Maximizing Your Fly Fishing Success with an Indicator Rig: A Step-by-Step Guide
Indicator fishing involves clunky rigs, and there's no shortage of advice on how to set up the leader, flies, indicator, weight, tippet, and so on. It can get complicated when rigging up your fly rod for indicator nymph fishing. Over the last several seasons of guiding, I experimented with several different indicator rigs and thought about what I really wanted out of an indicator rig. I needed an indicator rig that could accomplish:
Getting flies in front of fish, especially in faster and/or deeper water.
Is relatively simple to build.
Easy to re-build on the water if a severe tangle occurs.
Is not an absolute pain to cast.
Allows you to swap flies out quickly.
Can be converted to other rigs in order to nymph deeper or shallower.
Here is what I found: The indicator rig that covered all of those criteria has been the hinge, or right-angle, system. Kelly Galloup and Joe Rotter are just some of the anglers I've seen use and talk about this system, and it definitely is becoming more commonplace with other fly fishers because of how effective it is. If you enjoy catching fish, then I highly recommended reading on about how to set up the hinge indicator rig.
The hinge set up is very simple: a short section of leader (3-4ft) that ends at a tippet ring with your indicator placed up against the tippet ring. Attached to the other side of the tippet ring is just straight, level tippet down to your flies.
Why choose this set up over using a tapered leader bought from the fly shop? Normal, tapered leaders end up riding too high in the water column because there is an unnecessary amount of leader material (think diameter of material) floating through the water which drags on and pulls the flies upward. To get the flies further down in the water column, you have to add a considerable amount tippet at the end of the leader. In short, attaching an indicator to a tapered leader is an insufficient method at getting your flies to where the fish are.
The hinge system, on the other hand, uses only a small portion of thick leader material (the butt end) which abruptly stops at the tippet ring. Beyond the tippet ring, it is just small diameter tippet down to the flies, and since there is significantly less leader material (surface area) for the river's current to grab a hold of, the result is a steeper angle that 'hinges' the flies down. This hinging effect allows the flies to get to depth quicker, and stay in the target zone longer, when compared to a normal tapered leader.
To be sure, there are times when an indicator on a tapered leader works. For instance, when there are emerging insects in the water, a pair of nymphs on a tapered leader and under an indicator, can match the behavior of these emerging bugs rising up through the water column. However, even in this scenario I may choose some other rigging method to mimic aquatic insects emerging up through the water column (Read Wet Flies: Tactics and Techniques for Multiple Fish Species).
Side Note- I mention several knots in this article, for more info about those knots and how to tie them check out: 7 Useful Knots to Know for Fly Fishing
How to Build the Hinge Indicator Rig
Building the hinge indicator rig is easy and can even be done while on the water in a timely manner:
Take around 2 feet of 15lb Maxima and attach it to 1 foot of 12lb Maxima via a Blood Knot. Tie a perfection loop into the 15lb Maxima so you can connect it to your leader.
If you don't have the Maxima on-hand, take an old leader, run your fingers 3 feet past the perfection loop and clip the leader there. You'll then have a 3 foot butt section of leader material to work with.
Tie a tippet ring, via a Clinch Knot or perfection loop, to the end of leader (I prefer using smaller tippet rings for this rig, such as 2 or 2.5mm. Tying a Perfection Loop can permit the tippet to hinge more acutely giving a couple extra inches of depth. After tying the tippet ring on, attach an indicator to the line and bump it up against the tippet ring.
Now, attach a length of tippet (3 or 4x) to the tippet ring via a Davy or Trilene Knot. The length of tippet will be dictated by the depth and speed of water you mainly plan on fishing (I'll usually start with tippet length that is about the depth of the water and increase it from there if I'm not getting any hits). For example, if I plan on mainly fishing water that is 4 feet deep in moderate current (around walking pace), then I will attach 4 to 4.5 feet of 4x tippet for the first fly.
Now, to cover the deeper water column, attach another 12 to 18 inches of smaller diameter tippet 6-8 inches up from the end of the first piece of tippet via a Triple Surgeon's Knot. If you used 4x tippet to to the first fly, then you'll use 5x for this second piece of tippet. This will create a 4-6 inch tippet tag for you to attach your tag-end fly on to. (For more info on tying and creating tippet tags using the triple Surgeon's Knot, check out: Fly Fishing How To: 3 Ways to Create a Dry-Dropper Rig). The reason for using smaller diameter tippet is that if the bottom (point) fly gets snagged, it should hopefully be the only thing that breaks off.
