on the size of the popper, but large versions require a 6 wt. rod and WF line.

CHOOSING FLIES: The selection of the flies you use depends on:

    (1) Insects on which panfish feed in the water you are fishing. This means that if you have waters where bream have never seen a black #10 stonefly, they may ignore it in favor of a #18 olive midge. On an unfamiliar pond/lake you cannot know what the menu de jour might be, but a multi-fly rig allows you to try more than one pattern at the same time. Any nymph pattern is likely to work so be willing to experiment. Beadhead nymphs (e.g. prince or pheasant tail) are excellent droppers because of the weight of the bead. Because a Pitzen is a fast and easy knot to tie, you should be more willing to change droppers every 30 or so fishless casts.

    (2) Size of the popper and weight of the dropper. Droppers must sink, which means lead wraps on the hook shank or a bead head. However, putting two size 8 bead head nymphs with 7 wraps of lead under a size 10 hopper is almost guaranteed to sink them all. Choose a fly of a size and weight suited to your popper. Any dropper will have some effect on the action of the popper, but you want the strike indicator to perform as near as possible to its non-dropper state. There is no real concern about going too big with the popper‚except, too much disturbance from the popping action of a huge bass bug can be distracting to some bluegill.

    (3) Having a good selection of flies, but you are not required to tie flies. Several on-line discount fly shops can load up on a dozen nymphs for a few bucks and hoppers or poppers for not much more.

HINTS that will make your strike indicator fishing more enjoyable:

  • Be patient. Working a popper-dropper too fast is the cardinal sin. Let the droppers drop.

  • Using a popper or hopper with rubber legs is more sensitive than one without. A subtle take by a bluegill may cause legs to wiggle when nothing else moves.

  • Use flourocarbon line on your droppers. Use 6-8# test line because you want to set the hook hard. Flourocarbon essentially disappears in the water which means you can use heavier line without it being apparent to the fish. Bluegill are not particularly line shy, but standard 8# test line can be obvious. However, don't buy flourocarbon tippet. Buy Berkley Vanish in regular spools and share (as in split costs) with your friends.

  • Popper-droppers are for short water. You may have to guess at depth but most large bluegill will stay within the bottom foot of water in a pond so you want to fish as near the bottom as possible. If the middle of the pond is 15' deep you are simply not going to fish a popper-dropper there and should concentrate nearer the edges.

  • Use barbless hooks or crimp down the barb on regular hooks. Hooking yourself casting a multi-fly rig is not uncommon and barbs make it very painful to remove hooks. Don't worry, your catch percentage will not suffer.

  • Bring forceps and clippers to the pond. Bluegill often take a dropper deep and you will need forceps to remove the hook (which is much easier with barbless hooks). You will also be changing droppers frequently until you find the right pattern. Clippers should be close at hand. ~ Bob

    About Bob:

    Robert Lamar Boese has fly fished for five decades. He is an environmental negotiator, attorney and educator who has provided environmental legal services for more than thirty-three years including active duty with the U.S. Coast Guard and Department of Justice. He is a well known fly tyer with several unique patterns to his credit. He has developed and authored federal and state regulatory programs encompassing a broad spectrum of environmental disciplines, has litigated environmental matters at all levels of the federal and state court systems, and is a qualified expert for testimony in environmental law. He has authored over 60 published text chapters, comments or articles on environmental matters, is a member of the Colorado, District of Columbia and Louisiana Bar Associations, and is a certified mediator. In addition to his legal practice, Mr. Boese has been a high school teacher, an associate professor of Environmental Law and Public Health, has authored numerous fiction and sports publications, and is a softball coach and nationally certified volleyball referee. He is the president of the Acadiana Fly Rodders in Lafayette, Louisiana and editor of Acadiana on the Fly. He has been married for thirty years and is the father of two fly fishing girls (25 and 21). For additional information contact: Boese Environmental Law, 103 Riviera Court, Broussard, LA 70518 or call 337.856.7890 or email

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