You can use fluorocarbon or nylon tippet depending on your budget (to further help you decide what type of tippet material you should use, you can nerd out all you want by reading: An In-Depth Guide to Fly Fishing Tippet).
Why do you need that 3 foot butt-end section of leader? That initial 3 feet of leader is necessary for several reasons:
During casting, it aids in helping to transfer energy from the fly line, to the leader and then to the flies. Since the butt-end of the leader is so short, it quickly transfers that energy to the tippet which flips the flies over and drives them into the water. Essentially, it helps to perform a tuck cast for us.
That 3 feet of leader material also allows us to mend the fly line without throwing the indicator up into the air with every mend. If there was only a foot of leader material between the end of the fly line and the indicator, then with almost each mend of the fly line we would pop the indicator up into the air which pulls the flies up through the water column and out of their drift.
Having 3 feet of leader material between the fly line and indicator also helps with the initial pick up and back cast. If the indicator was too far out from the fly line, say 6 feet away, then it would be more difficult to pick up the fly line, leader material, all of the tippet, and then the flies. The further away the indicator is from the fly line also increases the possibility of tangling it with the rest of the leader/tippet.
Why Do You Use Tag-Ends When Fly Fishing With an Indicator?
When using this hinge system, I prefer using a tag-end for the upper fly for several reasons. First, the tag-end allows me to quickly change out that upper fly if it is not producing any results. If I tied the second (point) fly onto the rig by attaching tippet to the hook bend of the first fly, then I would have to cut off and re-attach that second (point) fly just to change out the upper fly.
Having the upper fly on a tag also grants it a little bit more movement in the water compared to when the second fly is tied to the first fly via either the hook bend or eye of the hook. That 4-6 inches of tag length can be just enough to get the fly drifting more naturally rather than being pegged in-place and pulled by the second fly.
Additionally, if you tie tippet to the bend of the hook of the first fly, that can inhibit a fish from biting down on the upper fly since there is tippet obstructing the hook point. Even if the fish bites the fly, the hook penetration may not be embedded deep enough causing you to lose the fish during the fight.
A couple other notes about the dropper tag:
Having a 4-6 inch piece of tippet for the tag-end seems to be ideal. Any longer and the tippet can tangle and knot itself more easily into other parts of the line. A longer tag-end will also twist more aggressively around the standing line. A few twists are no big deal, but having something like a 10 inch tag can really twist tightly around the standing line, and this is especially true with smaller diameter tippet like 6-8x.
When you change out the upper (tag-end) fly enough, the tag will eventually become too short to tie anymore flies onto. I will milk the tag-end for all its worth until I no longer have enough tippet to effectively tie a fly to. When this is the case, clip off the remaining tag. Take 8-10 inches of new tippet from a spool (same tippet size as the original dropper tippet) and tie it above the original Triple Surgeon's Knot using a Uni Knot. After tying the Uni Knot, slide it down until it butts up to the original Triple Surgeon's Knot and trim the new tag so it is 4-6 inches in length.
How Do You Know Where to Set Your Indicator On the Leader? How Do You Determine How Much Leader and/or Tippet to Use When Indicator Fishing?
Again, the indicator is always placed up against the tippet ring, it won't move when using the hinge system. A lot of anglers may find this self-defeating because they want the ability to move the indicator up or down the leader based on the depth of water they find themselves fishing. Let's look at a scenario of what I mean:
A Fly Fisher has a standard 9 foot 4x tapered leader attached to their fly line. They are next to a run in the river which they determine is around 3 feet in depth, and the speed of the current is slower walking pace (as seen on the surface of the water). The Fly Fisher remembers someone telling that the length of the leader/tippet from the indicator to their flies should be 1.5x the depth of the water. In this case, that would be: 3 feet x 1.5 = 4.5 feet.
So, they should have 4.5 feet of leader/tippet between the indicator and their flies.
Let's unpack a few things here. First, the Fly Fisher was given the advice to multiple the depth of the water by 1.5 in order to compensate for how high the tapered leader rides in the water column. This advice is pretty common to hear because most anglers are attaching indicators to tapered leaders. Remember, there's a lot more material for the current to grab a hold of because the leader tapers from thick to thin over 9 feet, so that has to be taken into consideration in the calculation.
In this run, the Fly Fisher is able to use his tapered leader and indicator. But, they then move on to the next spot on the river:
Our Fly Fisher now moves to another spot on the river, it is a deeper run that is 5 feet deep and of moderate current (a little faster than walking pace as seen on the surface of the water) .
The Fly Fisher tries moving the indicator closer to the fly line first, but moving the indicator closer to the fly line, even by 2-3 feet, will only change the depth of the flies by a few inches. This is because the butt end leader material is large in diameter and barely sinks down into the water. Also, if the indicator is also right next to the fly line, every time the Fly Fisher mends the line they will move the indicator which then moves the flies up and ruining the drift.
So, the Fly Fisher will have to attach more tippet to the end of the leader. This new spot on the river is deeper (5 feet) and has a stronger current, so the calculation needs to be x2 instead of x1.5 in order to get the flies to depth. That leaves the Fly Fisher with a leader that is around 13-15 feet, and they will most likely need to swap in very heavy flies and/or add some other weight (split shot, tungsten putty, etc.):
That leader the Fly Fisher just built works fine and they catch some fish, and then they move to the next area:
Now, the Fly Fisher gets to an area that is back at a run which is 3 feet deep but still has moderate current (walking pace as seen on the surface of the water).
At this third spot in the river, the Fly Fisher tries using their 13 foot leader but end snagging the flies on the bottom. So, they slide the indicator down until they stop hanging up on bottom. However, three things happen. One, the indicator is now located on the leader where it more easily slides (thinner leader diameter), so the indicator ends up sliding all the way to the flies. The Fly Fisher can do things to prevent this like tying stopper knots, but now they're starting to complicate things (and compromise tippet strength by tying overhand knots in the line). Second, even if the Fly Fisher can stop the indicator from sliding, it is still so far from the end of fly line which will make it difficult to pick up and cast the whole rig, and more tangles will occur because of that. Third, there is more leader between the fly line and indicator and that multiples the amount of drag in the system:
In order to effectively fish this run, the Fly Fisher decides to cut their leader down in order to minimize tangles and to prevent the indicator from sliding down to the flies. The new leader they built works, but in the end, the Fly Fisher has gone fished through three different parts of the river and ended up using a different leader formula for each one.
The method of sliding the indicator up or down 6 inches can help when nymphing shallower runs such as 2 feet in depth. However, in deeper and/or swifter water the method is a pretty ineffective and inefficient way of truly controlling the depth of the flies, it requires very long leaders that increase drag, and results in more tangles.
Now, let's look back at the hinge indicator system and how we can add tippet to get the flies deeper. When using the hinge system, we can make things less complicated. If I am fishing over 3 feet of water (with moderate current) and bumping the bottom every now and then that tells me my flies are at a good depth near the bottom. But, if I switch over to a new area, such as fishing a deeper run (5 feet and moderate current), then all I need to do is take a couple more feet of tippet and splice it into the leader with a Blood Knot. I don't have to move the indicator, and there is still only thin tippet below the surface of the water, so the flies achieve depth with less tippet used in comparison to the normal tapered leader:
All of this probably has you thinking, "So I have to constantly be changing my indicator rig as I move around the river?" Not necessarily.
When floating a river, you come across all depths from shallow riffles to deep slow pools. When I am in the boat, I first think about where the fish might primarily be located; the deeper, slower pools or the moderately quicker runs that are only 3 to 4 feet deep? Once I have an assumption of where the fish might be, I set my hinge system to that depth and target those specific water types I have in mind.
If I am not getting any hits, I can try changing the depth by adding or removing tippet, and/or I can also add weight (which we'll cover in a moment). This will allow me to target other water types on the river.
If you are really not getting any hits, and you are really not sure where the fish are in the river, then yes you need to be proficient with your knots and be willing to add/remove tippet. But, being proficient with knots will give you the ability to work with rigs, like the hinge system, which are more effective at getting flies in front of fish.
In general, nymph fishing, with any indicator rig, is inadequate at best with making changes to the depth you are wanting to fish. If you are looking for the best way to conveniently change the depth of your nymph rig so you can efficiently fish everything from shallow riffles and pocket water to deep pools and runs, then euro nymphing is the best answer for that. And yes, you can even euro nymph from a boat.
How to Add Weight to Get the Flies to Depth
Adding weight to the hinge indicator rig is another way to change the depth of your flies. The common way I change weight is by swapping flies out with heavier or lighter patterns. Organizing your fly box by weight provides a quick way to pluck out a different fly (heavier or lighter) and attach it to the rig in order to get to the flies to depth.
Using split shot is another method, and you can use whatever split shot you prefer. When I add split shot to the rig I typically butt it right against the hook eye. The other way I'll add split shot is by placing it below the flies via a Drop Shot Rig. Yes, this hinge system easily swaps over to the drop shot rig which can really plummet your flies down to depth if the fish are really deep. When using a drop shot rig, I typically prefer using tippet that is more stout because the flies will be deeper and around more structure that can break them off. However, in a pinch I'll quickly add some split shot below the point fly (using 7x tippet) in order to test the assumption that the fish are holding in very deep water.
When using a standard tapered leader, you will have to add a lot more weight to the leader/tippet/flies to get the flies to depth in comparison to the hinge system. The more weight you add can also force you to change your indicator to a larger size to support the rig. A larger indicator reduces strike detection, it grabs more surface current (thus dragging your flies), and is more air resistant which makes casting more challenging.
So, when we compare these two systems again, the tapered leader vs the hinge indicator system, the tapered set up will end up using more tippet and weight to get the flies to depth, and this is even the case with leaders labeled "for nymph/indicator fishing" though not to such an extreme. More tippet and weight creates a longer, clunkier rig which increases the chances of tangling, and when that rig tangles it's done, you have to build it all over again. If the hinge system forms a nasty tangle, it is quick to clip the tippet off the tippet ring and string up a fresh rig.
Which Indicator Should You Use for Fly Fishing?
There's a whole array of indicators/bobbers available to fly fishers, but I have reduced my selection down to two that I use on the river. The first is the Oros indicator which is a foam indicator that unscrews in the middle so you can attach it to your leader. It floats amazingly well and because the leader passes through the 'equator' of the indicator, the chances of catching and tangling the leader/tippet around it are really reduced. The Air Lock was the indicator I used predominately before I switched over the to the Oros, but the screw cap has a higher chance of catching the leader/tippet.
Additionally, since the leader passes right through the middle of the Oros, casting and mending is easier because weight is more even distributed on both sides of the line. I think strike detection and the amount of weight the Oros can hold is about the same as the Air Lock (in similar sizes of course). The medium size Oros is what I primarily use, and when I use the drop-shot rig I might bump up to the large size.
New Zealand Strike Indicator
The second indicator I use is the New Zealand Strike Indicator, which is a piece of sheep's wool that is dyed in a variety of colors. This indicator is better used in skinnier, calmer, clearer water especially later on in the summer and early fall with river flows have receded to their lowest. When met with those conditions, the NZ indicator delicately lands on the surface rather than plopping down and spooking fish like other indicators.
When using this indicator, I'll place it on the leader right next to the tippet ring and I'll run thinner tippet (5x to the first fly and 6x to second fly) to really cut through the water and create the best drift possible. If you use thinner tippet (like 5 or 6x) you can also get away with using lighter weight flies because there is less tippet material (diameter) to drag them up in the current. The hinge system in conjunction with the NZ indicator will transmit the slightest peck on a fly, and the indicator's small surface area (where it contacts the surface) doesn't catch nearly as much water as other indicators so it drifts along with minimal drag transferred to the rest of the tippet and flies.
The hinge system with the NZ Strike Indicator is a superb rig for when you are facing technical, clear water with fish that are easily spooked, such as glides, pools, and softer runs and riffles. If I am really focusing on and spending most of my day fishing calm glides, the one thing that I will modify on the leader is splicing in (via Blood Knots) additional 12lb Maxima into the butt of the leader to help distance the fly line from the indicator/flies to avoid spooking fish.
The higher the wool is riding in the water the better and, as George Daniel says, it should look like a "drowning troll." You can apply fly floatant and desiccant to the NZ indicator, but since it is made out of wool any water can be shed off with one or two false casts. Speaking of false casts though, you still need to watch your casting and keep an open loop because the wool will grab a hold of and tangle any tippet that passes to close in proximity.
The hinge indicator rig is just one of the many ways to set up your fly rod for nymph fishing. It is a highly effective rig that has worked well for me and those I instruct/guide over the last number of guiding seasons. The rig is easily convertible to both shallow and deep water scenarios while helping to improve presentation of the flies. When it comes to indicator nymph fishing, the hinge system is tough to beat.
Lastly, if you live in or are visiting Spokane, I provide guided fly fishing trips and instructional lessons around Spokane to include float trips on the Spokane River and stillwater trips across various Eastern Washington lakes. I guide with Fly Fish Spokane, and more information/trip rates can be found at the website: FlyFishSpokane.com